Oh, Helsinki. We spent about four days in Helsinki, and it was not enough. We’ll say it right at the beginning: we loved our short stay. We had very little expectations coming in. (Your standard stereotypical stuff: Finnish design, long summer nights, cold, Marimekko, Mika Häkkinen, Matti Nykänen, Ittala, Tom of Finland.) One thing was sure: we would not understand absolutely anything. And you know what? It proved to be absolutely right. If you’re a European, you kinda expect to understand at least something when you travel abroad. Not in Finland. That said, English is widely spoken on the streets and in the restaurants. And the people are friendly.
Many Finns told us that Finns were introverted. Sure, we spent about four days in Helsinki, and we did not talk relationships with people or anything, but we found this to be untrue. Our feeling was that the people were very friendly and very open and eager to help and suggest tips and advice. There is a Germanic quality to Helsinki: everything is clean and seem to work, with some quirky oddities along the way. We laughed as we saw the owner of a sex shop put a table and a chair in front of his establishment and just bask in the sunlight, waiting for the customers to walk in. in Prague people look left and right before entering a shop like this, while it seems to be a much more civil affair in Helsinki.
Our Helsinki summer vacation weather was great: sunny and 22C/72F. Perfect soccer weather, as they say. Everybody commented that this was the real Finnish summer, and we walked through a park, trying not to stare at people lying on the grass in swimwear and getting a tan. A bit too chilly for us but we guess it’s all relative. We talked to Kimi, the owner of Pastor and other establishments, and he said Helsinki gets about three hours of sunlight in the winter. So we guess summer is definitely the time to come. We visited in early August and it was getting dark past 10pm.
Another observation: we always buy a local sim card whenever we travel to have always-on access to the internet (yes, we’re Instagram addicts) but we ultimately didn’t in Helsinki. Virtually every eatery or shop offers free wifi in Helsinki. And it’s strong and fast. If you have an offline map on your phone (we used Here maps by Nokia, so it was only fair that we use it in Helsinki), you are doing fine without wifi. Or at least we were.
Helsinki, or at least the centre of it, is also fairly small. We had a running joke in Helsinki: on our first walk, Jan took a picture of a beautiful old pharmacy because he thought we would never see it again. And then we literally walked past it at least two times a day. Our impression of the city? Just like Brno, the capital of Moravia, but with the sea. And lots of Finns. And that’s not a bad thing.
Where to stay?
We stayed at Klaus K, a designer hotel. We really liked the location, just steps off the main sights but in a quieter street. It was nicely decorated... and connected to the Pastor bar next door directly from the lobby! Big bonus. We liked our room, too. The breakfasts were a slight disappointment: Zuzi loves blueberries and they were in season in Finland on our stay, sold pretty much on every corner… except Klaus K. Tasteless watermelon and pineapple instead. But the smoked trout was great and the muesli was very good, too. Also, the wifi in our hotel room was a bit weak. But hey, first world problems. We liked the hotel overall.
We were also looking into Scandic Paasi when we were booking our stay, but sadly they only had rooms with twin beds when we found it. Looks like great location and people seemed to like it. Would stay there the next time we're in Helsinki.
Where to eat?
We’ve been tipped to this Rotisserie by none other than Paul Day of Sansho and Maso a kobliha. Sadly, Richard, the creative mind behind it and Paul and Misa’s friend, was out on vacation. The Cock is clearly a very popular place: perhaps not as much in the afternoon when we came, but definitely in the evening when we walked past it - it was hopelessly packed. And we totally understand why: the food was all good - kinda greasy and salty and perfect if we had had drinks before or with it. And they sell big oyster bowls that look very cool, unless you're allergic to them. We could see some really epic nights in that place. And the place had an airy feel and eclectic design. We could see ourselves eating at The Cock pretty often if we lived in Helsinki.
