Happy Helsinki: World’s happiest city doubles up as an open-air museum

From the design district with pop-up bazaars, sustainable shops and a thriving vintage scene to its unpretentious, gastronomic cuisine, Helsinki is the hippest city you’ve never been to
Happy Helsinki: World’s happiest city doubles up as an open-air museum

Crowded Aleksi street, Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki was crowned with the title of Happiest City in the World by the UN in its World Happiness Report, though the joy isn’t exactly bursting out of its inhabitants during a particularly cold spell.

However, after speaking with some Finnish women, I find them to be urbane, self-deprecating and remarkably open, breezily chatting about anything from politics to history, relationships and culture. The streets of Helsinki feel safe and there isn’t an obvious class divide amongst its citizens. It’s not self-consciously cool and contained. It just is.

Surrounded by neo-classical buildings such as the gleaming white Helsinki Cathedral, red-bricked Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, University of Helsinki and the Government Palace, Helsinki is great for any architecture-lover.

It’s not just the buildings, however, but the little details: industrial doorknobs on interesting facades (check out @doorsofhelsinki on Instagram); hand-braided rope light fixtures suspended from ceilings; and dimmable street lamps, designed to conserve energy that adjust, depending on the environmental conditions as well as the number of pedestrians in the area.

Helsinki is easy to get around on foot, and there’s a wide cycle lane that, notably, isn’t impinged upon by traffic. You can rent a bike and cycle around the 15km signposted waterfront trail. City bikes are €2.80 for 80-110 mins and they are similar to Irish public bike rental schemes, in that they have docking points at designated spots around the city, or you can rent a city bike from bicycleanhelsinki.com for €19 a day or an electric bike for €50.

Although famed for its neoclassical architecture, there are 600-plus Art Nouveau buildings to see in the Finnish capital. Helsinki Railway Station is one worth mentioning and luckily was situated just a stone’s throw from our hotel, the beautiful Scandic Grand Central. Its granite-covered design was completed in 1919 and features two flat-faced, brooding men with the hairstyle of the moment (the blunt bob) holding spherical lanterns. The National Museum is another standout example of the Art Nouveau style. Designed by a trio of architects, it boasts three distinct styles of buildings in one: a medieval-style church, a replica of a Swedish castle and a re-imagining of a Renaissance palace, not to mention the bear sculpture at the entrance. It currently opens Tuesday to Sunday, from 11am-6pm but extends its opening hours to Monday from May to August.

The iconic domes of Uspenski Cathedral overlook the redeveloped warehouses, restaurants and waterfront apartments of Katajanokka.
The iconic domes of Uspenski Cathedral overlook the redeveloped warehouses, restaurants and waterfront apartments of Katajanokka.

Saunas are an integral part of Scandinavian culture and it is estimated that Finland houses more than 2m. It’s a deeply detoxifying and rejuvenating experience. Sweaty, too. Most hotels, like the Scandic Grand Central, have one available to residents. Löyly Helsinki is one of the only saunas in the city to open on a Monday. It must be booked prior to visiting and costs €21 for two hours.

Make sure to read up on the etiquette of the particular sauna you’re visiting; public saunas often require swimwear and a towel while in some private saunas, it’s considered rude to wear a bathing suit.

Named a UNESCO City of Design in 2014, Helsinki’s design district has something for everyone: whether it’s the 115-year-old old hat shop (E R Wahlman); the many craft collectives (Lokal Gallery, Okra); sustainably-driven boutiques (Nudge, Tre); local designer pop-ups (Serpentine); or the street stalls with knitted hats and mittens. Torikorttelit or the Tory Quarter is home to an eclectic bunch of Finnish design boutiques showcasing the wares of goldsmiths, milliners, potters, weavers and leatherworkers. Interior design lovers will appreciate the skills and craftsmanship in My O My - Home, in Kämp Galleria, and Lapuan Kankurit, a wool and linen mill with exquisitely-finished textiles that make great presents.

