x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Stoic and magical, Helsinki embodies moods as different as its seasons

My Kind of Place Under the Finnish capital's icy exterior lies plenty of spirit.

The fortress on Suomenlinna Island, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is one of Helsinki's top attractions. Getty Images / Gallo Images
The fortress on Suomenlinna Island, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is one of Helsinki's top attractions. Getty Images / Gallo Images

Why Helsinki?

It's a good question about the capital city to the country which Monty Python famously satirised as being "a poor second to Belgium" and, according to German playwright Bertold Brecht, inhabited by a people who could be "silent in two languages". Helsinki certainly comes in under the radar but it's a city of extreme contrasts, ranging from the stoicism required to survive midwinter's extreme cold and 20 hours of darkness each day to the magical quality of life during the seemingly endless days of midsummer. And the Finns are often like their capital: get past the icy exterior and you will find a generous and fun-loving people.

A comfortable bed

The most comfortable bed in town can be found at the design-led Hotel Glo (www.hotelglo.fi; 00 358 10 3444 400; with double rooms from €129 [Dh640]), which features Unikulma beds - a high-end Finnish-made brand - as standard. The hotel also offers a Glo Sleep menu, including face masks, special pillows, duvets and a choice of linen. Other boutique hotels to consider are the well-positioned Hotel Fabian (www.hotelfabian.fi; 00 358 9 6128 2000; double rooms from €120 [Dh596]), a townhouse that received a certificate of excellence from Tripadvisor this year.

There's also the Hotel Haven (www.hotelhaven.fi; 00 358 9 681 930; double rooms from €139 [Dh690]), a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World chain.

Undoubtedly, the Hotel Kämp (www.hotelkamp.com; 00 358 9 576 111, king size doubles from €229 [Dh1,136]) is Helsinki's best. If you can afford to upgrade, consider the Mannerheim suite with its magnificent marble bathroom.

At the other end of the scale, the hostel on Suomenlinna (www.snk.fi; 00 358 9 684 7471; single beds, including bed linen, from €22 [Dh109]), Helsinki's one-time sea fortress, is a treat. The last boat to there leaves the main ferry port at 2am, and in winter the journey through the ice floes on the gutsy little boat is an experience, to say the least.

Find your feet

The heart of Helsinki is its harbourside market square with its profusion of fresh fish, vegetables, flowers and tourist stalls in summer. In winter, there are a few hardy, heated stalls offering coffee, company and local doughnuts. The reindeer kebabs in the covered market are a great introduction to Finnish stall food.

From there you can walk up the Esplanade with its central strip of park, summer bands and upmarket shopping to Mannerheimintie, Helsinki's main street. If you would prefer to keep to the sea, you can walk past the covered market and the main ferry terminal to Kaivopuisto, one of the oldest parks in the city. It is the definitive sledding destination in winter. On May Day, students gather in large numbers to celebrate Vappu, the spring bonfire festival that's also known as Walpurgis Night.

If walking is not your thing, take the 3T tram that circumnavigates the key areas of the city.

Meet the locals

Finns may well be a reticent people, but one place where there is no room to be bashful is the sauna. The central aspect to Finnish daily life, there are more than two million saunas in the country for a population of just over five million.

The last wood-fired public sauna in Helsinki is a gritty experience. Kotiharjun Sauna is in the old working class district of Kallio and has separate male and female saunas, washing facilities with no frills, and massage.

If you want a more upmarket experience, the swimming hall in Yrjönkatu behind the Forum shopping mall on Mannerheimintie is a beautifully restored Art Deco building where, for €11 (Dh54), you get a curtained cubicle on the balconied first floor above the pool, refreshment service and sauna.

Book a table

Ateljee Finne is one of the most romantic restaurants in town and does wonderful things with Finnish produce at 14 Arkadiankatu. The menu is short and the tastes crisp. Think spicy salmon-head soup with crème fraiche or marinated Baltic herring with mushrooms to start, followed by fried liver.

For a taste of how Finland used to be, Kolme Kruunua at 5 Liisankatu near the Botanic Gardens feeds 80-year-olds and twentysomethings alike. Although the meatballs and fried Baltic herrings are of some renown, the pike perch, a Finnish classic, is lighter.

If atmosphere is more important to you than food then head for the extraordinary Zetor on Mannerheimintie or Elite on Eteläinen Hesperiankatu. Zetor is a British tractor company, and the agricultural machines are dotted around the whacky interior while Elite puts forward a charming Finnish menu and has a great terrace for summer.

Shopper's paradise

Aalto, Iittala, Marrimekko and, despite the name, the ceramics manufacturer Arabia, are testament to the fact that Finns are interested in good design. The Design Forum shop on Erottajankatu showcases at least 200 wildly different designers. It feels more like a quirky gallery than a shop, a perception aided by the presence of a cafe.

For fashion, one of the best roads is Iso Robertinkatu, where Island, a concept store, leads the way in funky Finnish clothing and jewellery. Others streets to slake your shopping thirst are Frederikinkatu and Korkeavuorenkatu, which house designer clothing, antiques and furnishings. If you get caught hungry there, Juuri is a fiercely Finnish restaurant, while Café Succès serves the biggest, softest and most comforting cinnamon buns in Helsinki.

For a more relaxed shopping experience, the imposing old red brick building of Hakaniemi indoor market features food downstairs and handicrafts upstairs.

What to avoid

Think carefully before buying a Helsinki Card, which offers discounts on everything from museums to travel. At €55 (Dh173) for three days, you need to be an extremely productive tourist to make it pay.

Don't miss

If you want to understand what makes Finns tick, it helps to go to the Mannerheim Museum. Carl Gustaf Emile Mannerheim is widely regarded as the father of Finland and led the spirited defence of the nation against Russia during World War Two. His life was amazing; his house a treasure trove.

Suomenlinna, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is one of Finland's most popular tourist attractions. If you can coincide your visit with the August Jazz Festival inside the citadel walls, so much the better.