Think of Helsinki as the edgy younger sibling of the Nordic capitals. It may not have Stockholm's beautiful old town or quite the sophistication of Copenhagen and Oslo, but it offers many other quirky appeals. The extremely manageable city is easy to traverse on foot or public transit—or boat, if you're heading to one of the islands—and if you venture just 10 or 15 minutes from the city center, you're likely to find yourself in a serene forest. There's a burgeoning food scene, lively nightlife, and a chance to appreciate Finnish design.
If you don't fear cold weather, winter can be an adventurous time to visit, to take advantage of national traditions like sitting in a sauna alternated with “ice swimming”—jumping into frigid water through a hole cut into a frozen lake—not to mention heading north to Lapland for dog-sledding expeditions and other snowy pursuits. Or save your visit for the brief Finnish summer, which finds Helsinki alive with festivals almost every weekend. Whenever you decide to go, here's our long weekend itinerary.
After you've dropped your bags, start by exploring central Helsinki. Landmarks include the impressive Helsinki Cathedral, a towering white Lutheran church completed in 1852; and waterside Market Square, home to a daily food and goods market. If you're hungry, Vanha Kauppahalli, a covered market hall on the water next to Market Square, is a great lunch or snack destination. Options include hearty seafood bouillabaisse at Soup Kitchen; daily seasonal lunches at Story; a traditional Karelian pie from Robert's Coffee; or even summer rolls from Hanoi, with the very Finnish option of smoked salmon filling.
Next, check out the nearby Design District, where stores selling exquisitely arty household goods, accessories, and other items are clustered together along a few streets. (To home in on the best shopping, pick up a helpful free map at the tourism information office at Pohjoisesplanadi 19, or scope it out online here.) If you have the time and energy, the Design Museum offers rotating exhibits and an excellent historical look at well-known Finnish designers. The gift shop is a great place to pick up souvenirs.
For dinner, reservations are a good idea at Juuri, an elegant place that specializes “sapas” (Finnish tapas) made from sustainable, local ingredients. Make a meal for the table of these small plates, like trout sausage, beef liver with lingonberry, and Baltic herring with tomato and dill, or focus on heartier main courses such as elk shoulder with smoked parsnip and béarnaise sauce. If you're not too bushed for an after-dinner drink, shoulder up to the bar at nearby Liberty or Death for some of the best cocktails in town.
Wake up early to catch the ferry to Suomenlinna, an 18th-century fortress spread over several islands. Skip the fancy sightseeing boat and use your regular transit ticket to board the 20-minute municipal ferry, which runs frequently from Market Square as a service for residents. In summer, the islands are popular for picnics and swimming, but the off-season finds the place empty and peaceful. There's a brewery and restaurant by the ferry stop, and a few other amenities like a cafe, hostel, and a grocery store (for picnic supplies), but mostly this serene place is about wandering and eventually finding a quiet spot to chill out.
Once back on the mainland, it's time to learn one secret to dining in Helsinki: Lunch is an excellent bargain. Most restaurants offer a set lunch menu that rings up around 10 euros or less. For a fabulous spread featuring plenty of creatively prepared vegetables, plus daily soup and hot dishes in a cozy setting, hit up the Cock, the newest place from trendsetting restaurateur Richard McCormick. Vegetarians will also love Zucchini, not far from there, which offers a changing affordable lunch menu, and classicists can try the famous Nordic meatballs with lingonberry and mashed potatoes downtown at Tori.
After lunch, soak up some culture at the Finnish National Gallery, known as Ateneum. The museum has excellent rotating exhibits and a permanent collection that sheds light on Finnish identity and the fascinating national mythology. Don't miss it.
Next it's time for a swim and sauna, but don't worry if you haven't brought your bathing suit! Skinny-dipping is popular in the country's many lakes (after a sauna, of course), but you can get into it right here in town at Yrjönkatu, a swimming hall that happens to be country's oldest public pool, built in 1928. Because of the nudity factor, hours are different for men and women (check the schedule online). Saturdays are for guys only, so ladies will have to do something else, or get your swim in on Sunday.
You might need a post-sauna nap, but when you finally rally, hail an Uber and head to Teurastamo, a cool new dining, drinking, and general hanging-out complex housed in a former abattoir. The sprawling place has an appealing post-industrial feel and a number of restaurants to choose from, including a well-loved barbecue option, B-Smokery, and a Chinese place, Ho's. After dinner, you'll be well positioned for some bar-crawling in nearby Kallio, the formerly working-class neighborhood that's become the city's hottest nightlife district. Vaasankatu Street's numerous bars will get you started.
If you wake up a little bit green at the gills, be thankful you've thought to make a brunch reservation at Sandro, Richard McCormick's North African–leaning hot spot (we love this guy's food!). There are two locations—one in Kallio and one downtown—so be sure you get to the right one. On Sundays, the brunch theme is Marrakech Madness; you won't be sorry.
Before departing, check out the longtime home and studio of Finland's most famous architect, Alvar Aalto. The Alvar Aalto house, a glorious example of functional yet cozy design, can visited via a guided tour only (included in the price of admission), so check the hours and be sure to show up promptly—no reservations are allowed. If you end up having to wait, the public library next door is a surprisingly delightful place to pass the time.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Direct flights to Helsinki run from New York on a number of airlines; other U.S. cities require a connection. If you're traveling around Europe, consider arriving or departing by ferry. Comfortable and affordable boats sail between Helsinki and places like Germany, Sweden, and Estonia (see schedules here). These “booze cruises” are a rite of passage for Finns, who take advantage of duty-free pricing onboard to stock up on cheap alcohol. It's also possible to visit St. Petersburg, Russia, from Helsinki for three days without a visa, by taking advantage of a loophole available only from the St. Peters Line.
WHERE TO STAY
One of the most glamorous sleeps in town can be found at the new Hotel Lilla Roberts, which is gorgeously appointed in an Art Deco style worthy of the golden age of Hollywood. The hotel is also home to a beautiful lobby bar, elephant-themed Lilla E, and well-received Nordic restaurant Krog Roba.
Also new is Hotel Indigo, with a great location near the Design District. The stylish, contemporary hotel has 130 rooms decorated with murals by local artists. There's a Finnish restaurant, Brod, off the lobby, and charging stations for electric cars if that's how you roll.