Helsinki has embraced sustainability with aplomb and many establishments include details of carbon emissions on their menus and websites. In the city centre alone, there are more than a score of preloved interiors and vintage clothing shops, as well as a sustainability showroom, Niimar, promoting a zero-waste lifestyle. Nolla is the first Finnish food emporium to have the title of ‘zero waste restaurant’ fully approved. Everything in the restaurant is recycled, from the waiters’ uniforms made from bed linen to the soap made from surplus frying fat. Leftover food is converted into soil fodder for farms. It closes on Mondays and requires booking but does seem to have good availability a couple of days in advance, from 5pm to 11pm.

Tourists in front of Sibelius Monument in Helsinki at sunset
Tourists in front of Sibelius Monument in Helsinki at sunset

Salmon soup, fried Baltic herring with mashed potatoes and pike-perch fillet drizzled with lemon dressing are on almost every menu in the city centre. I had coffee and a traditional cinnamon bun at a lovely cafe called Andante. Recently voted one of the top 50 coffee shops in Europe by Big 7 Travel, they serve the Danish La Cabra coffee and French Kawa coffee. The quality of their organic milk is exceptional: the coffee was robust and delicious. I may have had a chocolate Madeleine as well.

Dinner was tapas at Vino located in the Kallio district. The menu included mince tartare, reindeer heart, salmon and celeriac carpaccio. There was a whole host of organic wines as well as some de-alcoholised wine on the menu. Decadent and delicious desserts included chocolate mousse and blackcurrant.

History buffs will enjoy a trip to Suomenlinna sea fortress, a UNESCO world heritage site. Once a naval fortress of the Russian Empire, the Finns wrested back control of the island in 1918. A powerful symbol of resilience and national pride, the landmark features in one of George RR Martin’s stories, The Fortress. It’s very easy to reach by ferry, taking just 15 minutes from downtown Helsinki.

I flew back to Ireland in the Finnair business class cabin. Exhausted after doing so much walking, it was so nice to be able to stretch out: there was plenty of legroom and a space to lie down. The movie screen was a good size too.

The weather is freezing in Helsinki, even at this time of year. It snowed the entire time I was there. Finland is well worth a weekend or week-long trip.

The people are witty and stylish, the buildings are stunning and the cobblestone streets are lined with contemporary shops, cafes and saunas.

Helsinki cathedral
Helsinki cathedral

See

Splurge on a helicopter ride with helsinkicitycopter.com.

Admire the giant pipes on the Sibelius monument.

Enjoy a traditional smoke sauna at Löyly in the Hernesaari district. loylyhelsinki.fi.

Marvel at Oodi, a modern, energy-efficient working library in the heart of the city. oodihelsinki.fi.

Eat

Choose from a multitude of pastries at Ekberg, the oldest cafe in Helsinki.

Buy sausages at Cafe Regatta and grill them outdoors on an open fire. 

Choose from up to 15 different types of seasonal soup at Soup + More .

Try the musk pumpkin burger at Story, Old Market Hall. Think the English Market with more snow-white beards. (Closed Sundays) story-restaurants.fi.

Indulge in some handmade Italian gelato at La Gelateria.

Get a vegan falafel pitta to go from Fafa’s takeaway.

Drink

Imbibe a modern cocktail at the library-style bar, Goldfish.

Go back in time at Trillby & Chadwick’s speakeasy. sonofapunch.com.

Tour the Tislaamo Whiskey Distillery

Boost your hipster credentials at Helsingin kahvipaahtimo (Helsinki Coffee Roastery) situated in a former abattoir with quirky decor where they roast their own blend of coffee. teurastamo.com/info-kartta.

Visit

Peruse a textile, graphic or fine art exhibition at The Design Museum.

Delve deeper into the history of Helsinki’s buildings at the Museum of Finnish Architecture.

People-watch at the contemporary Amos Rex museum.

Engage with nature at Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden, home to native and tropical plants and the world’s biggest seed. luomus.fi.

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