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Travel inspiration: the alternative Scandinavian city break you need in 2019

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Stylist’s editorial assistant Moya Lothian-McLean finds that Helsinki’s calm is the perfect antidote to winter blues

They say you can’t put a price on happiness. Wrong. It’s €19 (£17): the entry fee at Helsinki’s Löyly sauna. Set on the seafront, Löyly (Finnish for the steam that rises when you throw water on hot stones) offers a traditional experience – one smoke sauna, one wood-burning sauna, one sea pool to freeze your extremities off – that’s fundamental to Finnish culture. Its population of 5.5 million people have access to 3.3 million saunas. So visiting Löyly is vital field research in my quest to discover why Finland was ranked the happiest country in the world by the UN in 2018. At least that’s what I tell myself as the steam gives my stressed London pores a good cleanse.

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There’s much to spread cheer in Finland’s capital. It’s characterised by eclectic design that finds neoclassical landmarks like Helsinki Cathedral alongside art nouveau structures such as the Central Station, rendering the cityscape totally unique.

And while Helsinki’s growing reputation as an architectural heavyweight may be pricking ears globally, its abundance of independent fashion and homeware brands are cementing the city as a must-visit destination for any millennial craving individually curated gems.

I’m guided around the creative hotspots by Piia Lehtinen, the chairman of Design District Helsinki, which counts 225 art and design-based establishments as members. I’m taken by a blue purse at fashion brand Lovia Collection but can’t work out the material. “It’s salmon skin,” laughs owner Outi Korpilaakso, explaining that every item is sustainable, made with excess materials from food and furniture industries. I leave with a very chic pair of 3D-printed bronze earrings.

Regard for nature is part of the secret to Finnish wellbeing, says one Helsinki native I quiz. National park visits are a weekend fixture – there are three within 45 minutes of Helsinki – and provide respite from city living throughout the year, rain or snow. I find my own respite at the Hotel St George, though, a mix of sleek Scandi design and homely touches (the onsite bakery is particularly quaint). The rooms are a triumph of cool minimalism and the lobby has the only privately owned work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Moya takes a break from the sauna to enjoy a Helsinki sunset. 

For foodies, there’s plenty to feast on. We opt for traditional Finnish fare at Juuri where I try elk for the first time (gamey) and a delicious rainbow trout with unusual potato ‘pearls’. Later, we stop at Soppakeittiö in the Old Market Hall (built 1888), a cubby hole that only serves three soups a day until it closes or the soup runs out.

The real secret I (re)discover during my stay is the joy of time; maybe it’s the snow, but Helsinki is literally chill. Breakfast is served until 12pm. Saunas open until 12am. Time is taken for simple pleasures. Before leaving, I take a dip at the Allas Sea Pool (heated to a friendly 27°C) and look over the city. Granted, it’s a Sunday, but it’s wonderfully tranquil. Perhaps everyone was in a sauna. Either way, this peace of mind is something I’ll be back to sample again.

Flights to Helsinki from London Heathrow start from £97 return, visit finnair.com; Rooms at the Hotel St George start from £195; For more information on Helsinki go to visitfinland.com and myhelsinki.fi/en

Images: Hotel St George 

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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.

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