Gaijin is a hip and popular and cool space owned by the Finnish Masterchef judge that serves eclectic Asian dishes and Asian-inspired cocktails (which we liked a lot). The dim sum were really tasty, but we wished they had Momofuku's pork for their pork buns, which were otherwise very nicely seasoned. The salmon and miso main was also very good. Lots of expats in this place and really super trendy, bordering on slightly poser. The service could have been a bit better: we didn't like the kimchi, said it to the staff… and they just smiled a bit and said "okay". A bit like SaSaZu in Prague then. (wink wink)
Juuri offers Finnish tapas, labelled as “sapas”, in two fairly small rooms, one of them with a fantastically run down wall, the other one with a color combination from a blind person’s nightmare, but it was atmospheric. We went for lunch and had a plate of four sapas and a fish terrine dish. All the sapas (and the terrine) included some kind of mayonnaise… and they were all delicious. We’re starting to see a pattern developing here. A great light lunch. We’re starting to think that Marimekko dishes and glasses are cheaper here than at home because all the eateries use them. (They’re not. We checked later. But you can always go to the outlet and pick something cool from the older collections.)
The “best restaurant in Finland”, as allegedly voted last year, is a tiny place that sits twenty people... who like sharing their personal space with other people. But that’s nothing compared to the kitchen, or should we say kitchenette. We had a discussion whether it should be called “fine dining” because the styling and atmosphere are not (run down walls, no dress code) but the food definitely is. Two tasting menus, wine pairings, no food or wine menu, lots of rules. The food was reeeealy good: light and local and seasonal the way we like it. Lots of fermentation and work with the produce. We must also say we loved the wines, which are mostly natural and some of them pretty wild. We were definitely happy with our choice. Oh, and we thought the four-course meal was enough food for anyone.
On multiple recommendations, we had pizza at Skiffer on the Liuskaluoto island. You first have to take a ferry to the island. It takes about 30 seconds - the distance is surely less than two Olympic pools stacked behind each other. The price for the ferry? Six. Friggin’. Euros. “To take someone for a ride" gets a whole new meaning here we thought. However, it turned out to be a great investment: we absolutely loved the island. It is a beautiful, calm place with people just enjoying the sight of the sea and getting a tan. A beautiful boathouse overlooks the sea. Zuzi found forest strawberries in the bushes and ended up spending 15 minutes picking them, while Jan just sat down, looking at the sea. And the pizza? We got the pan con tomate and mozzarella buffala. We loved the toppings, incl. the baked garlic and the green tomato, but the dough felt more like a very thin tarte flambée or crostini than pizza. Nothing a glass of Prosecco would not fix. We loved the island.
Chef & Sommelier
“A great choice”, a local foodie wrote us when we told him we were going to Chef & Sommelier. Next to Spis, this is another tiny restaurants that manages to cram in about 25 seats maximum, and you haven’t seen the kitchen yet. That’s about the size of a shoebox. Still, both the meat and the vegetarian set menus looked promising, based on local and seasonal ingredients, and they follow a "nose-to-tail" philosophy even for the vegetables. What is absolutely fantastic about Chef & Sommelier are the wines: they were mostly natural, which we like, and the sommelier really listened to what we wanted and brought exactly that, opened a bottle we liked and then managed to sell it to other customers within minutes, too. A bottle of boutique Champagne (they had bubbles by Fleury, Tarlant, Marguet and others) cost about 80 Euros. Fantastic. We liked the food a bit less and we wished for more flavor. Sure, the dishes were well presented and had clean tastes, like the salmon starter or the quinoa dish with pesto and sunflower seeds. We just wanted a bit more variety. We liked one of the desserts a lot, though. What became the star of the evening was the fact that we apparently sat next to two Finnish celebrities and the chef spent long minutes explaining all the dishes and the concept and so on, while entirely neglecting the other tables… or the kitchen. It felt a bit strange in a restaurant this size, especially when we had no idea who the celebrities were. Also, there were filming an episode of "Road Less Travelled" when we were there. Chef & Sommelier is a well respected establishment and we do understand why. Perhaps we visited on a bad night.
People told us the Sea Horse is like a pub from an Aki Kaurismäki movie, and that’s a great description. A super retro pub that seems to have been transplanted from a smaller Czech town in the 80s. We came for lunch and even the order is a ritual. You order and pay first. We got the classic: fried herring with beets and mashed potatoes. “Help yourself to salad, bread and butter,” the lady said, pointing to the small salad bar in the corner. So we got salad and waited. You can also help yourself to filter coffee if you want. The lunch hour started, and it was just us and lots of Finnish retirees. (We’ve hear the pub comes alive with younger Finnish folk in the evenings.) And the herring? Actually much better than we expected, judging by the appearance. Totally happy with the food. We would definitely visit again for the experience.
