Along with hygge, Scandi chic made a mark on our collective consciousness a few years ago. Think clean lines, minimalist aesthetic, wooden accents, and above all, a focus on functionality. While Swedish & Danish design has been at the forefront of this movement, Finland’s capital city Helsinki is not far behind.
Crowned the World Design Capital in 2012, the city takes its role seriously. Here is the essential guide to Helsinki for any design lover.
The Designmuseo is a must-visit for any design aficionado.
The museum dates to 1873 and has been in its current 19th-century neo-Gothic-style premises since 1978. Its permanent collection of 75,000+ objects traces the history of Finnish design from the late 19th century to the present day.
There’s Nokia’s early mobile phone models and Marimekko‘s bold-patterned clothes and accessories. Also, there’s glassware by the 19th-century Iittala brand, including iconic designs by Alvar Aalto, and Eero Aarnio’s 1963 Ball Chair.
A short walk from the museum is the Design District, a vibrant hub of creativity featuring 200+ indie boutiques and ateliers where you can shop Finnish design by young artists & entrepreneurs.
Helsinki’s architecture has everything from neo-Gothic to Art Nouveau & Art Deco, and from Brutalist to ultra-modern buildings standing side by side.
The neo-classical Helsinki Cathedral (Lutheran) is the most iconic one contrasting with the over-the-top, Byzantine Revival Uspenski Cathedral (Orthodox).
Speaking of churches, don’t miss the Temppeliaukio Rock Church. It was built directly into solid rock, its interiors are a pretty spectacular sight.
Alvar Aalto also left his mark on Helsinki with his classical meets modern style – see Finlandia Hall, The Helsinki Hall of Culture, the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookstore), the Aalto House & Studio Aalto, Savoy Restaurant, and much more.
The Kamppi Chapel (also known as Chapel of Silence) is one of the newer architectural icons. Opened in 2012, the chapel is rather contemporary with soft curves and a shiny wooden façade. It has a small altar (though no prayers are held here) and several wooden benches for silent meditation.
Nearby, you will see a series of domed portholes protruding from the ground. Underneath, lies Amos Rex, a new gallery space for experimental & contemporary art.
But my favourite piece of architecture in Helsinki is the Central Library Oodi. This wood-and-glass structure is styled like a boat with unexpected curves and angles.
Along with books, the library offers shared amenities such as recording studios, 3-D printing facilities, workshop tools, etc.
Another must-visit is the Old Market Hall at Helsinki Harbour.
This indoor market hall dates to 1888 and houses several merchants selling all sorts of cheese, fish, shellfish, vegetables, fruits, spices, coffee, etc.
No guide to Helsinki is complete without talking about its saunas. Did you know that Finland has more than 3 million saunas for a population of 5.5 million people? Almost everyone has access to a sauna, either private ones in their own homes or at their summer cottages, or public ones or at hotels.
There’s even in a sauna in the SkyWheel Helsinki, a 40-metre high observation wheel. SkySauna is a unique sauna cabin that can fit 4-5 people at a time (plus a hot tub at ground level).
Naturally, Finnish design makes a mark on their saunas as well. Some saunas worth checking out include Kulttuurisauna, a public sauna in the Merihaka district. The stark-white, single-storey, log-pillared building has a calming vibe with panoramic windows overlooking the Gulf of Finland. Another public sauna worth visiting is Löyly, located in the formerly industrial neighbourhood of Hemesaari. The wind & solar-powered sauna is made entirely of wooden planks that are sustainably sourced.
Where to stay & eat
I had the opportunity to stay at two different hotels in Helsinki. Hotel Kämp is Finland’s first luxury hotel dating back to 1887. It’s old-world European glamour with Finnish contemporary graphic artworks thrown into the mix. The other hotel I stayed at was Original Sokos Hotel Presidentti near the Kamppi Chapel. This one is a bit more modern and each floor has a theme like Midsummer, Forest, Winter, etc.
There are plenty of great restaurants to choose from in Helsinki.
I had a fabulous degustation meal at Emo, which is just adjacent to Hotel Kämp. Juuri served up interesting Finnish-style tapas like herring with potato & sour cream, white fish with rhubarb, etc., while the Michelin-starred Grön offers a 4-course vegan degustation menu.
For a more relaxed meal, head to Yes Yes Yes for potent cocktails & imaginative vegetarian small plates. For a great cup of coffee, head to Paulig Kulma, which has a roastery on their premises. Another good coffee spot is the Swedish cafe Johan & Nyström with a lovely waterfront location in Kanavaranta
Luckily, I got upgraded to Business Class both ways.
Even before I reached Helsinki, I got a taste of the cool Finnish design. All the amenities like the duvet, pillow, comfort kit, etc. had bright Marimekko designs on them.
While on-board, don’t miss the Finnair cocktails; I recommend the Napue Gin & Tonic made with the Finnish small-batch Napue Gin, tonic water, and garnished with cranberries and a sprig of rosemary. Finnair Business Class also has a great selection of wines, both old-world & new-world.
Of course, meals are excellent and include both Indian & international options.
On the return flight, I checked out the Business Class Lounge at Helsinki airport. I especially loved the GoSleep pods that are perfect to catch a quick catnap!
I hope you enjoyed this design lover’s guide to Helsinki. Have you visited Finland? What was your favourite thing to see or do? Leave us a comment below.
This article was commissioned by Business Line Luxe and a version of it appeared in their print issue dated July 26, 2019. Read it here.