Almost a year ago, New Zealanders Melanie and Jonathan Dower up and moved to the other side of the world to live in Helsinki, Finland. Jonathan works as a games artist and Melanie writes a blog () about life in Finland, and she also contributes articles on Finnish design and lifestyle to various publications. They’ve spent the last eight months exploring their new home town and are thrilled to share their city with you in hopes that you fall for it as much as they have, saying, “Don’t let a Nordic winter put you off! This is a city inspired by the seasons where life continues all year round!”
Read the full post after the jump!
Helsinki is the second-most northern capital city in the world and was recently awarded City of Design status by UNESCO. It has four very distinct seasons and temperatures can range from 32 degrees (90 Fahrenheit) in the summer to -20 (-4 Fahrenheit) in the winter. Being compact and flat makes Helsinki a very walkable city, home to thousands of cyclists. It also has a fabulous public transport system, which is free for anyone traveling with a child in a stroller, up to the age of seven.
Helsinki’s food scene is growing, as is its love affair with good coffee. The city really comes alive in the summer, with long days that never grow dark. This is when Finns flock to festivals, including , where the parks are buzzing with people selling homemade cuisine.
The winters are long, but Nordic life never stops and ice skating rinks and markets pop up all over the city. Frozen lakes can be skated on, walked on, even cycled on and huge icebreaker ships crack through the frozen Baltic Sea.
Like its inhabitants, Helsinki is not showy or brash and once you find your favorites you’ll be hooked and return again. The best thing about living so far north is that each return visit is guaranteed to be different, whether bathed in sunlight or dappled with snow.
Held twice a year, Siivouspäivä (Cleaning Day) is when Helsinki’s residents turn the parks and streets into yard sales and market places as they sell or recycle all the goods they no longer need at home. At the end of the day, charity shops pick up unsold goods to prevent them going into landfill.
Design company Artek was founded by Alvar and Aino Aalto in 1935 and you can buy or covet timeless classics in this store in central Helsinki. The store stocks the famous birch three-legged stool as well as lighting, furniture and glassware.
Eteläesplanadi 18, Helsinki
Hietalahti Market Square is home to a buzzing flea market where you can imagine finding Hercule Poirot if he was having a yard sale. Pop into the Kauppahalli (Market Hall) for a bite to eat or enjoy coffee and ice cream in the sunshine during summer.
Hietalahdentori, Lönnrotinkatu 34, Helsinki
If you only take one thing home, make it Marimekko, because you’ll never forget where you bought it and its unique design (be it a teapot, dress or bedspread) will always bring you back to Helsinki.
Pohjoisesplanadi 33, Helsinki
The first time I visited Moko I stayed for five hours! Moko has many great homewares to browse through, including cookbooks and licorice-flavored toothpaste. As well as a great café and children’s area, there’s also Kaffa Roastery tucked away in a back corner, selling some of Helsinki’s best coffee.
Perämiehenkatu 10, Punavuori and Vilhonvuorenkatu 11, Sörnäinen.
From espresso machines, tampers and grinders to mugs and specialty coffee beans, look no further than Kaffa, which sells coffee paraphernalia of all kinds.
Pursimiehenkatu 29 A, Punavuori
Salakauppa is a tiny glasshouse near Rautatieasema (Central Station) and the name translates to “secret shop.” All products are designed by Aamu Song & Johan Olin of COMPANY, who work in collaboration with long-established Finnish factories, breathing new and quirky life into traditional manufacturing methods.
Postikatu 1, Helsinki
I often stop to take photos of the window display in this toyshop! Found in Helsinki’s Design District, Zicco is a fantastic place to find gifts for boys and girls (and some adults!).
Fredrikinkatu 18, Helsinki
Founded as a glassworks in 1881, Iittala is where you’ll find Finnish classics such as the Aalto Vase and the glass Birds by Toikka. Iittala still works with top designers to create glassware, homewares and cookware that you’ll want to take home with you or buy as a gift.
