design, escape, travel guide

Travel: postcards from Helsinki

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

This year Finland is celebrating 100 years of independence and what perfect excuse to visit its beautiful, harbour-side capital, Helsinki.

Just before Christmas last year I headed there for a work trip, I’d been once before in the summer, but this time the white skies seemed to bring out the earthy tones of the buildings and the low sunshine cast long shadows across the cobbled streets. It was certainly crisp and cold, but cosy dips into coffee shops and boutiques thawed the toes and warmed the soul.

Slightly overshadowed in many ways by its Scandinavian cousins Stockholm and Copenhagen, it’s taken time for the Finnish city to find its own identity. The country was first governed by Sweden, and then by the Russians, so the city’s architecture sits somewhere in-between east and west, Europe and the Baltics – its neoclassical buildings and long boulevards bear influences from Leningrad and Moscow, while the cathedral was modelled on St Petersburg’s. In the 20th century it was Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto that helped put the city on the map, from Saarinen’s art nouveau Central railway station to Aalto’s modernist, white Finlandia Hall.

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

The main esplanade of Helsinki

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Beautiful old facades and street signs

More recently, a thriving design scene has seen the capital come alive with contemporary architecture, young creatives, workshops and galleries. A stroll around the Design District takes you to independent makers and boutiques, showrooms and workshops.

Get your design fix at the Design Museum and the Steven Holl-designed contemporary art museum Kiasma, or head to the new Iittala & Arabia Design Centre that celebrates two of Finland’s most well-loved brands (don’t forget to pop into the outlet store as well!).

Make a pilgrimage to Alvar Aalto’s home and studio or tour the city spotting his work here and there – the Academic Bookstore for example or the stunning rooftop restaurant Savoy, where his famous vase was first used.

Elsewhere, hip eateries, beautifully designed bars and distilleries let you sample twists on Finnish classics, craft beer and fragrant gin.

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

The decorative buildings of the city centre

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Park benches may be abandoned in the winter, but in the summer these parks come alive with people having picnics and playing music

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Cobbled streets and cosy homes

All in all, it makes for a lovely, design-packed long weekend away, with the perfect amount of art and culture, food and drink and dip into the shops. Here I’ve collated some of my favourite places into a mini city guide, you can even download and print the map if you’re planning a visit yourself…

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

The creamy, muted colours of Helsinki streets

Places to eat and drink

Roster – Pohjoisesplanadi 17 – lovely, contemporary restaurant looking over the water, beautifully designed with Menu and &tradition furniture.
Bier Bier – Erottajankatu 13 – a supremely cosy setting, perfect for a quiet drink to escape the cold
Michel – Mikonkatu 4 – a fine restaurant designed by Joanna Laajisto
Savoy – Eteläesplanadi 14 – a simply stunning bar and restaurant designed by Alvar Aalto that transforms you back to 1930s Helsinki
Löyly – Hernesaarenranta 4 – a sauna in an up-and-coming, former industrial part of the city. Visit the restaurant by Joanna Laajisto too
Story – Vanha Kauppahalli, Eteläranta – another design by Laajisto, this time housed in the old Market Hall on the harbour
Vin Vin – Kalevankatu 6 – like Bier Bier but for wine
Skiffer Erottaja – Erottajankatu 11 – tasty pizza a few doors down from Bier Bier in the centre of town

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Salakauppa – the cutest and smallest shop in Helsinki

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Salakauppa sells home products made by craftsmen and Finnish makers

Things to do

Iittala & Arabia Design Centre – Hämeentie 135 – Newly renovated at the end of last year, this exhibition space is dedicated to Finland’s two most loved brands
Design Museum – Korkeavuorenkatu 23 – A lovely museum devoted to Finnish design and fashion
Kiasma – Mannerheiminaukio 2 – a contemporary art museum designed by American architect Steven Holl
Alvar Aalto’s home and studioRiihitie 20 – tour Alvar Aalto’s home and studio and learn more about the Finnish architect, find ticket information here

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

The Cathedral, modelled on St Petersburg’s

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

The waterfront

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Story cafe in the old Market Hall

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Market stalls selling Finnish produce

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

There’s even outdoor baths for the very brave!

Places to shop

Salakauppa – Postikatu 1 – a teeny tiny shop that sells beautiful handcrafted objects
Artek – Keskuskatu 1 – the flagship store of the furniture brand Alvar Aalto founded with his wife and Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl
Marimekko – Mikonkatu 1 – a must-visit to this Finnish home furnishing, textile and fashion brand known for its vibrant prints
Iittala & Arabia Design Centre – Hämeentie 135 – Newly renovated at the end of last year, this exhibition space is dedicated to Finland’s two most loved brands
Granit – Erottajankatu 2 – simple, functional objects for the home at great prices
Kauniste – Fredrikinkatu 24 – lovely design shop selling colourful, whimsical fabrics and accessories
Samuji – Erottajankatu 9 – simple clothing designs, very like the UK’s Toast

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Tramways clatter down the streets

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Samuji sells beautiful simple clothing, think of the UK’s Toast

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Stockmann, the city’s department store and just behind, Alvar Aalto’s academic bookstore

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Stop for coffee and warm up at Sis Deli + Cafe

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Wild Things flower shop

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

A strip of parkland lines the main esplanade

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Roster is a lovely contemporary restaurant looking onto the water

Have you been to Helsinki before, what did you think?

travel guide: postcards from Helsinki

Beautiful Helsinki streets

All images: Cate St Hill

10 Comments

  1. Beautiful photos and fabulous guide as always Cate! Can’t wait to go back to Helsinki, had such a wonderful time there even though I went in January and it was -10 pretty much the whole time, eeeek. Would love to revisit Arabia and see the renovations xx

  2. Stunning photos and such a great guide. I love the signage at the shops there

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