Ornate architecture, picturesque parks and a beautiful seafront make Helsinki one of the most unique cities in Europe. Snow and ice transform the city into a winter wonderland, while in the summer, waterside cafes and tranquil islands make Helsinki an exciting destination on your cruise holiday.
“What makes Helsinki unique is that it’s a city of contrasts,” says Jenni Poyry of Helsinki Marketing. “This already appears in its geographical location and cultural influences from both East and West can be found from Helsinki. The city has also been called the hidden gem of the North.
“Helsinki is a city where urban life and beautiful nature combine. You can find trendy bars and restaurants from the city but it’s also a 15 minute drive to go berry picking or a short ferry ride to go on one of the beautiful islands nearby Helsinki’s coastline. Helsinki is also compact and functional, which makes it possible to explore within a short time.
“I’d also say that people make the city. Even we Finns might be a bit shy at first, we are truly honest, friendly and always ready to help. Everyone also speaks fluent English, thanks to our excellent education system.”
Relax in one of the city’s typical cafes
Coffee is big business in Finland. Earlier this year, Finns were named the top coffee consumers in the world, according to the International Coffee Organisation. It’s reported that they drink 12kg of coffee per person per year, compared to just 2.8kg in the UK and 5.8kg in Italy. The fact that vast quantities of coffee are drunk in Finland does mean that the quality is exceptional, so be sure to squeeze in a visit to at least one coffee shop during your cruise to Helsinki.
Jenni of Helsinki Marketing said: “If you only have one day in Helsinki, I’d suggest you start your day with a good cup of coffee, we as Finns are the biggest coffee drinkers in the world. For a lovely cup of coffee, you should either head to Ekberg Café, which is also the oldest café in Finland, or Johan & Nystrom right next to the Uspenski Cathedral.”
The coffee is traditionally served dark, paired with a traditional Finnish pastry, such as a korvapuusti – a delicious cinnamon roll. While you’re likely to find great coffee all over the city, in trendy cafes or traditional coffee shops, we’ve picked out a few for you to try.
If you find yourself in the north of the city, you shouldn’t miss out on a trip to Café Regatta. Set in a traditional cottage on the Baltic Sea, it’s difficult to miss this vibrant red café. Take a seat at one of the pretty tables and chairs outside and admire the waterside views with a fresh coffee and pastry. On a cold day, you can also indulge in a hot cocoa with whipped cream.
Overlooking a beautiful church on the World Heritage site and archipelago Suomenlinna, Café Vanille is a favourite among locals looking for delicious coffee. The traditional café also serves hearty Finnish cuisine, so you can expect to see smoked cheese and reindeer soup on the menu, along with classic cakes and pastries for those with a sweet tooth.
Creating exceptional sweet treats since 1852, Ekberg Café is perhaps one of the most popular in Helsinki. The café prides itself on serving high-quality pastries and confectionery as well as mouth-watering meals. You’ll struggle to walk by Ekberg without sampling the delicious food, which is beautifully presented in traditional glass cases.
There’s no need for vegetarians to feel left out in Helsinki as the city has plenty of restaurants and cafes serving solely vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Hunaja Café is extremely cosy, decorated to feel more like a house than a café. Its eclectic menu uses fresh, organic produce to create unique twists on Finnish food, as well as internationally-inspired dishes and, of course, beautiful coffee.
Take in the sights
Anyone with an interest in history should take the ferry to the 18th century sea fortress and World Heritage site, Suomenlinna. The fortress was built when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom and is formed of six islands. Visit sights such as the King’s Gate, the dramatic entrance to the fortress, the picturesque Great Courtyard and Suomenlinna Church. The site is free to visit, so all you need to pay for is the ferry.
Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church)
Built into solid rock, Temppeliuako Church is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights in Helsinki. The church’s remarkable design draws visitors from all over the world and is highly recommended for your visit to Helsinki. Its church hall is covered with an impressive dome which is lined with copper and supported by reinforced concrete beams on the rock walls. Temppeliaukio Church also has excellent acoustics and holds concerts throughout the year.
