Finns turn their streets into a wild party to celebrate May Day, the festival of vappu, and visitors should not be surprised to encounter carousing Helsinkians high on sparkling wine.
Helsinki ousted Turku, in the southwest, as Finland’s capital only in 1812, after the country was wrested from Sweden by Russia. A German-born architect, Carl Ludwig Engel, was commissioned to build the new capital, whose centre had been destroyed by fire.
As a result, Helsinki has some fine neoclassical architecture, including thereat Lutheran cathedral on Great Square, whose lofty green copper cupola is the city’s focal point. The city also has fine modern buildings such as the Finlandia Hall and one of Helsinki’s most beautiful streets, is also a good bet.
A welcome development in this once-dour city is the recent explosion of cafes and boulevard life. You can write your postcards in the roomy, two-floor Cafe Strindberg (Pohjoisesplanadi 33) while musing on the collection of Strindbergiana on the walks; it is open late. Café Engel (Aleksanterinkatu 15) is a favorite with university students: try the whisky cake. Or return to the belle époque at Café Ekberg (Bulevardi 39).
The atmosphere gets lively in the numerous bars where the locals like to loosen up. The exotic Baari (Uudenmaankatu 13) feature live music by a former DJ while patrons pretend not to take heed. Another artists’ favourite is Elite (E Hesperiankatu 22), where walrus-faced Finnish film star Matti PellonpAd holds court nightly.
Coolest place in town is the Corona Bar, run by the filmmaking Kaurismaki brothers at Eerikinkatu 16, next to their cinema. Dark interiors full of trendies of all ages drinking beer at the bar or playing pool.
Possibly even hipper is the Moskova bar next door, which looks like a front room — excellent for very late night drinking.
Finns have little nostalgia for the days when they were a Russian grand duchy (1809-1917) but they still love Russian food. Indeed, Helsinki is said to have the finest Russian restaurants in the world — including Russia. The renowned Alexander Nevski (Pohjoisesplanadi 17; 639910) offers the full tsarist experience, complete with Russian-attired staff and glistening samovars, and prices to match. Try the breast of willow grouse baked in a clay pot. Galleria Marlton (Kasarrnikatu 44; 6221717), a smaller, gallery-cumrestaurant, serves blinis and Pozharsky chops. For pure Finnish cuisine try the sauteed reindeer and pike perch at Piekka (Sibeliuksenkatu 2, 493591), or try the Savoy (Eteldesplanadi 14, 176571) for indigenous fare in an interior designed in the 1940s by the architect Alvar Aalto and his wife, Aino.
Those interested in Finland’s convoluted history should head for the National Museum (Mannerheirnintie 34); check out Tsar Alexander 11′s golden throne.
Art lovers should reserve an afternoon or three lot the National Gallery (Kaivokatti 2-4), in the newly renovated Ateneum. This includes the Museum of Finnish Art (from the 18th century to the 1960s on floors I and 2), and the Museum of Contemporary Art (floor 3). Until 28 May this space is being occupied by the Art 95 exhibition of contemporary art.
Share the Finns’ passion for opera at Helsinki Opera House (Helsinginkatu 58, 493021). Now in its second year, the awe-inspiring house is doing Don Giovanni and Die Fledermaus, among others, this spring. The estimable Helsinki Philharmonic performs at Finlandia Hall (Karamzinkatu 4; 40251). Jazz lovers — there are many here — head for Storyville (Museokatu 8, 408007).
Even five years ago, late-night Helsinki was a desert. No longer: young Helsinkians are living it up, especially at the weekend. Curiously, the city’s most popular dance spot at the moment is the once gauche Hesperia Night Club in the basement of the Hotel Hesperia (Kivelankatu 2, 43101). However, it is easier to get into Fennia (Mikonkatu 17, 666 355), popular with yuppies.
Or you can take a cab to the chic Kaivo avilion in Kaivopuisto Park 77881). More progressive types will enjoy Nylon (Kaivokatu 12, 662787) — if they can find it. What may be northern Europe’s smallest nightclub — it’s the size of a large flat — is down an alley near the railway station. Tell the doorman that Gustaf sent you. Afterwards you can sober up at the ancient all-night Cafe Socis, in the Hotel Socis, next door.
If you are interested in Finnish design, head for the handsome, parallel shopping streets of Etelaesplanadi and Pohjoisesplanadi, on either side of Esplanadi park. Marimekko’s new headquarters (Etelaesplanadi 14), designed by local wunderkind Stefan Lindfors, is a must. Artek (Etelaesplanadi 18) sells housewares designed by Alvar Aalto. These and much ore are available at the capacious Stockman’s department store (Aleksanderinkatu 52b).
Six Things to Do
-Stroll down to the quayside market square (Kauppatori), and sample the many foods on display the gulls screech in your ear.
-Wander the aisles of the luminous Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Pohjoisesplanadi 39), one of Europe’s largest bookshops. It has large English-language section. The building, designed by Alvar Salto, also has an excellent cafe.
-Take a ferry or private boat from the market square to the former island fortress of Suomnlinna in Helsinki harbour. Once known as the Gibraltar of he North, the mini-archipelago s now occupied by artists. There are no street names, so be sure to get a map from the city tourist board.
-Visit the new Cable Factory (Tallberginkatu 1), home (as of this summer) of Radio City, the city’s top pop station, plus a complex of museums, artists’ studios, and restaurants.
-Take a guided tour of the beautifully maintained Eduskuntalo, the Parliament House, and observe the recently elected, one-chamber, 201-seat Assembly at work (Mannerheimintie 30; Tours: 440051).
-Climb the steps of the Lutheran cathedral, watch the cruise liners departing for Stockholm, Tallinn and other Baltic ports, and congratulate yourself on having discovered northern Europe’s most unspoiled and quirky capital.
At the Weekend
Take a cruise to Old Porvoo, Finland’s second-oldest city, only 48 km from Helsinki. You can visit the 15th-century stone and timber cathedral, where the Diet of the first Duchy of Finland was held in the 1804 and stroll round the colourful Old Town Hall Square. Or visit the studio and home of the National Romantic painter Akseli Gallen Kallela at TarvaspAA, in Helsinki’s northern suburbs.
May Day, the first day of the month, is a public holiday to welcome the spring. There are fewer workers’ parades than formerly, and there is plenty of revelry.
Helsinki Day falls on 12 June. Festivities include a fair on the Esplanade and other picturesque goings-on. On 29 Jult the 15th Helsinki marathon attracts runners from the world over.
And the cultural event of the year is the Helsinki Festival (20 Aug-3 Sept), a culture fest directed by the world renowned conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.