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Helsinki emerging powerhouse of Scandinavian chic

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Finland, Land of a Thousand Lakes, will celebrate its 100th birthday in December (2017). There will be festivals and events throughout the year. The country has appeared in several lists as a destination for 2017. In the capital Helsinki, examples of the nation’s Scandinavian chic have been winning medals for years – hottest saunas, slick design, and a railway station that inspired the sets in a Batman movie. In Finland’s cool capital they take their fun seriously. (Photo - Helsinki Tourist Board)

City symbol

The brilliant white Helsinki Cathedral, towering above Senate Square
- Tuomiokirkko - is considered to be the symbol of the city. The square and its surroundings are an impressive example of Neoclassical architecture. The Cathedral, together with the Government Palace, the main University of Helsinki building and the National Library of Finland were designed by Carl Ludvig Engel between 1822 and 1852.

Market Square and Esplanade Park are close by. The Tori Quarter sits between Senate Square and Market Square. There are cafés, restaurants, and many design boutiques here. South of Esplanade Park is the Design District. Uspenski Cathedral is across the Market Square in the Katajanokka district. This is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, built in 1868, one of the most visible reminders of Russian rule here.

Temppeliaukio Church in the Töölö district, redbrick with gold domes, is a piece of very distinctive modern architecture, created out of the natural bedrock. Suomenlinna is one of the world’s biggest sea fortresses, constructed on a chain of islands off the coast of Helsinki in the 1700s. The Olympic Stadium, functionalist architecture, was completed in 1938. It hosted the games in 1952. The best views in the city are atop the 240 foot tower at the Olympic Stadium.

Other buildings to visit include Ateneum Art Museum, the National Gallery of Finland; The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma ; the National Museum of Finland and the Natural History Museum. The Open-Air Museum at Seurasaari shows Finnish life down the centuries. The authentic wooden buildings from different parts of Finland tell the stories of Finnish life from the 18th to the 20th century. Linnanmäki Amusement Park’s man feature is a classic wooden rollercoaster.

Another walk might take in the Käpylä district, to see its original 1920s wooden houses. On a spring or summer evening, you might take to the city's wide waters for the dinner cruise.

Sound of Finland

Jean Sibelius’s music became mainstream in the days when the BBC and ITV routinely used pieces by classical composers, as well as commissioning works from people such as John Dankworth.

So many people will be familiar with those rousing chords from The Sky at Night – the composer’s 'At the Castle Gate”. This summons to the stars is still used as the series' theme music, perhaps the most endearing of all, after the Archers theme. Another piece by the Finnish composer is the Karelia Suits, which ITV used in This Week. Both are the perfect mood music for this last-stop city before the Arctic Circle. 

The house where the composer and his family lived from 1904 to 1972 is Ainola, at Jarvenpaa, 38 kilometers north of Helsinki, on the shores of Lake Tuusula. Today it's a museum, devoted to the life and work of Sibelius.

Helsinki Card

The Helsinki Card is valid for 24, 48 or 72 hours. It costs 46, 56 and 66 €, respectively. Children (7 – 16) are half price. The card is valid from the moment you validated it. The following things are then free: sightseeing tours by bus and boat; unlimited travel on public transport and ferry to/from Suomenlinna Sea Fortress; entry to major museums and sights. It also gives discounts in restaurants, shops, tours, sauna and concerts.

There is free entry to the following attractions: Suomenlinna Fortress Island; Canal Route cruise; SkyWheel Helsinki; SEA LIFE Helsinki; Sibelius Finland Experience; The Finnish Nature Centre Haltia; HAM Helsinki Art Museum; Helsinki Zoo in Korkeasaari; Linnanmäki Amusement Park; Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre.

The more expensive Helsinki Region Card, with all the same benefits, allows free travel in the whole metropolitan area, including Espoo, Kauniainen and Vantaa. This includes travel to and from the Airport, by train.

Tram 2 is the sightseeing tram in Helsinki. For architecture, take route 4. For design, art and culinary culture it’s tram 6. Start from the south in each case. Tram are free with the Helsinki Card.

Sauna

It’s Finland, so it has to be sauna. Forget any pale and tepid imitations you tried elsewhere. This is the real thing, the original hot and cold therapy with attitude, in the land where there’s roughly one sauna per home, in a country of 5.4 million people. (Naturally Finland hosts the world sauna championships.)
 
But relax. You are probably a novice. No-one expects you to dive through a hole in the ice, or roll in the snow for the cold bit. Or even to take everything off. Towels are allowed for beginners. And the sexes are segregated. Beating yourself gently with a  bundle of silver birch twigs – it cleans the skin and relaxes the muscles - is optional too. They are very tolerant of shy Brits.

One of the best is Löyly, a high-end venue on the Hernesaari shore in Helsinki. At Löyly guests wear swimsuits and shorts.
 
The restored art deco swimming hall Yrjonkadun Uimahalli is one of the best saunas in town. The Kothiharjun is Helsinki’s only original wood-heated public sauna. They promise you will feel cleaner than you have ever been before.

Post-sauna, you'll be ready for a drink. Café Tin Tin Tango serves breakfast and brunch. They serve, as do many others, their own laskiaispulla – cardamom buns cut in half and filled with strawberry jam and lots of whipped cream. Töölöntorinkatu 7. 

If that sauna has given you the taste for cold, try the Arctic Icebar in UNIQ nightclub where the temperature is a constant -5C. (They provide coat and gloves.) Or hot? Find one of the bars where fun-loving Finns stack cocktails six high and watch burning alcohol cascade down the glasses.

Finn food

Not so long ago former President Chirac enraged Finns by describing the food as the worst in Europe. Emphatically not so. Much of Finland’s menu is founded on natural products and seasonal staples. Dine in Helsinki, and you sit in on a geography lesson. Conjure up Finland’s abundant lakes, vast echoing forests and chilly seas, where chefs source all those cloudberries, reindeer, lampreys and Arctic char.

Helsinki offers many trend-setting dishes and restaurants. Olo, Boulevard Social, Chef & Sommelier, Demo, Ask, Gaijin, Farang and Emo all have one Michelin star. Chef & Sommelier serves a changing, three-to nine-course tasting menu, including wild and foraged vegetables.

I read this extra terrestrial endorsement on the menu at Zetor (which describes its self as “a voyage back in time to the countryside of old and traditional, uncomplicated but tasty food”.) “`Your frizzled elk stew with bacon, onion and sahti beer, with mashed potatoes and lingonberries, is out of this world,' (signed) your favourite Martians.'

Starters include open reindeer sandwich - fillet of reindeer, mousse of smoked reindeer, lingonberries and salad served on toasted bread, creamy salmon soup and smoked perch pie.

Mains include varieties of Pyttipanna - potato hash, 'Finland's gift to humankind! A harmonious combination of fried potato, onion, meat and sausage. A fried egg tops off the dish. Accompanied by gherkins and beetroot.” And sautéed reindeer with mashed potatoes, sugary lingonberries and pickled gherkins.
 
Zetor is one of 14 restaurants where they offer the Helsinki Menu, promoting good eating in the city and the use of high-class local ingredients.

Northern Lights

Can you see the Northern Lights from Helsinki? It's possible, but there is, well, a lot of light. You’d do much better to head north to northern Lapland (September to March). Perhaps this is something for a second visit. On offer is cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, dog-sledding and a snowshoeing excursion to fully experience the lights. Hotels give the chance to see the Borealis from your room, although I think going outside into the snow and deep cold is part of the experience.

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