Why go now?
It may be dark and chilly, with the average December temperature hovering below freezing, but the Finnish capital is at its most fabulous in winter as the scent of mulled glogi lingers across elegant tree-lined boulevards draped with fairy lights.
And there are plenty of cosy cafés and steamy saunas to enjoy, and no shortage of ways to warm up. Furthermore, the faint rumbles of a party can already be heard as Finland prepares to celebrate 200 years of independence in 2017.
Finnair (020 8001 0101; finnair.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) fly to Helsinki daily from Heathrow; Finnair also flies from Manchester. Norwegian (0330 828 0856;norwegian.com) operates from Gatwick.
Flights land at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, 20km north of the city centre. The Finnair City Bus (finnaircitybus.com) departs from outside the terminal and arrives 35 minutes later outside the Central Railway Station (1). Services depart roughly every 20 minutes between 6am and 1am. A return ticket costs €11.40 and can be purchased from the driver. A taxi will cost around €40.
Get your bearings
Helsinki, home to 600,000 friendly Finns, sits on the shores of the Gulf of Finland in the far south of the country. The country’s location, sandwiched between Sweden and Russia, has played an important role in its history. The Finns have suffered occupation by one or other of its neighbours right up until it gained its independence in 1917.
Helsinki was founded in 1550 as a rival trading town to Tallinn, 80km across the gulf in Estonia, and it spent its first two centuries as little more than a quiet market before becoming the capital in 1812.
Today, it’s a compact but cultured city geared towards exploration on foot. The main tourist information office (2) (00 358 9 3101 3300; visithelsinki.fi) is at Pohjoisesplanadi 19. A 48-hour Helsinki Card, providing discounted entry and free public transport, costs €49.
The historic Hotel Kamp (3) at Pohjoisesplanadi 29 (00 358 9 57 6111; hotelkamp.fi) is the grande dame of Helsinki hotels. It oozes 19th-century glamour with parquet floors and twinkling chandeliers. Past guests have included Madonna and Bruce Springsteen (double rooms from €250, including breakfast).
So new the paint has barely dried is the Hotel Lilla Roberts (4) at Lilla Robertsgatan 1-3 (00 358 9 689 9880; lillaroberts.com). It’s housed in a former police station and sports a striking, updated Art Deco interior. Doubles start at €180, including breakfast.
The 35-room Hotelli Finn (5) at Kalevankatu 3 (00 358 9 684 4360; hotellifinn.fi) offers decent accommodation on a budget. Doubles from €67, room only.
Take a view
Look out over the quayside, Helsinki’s forested islands and handsome Art Nouveau buildings with a ride on the 40m-tall SkyWheel observation Ferris Wheel (6) at Katajanakanlaituri 2 (00 358 40 480 4604; finnair-skywheel.com; open 11am to 5pm daily). The rides last 12 minutes and cost €12.
Take a hike
Head north from the SkyWheel (6), crossing Katajanokanlaituri and climbing the short staircase beside the Finnish flag and towards the redbrick Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (7) at Kanavakatu 1 (00 358 9 8564 6200; 10am-3pm Tuesday to Saturdays, noon-3pm Sundays; admission free). It was designed by Russian architect Aleksei M Gornostajev with Byzantine and Slavic touches.
Continue along Kanavakatu towards Market Square (8) at Etelasatama. Browse the permanent handicraft stalls, pausing for a warm al-fresco coffee and korvapuusti (cinnamon roll) and admire the bronze Havis Amanda statue, the handiwork of Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren. Cross the road towards the Neoclassical City Hall, originally a hotel built in 1833, and stroll along Unioninkatu to Senate Square, dominated by four classic buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engle, notably the white walls and green domes of Helsinki Cathedral (9).
Lunch on the run
The menu at Story (00 358 10 666 8458; restaurantstory.fi) inside the Old Market Hall (10) at Etelaranta (open 8am to 6pm Monday to Saturday) changes weekly but the salmon soup (a firm Finnish favourite) is available year-round and not to be missed. A bowl costs €12.80.
