Visiting Helsinki in Summer – Style, Seafood and Salmiakki
When you think of travelling to Finland you probably imagine snow, huskies, seeing the Northern Lights, swimming in ice pools and other winter fun. But I’ve been to Finland in summer twice now and found it’s a great time to visit.
Tips for visiting Helsinki in Summer
Last time I went on a 2000km road trip in Finland and really loved seeing other parts of the country, before spending a few days in the capital. This time I spent all of my time in Helsinki during part of the annual Helsinki Festival and got to know the city better.
Here are my tips for visiting Helsinki in summer, along with photos from the city.
Find out what Salmiakki is
Easy! Salmiakki is a slightly salty type of liquorice that is popular in Finland. They have whole kiosks dedicated to Salmiakki products, some of their drinks and dishes are flavoured with it, as well as chewing gum, sweets, chocolate and ice-cream. If you’re not a fan of liquorice, stop making faces and keep it moving, thank you.
Drink a Lonkero, like the locals
Lonkero is a typical Finnish drink that translates to ‘long drink’ in English. This explains why the first times I asked what local drink to try I got the confusing answer ‘try a long drink’ – I was starting to think the Finns can be a bit vague. The most common type of Lonkero is a simple pre-mixed combo of Gin and Grapefruit soda, which tastes nice enough and is easy to drink, like an alcopop.
Try a Karelian pastry
Most hotels will serve these traditional pastries from the Karelia region at breakfast, but you can also buy them at food markets, in cafes, or in bakeries. They have a thin outer crust usually made from rye, and the filling inside is typically made from rice or millet, potato or barley, or a combo of any of those along with other similar ingredients. Their texture is interesting but they don’t have a strong flavour, so don’t be afraid to tuck in! Often served cold, but I preferred them warm.
Indulge your inner artist at Kiasma
Kiasma is Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art, part of the Finnish National Gallery, and a great way to spend a few hours. The exhibitions include a mixture of thought-provoking, skillful, and fun artworks. Having a stroll through the gift shop is one way to see if this might be your thing before heading inside to relax and absorb for a couple of hours. My advice is that you definitely check it out, although they close for the winter. Re-opens March 2015!
Visit a Kotikauppa
A Kotikauppa is a type of independent store in Finland that tries to cover people’s basic needs, as well as a few extras that make it more special than your local corner shop. I visited Kaartin Kotikauppa on a great food tour of Helsinki, and we spent nearly an hour in this petite shop, looking at their locally sourced produce, traditional goods, more than 150 types of alcohol in the cool room, and talking to the owner over a glass of sparkling wine and a donut. All part of the Kotikauppa experience – these stores make the effort to find the best products, at good prices, and with a friendly, personal service. I’ll be writing more about this one and the owner, Aarre.
Eat Fish the way the Finns do
The manager of Helsinki’s art deco Lasipalatsi restaurant couldn’t believe I don’t own a fish-smoking box. This place is famous for it’s Blini’s in January, but now after the Finnish summer holiday season its Fish Week, with Pike and Perch on the menu.
You might find that taking a food tour or visiting a restaurant serving Finnish fare is the best way to sample fish the local way, which changes according to season. Alternatively head to a food market (I suggest either the Kauppahalli south of the centre, or Hakaniemi Market Hall on the way to Kallio) and try your luck with some help from the staff. Smoked, pickled, in a burger, baked inside a bread loaf, tar-flavoured – they absolutely love fish in Finland. So do I for that matter. (The tar-flavoured stuff, not so much.)
Still enjoy a beer at the Sauna
Of course a Finnish Sauna is best experienced in the depths of winter! The full experience includes cooling off with fresh snow or an icy swim, between bouts in the Sauna. But you can still go to Saunas in the summer. Locals like to take their time, relaxing for an afternoon or a day, taking breaks in the heat to read the paper, play chess, or drink a few beers in front of the shop. Popular Saunas in Helsinki are Hermanni, Arla, and Kotiharju.
One tip on etiquette if you do visit a Sauna in Helsinki: you should never add water to the heat without checking first that other people are happy for you to. It might already be close-to-unbearably hot on the higher levels, and instead you should go higher into the heat until you are at the temperature you want – rather than risk scalding people already on the brink with clouds of fresh steam.
