One moment Vienna, the next Vladivostok — the looks of the Finnish capital are balanced on the cusp between East and West, veering from nifty Art Nouveau to Soviet sternness.
With a population of only 650,000, Helsinki’s alluring collection of museums, galleries and churches never feels rushed.
Combine this with its bijou size and you get a city both easy on the eye and not too taxing on the legs.
City escape: Helsinki, the Finnish capital, has a population of only 650,000
Where to stay
Scandic Grand Marina
Overlooking the central harbour, this is the quintessential unfussy yet subtly stylish Nordic hotel. Every room is slightly different, but all have muted tones with the odd splash of vivid colour in the form of beautiful cushions and designer chairs. The breakfast buffet is a real treat, too; try the classic Finnish rye Karelian pasty. B&B doubles from £96 (scandichotels.com).
Don’t forget to try the classic Finnish rye Karelian pasty, pictured above
The bathrooms here are absolutely tiny, but this is a hub designed for those who want to get outside and mingle. All the rooms feature hipster, retro flock wallpaper and funky chrome chairs. The location is outstanding, opposite the Stockmann department store, but be warned: this hotel doesn’t do breakfast. Twins from £97 (hotelfinn.com).
You’ll have to be eagle sharp on the website to snag a room for less than £100, but it is just about possible if you book at least three months in advance. And it’s worth it for Fabian’s warm service and sweet touches; from the bedside tables made from stepladders to the plant-smothered courtyard, the perfect spot for a hot chocolate on a chilly Nordic morning. B&B doubles from £97 (hotelfabian.com).
The truly enormous mural of a flower brightens up the outside of what otherwise would be a dull-looking building located just behind the railway station. Rooms are basic, but the staff are excellent, especially in helping guests navigate the lifts, which resemble moving fridge-freezers. B&B doubles from £100 (hotelarthur.fi); prices fluctuate.
Explore: A map showing all of the tourist hotspots in Helsinki
What to see and do
Jean Sibelius’s sublime and oft-strange compositions are essential to understanding the Finnish character. Every Monday and Friday morning there’s a recital of his work at the 19th-century Balderin Sali Hall, followed by a walking tour of the city (from £33 — and worth it). (skafur-tour.fi)
See the amazing churches
Astonishing: Temppeliaukio Church, above, is a must-see. It was built in the 1960s
Hewn into rock, the astonishing Temppeliaukio Church (£3.50) is a must-see: a flying saucer-shaped oddity built in the Sixties. Yet the first prize for combining sci-fi and sacrament goes to the windowless, egg-shape Kamppi Chapel of Silence on Narinkka Square (entrance is free). Helsinki’s impressive White Cathedral is also well worth a visit.
Pictured is Helsinki City Museum
Pop into a cool museum
At the Helsinki City Museum there’s something strangely soothing about the focus on the minutiae of Helsinki life over the years. Expect a reconstruction of a Seventies beer bar complete with table-top jukebox, as well as a ‘time machine’ showing cityscapes from the 1860s to the present day. Entrance is free. (helsinginkaupunginmuseo.fi)
Where to eat
Green Hippo Cafe
The daubing on the wall that states, ‘this was supposed to be another painting but we ran out of ideas’ says everything about this quirky cafe, which boasts excellent one-bowl meals for £10.60. Menus change daily, but expect hearty portions of avocado pasta, or kale with poached eggs and halloumi. (greenhippocafe.rocks)
Finns like to eat early, so be sure to get to this smart canteen by just after noon at the latest, or you might have to queue with the discretely stylish business crowd.
Spending £9.30 gets you a three-course meal with access to a ‘green table’ of salads and soups, plus mains such as chicken corn chowder with chorizo croutons. (kasarmi.pihka.fi)
Teurastamo is a former abattoir now converted into restaurants and events spaces
Helsinki’s former slaughterhouse is now a burgeoning complex of breweries and eateries. Head to B-Smokery for some smoked pork tacos (£10.60) before a sublime Helsinki dry gin at the Helsinki Distilling Company. There’s even a community grill in the central square, where you can bring your own meat for a DIY barbecue. (teurastamo.com)
La Torrefazione Lasipalatsi
Housed in the midst of the curving, white, Art Deco-style Amos Rex museum, Lasipalatsi (the ‘Glass Palace’) serves one of the best caffeine fixes in the city as well as offering a robust range of lunch options, such as chorizo frittata (£10.10) and a superb shrimp and lemon pasta (£9.25). (latorre.fi/toimipiste/lasipalatsi)
Vanha Kauppahalli, the tiled, 19th-century market hall by the harbour, has stalls selling elk jerky, reindeer kebabs and tins of native muikku fish, similar to whitebait. (vanhakauppahalli.fi)
How to get there
British Airways has return flights from Heathrow from £108 (ba.com). More information at myhelsinki.fi.