Helsinki is a world-class shopping destination. Head to the Design District (designdistrict.fi), an area of more than 200 cutting-edge interior stores, galleries and boutiques that was demarcated a decade ago. Most of the shops can be found along Uudenmaankatu (11) and the surrounding streets. Pop into Lokal (12) at Annan- kayu 9 (00 358 9 684 9818; lokalhelsinki.com; noon-4pm Saturday and Sundays), an intimate design store turned coffee shop. Typical opening hours are 11am-6pm Monday to Saturday.
The drinking den currently making the biggest buzz is Steam Hellsinki (13) at Olavinkatu 1 (00 358 44 222 2420;steamhellsinki.fi), a Victorian-themed bar that’s less than a year old. It’s filled with interesting trinkets – antique typewriters, Chesterfield sofas and bespoke metalwork art installations – and its barman and gin connoisseur, Tony, has created a cocktail list with an innovative twist. Try the Chucka-boohoo (gin, lime juice and lingonberry jam). The classics are well represented too. G&Ts use award-winning Finnish gin, Napue, served with rosemary and cranberries. Cocktails from €12.
Dine with the locals
The interior of Juuri (14) at Hogbergsgatan 27 (00 358 9 63 5732;juuri.fi; noon-11pm Monday to Saturday, 4-11pm Sunday) may be bland, with walls painted simply in shades of black, red and yellow, but the food is anything but. It’s in the quiet residential area of Ullanlinna and specialises in sapas (Scandinavian tapas) such as rainbow trout with fermented fennel. Mains from €25.
Alternatively, head to Savotta (15) at Aleksanterinkatu 22 (00 358 9 7425 5588; ravintolasavotta.fi; noon-11pm Monday to Saturday, 6-10pm Sunday). It’s modelled on a cosy wood cabin and serves rustic Finnish fare such as roasted rump of reindeer with Lappish potatoes (€34).
Sunday morning: go to church
The city’s landmark and visible from almost everywhere is the Helsinki Cathedral (9) at Unioninkatu 29 (9am-6pm daily; entry free), a Lutheran church that sits atop a staircase of 52 steps. Unlike most cathedrals, its interior is simple with just one painting above the altar and only three life-sized sculptures.
Out to brunch
Directly opposite is Sunn (16) at Aleksanterinkatu 26 (00 358 10 231 2800; ravintolasunn.fi), a first-floor restaurant with views over Senate Square. Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon is €7.90.
Get a crash course in Nordic design at the Design Museum (17) at Korkeavuorenkatu 23 (00 358 9 622 0540; designmuseum.fi; 11am to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday; €10). Or explore the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (18) at Mannerheiminaukio 2 (00 358 294 500 501; kiasma.fi; 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday; €12).
A walk in the park
To the south of the city centre lies Kaivopuisto (19), the oldest park in Helsinki. Stroll up to the stone remnants of the 18th-century fortifications for views of the outer islands and cruise liners departing for Stockholm and St Petersburg. The waterfront Café Ursula (20) at Ehrenstromsvagen 3 (00 358 9 65 2817;ursula.fi; 9am-6pm daily) is a nice place to warm up. Order a cup of mulled glogi, served with almonds, raisins and, if the mood takes you, a splash of vodka (€4).
Take a ride
The Unesco protected island of Suomenlinna (21) (00 358 295 338 410; suomenlinna.fi; open 24 hours) was built by the Swedes as a sea fortress in 1748. It continued to play an important role during the autonomous days when Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia, acting as a military base. Guided tours cost €10 and take place on weekends at 1.30pm. Ferries depart from Market Square (8) roughly every 40 minutes between 6am and 2am. A return costs €5 and must be purchased in advance.
Icing on the cake
What could be more Finnish than a sauna? The Yrjonkatu Swimming Hall (22) at Yrjönkatu 21 (00 358 9 3108 7401; 6.30am-8pm Monday to Saturdays; entry €12) is one of the nicest and most historic. Men and women are permitted on alternating days and Finns traditionally enter the sauna naked, so be prepared to leave your swimming costumes – and inhibitions – at the door.