Get the Helsinki Card
The Helsinki Card is a huge money saver and makes life a lot easier. It includes all your transport in the city or the wider region (depending which one you buy), entry to most of the top attractions, either a bus tour of the city or a ferry tour of Suomenlinna (the island fortress of Helsinki), and discounts in various restaurants, saunas and more. The 72-hour card is the best value for money and gives you enough time to do most of the main sights, but there are also 24-hour and 48-hour cards. You can save another €3 if you buy online advance.
Check out the Design District
The design district in Helsinki is where the city gets it’s world-class design reputation from. It’s teeming with nearly 200 creative places that sell their works in the form of home furnishings, fashion, jewellery, galleries, and trendy food places. Design District Helsinki have come up with handy walking guides to help people shopping with particular items in mind (like a ‘sofa route’ or classic Finnish designers), as well as one to keep the boyfriends and husbands happy, The Manly Shopping Tour. The district is very central so you’re certain to pass through a few times while you’re in town, but it’s worth setting aside time to explore here properly as well.
Church of the Rock – Temppeliaukio Church
Completed in 1969 on land that had been set aside since the 1930s, the Church of the Rock is literally built inside the rock at this site. Don’t confuse it with the red Uspenski Cathedral that you can see from Market Square which is built on a rock. Church of the Rock is worth a visit because it has such an unusual, and strangely pleasing, design. It feels somewhere between a hi-tech Batcave and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, with church pews and melting candles to add a touch of black and white horror movie chic. The exposed rock walls and copper dome were carefully planned to have great acoustics, so the church also doubles as a concert venue from time to time.
Enjoy the outdoors, but be ready for showers
Helsinki is a big city, with plenty of parks, that is surrounded, and indeed infiltrated by, the sea. They call it ‘the land where Heaven meets the sea’ for good reason. In August, temperatures range from mid to late 20-degrees Celsius (70-80°F). Despite some brief but heavy downpours, I also caught balmy 27°C weather on my short visit, which was perfect for a good run around the parks and along the shores.
Have brunch at a Fazer Cafe
Fazer (pronounced ‘fat-ser’) is a Finnish brand known largely for it’s chocolates outside of Finland. Their silver wrapped Fazermint chocolates with a gooey mint centre are better than After Eights, and that is saying something. Don’t pretend you haven’t accidentally eaten a whole box of After Eights in one go too.
However the company actually started out in 1891 as more of a bakery and confectioners. Today, a major part of the business in Finland is Fazer Cafes, which serve their cafe-style baked goods, confectionaries, and sell the full range of chocolates. So you can pop into one for a coffee and a sandwich, followed by a sweet treat, and then get some chocolate to take home too. Or, try one of the buffet brunches with starters, salads, cold meats, desserts, and hot drinks for around €20.
Visit islands of the Helsinki Archipelago
The sea around Helsinki includes an archipelago of over 300 islands. Everyone agrees that you should visit the UNESCO-listed sea fortress of Suomenlinna. It’s not only a fortress but another area of Helsinki to explore, with restaurants, museums, theatres, and other bits. But there are more island-hopping options too, from boat tours and kayaking, to Restaurant Saari. The last one came recommended for it’s open sea views and fresh crayfish, on Pihlajasaari island, a 10-minute ferry ride away. Another one I didn’t get to check out is Seurasaari, known as ‘the island of the squirrels’, for being an open-air museum of Finnish buildings brought in from elsewhere, and for being a good swimming spot.
Helsinki is really fun to visit and has so much going on – I didn’t even mention the theme park or the cool, edgy area of Kallio. But like most countries (if not all of them) I recommend seeing places outside the capital too if you can. Helsinki is like Auckland in this respect – a great city by any measure, but the jumping off point for so many other amazing things in the rest of the country too.
Plus, seeing a country in more than one light helps you really experience it, not everything can be conveniently located in the capital.
I’m pleased to say I’m heading back to Finland in January for my first taste of the country in winter! I’ll be adding Hameenlinna and the region of Mikkeli to the places I’ve visited, and I’m looking forward to seeing Helsinki covered in snow.
Until then, as they say in Finland, moi moi!
Big thanks to Eva from VisitFinland for showing me around a couple of areas in Helsinki and finally explaining to me what a ‘long drink’ is! All photographs are Copyright © Peter Parkorr 2014 unless otherwise stated. This trip was part of the MustLoveFestivals project, supported by the lovely people at VisitFinland, the Night of the Arts festival and Expedia UK. Sponsored posts on Travel Unmasked are explained here for those interested.