The 10-Point Escape Plan: Helsinki

Photo: Lonely Planet Images

Helsinki has been working hard to shrug off its image as a poor relation to the more stylish Scandinavian capitals. And after 800 years of Russian domination and influence, the Daughter of the Baltic has emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union with a distinctly Finnish culture—one that’s proving to be highly exportable. Finnish rock bands like HIM are playing arenas around the world; new artists such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila are showing in New York galleries; and a viable film industry is taking off thanks to the groundbreaking work of the Kaurismäki brothers, known for their edgy gallows humor. With almost twenty hours of sunlight a day during the height of summer, a long weekend should give you plenty of time to explore the city’s energetic new offerings.

1 Finnair offers nonstop flights from JFK to Helsinki starting at $849 round-trip. Catch Finnair’s convenient (and nice) shuttle bus to your hotel for less than $10.

2 Book a room at the Hotel Kämp, widely regarded as the best hotel in Scandinavia (from about $245; 358-9-576-111). Kämp’s chic bar and brasserie draw heads of state, supermodels, and luminaries of Finland-dominated Formula 1 racing.

3 Drag yourself out of bed to catch a spectacular 3 A.M. sunrise over Helsinki’s sparkling harbor. The imposing government buildings of nearby Senate Square were used in movies (Doctor Zhivago, for one) as a stand-in for St. Petersburg during the Soviet era.

4 Indulge in a long sauna (pronounced “sow-nah” here) at the Yrjönkatu Swimming Baths. Follow the lead of the locals, whom you’ll see lightly beating themselves (and each other) with supple birch twigs and periodically immersing themselves in ice-cold water.

5 Stroll the Punavuori, where boutiques like IvanaHelsinki Campus and Hundpark are winning fans for their bold prints and playful modern takes on old-school tennis gear. With its trendy cafés, small art spaces, and vintage record stores, the Punavuori feels like a Nordic take on the East Village.

6 Hop a tram to Rautatientori Square; the Art Nouveau station was the departure point for Lenin’s 1917 trip back to Moscow to lead the October Revolution. From here, wander the neighborhoods of Ullanlinna and Katajanokka, known for their Jugend (Finland’s equivalent of Art Nouveau) architecture, and the stunning Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral.

7 The Finnish Museum of Contemporary Art became a world-class destination in 1998, when it reopened in a mammoth new space (the Kiasma) designed by New York architect Steven Holl. This summer, check out the museum’s outsider-art exhibit “In Another World,” featuring nearly 50 international artists as well as rising local talents Tyyne Esko, Martti Hömppi, and Alpo Koivumäki.

8 Take a fifteen-minute ferry ride from the harbor to Suomenlinna Island, where you can ramble around the ruins of a 260-year-old fortress. For something more typically Nordic, head a bit farther to the island of Bylandet, where you can hike, fish, and cook your catch over a campfire.

9 For dinner, try one of the many varieties of blini (the roe of vendance is great) at Galleria Hariton, Helsinki’s best traditional Russian restaurant. For something less buttoned-up, book a table at Tori, and sample stick-to-your-ribs meatballs and arctic char in a setting akin to the coolest bistros of Williamsburg.

10 Pull an all-nighter before you head home. Jockey for a window seat at Bar Ataljee, located on the fourteenth floor of the building once used by Soviet officers overseeing Finland’s progress in paying war reparations to the U.S.S.R. Watch the sun set over Helsinki at around 11 P.M.; by the time you’ve enjoyed a few of the bars’ signature martinis, it will rise again.

The 10-Point Escape Plan: Helsinki