Helsinki is hot, hot, hot. Savvy travelers have been visiting and exploring this Nordic city—which is on a Peninsula in the Baltic Sea—in droves. And, why not? Helsinki is lovely, compact, and easily accessible on foot, bike or public transportation. If Finland is on your adventurer it-list, then mark your calendar for next summer, August 10 to 12, 2018, and visit during one of the fieriest weekends in Helsinki during Finland’s Flow Festival.
Here are the Helsinki highlights:
Getting Around the City
Grab a bike (there are 140 bike-share stations around the city) and take to the streets. Helsinki is a cinch to navigate and there are bike lanes everywhere, making it easy to get around the entire city.
Helsinki: All About Art, Design, and Sweating
Figure out which museums you’d like to visit. My favorite is the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. I saw an exhibit called LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner #AloneTogether, with American actor Shia LaBeouf, when I visited this year. LaBeouf spent a month isolated in a cabin in Finnish Lapland and communicated only via text messages. Other museums worth a look-see are: Helsinki Art Museum, Ateneum Art Museum, The Design Museum, The National Museum of Finland, and the Tram Museum.
Possibly the most Finnish activity that you can do is visit a sauna. According to CNN Travel, Finland is home to more than 3.5 million saunas, which is really saying something considering the population of the entire country is 5.5 million. There are wood, smoke, electric, and even mobile saunas. In fact, there’s a Burger King in Helsinki with a sauna. Saunas are a place to connect with others, conduct business meetings, and help the body and mind feel relaxed. Visit Löyly Helsinki for a fantastic public sauna experience. You can go through the cycle: Sweat in the sauna, jump in the frigid Baltic Sea, and repeat—until you’re hungry and ready to sit by the fire for nibbles and drinks.
Park It, Pal
Helsinki does an amazing job at inserting green spaces throughout the city. In the warmer months, you’ll see people lounging around, you’ll hear musicians and street performers, and you’ll be able to drink your weight in espresso (Finns drink more coffee than any other culture in the world).
Esplanade Park, a skinny and long well-manicured space with cafes on both ends, is right near the harbor and full of great people watching. You can expect to see street performers here nearly every day in the summer—they’re not bucket drummers like we see in Chicago; these musicians are playing full-on orchestral concerts for tips.
While not exactly a park, the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the location of three historic eras—defense of Sweden, Russia and then, finally, Finland—is full of picnicking sunbathers throughout the grounds. You’ll find plenty of places to eat, buy an ice cream cone, or grab a cup of Joe as you wander through caves, over grassy mounds and past rows of sailboats. Suomenlinna is easy to get to via ferry from Market Square.
Töölö Bay was a highlight of my trip. Located in the heart of the city, Töölö has a path that winds around the entire bay. Visit the Winter Garden, bursting with plants and flowers, on one end and rent a kayak or SUP board on the other. There are gelato stands along the way to fill your belly.
Chocolate, Reindeer Meat, and Fur Hats
Helsinki has six enchanting squares with indoor and outdoor markets, the busiest of which are Helsinki Market Square and Hakaniemi Market Square. Old Market Hall, one of the more popular (and touristy) indoor markets, is located on the harbor with rows of vendors selling fresh fish, bakery goods, Finnish specialties like pea soup, pot pies and reindeer meat, and coffee—of course, coffee. In the summer, a large outdoor market can also be found here, which sells berries, forest mushrooms, wool hats and gloves, and Finnish tchotchkes.
The Hietalahti Market Hall, on the northwest side of the city, is similar to Old Market Hall—both are indoor and have snug booths for dining—but stands out because of it’s huge outdoor flea market. This is the place to go to buy and sell, find a left-of-center souvenir, or interact with locals.
Say, “Oooh and Ahhh”
Visit some of the gorgeous churches that are sprinkled around the city—each one is completely distinctive and exquisite. Most churches in Helsinki are Lutheran or Catholic. Standouts include: Temppeliaukio Church or “rock church,” the acoustics in here are haunting; Uspenski Cathedral; St. John’s Church; Helsinki Cathedral; and my favorite, Kamppi Chapel or the “Chapel of Silence,” imagine a cavernous egg-shaped wooden structure with no windows, delightfully minimalist, peacefully silent, and located right in the middle of a bustling shopping square.
Helsinki has more than 50 annual festivals and one of the most fun musical celebrations is the three-day Flow Festival. Eleven different venues include massive outdoor and tent stages as well as cozy indoor and outdoor spaces, so Flow has something for everybody. This year’s festival brought musicians from around the globe: the States’ Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey, The UK’s The XX and Alma, Australia’s Flume, and Germany’s Moderat. At one festival, I heard electronic, hip-hop, alternative, jazz, rock, classical, DJ mixes, and experimental music. And, the food—the food was amazing. As a vegetarian/pescetarian, it can sometimes prove difficult to find something I can eat when I’m out and about—especially at a music venue—but I had no problem finding delectable fare at Flow. I scarfed a chickpea burger with vegan mayo at Beerger, sucked down a raspberry mint shake from Oatly, and had some late-night pizza at Pizzarium. Flow had multiple spaces to hang out and get away from the craziness—I really dug the Vinyl Market, Resident Advisor Front Yard and the fancy American Express Gold Area.