Finland is one of the world’s most exciting countries when it comes to design. In the heart of Helsinki, the Design District is the place to go to explore Finnish design and buy unique Finnish products. Browse fashion stores, art galleries and showrooms, as well as some of the city’s trendiest restaurants. As a hub for creative businesses, the Design District is perfect for anyone with an interest in art and fashion.
The Sibelius Monument
The Sibelius Monument is a mesmerising piece of artwork created to honour Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Erected in 1967 by Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen, the monument was designed to resemble a soundwave and is made of over 600 steel pipes. The sculpture can be found in Sibelius Park in the district of Töölö.
Enjoy a taste of Finland
It’s no secret that the Finns love their fish. As Helsinki is perched on the water’s edge, fish and seafood can be found in abundance in the city. When dining out, you’re likely to come across traditional dishes such as lohikeitto (salmon soup), kalakukko (fish pie) and silakat (pickled fried herring). As Finland and Japan both share a love of seafood, there are many Japanese eateries across the city. Gaijin and Ravintola Konnichiwa are considered to be some of the best Japanese restaurants in Helsinki.
If you’re not a fan of seafood, don’t worry. Finnish cuisine also incorporates a lot of meat, serving dishes such as lihapullat (meat balls), mustamakkara (blood sausage) and karjalanpaisti (hot pot with beef, pork and lamb). Vegetarians can tuck into equally hearty dishes including perunalaatikko (sweetened potato casserole), valkosipulikeitto (garlic soup) and korvasienimuhennos (mushroom stew).
Asli of My Dear Kitchen in Helsinki, a blog which she started after encouragement from her friends, is very passionate about Finnish cuisine. Having learned much of her cooking and baking skills online, Asli’s blog is designed to help others learn how to create exceptional dishes, both modern and traditional. “Mostly in blogs you only see very nice final food photos, but you don’t see the photos of how you get there,” said Asli. “So I wanted to show people the whole process with detailed explanations and photos. This is why I don’t post too often, because each recipe and related blog post takes a very long time to prepare.”
Originally a designer by trade, Asli started her own company to combine design and food. Her blog is both a learning tool and a portfolio. As an expert in Finnish cuisine, we asked Asli what makes it so special: “Finnish cuisine roots from a functional point of view. I believe the harsh climate forced Finnish cuisine to give as much energy and health as possible and this is a very good thing.
“In Finland, even when you are living in the city, it is very easy to reach local ingredients like berries and mushrooms etc. So foraging is very common and it is both a social activity and an essential part of home cooking. There are even courses and workshops given by famous chefs about foraging wild food in the city and cooking with them. The freshness of these specific ingredients and light cooking techniques bring Finnish cuisine a healthy comfort food aspect.”
With so many delicious things to try while on holiday, it can be difficult to choose. Asli recommended a few of her favourites: “My favourite Finnish dishes are lohikeitto – salmon soup, karjalanpiirakka – Karelian pie, pulla – aka cardamom bun varieties. Also there are many different kinds of very delicious laatikko – casserole dishes.”
When it comes to dining out, Helsinki is one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in Europe. Revered modern fusion restaurants and traditional eateries are dotted around the city, so it’s pretty easy to find a great place to eat.
Jenni of Helsinki Marketing recommended a few restaurants in the city: “For dinner you should absolutely go for modern Finnish cuisine. The restaurant scene is really blooming in Helsinki at the moment in which fresh, local and seasonal are the keywords.
“Here are a couple of tasty suggestions: Restaurant Ask, Spis or recently opened Ora. After dinner, enjoy a tasty cocktail either in Liberty or Death or the mysterious Trillby & Chadwick.
Ravintola Kuu is a firm favourite among locals. With a relaxing atmosphere, the eatery is perfect for enjoying high quality Finnish and Scandinavian classics with a modern touch. We spoke to manager Eija Tuohinen to find out more about the restaurant:
“Restaurant Kuu, or ‘the moon’ in English, was founded in 1966 by entrepreneur Gunnar Holmstrom with an eye above the clouds, because his goal was to bring the moon ‘down to earth’. Later on in the eighties, the restaurant was purchased by the Nurmilaukas family with an identity very much related to food culture, and who are still the owners of the popular restaurant.
