How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in Helsinki

Where to stay, eat and play in Finland's capital city

July 6, 2023 6:42 am
The districts of Kaartinkaupunki and Punavuori
The districts of Kaartinkaupunki and Punavuori

Helsinki is a modern, quirky and vibrant city that stands apart from its more visited Nordic neighbors, while sharing a certain sensibility and style with them. “We might not officially be part of Scandinavia, but identity-wise we are,” says Jaana Woll, a tour guide with Helsinki Partners. Finland’s other neighbor also wields a huge influence, though. “There were three main phases here: the Swedish, the Russian and now the independent,” Woll adds. “We’re still a young nation, all-in-all.” After passing through the hands of each of the aforementioned empires, Finland gained its independence at the end of 1917.

The capital city of Helsinki always has its full gaze and attention on what’s beyond its cobblestone and concrete corridors rather than what’s within them. The city is steadfast in its devotion to the sea, the surrounding water, its vast archipelago and the abundance of nature within arm’s reach. “In Finland, it’s very pure,” says Anna Nyman, a biologist and herbalist who leads foraging and nature tours with Foraging in Finland. “We are more connected to nature here. We are forest people, as they say.”

Any trip to Helsinki then must include ample opportunity to connect with that nature for yourself — to smell the fresh air and feel the cold breeze, to soak up some semblance of its calming, restorative powers. Even if that just means having a few long drinks in between sauna sessions. (Especially if that just means having a few long drinks in between sauna sessions.) That’s as Finnish as it gets.

The country has a population of about 5.5 million residents, and quite famously, counts some 3.3 million saunas throughout its lands. You gotta respect that ratio. Finnish saunas are in every home, every apartment building and most certainly in every summer villa. They aren’t an occasional pursuit — they’re an entire lifestyle. Enough so that Finnish sauna culture has been inscribed by UNESCO as a piece of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

There’s more to Helsinki than that, of course. But if you did nothing else but enjoy its natural surroundings while popping in and out of a sauna, you would still go home having experienced the distilled-down essence of what makes Finland and its people tick. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Helsinki Cathedral in the city center
Helsinki Cathedral in the city center

How to Get to Helsinki

There are a few direct flights from the United States to Helsinki, though the majority of routes will connect through nearby Nordic neighbors or otherwise the more typical, large European hubs, dependent on your preferred airline alliance. The airport is a 30-minute drive from the city center.

A Junior Suite
A Junior Suite at Hotel Lilla Roberts
Lilla Roberts

Where to Stay in Helsinki

The five-star Hotel Haven is located along Helsinki’s South Harbor waterfront. The 137-room property opened in 2009 and is one of several options in town from Nordic Choice Hotels, each of which has a distinctive personality. Elegant rooms feature creature comforts like sofas and sitting nooks, as well as soaking tubs, and take on different characteristics across the property — from the high ceilings of certain suites to the harbor views of others. Refinement doesn’t mean boring, either; the hotel also offers customized love vacation packages.

There are multiple on-site restaurants and bars, and you won’t want to skip breakfast in Restaurant Haven. It’s housed within the second oldest stone building in Helsinki, dating back to 1817, in what was once a glamorous private residence. Bar Haven, meanwhile, offers a deep whisky selection alongside a house cocktail list, which you can sip in the fireside lounge.

Hotel Lilla Roberts opened in 2015 with 130 rooms and is an ode to all things art deco. Rooms and public spaces share a black and white color scheme, bold furniture and style choices with faux furs and animal lamps that made the phrase Scandi safari come to mind. There’s a coziness and comfort to the eye-catching aesthetic that helps turn the rooms into welcoming enclaves.

Once a police station, the hotel connects three separate buildings with long, winding hallways. Its main lobby is home to the signature Lila Bar, which serves local beers and spirits as well as cocktails and bar food. Lilla Roberts has a central outdoor courtyard for maximizing those sunny days, while the on-site Krog Roba is its main restaurant and serves Nordic fare. The property plays off its locale in Helsinki’s Design District with a fashion partner of the month and numerous fashion- and art-minded packages and offerings.

SkyWheel Helsinki
SkyWheel Helsinki

What to Do

Helsinki’s must-visit destination for satiating your sauna longings is Löyly. The seafront sauna opened in 2016 and is housed in a modern, wooden edifice with a restaurant and bar, open-air back terrace and a variety of treatment rooms. There’s a traditional sauna, smoke sauna and smaller semi-private sauna rooms, along with cold showers, a cozy fireplace lounging room and ladders leading off the back deck for a proper plunge into the Baltic Sea. Be forewarned that water may be shallower than expected, so you definitely don’t want to make the painfully obvious mistake of throwing caution to the wind and jumping in. Not that I would know from experience. No way.

