8 ways to experience Helsinki
1. Strip down and zen out in a sauna
For a country with a population of 5.4 million, it seems almost absurd to find the sauna count standing at 3.3 million. Besides a slew of public saunas dotting the city, you'll also find Finns who install saunas in their apartments so they never have to step out of their home for a good steaming. But wait — it gets better. Helsinki is also home to the only Burger King outlet in the world fitted with a sauna. Yes, saunas are a cornerstone of daily life here, and business deals are more likely to be sealed in a dimly lit sauna (over beer and wine) than a boardroom. The dresscode? Your birthday suit. Not ready to bare it all? Head to Löyly, a public sauna perched along the shoreline, where bathing suits won't be frowned upon.
Hidden within the contemporary façade of this standalone structure are two saunas — one of which is a traditional smoke sauna that sees wood burnt over a large stove in a birch enclosure till the room heats up to the desired temperature. After the fire dies, the smoke is allowed to escape before sauna-goers head in for a sauna session laced with a smoky aroma. At Löyly, sounds of crashing waves set the stage as you zen out within. When the heat gets unbearable, plunge into the sea and feel your body tingle with the bracing cold. End your session with a cider in the cosy relaxation room anchored with low-slung sofas and a crackling fireplace, or adjourn to the restaurant for more substantial bites.
2. Rethink your definition of Finnish design
Marimekko and Alvar Aalto might be bywords for Finnish design, but there're even more local names to add to your Little Black Book if you're serious about wrapping your head around the Finnish design scene. Thankfully, you'll find over 200 designer shops, studios, jewellery boutiques, and galleries clustered within Helsinki's Design District, an area that spans the neighbourhoods of Kaartinkaupunki, Kamppi, Punavuori, and Ullanlinna. Drop into the Design Museum to trace the evolution of Finnish design before exploring the eclectic Design District (view the map here) for a veritable aesthetic feast.
3. Have a taste of the Finnish forest without hiking out of the city
Non-alcoholic drinks are typically not beverages we toast to, but we'll raise our glasses to Kuohuva Kuusenkerkkä, a champagne-coloured pour that distills the essence of a Finnish forest in one sparkling glass. Besides making an appearance at state functions, Kuohuva Kuusenkerkkä can also be found in the cellars of Helsinki's top restaurants (I had my virgin glass at Vinkkeli). Bottled in Southern Lapland in accordance with a closely guarded family recipe, the beverage yields its flavour profile from the spruce tree. Only freshly sprouted spruce shoots are picked in the summer and left to soak in a mixture of pristine ground water from Riisitunturi National Park, carbonic acid, citric acid, and sugar to distill its essence. The result is a refreshing drink (perfect as an apéritif) backed with a bright acidity and delicate flavours echoing the fairy-tale forests of Finland.
4. Pick up an edible souvenir from the city's historic market hall
Vanha Kauppahalli, Helsinki's Old Market Hall, gazes over the bustling harbour like a proud grand dame. Under the soaring roof of this quaint red-bricked building, all manner of fresh produce have traded hands since the 1800s. Today, over 20 vendors reside in this space, and if you have an hour to spare, you can very well build your Finnish taste vocabulary here. Begin by sampling juustoleipä, a semi-soft Finnish cheese made with reindeer milk. For the adventurous eater, an intriguing variety of game meat—think mooses, elks, and even bears—is available, too. What's most impressive is the encyclopedic array of seafood, ranging from salmon to marinated herring, that testify to Helsinki's enviable location as a port city. For a taste of Finland in a cup, pick up an edible souvenir in the form of a herbal tea infusion combining the bright, herbaceous flavours of birchwood, nettle, and licorice blended with sweet strawberries.
5. Discover Nordic cuisine
The welfare of reindeers might be closely guarded by Santa, but here in Finland, they are free game for all. Once you get over the fact that you're eating the very animal you've grown up singing about, you'll find them to be pretty interesting subjects. In fact, poor Rudolph is as nutritious as it gets. The lean meat is packed with essential fatty acids and boasts twice as much vitamin B12 than lamb. Over at KuuKuu, thin slices of reindeer meat are cooked with spices till tender before pairing them with beetroot chips, lingonberries, and a punchy smear of horseradish sour cream.
While the Spanish have their tapas, the Finns have their sapas (small plates of Finnish appetisers), a term coined by Ilja Björs, founder of restaurant Juuri. Naturally, Juuri serves up plates of sapas showcasing produce that mirrors the turn of the season. During my visit, Autumnal touches of butternut squash was paired with creamy pumpkin seed purée and homemade cream cheese. Herrings, a Finnish favourite, came dressed with velvety potato cream and a juicy crunch of sweet shallots.
6. Visit the city's most unusual architectural structure
If the Christian hymn Rock of Ages took the form of a monument, it'll probably look a lot like Temppeliaukio, a massive church whose form is excavated directly into solid rock. From the outside, the nondescript rock outcrop doesn't turn any heads, but once inside, you'll find yourself in a post-modern cocoon capped with a yawning dome stretching over 24 metres. A generous skylight illuminates the sacred space bordered by rugged rock and rubble wall, an enduring architectural handiwork of Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. Sited right in the heart of Helsinki, this fully-functional church is an egg of silence for those seeking a spot of quiet.
7. Hunt down rare pokémons in a UNESCO World Heritage site
When engineers began work on Suomenlinna in 1974, it proved to be an engineering feat in and of itself. The rocky, undulating terrain made it challenging for engineers to erect this sturdy bastion fortress—one of the largest sea fortresses in the world—which has served in defence of both the Finns and Russians across the arc of history. Today, the only external forces invading this UNESCO World Heritage site are armies of pokémon monsters, including the Arcanite and other rare species. During the summer, Suomenlinna plays host to concerts, theatre performances, and other events. Drop by to sample the local drop from the island's own brewery or join a weekend walking tour for a quick history lesson on one of Finland's most important historic monuments.
8. Trillby & Chadwick
Trillby & Chadwick is one of those speakeasy bars with an unmarked entrance. Unless you're in the mood for some detective work, here's how to find it: Head down Katariinankatu street and look out for a pastel pink building opposite Lapuan Kankurit, a textile and linen store. Push through the white door, head to the vintage phone booth and dial through to get in. Once you're inside, you'll find a dimly lit saloon with plush, low-slung sofas, fringed lamps, and hardcover books that open to reveal a compendium of cocktails accompanied by fictional excerpts of the murder mystery variety. The intrigue carries over to stiff cocktails that straddle the world of old school classics and inventive concoctions featuring ingredients such as lemon verbena and seaweed tincture. Whatever you do, don't whip out your camera for a photo. These guys are militant about keeping this bar under wraps.
How to get there: Finnair flies up to seven times weekly between Singapore and Helsinki.
Good to know: Flying to other parts of Europe with Finnair? You can stop over in Helsinki or Finland for up to five days at no additional cost.
Bookmark this: For more nifty tips on making the most of your stopover in Finland, click here.