Finland’s capital Helsinki boasts a boat-lined waterfront overlooked by a mix of buildings
Like many Nordic capitals, Helsinki transforms with the seasons, becoming a 24-hour playground in summer as the midnight sun takes hold, and an atmospheric starting point in winter for adventures further north, to Lapland and beyond.
Whatever the weather though this smart, walkable city is calm and collected as ever, even as exciting new prospects are opening up.
The Design District has a reputation for covetable homewares, especially since Helsinki’s stint as World Design Capital in 2012 and Unesco City of Design in 2014.
Meanwhile, fans of the latest trends are well-catered for in the Fashion District and disciples of the New Nordic Cuisine movement are increasingly turning heads towards Helsinki’s restaurants.
Offshore, a glittering array of islands are also being transformed to offer new recreational spaces.
But no trip to Finland would be complete without a sauna – and Helsinki’s batch of contemporary urban saunas are popular with young, fashionable locals, who come to warm up and chill out, before jumping into the Baltic Sea.
The Design District has a reputation for covetable homewares
The aptly-named Hotel Haven (dialling from the UK: 00 358 9 6824 2840/hotelhaven.fi ) offers a quite retreat near Helsinki’s main park, Esplanadi – a manicured patch of neat flower beds and green lawns, where locals come to see and be seen.
Close by is South Harbour, brimming with a busy food market and ferries to nearby islands.
Rooms are sophisticated and smart, with a pared-back style that has become the city’s signature, while the traditional Nordic breakfast of berries, yogurts, breads and seafood is worth waking up for.
Doubles from £157, B&B.
The high standard of living in Nordic countries often spells high prices but there are still bargains to be had in the Design District (designdistrict.fi).
Momono (momono.fi) sells candy-coloured stools (£33), stick-back chairs (£75) and rugs (£78), as well as notebooks (£1.75) and backpacks (£42) that make for good souvenirs or gifts.
Fashion outlets such as SOFiNAH (sofinah.fi) also abound, with a hand-picked selection of ladies jewellery, cosmetics and sunglasses from around £43-£88.
Elsewhere, independent galleries including Galleria Artika (galleria-artika.com) dot the streets, while restaurants such as arty coffee house Spun and tapas bar Soil (soilwineroom.fi ) provide welcome refuelling stops.
One of the best times to explore is during Design Week (helsinki designweek.com; September 7-17) when the district, along with the rest of Helsinki, comes alive with 250 events across markets and museums, open parties and open studios.
Colourful stools at Momono
Helsinki is giving Finland’s age-old sauna tradition a contemporary makeover with hip new urban spaces to warm up and chill out.
Overlooking South Harbour, Allas Sea Pool (allasseapool.fi) opened in 2016, with a trio of heated, unheated and children’s pools.
Inside, dip in and out of three saunas, before grabbing a snack at the deck-side café.
Further out of town, another addition last year is Löyly (loylyhelsinki.fi), whose name describes the act of throwing water on to the sauna to release the steam.
It features two wood-burning and traditional smoke saunas, with refreshments, fire-lit rooms and a three-level outdoor deck where you can plunge into the Baltic.
Every March, Sauna Day (helsinkisaunaday.fi ) also celebrates Finland’s national pastime in style, by opening up lesser-known or little-used saunas to the public.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
On the top deck of Allas, smart new restaurant Neighbour (40 0470045/neighbour.fi) offers a modern menu, ranging from lamb tartare with lovage mayonnaise (£12.30) to delicious herring tempura (£20).
Alternatively, head to the terrace at Holiday (9 6128 5121/holiday-bar.fi ) for a low-key bite.
Grab a deckchair and dine on a fi sh-focused menu of oysters, calamari and soft-shell crab (£15-£21). The Hawaiian poke bowls (cured seafood salads) are a speciality (£19).
The summer midnight sun creates a playground vibe
DID YOU KNOW?
The Helsinki Archipelago has more than 300 islands, many of which are being transformed after being military bases. Favourites include Lonna (44 719 9410 /lonna.fi ), with its not-to-be-missed restaurant (suomenlinna.fi), for its 18th century Unesco-listed fortress; and Vallisaari (nationalparks.fi) for picnics and walks.
All open from May to September and can be reached from the South Harbour via the hop-on, hop-off JT Line (10 205 1880/jt-line.fi)
British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0125/ba.com) offers three nights at the Korpilampi Hotel from £229 (two sharing), B&B. Price includes return flights from Heathrow to Helsinki.
Visit Helsinki (visithelsinki.fi) Visit Finland (visitfinland.com) Finnish independence (suomifinland100.fi)