“Since the beginning, the atmosphere of the restaurant has been described as reminiscent of a continental bistro. The harmoniously simple interior gives a relaxed, comfortable feel and the room is quaint with floral wallpaper, warm woods and paintings. The service is laid-back, but still professional.”
According to Eija, Kuu has always drawn customers with its chilled out ambience and that the patrons today are “a mixture of neighbourhood clientele (some of them second and third generation regulars), tourists, businessmen, artists and lonely wanderers”. It’s not uncommon to see some of the wealthiest people in Finland sit side by side with foodies.
“Chef Simon Selin and his team present the best locally produced ingredients available, prepared to accentuate their natural flavours, served with an uncomplicated aesthetic balance,” said Eija. “Very often the customers opt for the classic reindeer and smoked salmon soup, but the menu is very variant with vegan choices and fresh local fish.
“Today we hear our satisfied and regular customers say, ‘to find anything better, you have to go to the moon’.”
Paired with an extensive wine list, Ravintola Kuu should be on your list of places to dine in Helsinki.
For a low-key dining experience with exceptional cuisine, visit Restaurant Ask. This small eatery can be found in the Kronohagen area of Helsinki and offers a daily set menu paired with beverages. The restaurant focuses on organic and biodynamic farming, as such all produce is sourced from small farmers.
If you didn’t already know, Finland has its own tasty version of Spanish tapas – sapas. Local restaurant Juuri has its very own sapas menu and is very popular among locals. Choose from a selection of delectable dishes including Baltic herring with garlic and parsley root, pork with asparagus and crayfish and rainbow trout roe with potato. Juuri’s main courses are equally appetising and its desserts, including cheese with cloudberry, are also not to be missed.
Restaurant Ora opened this summer in Helsinki, offering an intimate setting with 23 seats. Chef Sasu Laukkonen has created a beautiful seasonal menu using locally sourced food. It is a fine-dining restaurant, with a six-course set menu costing 85 euros per person, but the restaurant has already caught the eye of many locals and critics for its exciting cuisine.
Spis is a small Nordic restaurant, seating just 18. Using only the freshest ingredients, the menu is mainly based around vegetables, however there is always at least one fish and meat entre on offer. Dine here for artisan wines and fine Nordic beers.
Creating modern fusion dishes based on traditional Finnish cuisine, Ravintola Olo has long been praised by critics and foodies. The restaurant holds a Michelin star, so dining here should be considered an extravagant treat. Its indulgent menu certainly caters to those with a sophisticated palate, serving bream, nuts and fennel, plum and bone marrow and smoked reindeer heart.
Old Market Hall
Helsinki’s Old Market Hall, or Vanha Kauppahalli, has been bringing fresh produce to locals since 1888. If you want to sample some of the finest Finnish products, this is the place to be. Meats, cheeses, cakes, fruit and vegetables are all on sale under the roof of this historic building. Adventurous travellers may wish to try reindeer or caviar among other local delicacies like salty liquorice. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs too.
Unwind in a sauna
Saunas are big business in Finland. It’s estimated that although the population is just 5.5 million, there are more than 3.5 million saunas. They are proven to relieve stress and cleanse the skin, as well as flush out toxins and help to fight illness, so it’s little wonder why saunas have become so popular.
If you have time, Jenni of Helsinki Marketing recommends trying a traditional Finnish sauna: “Of course, when in Finland, you need to experience the true sauna culture. The best places in Helsinki for that are design saunas called Löyly, Kotiharjun sauna or Allas Sea Pool. At Allas Sea Pool they also have heated outdoor pools.”
Helsinki is a vibrant city with so much to offer. Eclectic design and a respect for its heritage make the city one of the most unique in Europe. Make the most of your Fred. Olsen cruise holiday and experience the lifestyle that makes the Finns some of the happiest people in the world.
Image credits: Rob Hurson, My Dear Kitchen in Helsinki
- Travelling Solo