Pohjoisesplanadi 25, Helsinki
Designed by Alvar Aalto, this multi-level bookstore has a great range of nonfiction and fiction books, as well as magazines and international newspapers. Many books are available in English and you can grab a coffee at the in-store café while you read.
Keskuskatu 1, Pohjoisesplanadi 39, Helsinki
Nudge describes itself as a happy and ethical store and has a great range of designer home décor, natural cosmetics, ecological children’s wear and gifts. They are also home to Ravintola Rulla, which sells delicious fresh rice paper rolls, hot soup and has a good wine list. Sometimes shopping can be hard work – why wouldn’t you stop for a drink?
Yrjönkatu 30, Helsinki
Four times a year Helsinki’s streets, parks and homes become a carnival of food where anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day. Visit the website or use the app to plan your route – and don’t fill up on breakfast before you go!
Finnish Barista Champion Kalle Freese has opened a café where he hones his craft of serving some of the best coffee in Helsinki. He’s passionate about teaching people how to make good coffee and the café is one of my favorite places for weekend brunch.
Freesenkatu 5, Töölö, Helsinki
Café Regatta is a tiny wooden shed sitting right on the water. Inside you are greeted by the smell of korvapuustit (cinnamon buns) and surrounded by collected curios. Outside you can choose a table by the bay or sit on a reindeer-pelt by the fire and grill a sausage. Not only are coffee refills free – they’ll give you 5 cents every time you fill your cup!
Merikannontie 10, Helsinki
Helsinki is not known for its ethnic food scene, but it’s growing, and Farang has some of the best modern Asian cuisine you’ll try in any city. Choose from the seasonal or original tasting menu or order plates to share. The cocktails are to-die-for and it’s a great place for a special occasion.
Ainonkatu 3, Helsinki
Finns love a buffet and one of the best at the moment can be found at Sandro. Piles of Moroccan salads, olives, dips and bread accompany hot plates of salmon, meat or vegetarian fare. Open now in Kallio and Eira, don’t be surprised if you have to wait for a table, but be assured it’s worth it.
Kolmas Linja 17, Kallio and Tehtaankatu 34, Eira
Built in 1933 as an abattoir, this industrial area in Kallio has been reclaimed and is now home to good food, community events and an urban edible garden. Stop by Kellohalli for lunch or try the slow roasted pork at B-Smokery, finishing with a visit to Jädelino for artisanal Italian ice cream. In summer the grounds of the Abattoir are home to festivals, music and street food events.
Työpajankatu 2, Helsinki
One of our favorite places to head in summer is across the water to a tiny island that houses an outdoor bar with good music, serving great pizza. Luckily they have another restaurant in the city for during the colder months!
Liuskaluoto Helsinki (closed for winter) and Erottaja 11, Helsinki
This bar is always full but somehow you never end up waiting long for a table. The pizzas are really good and the walls are covered in posters and art.
Kalevankatu 6, Helsinki.
(Old Market Hall)
Opened in 1889, this market hall was recently renovated and is home to a range of vendors selling modern and traditional foods. Try the the seafood bouillabaisse at Soppakeittiö before picking up some cheese, wine, chocolate, salmon, coffee, bread, fresh seasonal produce or wild meat.
This cozy cafe is in one of my favorite neighborhoods in Helsinki and serves bagels as well as one of the best chocolate brownies I’ve ever tasted. And the coffee is really good.
Fredrikinkatu 19, Helsinki
This small and cozy hostel is located in the heart of Helsinki and surrounded by great shops, cafes and bars. It’s also open 24/7, which means you don’t have to cut your night short before lights out!
Uudenmaankatu 9 Helsinki
Commissioned in 1837 by Tsar Nicholas as a prison, this hotel no longer fits 30 people to a room and the inmates are now allowed a mini-bar. Set in a great location, you can also check-out any time you like and explore the surrounds of Katajanokka.
Merikasarminkatu 1, Helsinki
If the thought of staying on a UNESCO World Heritage site appeals, then consider Hostel Suomenlinna. It may not be five-star luxury, but where else can you wander around a fortress built in the 1700s before you bunk down for the night?
