Skip to content

HEL Yeah

“HEL yeah” sums what I thought when a recent opportunity presented itself to spend a few days in the Finnish capital Helsinki (whose airport code is HEL… genius!). Now, travelling to a Northern European outpost in February doesn’t appeal to everyone, I get that. It’s dark, it’s chilly and it’s wet. But if you think there’s a way you could embrace at least one of those attributes, then reevaluate and give Finland’s often overlooked and certainly underrated main city a try. In Winter.

As the plane descends, into view come the snow-covered forested islands of the Helsinki archipelago connected at this time of year by frozen Baltic Sea ice. It’s a pretty sight. There is a surprisingly serene and rural feel to the scene, keeping in mind that this is the engine of the entire country. One thing is for sure though, Helsinki does not hit you in the face with its striking beauty the same way Stockholm does – but then again it doesn’t have anything like the number of tourists. There is something more gritty about this place which draws my attention immediately… with its unpretentious small-town feel, it is, well, my kind of place. And wherever you find yourself in Helsinki, you’re never far from the sea either which to me is always a huge bonus.

The Finns quietly do their thing, so who would have thought that their capital is filled to the brim with inspiring Art Nouveau architecture; that it boasts some darn fine Nordic cuisine (I had the most heartwarming seafood soup at Soppakeittiö at Vahna Kauppahalli market hall); is home to a handful of astounding churches including one that’s was literally built into a rock underneath the heart of the city (a perfect example of Finnish ingenuity); and where history lessons include tales of a war won by employing cross country skis, not tanks. Voted Design Capital of 2012, the city is more than capable of holding its own on the world stage. Interestingly, as a result of the country’s history, both Finnish and Swedish are official languages (the former much closer to Estonian than any other Scandinavian tongue.)

There are two things every Finn takes very seriously: coffee and sauna (and perhaps taking the ferry to nearby Estonia to stock up on bargain priced liquor, so I guess that makes it three). Being a fan of the schwitzbox myself, I was in great company among the sauna-obsessed Finns. I swear it is the key to the Finnish soul.

Although saunas are more fun when its -20º outside, you don’t have to come in the grip of Winter. Being the gateway to Lapland’s Northern Lights and Midnight Sun, and with waterways and flights connecting the city with the rest of Scandinavia, Estonia or Russia, Helsinki lends itself as a perfect addition to a Northern European adventure, no matter what time of year.

Claudia Schwenger is slowly taking over the Trufflepig map as if winning some slow motion game of Risk. From Sevettijärvi to Slovenia, she’s our MittelEuropean maiden. Email her.

Being a fan of the schwitzbox myself, I was in incredibly good company among the sauna-obsessed Finns

Destination Details