Scandinavia isn't just Sweden and Denmark: discover a unique blend of food and design in Finland's capital

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Gemma Crisp
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Stylist’s associate editor Gemma Crisp visits Helsinki to find a vibrant Nordic city with a distinctly Baltic flavour

At first I didn’t notice them – not surprising given the thick mucus of fog that shrouded the city when my two-hour ferry from Tallinn docked. Even after I’d checked in to the coolly chic Hotel Lilla Roberts, the Finnish capital’s newest boutique hotel situated in a former power plant in the design district, then strolled to dinner, they escaped me. But on waking up to blazing sunshine the next morning, I couldn’t miss Helsinki’s many verdigris rooftops. From the must-see Neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral to modern office buildings, the distinctive pale jade green of exposed copper is a popular accessory for the mix of modernist, classical and contemporary architecture, not to mention the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Northern Europe.

With stamps from Copenhagen and Stockholm already in my passport, Helsinki seemed the obvious choice when the Scandi travel itch struck again. Although Denmark and Sweden are firmly on the radar of every 30-something interior design loving hipster, Finland remains quietly in the background, despite giving rise to design juggernauts such as Marimekko, Eero Aarnio and Iittala, and Helsinki being named World Design Capital in 2012. While Finland has strong ties with Sweden – it’s compulsory to learn both Finnish and Swedish at school and all street names are written in both languages – and its capital is surrounded by water like Stockholm (with 300 islands dotted around the harbour, including the popular Unescolisted sea fortress), the metropolis is a curious blend of Scandi, Baltic and Russian influences.

My first experience of the Russian impact came at breakfast. After spending 15 minutes admiring the intricately grey-tiled floor in Krog Roba, the all-day restaurant at Hotel Lilla Roberts, and embarrassing my husband while I took far too many photos in the hope they would get reposted by the @ihavethisthingwithfloors Instagram account, it took me another 15 to peruse the food porn. I’d never seen a more chic breakfast buffet. Boiled eggs were housed in dinky canvas bags to keep them warm and there was a separate table that threatened to collapse under the weight of pastries, chocolate-dipped cookies and sweet brittle. Then I stumbled across ‘karjalanpiirakka’: pasties from the Russian region of Karelia, made with rye crust and a rice porridge filling. After sampling one, I opted instead for sticky dark rye bread topped with a frankly offensive amount of unbelievably good raspberry jam.

After spending some time in the intriguing cocoon-like interior of the Kampi Chapel of Silence, I saw countless reminders that the city is closer to St Petersburg than it is to Stockholm. Some street signs are written in Russian as well as Finnish and Swedish while the harbourside Market Square is overlooked by the grandiose verdigris domes of Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe. Already a bustling area with pop-up food stalls and souvenir stands, Market Square will be even more popular come June when the new Helsinki Sea Pool opens, allowing visitors
to take a dip before retiring to the rooftop terrace to gaze at the Baltic Sea or stopping by the sauna (there’s an estimated three million of them in the country, mostly in private homes). 

If there’s one thing the Finns love just as much as a sauna, it’s eating and drinking, and I get an insider tip to book at Ateljé Finne, a buzzy modern bistro with mismatched chairs and a taxidermy owl hanging from the ceiling. Situated in the former atelier of Finnish sculptor Johan Gunnar Finne, the chef describes the menu as “east Nordic” – I wolfed down Artic char, pike ravioli and pork neck with roasted carrots before falling headfirst into goat’s cheese ice cream with beetroot jam and cookie crumble. Next, I stopped in at Steam Hellsinki, a quirky steampunk-style bar that boasts around 100 types of gin, including one from the Kyrö Distillery, five hours north, near the Arctic Circle

Helsinki’s food scene doesn’t just stick to a Scandi repertoire – Gaijin serves up modern Asian to a glam international crowd (make sure to save room for dessert – the baked apple ice cream and chocolate sesame ganache were so good, I audibly whimpered after my first spoonful). Meanwhile, over in the emerging hipster district of Kallio, Sandro is the place for huge Moroccan salads, meatballs and shakshuka mopped up with sunshine yellow saffron bread. After three days of soaking up Helsinki’s unique vibe, I headed to Helsinki Central station to catch the bus to the airport. As I approached the granite-clad Eero Saarinen-designed Art Nouveau building, I couldn’t help note its distinct verdigris accents that are now synonymous with Helsinki in my mind. The city may not be as popular as Copenhagen or Stockholm but I suspect it likes it that way.

Double rooms at Hotel Lilla Roberts*, from £139 per night B&B;

Book Now, Feel Smug Later

Three very good reasons to visit Helsinki this summer

Restaurant Day, 21 May

A gloriously innovative carnival that would plainly fall foul of health and safety regulations in the UK, Restaurant Day allows anyone to open a pop-up restaurant or bar in their own home or street. Created by a group of food-obsessed Finns in 2011, it has proved so popular it’s now spread to 74 countries.

Holiday Bar, 6 May-26 July

This May sees Helsinki’s hippest restauranteurs Richard McCormick and Ville Relander launch restaurant and terrace, Holiday, on the urban island of Katajanokka. With an emphasis on raw, gluten-free, locally sourced cuisine, a sun deck and a heaving-with-hipsters bar, book now and make a long, lazy day of it.

Flow Festival, 12-14 August

Arguably Europe’s hippest music festival, Flow takes over a vast, infinitely Instagrammable former power station in the city centre. Plus, its collaboration with the University of the Arts Helsinki means that on top of great acts (The Kills, Massive Attack, Iggy Pop), you can delve into the engaging arts programme.