Our last dinner in Helsinki was also one of the best meals we had during our trip. It is related to the Olo restaurant, one of the best fine dining establishments in Helsinki. The room is very modern and the soundtrack follows. We ordered all the five entrees on the menu and loved every single thing. The chanterelle and barley risotto with pancetta, or the scallops in a light soup with peas will stay with us for a long time. Very bold and rich flavors, nearly bordering on too bold but never really passing that threshold. We were uncertain when we sat down because we did not particularly like the wines we were offered, but we were happy when we were leaving.
Okay, we had fast food falafel for our last lunch. Guilty pleasure. Had the classic falafel and the Mezze plate. Loved it. Cheap and easy.
We went for the lunch menu at the centrally located Sandro. There's another one at Kallio. The creative mind is - you guessed it - Richard of The Cock, who has just published the Sandro cookbook. The cuisine is North African / Mediterranean, and the lunches are a super deal: 10 Euros buys you a self-served selection of dishes and access to the salad table. Very nice and very popular.
We wanted to visit the Ask restaurant so much: it looked like something right up our alley. Sadly, it was closed for vacation during our stay, but Filip, the chef, was kind enough to give us some food tips by email. We had been following Filip on social media for some time, and we hope to visit the restaurant the next time we're in town. A great excuse to come back.
We thought we were not walking enough in Helsinki so we took a hike to the Kallio district for ice-cream. Actually, walking far for ice-cream is a pattern of behavior that has been developing in our travels over the years. And we like to visit districts that may not be as popular among tourists but have a reputation for being hip and trendy among the locals. The Jadelino ice-cream is a small place among other eateries in an abandoned industrial complex. Very similar to Prague's Angelato: Jädelino sells about ten basic flavors. But they're nice. And it was a nice walk. The complex hosts Street Food Thursday events from time to time, so make sure you check them out.
We got quickly hooked on the green peas sold on the streets of Helsinki. They are sold by the liter. We could not get enough of them to the point they were getting in the way of our dining plans. Also, Anton & Anton is a nice small grocery shop the way we like it: small but high-quality selection of mostly local produce. More like these in Prague, please!
We also went to the food market by the harbor on Wednesday morning. Pretty busy and very, very touristy. Still, some pretty nice seasonal vegetables and berries. And green peas, of course. The prices do vary quite substantially so if you're on a budget, make sure you look around first.
Finally, we got a small tour of a few establishments in the centre from the super lovely Joonas, the manager of a restaurant group in Helsinki that owns over 50 eateries. We started at Ravintola Teatteri in the centre, a very classy establishment that caters to the business people over lunch, and has a grill section and two bars in the evening. They will host Jeff from Prague's Bad Jeff BBQ as a host chef later this year! How cool is that?
We followed on past Ravintola Savoy, the first "designer bar" in the world, with interior design by Alvar Aalto and a great view of the city. We stopped at Ravintola Michel, a beautifully designed diner and cocktail place with a marble-clad bar in the centre of the room. Allegedly, great for brunch. Finally, we stopped at Ahorita, a Mexican fast food place opened by Joonas and Ricard of The Cock. Similar to Chipotle: fast and good Mexican food. Joonas was happy to see a queue in this newly opened place. We ate at neither of these restaurants but they are worth a mention.
Where to drink... coffee
Oh, do we have a weakness for flower shops and cafes! And when you combine those two, you get Andante, a tiny shop run by what seemed to be a Japanese couple. We ordered two macchiatos from local roasters… and got two flat whites (“Yes, our macchiato is two shots of coffee”) but they were good. Also, beans by La Cabra from Aarhus for filter coffee, and really nice paper cups by Stockholm’s Drop Coffee, so this is Scandinavian coffee haven. Add Monocle magazines to read, repurposed carpenter’s table and coffee filters as lamp shades, and you get full hipster. Really nice atmosphere though.