If your itch still hasn’t been scratched, head to the Allas Sea Pool right along Helsinki’s harbor. Even the 131-foot SkyWheel Helsinki has specialized sauna cars that you can reserve while taking in a bird’s eye view of city center.

Get out on the water with a speed boat tour through the Helsinki archipelago with Burn Out City. The operator’s RIBs — rigid inflatable boats — approach speeds of 100 kilometers per hour, but fear not — you’ll be geared up to stay warm and dry. In addition to gaining a crucial perspective of the region’s coastal allure, you’ll get to hop off along the way and enjoy a scenic snack break.

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Helsinki boasts more than 300 islands, some of which have year-round residents and others with only one or a few small summer cottages. Still, many more are left to nature. There are assorted ferries that can take you hopping around to the key stops, such as the busiest tourist attraction, the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, or the Korkeasaari Zoo.

Back in city center, a short walking tour will get you to most of Helsinki’s major sightseeing stops. The green- and gold-domed Helsinki Cathedral, the red-bricked Uspenski Cathedral, Esplanade Park, Helsinki City Hall, the Presidential Palace and a series of main squares are all in direct proximity to one another. Then head to the modern cultural hub near the train station where you can find the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, the Musiikkitalo concert hall and Oodi, an enormous and wondrous, multi-faceted, high-tech library and community center.

The 2023 Helsinki Biennial will be held this June to September. The celebrated art event takes place on Vallisaari Island, the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) and other locales throughout the city. Expect contemporary art exhibits, galleries, film screenings and events.

Getting out of the city for fresh air and recreation is a fundamental way of life for its residents, with extensive forests and parks an easy trip away. “It’s time in nature, time to be in the moment,” Nyman says. “Being closer to nature and getting all of the many good benefits of that.” Helsinki has a 130-kilometer waterfront trail to enjoy (including a 15-kilometer inner city lap) and areas such as Seurasaari island, an idyllic locale for leisurely strolls or visits to its open-air museum of traditional homes and villages. It’s where Nyman hosts some of her interactive foraging excursions.

Snag a table at Lily Lee
Snag a table at Lily Lee
Jake Emen

Where to Eat and Drink

Stop into the Old Market Hall, opened in 1889, and sample from its many vendors specializing in everything from cheese and soup to reindeer and caviar. The outdoor Market Square, a stone’s throw away, is home to numerous tented cafes and vendors selling quick bites of food.

Nolla Restaurant operates as a zero waste restaurant, with efforts including clever reuses of would-be discarded ingredients, a strict emphasis on local and seasonal produce, and an expansive composting program, continuing all the way down to its décor and serving ware. Don’t worry, you won’t be talking about sustainability all night. Instead, indulge from a multi-course menu that does a better job exemplifying that ethos than any marketing spiel ever could, and pair your food with a range of house-made brews.

Because you no doubt came to Helsinki in search of excellent Hong Kong cuisine (you did, didn’t you?), head to Lily Lee, where a Cantonese roast duck tasting menu awaits. Finland’s seafood bounty is crossed with Cantonese and Sichuan flavors in the form of xiao long bao, gyoza, tempura honey prawns and the showpiece duck platter with all of the accompaniments. Get the drink pairings, which may range from Champagne and wine to sake. The same team also operates Boon Nam, a Thai restaurant and bar.

Kappeli is a grand cafe, bakery and full-service restaurant that opened in 1867 along the Esplanade. People watch with a beverage on its outdoor patio or grab an indoor table for traditional Finnish fare served within — both are appealing choices. Head to the rooftop Sky Terrace at the Klaus K hotel for a vibey, seasonal space with live DJ performances. The hotel’s street level trattoria, Toscanini, is a recommended choice for an Italian bite.

Pien is a bottle shop and tasting room with a lineup of 600 canned and bottled beers. Its brewery operation was lost to the pandemic, but the team hopes to open a new rendition in the near future. In the meantime, you’ll stay busy enough sampling drinks in the female-led, community-oriented space.

The craft cocktail scene is alive and well in Helsinki, too. Yes Yes Yes is a fever dream of an American diner doused in neon pink and pastels. It serves cocktails, natural wine and no-ABV drinks called “Nudes” around its U-shaped bar, along with vegetarian food in its restaurant. Chihuahua Julep operates as a speakeasy and has a strict no-phone and no-photo policy; they won’t even let you pay with your phone, so come with cash or a physical card. The menu leans into agave spirits but offers a full assortment of drinks that come with snack pairings. If the night is still young and the midnight summer sun is still strong, continue your spirituous journey with stops at Liberty or Death and Trillby and Chadwick, both members of the Son of a Punch hospitality portfolio.


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