Suomenlinna c9, Helsinki
Housed in a 19th century building, Hotel Kämp sits in the heart of Helsinki, across from Esplanade Park. As well as a spa and sauna it also has yoga and pilates classes and the bar is worth a visit alone.
Pohjoisesplanadi 29, Helsinki
Based in a 1900s Art Nouveau castle, Hotel Glo Art is centrally located and was renovated in 2013. Its restaurant is in the cellar and serves Nordic cuisine.
Lönnrotinkatu 29, Helsinki
For 50 years this was the tallest building in Helsinki, and it is still popular for the views it offers over the city. Visit Ateljee Bar on the rooftop for unparrallelled views.
Yrjönkatu 26, Helsinki
Inspired by the Finnish national epic Kalevala, Klaus K has rooms designed to reflect mysticism, passion, desire and envy. The breakfast is recommended and you may find the full of Helsinki locals.
Bulevardi 2-4, Helsinki
With views of the harbour, Hotel Haven is also a short walk to Market Square, Senate Square and the ferries leaving for Tallinn and Stockholm. It was a Small Luxury Hotels Award Winner 2013 and is rated #2 by Trip Advisor reviewers in Helsinki.
Unioninkatu 17, Helsinki
If you love Nordic design and looking at pictures of Finnish apartments online, consider staying in one for your time in Helsinki. Most Finns take their holidays in July and although the city may be quiet, the hotels can be full.
Arrived in Helsinki only to find the best beds are taken over summer? Consider taking an overnight ferry to Estonia or Sweden – the rates are cheap and so is the alcohol. If there’s a Finnish wedding on you’ll see cars stocking up on booze to bring back to Finland for the big day.
Finland’s oldest public swimming hall has only allowed swimming costumes from 2001 and they are still optional. Men and women swim on separate days but the main pastime is sauna, a Finnish tradition that is part of everyday life.
Yrjönkatu 21b, Helsinki
Kallio is a former working-class neighborhood, now home to students and young couples, that hasn’t forgotten its colorful past. Each year in August the streets are filled with music, street food, performances and art as the Kallio Block Party swings into life.
Helsinki comes alive with festivals in the summer and this is one of the best. Flow Festival is a music festival with a focus on sustainability, the arts, community engagement and great food! They also headline some amazing acts, often before other people realize just how amazing they are.
An island fortress that has at times been under the rule of three different governing nations, Suomenlinna is a favorite picnic spot for locals and is covered in wild flowers in summer. It’s also worth a visit in winter when the sea has frozen and the landscape is a beautiful white. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art is engaging and well worth a visit. Like many public attractions, entry is free on the afternoon of the first Friday of the month. There’s also a café and a great gift shop.
Munkkiniemi is home to the residence and studio designed and built by Finnish designers Alvar and Aino Aalto in 1936. Their home has been preserved as though they still live there and is a beautiful example of style and functionalism. Between them they designed the house, the furniture, the lighting – even the bathroom taps.
Riihitie 20, Helsinki
You could be forgiven for walking past this beautiful church in Kamppi without realizing what it is – a beautifully made organic haven in the middle of the city. Sitting inside is like being in a warm, wooden egg and is great way to escape the world outside.
Simonkatu 7, Helsinki
This intimate bar serves cocktails based on aspects of the death penalty in 18th century England. Helpful bar staff offer advice if needed as you choose from the ever-changing menu and they even leave notes (and gifts) hidden behind loose bricks in the walls for lucky customers to find.
Erottajankatu 5, Helsinki
Before you get cathedral fatigue make sure you visit this church! Completed in 1969 it has been carved directly from the rock and is unique in its design. Its huge copper dome and glass roof allows natural light to flood the large chapel and an ice-age crevice acts as the altarpiece.
Lutherinkatu 3, Helsinki
It’s a cliché, but it must be done and if you want to try reindeer meatballs or salmon soup while you’re here this is where to find them. If you visit in the morning, have a kahvi and munkki (coffee and donut) with locals or buy salmon cakes direct from the fishing boats.