48 hours in Helsinki
Finland’s capital Helsinki regularly tops surveys of the world’s best cities – and it’s easy to see why. Fringed with harbours and Baltic inlets, it’s stuffed with glorious architecture and home to world renowned design. As Norman Miller discovers, the food is elegantly put together too.
Coffee and cocktails in Helsinki
Finns are world leaders in coffee consumption, so make it your fuel for exploring. Helsinki’s cafés offer more than a flat white and cinnamon buns… Vegan cake hangout Andante doubles as a florist, while a laundrette whirrs within Café Tin Tin Tango (facebook.com/tintintango). Or browse the fashions at fleamarket-with-caffeine Relove.
For a craft beer, the no-frills One Pint Pub has well-kept Finnish brews – sip them outside looking over the Ruoholahti canal. Cocktails are big here too: Chihuahua Julep – voted Best Bar in Finland 2023 – is a gorgeous speakeasy (ring the bell for entry) championing mezcal and tequila.
The best restaurants in Helsinki
The Nordic region’s first zero-waste restaurant, the outstanding Nolla cooks with spent grains from local breweries and turns unwanted male sturgeon from the caviar trade into delicious escabeche. Opened in March by wild food pioneer Jyrki Tsutsunen, Skutta champions foraging and fermenting in brilliant dishes like spruce-marinated mussels and wild herb-fried sand flounder.
Finnish heritage underpins some great dining establishments. The most elevated – literally, with its high-rise spot above Esplanadi gardens – is Savoy. Its 1930s wood interior was designed by the famed Alvar and Aino Aalto, while its vorschmack (ground meat, anchovies, herring and onion, topped with beetroot, pickles and sour cream) is an icon of Finnish culinary history.
Sekel (restaurantsekel.com) is a critically acclaimed newcomer whose menus create ‘a vision of a luxurious evening out a century ago’. The Sea Horse could be a set from a film by famed Finnish director Kaurismäki, and is nicknamed Sikala – the Piggery – by locals scoffing exemplary crispy-fried Baltic herrings or steak with onions beneath its 1930s sea horse mural.
Where to eat vegan in Helsinki
Cherishing nature is as Finnish as droll humour, and that extends to fine vegan vittles. Junky Vegan (junkyvegan.fi) arrived during lockdown as the first in a planned chain of vegan street food diners with drinks from small local producers, such as 8-Bit Brewing beers. At haute-vegan beacon Magu, tempura seaweed, truffle pearl and unagi sauce or 3D printed ‘lamb’, shiitake and radish indicate the intriguing pan-global bent.
A new wave of restaurants blend Finland’s love of the artfully crafted and contemporary. Bold food pairings underpin seasonal menus at Wellamo, where dishes like tomato, shiitake and lovage, preserved currants with thyme, or fish of the day with marinated black kale are served in a charming Art Nouveau building. A current darling newcomer is Luovuus Kukkii Kaaoksesta. It showcases raw ingredients – zingingly fresh seafood to the fore – in a cosily central, mural-decorated space.
The best food markets in Helsinki
The 1880s Vanha Market Hall (Mon-Sat) by the main harbour is the place for classic Finnish produce – buy bottled blueberry sauce and Arctic honey at the Arctic Delice stall. Curious carnivores can splash out €30 for tinned björnkött – bear meat – with a clear conscience, as it’s sourced only from animals culled to protect reindeer herds. Grab a bargain lunch while you’re there, such as fish soup at Soppakeittio.
Vintage fans can scour Hietelahti’s weekend antiques market, then refuel at the global food stalls – from sourdough pizza to pho or ramen, inside Kauppahalli. Stock up for a picnic at Food Market Herkku, inside Stockmann department store – say, pork-filled cabbage rolls and myriad pickles – to take to seafront Kaivopuisto park.
Sites and things to do
Central Helsinki’s cool design shops sit amid Neoclassical grandeur, Jugendstil façades and Art Deco beauty. Take the ferry to Suomenlinna – a UNESCO-listed 18th-century fortress island now a warren of shops and museums. Check out Merikortteli – a former dockside industrial area now buzzing with creative businesses. For a Finnish sauna, go old-school at Kotiharjun – or 21st century glam at Löyly, a futuristic seafront building a 10-minute cab ride from the centre.
Where to stay in Helsinki
• Sokos Vaakuna is a lovingly restored shrine to 1950s style by the Central Station, originally built for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Doubles from £166 b&b.
• Marski offers its guests a slice of contemporary style on Mannerheimintie, Helsinki’s bustling main boulevard. Doubles from £127 excluding breakfast.
Norwegian, Finnair and BA fly direct to Helsinki from London, Manchester and Edinburgh, with return flights from £250. Trains to the city centre take 35 minutes and cost £9-10. Buses take 45 minutes and cost £5-6.
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