Long overshadowed by the more popular Scandinavian capitals, Helsinki’s new and improved vision for a green utopia is worth taking a closer look.

By Lauren Matison
December 18, 2015
Summertime in Helsinki, Finland
Credit: © iStockphoto

Following in the light carbon footsteps of places like Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, and Dublin, the land of Finns, saunas, and Marimekko has announced plans to go car-free by 2050 in an effort to meet its carbon neutral goal by the same year.

Whether strolling through Rhododendron Park in Etelä-Haaga, dining at the many farm-to-table restaurants, or pedaling along the Baana, a new railway-turned-bike highway, it’s easy to swoon over the maritime capital’s deep sense of sustainability.

“The Finnish lifestyle is unconsciously green in that people live in a low-impact way and tend to eat seasonal, locally foraged food,” said Hey Helsinki’s Melanie Dower, who recommends Restaurant Ask and Silvoplee for a healthy, organic meal and Cafe Kokko for coffee and vegan cakes.

Although green spaces already make up 47 percent of the city, Helsinki is setting the wheels in motion to convert inner-city motorways to blooming residential thoroughfares, part of Helsinki’s Strategic Urban Planning Division’s new vision of “boulevardization.”

In addition to developing avant-garde pedestrian-friendly districts, the city is getting ready to open up new metro lines, double the number of trams by 2018 and increase costs for parking, all the while preparing to add a quarter of a million residents—and subsequently, its first skyscrapers—over the next 34 years.

“We can’t put more cars on streets,” said Ville Lehmuskoski, Managing Director at Helsinki City Transport. “The answer in the inner city is public transport by rail—trams and the metro. When Helsinki grows, public transport has to grow with it.” Helsinki also plans to launch a city bike share in May 2016 with 500 bikes and 50 stations.

Although Helsinki is a visually stunning and culturally stimulating destination perched on the Gulf of Finland, it has long been the less popular of the Scandinavian capitals. But between its edgy environmental transformation and major upcoming projects, like the now design-approved Guggenheim Helsinki, that’s likely to change. On your next trip, enjoy an eco-friendly taste of what this under-the-radar Nordic Riviera has to offer.

Start in the newly renovated Old Market Hall at Story, a recently opened seasonally driven restaurant-café with Michelin roots. Visit the architecturally breathtaking Temppeliaukio Church and Kamppi Chapel of Silence then dine at Ravintola Nokka on farm-sourced delicacies like braised reindeer with fried silversides or glazed pork neck with lingonberry black pudding, or try a smattering of sapas like rainbow trout from Åland or goose from Valkeala at Juuri.

For an eco-conscious night sleep, stay at Glo Hotel in the Design District or at newcomer Hotel Indigo, situated on the historic Bulevardi in the hip Punavuori neighborhood. Take a sustainably minded tour on foot or by public transit with Happy Guide Helsinki, which offers outings ranging from Design District Helsinki to a Finnish Food Walk to a City Sauna Tour.

“Already in the last 10 to 15 years, I have seen a welcoming change when afternoon rush hour has little by little disappeared with more public transport connections in and around the city,” said Karri Korppi, who considers himself to be a typical young Helsinki dweller. “I do have a driving license but I drive the car some five times a year when I need to move some bigger items from one place to another. Those times I can get a vehicle from city car share.”

At a time when Beijing is so thick with smog the city has issued a “red alert,” removing millions of cars and closing schools, Helsinki’s message for a greener future seems like a much-needed breath of fresh air.