View of city and Uspenski Cathedral from pier in Helsinki

My Secret City: Helsinki

While travel in 2020 is restricted, we hope you enjoy this virtual tour of Helsinki.

Finland’s capital is a vibrant hub of Nordic design, culture, food and urban nature set against the backdrop of coastal city living. We asked resident Caelum Davies (MA 2017) to give us his insider’s guide to Helsinki.

"Helsinki provides the perfect balance between feeling productive and relaxed - Nordic chill, literally and figuratively.

Kallio with its bars, cafes and second-hand stores is most people's neighbourhood of choice but when I need to chill my favourite area of the city is Lapinlahti, an oasis with summertime swimming and sunbathing away from the crowds. It’s a creative’s paradise with pop-up installations, speak-easy bars and warm, friendly folk all around.

Sauna is the only Finnish word in the English language and a must-do in Helsinki. I recommend Sompasauna with its breath-taking views over the water, artists’ graffiti and animal calls softly echoing from the neighbouring zoo. It’s open 24/7 and free, but don’t be surprised if you’re asked to chop some wood – everyone helps. Swimsuits optional, parties often, ice-swimming recommended.

"I recommend taking a boat trip to the fortress island of Suomenlinna for the most Insta-worthy photo of the city.

With its buzzing atmosphere, I spend a lot of time on Iso Roobertinkatu street. My favourite bar there is Bar Llamas. It takes quirky in a whole new direction, and its vibrant Frida Kahlo-inspired interior can be a warm pick-me-up on -20°C days. The fresh chilli vodka helps with that too!

Centuries of Swedish and Russian rule have left their architectural mark on the city. Head to the Design Museum before ambling around the neighbourhoods of Eira and Punavuori. Every building is a different colour, and I love watching the light make each corner, curve and edge pop. It’s my perfect urban-exploration, artsy-shopping, coffee-sipping afternoon.

Helsinki is littered with traditional market halls. Vanha Kaupahalli is my favourite, but Hakaniemi and Hietalahti are also worth visiting. Aside from the food, craft and drink, it’s where I truly embrace the culture. At the meat counter, I love seeing the reaction of kids as they experience the famously dark and dry Finnish humour: “Eat Bambi Here”.

"Helsinki is best at the height of summer or winter. It’s a city of extremes, and the climate is no different.

Hietaranta beach is the starting point of a waterside walk to the open-air museum of Seurasaari. This one-hour walk lets me embrace the intense seasons: the sound of ice breaking in late winter, birds chirping in early spring, the excitement of beachgoers in the summer, and the golden leaves of the silver birch trees in autumn.

The best view in Finland is the seeming endlessness of the forests and lakes. Nuuksio is a forest to the west of Helsinki and accessible by public transport. Little can beat enjoying a picnic or grill amongst the evergreens halfway along the Korpinkierros trail.

My food and drink hit list

"Try salty liquorice – it’s in candy, vodka, protein bars and chips. If you can’t escape it, embrace it.

Sweet treats
Hidden behind a wall of trees is waterside Cafe Regatta, home to mouth-watering cinnamon buns. Personally, I’m more of a blueberry pie man, and enjoy mine next to the firepit, looking out at the Baltic sea. Inside, the quirky, knickknack adorned interior doesn’t disappoint.

SoiSoi is a hipster institution that lends itself to a tight budget. Bright yellow walls provide the backdrop for big comfort-food flavour. Located in the bar-filled Kallio neighbourhood, a stop at SoiSoi for their classic sweet potato fries is on the list for any bar crawl.

Finns drink more coffee than anyone else in the world. When I want to watch the city go past with coffee in hand, I head to the glass palace Kappeli. You get wonderful views of Helsinki’s most beautiful thoroughfare, and it overlooks the city's public summer stage.

Street food
Street food can be limited in the metres of snow that can fall in the winter, but a cross-city 10 Euro "eat-week" in January helps. In the summer, the former abattoir Teurastamo comes to life as a venue for food, drink and urban culture.

This article was first published March 2020. All opinions expressed are the views of the author and are not endorsed by the University of Glasgow.

Allas Sea Pool, Market Square, Presidental Palace and Helsinki Cathedral in summer

Stunning views of Allas Sea Pool, Market Square, Presidential Palace and Helsinki Cathedral (photo: Shutterstock).

Regatta cafe, a charming little cafe in Helsinki. Photo credit Caelum Davies.

Regatta cafe is a charming little cafe overlooking the Baltic sea (photo: Caelum Davies).

Exterior of Oodi library in Helsinki which looks like a boat

Oodi is a venue for events, a library and a diverse urban experience (photo: Shutterstock).

Suomenlinna fortress in Helsinki

Suomenlinna is an 18th-century sea fortress and one of Finland's World Heritage Sites (photo: Shutterstock).

Food stall in the Old City Market Hall, Helsinki

The Old Market Hall has served customers since 1889, selling produce ranging from cheese, fish, vegetables, fruit and cakes to spices, coffee and tea (photo: Shutterstock). 

Sibelius Monument

The Sibelius Monument by Eila Hiltunen is dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (photo: Shutterstock).

Green and yellow trams in Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki. Photo: Tapio Haaja.

Trams are the main form of public transport in the inner city, transporting nearly 57 million passengers annually (photo: Tapio Haaja, Unsplash).

Rustic wooden house in the open-air museum Seurasaari, Helsinki

Seurasaari open air museum opened in 1909 and transports visitors to a rural landscape from the past (photo: Shutterstock).

Aerial sunset view of city showing colourful buildings

Colourful buildings are a beautiful characteristic of the city (photo: Shutterstock).