Not the most beautiful cafe in the world, or in Helsinki for that matter, Kaffa Roastery is housed by the side of the Moko Market, a really nice home accessories shop that actually includes another cafe / bistro. The roastery itself is more espresso bar than cafe, but our coffee was good (the flat white was absurdly large but it had a full body and nutty flavor, and the Aeropress had nice, fresh acidity) and the different beans were explained well. A good place to buy local beans though, and we could actually sit in the shop’s bistro instead.
Good Life Coffee
We ventured into the Kallio district on our second day and had coffee here. Just like other specialty cafes in Helsinki, they tend to sell what we would call flat whites as macchiatos: two shots of espresso and milk in a slightly larger glass or cup. But once we cleared the miscommunications, we were fine. Okay coffee but, most importantly, good reading material in a cosy room or behind two tables outside with Fool magazine in your hand? This is what we call relaxation.
Johan & Nystrom
We loved Johan & Nystrom when we visited Stockholm a few years back. The Helsinki location is in a beautiful brick building by the harbor, which now houses a few restaurants and cafes, incl. Nokka and others. We ordered a washed Kenya for Aeropress and their normal blend for a cortado. The Aeropress was really nice. The cortado was one of the hottest cups of coffee in recent memory, and the roast was fairly dark. Still, a great place for a nice, relaxing sit after some walking. Seating outside is great during the summer. Not sure about the winter.
A small and cute corner space in the Kallio district. This was probably the only cafe in Helsinki that served espresso macchiato the way we know it: single shot of coffee and a bit of milk. We liked the coffee and the atmosphere: local and relaxed.
We did not go. We did not have the time - our vacation was too short. If there's one regret, it's this one. The cafe is run by Kalle Freese of former Freese Coffee fame. Kalle was super nice over the email and gave us all the recommendations for the cafes we visited in Finland, and we have to give credit where it's due. Just do us a favor and visit Kalle on your visit. We know we should have. Oh well.
We had drinks at the Pastor on our last day. The drinks were great: we had a rum-based sour and a gin-based drink reminiscent of the Green Park. Both served in mason jars, hipster style. We liked both a lot. Clean flavors and good balance. We also liked the decor of Pastor: modern and cool and clean.
What to see and where to shop
The biggest bookstore in Scandinavia is really big, and designed by Alvar Aalto. Great selection of magazines, just not the ones that we wanted, really. More like a Neoluxor in Prague than Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Still a really great place to wind down for a while with fantastic interior design.
Helsinki may be fairly small but the shopping opportunities are vast, and it seems our money was screaming in our wallets, begging for attention and trying to get out. First, let’s get the usual suspects out of the way: Marimekko and Iittala have their flagship stores right next to each other. Are they less expensive in Finland? Nope. But the two stores really do sell nearly everything. Make sure you have a look at the outlets to get a bargain from older collections.
On the other hand, you are not discovering any hidden gems in these and they are pretty crowded. Another classic is Artek that sells home accessories. Really nice to look at the classics but we are unlikely to buy pillows or sofas on our travels any time soon. Still had a great time in the shop.
We also visited some other smaller, independent shops in the “Helsinki Design District”, which features dozens of independently owned shops within the span of a few streets. Pino sells reusable bags, draw-it-yourself maps, granola and pretty much everything in between in two nicely designed rooms. R/H Studio is a Helsinki-based fashion brand with their own signature “patterns and lines” on the clothing items and one of the nicest shop assistants anywhere. And Papershop right next door is something that we must visit in every destination: a beautiful paper and stationery shop. Very reminiscent of RSVP in Mitte, Berlin.
Zuzi's favorite designer was Ivana Helsinki. Her dresses are colorful and cool and exactly what Zuzi likes in clothing. Luckily, she has an online shop, too, if you just have one checked baggage like we did. Also, we must mention that there is a map of the Design District you can pick up straight at the airport. It helped us immensely throughout our stay. Another brochure that can help you navigate Helsinki is the Helsinki Food brochure. Make sure you pick it up at the airport, too.
One confession to close our little guide: we also visited the Stockmann department store. It’s like Helsinki’s answer to Paris’ Galleries Lafayette or Berlin’s KaDeWe, but some parts of it feel a bit like a German Karstadt. We have one thing we like to do there: look at the products they sell in the supermarket in the basement. And you know what? Stockman's is really nice and clean and well stocked. Would love to have one of those in Prague. Sigh.