1. Where to Stay
Pick your room according to your mood at Klaus K (from $317), a design hotel inspired by the Kalevala, a nineteenth-century epic poem. All 137 units feature artwork with quotes from the poem and showcase playful contemporary décor based on its themes of passion, envy, mysticism, and desire. Unwind in the basement sauna before a night at in-house club Ahjo, where savvy locals head for the resident D.J.’s on Fridays and Saturdays.
Soak up the Art Deco vibe of Sokos Hotel Torni (from $170), a classic 1928 property in a fourteen-floor tower that houses 152 recently refurbished rooms and suites. Units come in two signature styles: Functionalism, with clean lines and splashes of red, and Jugend, featuring antique Art Nouveau candelabras and ball-shaped lamps by W. Brand. Have an Aalto cocktail ($16) of cranberry vodka and Cointreau at top-floor Ateljee Bar, renowned for its panoramic views of Helsinki rooftops and the Baltic.
Sleep in style at Hotel Glo Kluuvi (from $267), right off the leafy Esplanadi at the heart of Helsinki, where 144 rooms and suites tout modern Scandinavian style with functionality and flair: cherry wood floors, award-winning Unikulma beds, heated bathroom floors, and a sleep menu offering a warm oats pillow, among other accessories.
2. Where to Eat
Feel like you’ve stepped into a private club at Savoy (closed for lunch on Saturday and all day Sunday), Helsinki’s classic restaurant since 1937, atop a 12-floor building with original modernist interiors by Finland’s greatest architect, Alvar Aalto. Seasonal Nordic cuisine, featuring dishes like braised turbot with black morels and white asparagus ($62), is paired with live piano music and one of the city’s most extensive wine lists.
Fill your table with Finnish sapas, small plates with traditional roots, at Juuri (closed for lunch Sundays), a rustic-chic restaurant with two small dining rooms. Highlights among sapas ($6) include smoked reindeer heart with rowanberry jelly and charcoaled marinated vendace with tomato brioche. More substantial dishes ($35) include poussin with parsley puree, crispy fried blood pudding, and smoky beer sauce.
Excite your taste buds at K17 Kitchen Cocktail (closed Sunday and Monday), a contemporary Nordic restaurant opened in November 2010. Choose between the all-white front area and the darkened dining room, where tasting menus (from $52) include dishes like whitefish tartar with potato crisps and dill mayonnaise, accompanied by a dill-infused gin and apple juice cocktail.
3. What to Do
Peruse the plethora of shops – just under 200 – on 25 streets that constitute Helsinki’s Design District, established in 2005. Take a guided walk ($22; Mondays and Fridays at 1:30 p.m., June 6 to August 29, or by request year-round) that makes pit stops at some of the stars of the strip, like shoe boutique Minna Parikka, which has designed footwear for Lady Gaga, and IVANAhelsinki. Time your visit to coincide with Helsinki’s Design Week in September to take in exhibits, shows, and markets, as well as the simultaneous Open House Helsinki, which offers a one-off glimpse at around 30 otherwise private spaces like homes, courtyards, tunnels, embassies, and rooftops.
Explore Finnish design in its many incarnations at the Design Museum ($12), a cultural powerhouse with a 75,000-object-strong collection, about 1 percent of which is on display on its three floors. Permanent displays include Alvar Aalto’s glass and furniture collections, such as vases blown in wooden molds made for World Fairs in Paris (1937) and New York (1939), and Nokia devices made by Panu Johansson in the mid-nineties.
Indulge your design-hawk tendencies at Design Forum Finland, a stylish storefront and café maintained by the Finnish Society of Crafts & Design, which was founded back in 1875. Pick up anything from handmade items like milk-carton-shaped porcelain jars by Jatta Lavi ($68), designer clothing like the Jolier ONE one-garment, which can be worn in 60 different ways ($126 to $155, depending on the fabric), and funky hats by Costo ($92 to $103).
For a younger and hipper version of the Design District walk, book an outing around Helsinki’s outlying districts with Inspirations Tours, led by the young, clued-in designers at Musta Design. These 2.5-hour walks ($70) just launched in May and cover private studios of up-and-coming designers and small creative businesses.
4. Insider’s Tip
For the price of a regular tram ticket, hop on the 3T tram ($2.50, $9.90 for a 24-hour pass) at the central train station for a loop around town that will show you more than the unsightly sightseeing buses, which usually cost around $40. The 3T will take you around the city center and then some outlying districts, like the working-class, boho Hakaniemi and Kallio, the middle-class Töölö district, the artsy Punavuori, and the old Eira district, home to an abundance of Art Nouveau buildings. (You can pick up a brochure outlining the highlights of the route from the tourism office.) The entire trip takes only about 40 minutes to complete, but hop on and off to explore as you please.
5. Oddball Day
Take some time away from the city to explore the Finnish countryside. Kick start your morning with coffee ($2.80), a lihapiirakka meat pie ($3.50), and possu doughnuts ($2.80) at Toripojat Café, on the south harbor, before walking to the tourist office near the market square to find brochures about lakeside community Tuusula. Reach Tuusula by train from the central railway station; take the H commuter train to Järvenpää ($8.30 each way; 30 minutes). Book a bike ahead of time from Chebici rental shop (+358 0(9) 286 559), and they’ll have it waiting at the station when you arrive ($23 per day, helmet included). Head first to Ainola ($10), a verdant estate surrounding a log villa that was once home to composer Jean Sibelius and his family. Tour the art-filled wooden interiors and the lush gardens filled with birch, spruce, and lily of the valley. Work up your appetite by biking on to Krapihovi ($54 to $55.70; noon and 2 p.m. seatings on weekends), known for its buffet lunches of rustic Finnish food served in five bright rooms of a farmhouse. Then it’s on to Halosenniemi ($7.80), a gorgeous timber mansion that doubled as painter Pekka Halonen’s studio and family home, with high ceilings, red pine wooden floors, and stellar lake views. Next, head outside to rent a boat ($10.60 for first hour, $7 every additional hour) for a scenic row on the lake. Afterward, get back on the bike and head to Fjällbo Park for a rest at this peaceful spot with an old-fashioned pavilion on the lake’s edge. Hop back on the train to Helsinki and wrap up your night with a dinner of honest Finnish fare at Sea Horse, a thirties former sailors’ hangout. Drink Finnish lager ($8) and dine on crispy Baltic herrings fried in butter next to a mound of mashed potato ($21), a dish that apparently had Dizzy Gillespie licking his plate clean.
Browse Visit Helsinki for a wealth of well-curated and practical info provided by the city’s official tourism board.
Find out about the many creative ways Helsinki is preparing for its year as World Design Capital 2012.
Browse the excellent website of We Are Helsinki, a free city magazine distributed in shops, restaurants and bars, tourist offices, museums, and hotels.