This City Is Europe’s Most Underrated Design Capital
Helsinki is getting its long-overdue moment in the sun. The Nordic capital has plenty to recommend it, but too often it's overlooked by travelers: Foodies head to Copenhagen, shoppers to Stockholm, outdoorsy types to Oslo, and Helsinki is relegated to stopovers and return trips once the other hotspots of Northern Europe had been exhausted.
But for anyone who loves great design, Helsinki should rank near the top of your to-do list. The city is home to architectural masterpieces like the Finlandia Hall overlooking Töölönlahti Bay, an imposing marble concert space created by Alvar Aalto, the father of Finnish Modernism. Five years ago the World Design Organization named the city a World Design Capital, and the subsequent programming has given rise to notable projects like the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Kulttuurisauna, and the Design Driven City initiative, which aims to further promote the city as a center of design. That translates to great museums, striking buildings, top-notch shopping, and a city that's every bit as cosmopolitan and captivating as its Nordic neighbors.
Any art-and-architecture-focused visit to Helsinki should begin with a trip to the Design Museum, in the heart of the city’s Design District. The museum’s permanent collection tells the story of how this small Nordic country came to be a trailblazer, with glasswork and ceramics of Kaj Frank, one of Finland’s most prominent designers, bent-wood Artek furniture by Alvar Aalto, and even the original 1992 Nokia cellphone. The surrounding Design District is the creative soul of the city, where talented young designers have set up shop in the neighborhood’s Art Nouveau buildings. Founded in 2005 as a hub for the city’s creative community, the district now has over 200 shops, ateliers, galleries and studios to explore. Standouts include Samuji, Samu-Jussi Koski’s carefully edited collection of clothing and homewares, and Lokal, photographer Katja Hagelstam’s concept store showcasing work by Finnish artists.
Market Square, near the harbor, is a prime spot for people-watching and a bite to eay . Just steps from some of Helsinki’s oldest quarters, including Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral, it’s a bustling scene of tourists, locals, buskers, and seagulls clamoring for fallen morsels. Graze your way through the brightly colored tent stalls (don’t miss the array of smoked fish, a Finnish favorite) and then head to Story Café in Old Market Hall for sea views and top notch food—including what is perhaps the best salmon soup in town. A recent makeover pays homage to the historic building, marrying contemporary design lines and custom furnishings with heritage details such as the vintage wire fish traps that hang from the ceiling. From here, wend your way up the leafy Esplanade Park, an elegant promenade where Finland’s most recognizable brands—like Marimekko, Artek, and Iitalla—have opened their flagships.
Helsinki offers some of the best vintage shopping you’ll find anywhere. Countless antique shops and flea markets are scattered throughout the city, and those willing to sift through the duds will be rewarded with Finnish collectibles spanning the latter half of the 20th century. Many such shops are found in the Design District, but head to the bohemian neighbourhood of Kallio for more eclectic finds, or for serious antiques, wander to the stately Kruununhaka area. Artek 2nd Cycle is Artek’s own vintage collection and definitely worth a visit, as is Fasaani, a cavernous gold mine of top quality, second-hand Finnish design. The Hietalahti Flea Market, open during the warmer months, is a favorite among locals, and a must-see stop on any summertime itinerary
Even the Finnish sauna scene hasn’t been overlooked in the recent design renaissance. Kulttuurisauna, an art project designed by Tuomas Toivonen and Nene Tsubo during Helsinki Design Capital 2012, offers an intimate and authentic bathing experience in a temple of calm, while the newly built eco sauna Löyly, by Avanti architects, is a more dramatic example of Finnish architecture. Perched on the shores of the island of Hernesaari, the sculptural wooden structure is a magnet for design and sauna enthusiasts alike.
For a meditative experience without the heat, head to the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, an otherworldly spherical wooden church in the middle of Helsinki’s busiest shopping area. Designed by K2S Architects, the soothing curves and cascading light in its inner sanctum offer a nondenominational refuge from the frenetic city that surrounds.
And since you’ll need a place to bed down for the night, a stay in one of the city’s fleet of design-y new luxury hotels is in order. The Kämp Collection consists of ten hotels that include the flagship five-star Hotel Kämp, the boutique design hotel Klaus K, and the much-anticipated Hotel St George which will open its doors at Yrjönkatu 13 in early 2018. Tianwu, the giant white dragon designed by contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, will greet guests in the lobby—one more sign that Helsinki has arrived.