The capital of Finland, Helsinki is quaint, charming, clean and surprisingly “happening.” The public transportation since may be the best in the world and the people may be the kindest. A center of global design, it seems everything new and funky comes here first. From large boulevards to hidden winding lanes, sun-swept parks to deserted islands just a fifteen-minute ferry-ride away, Helsinki is the perfect city break destination, an excellent reintroduction to Europe following Russia or a brilliant addition to a Scandinavian adventure. Eat reindeer and lingonberries, explore ancient island forts and simply relax at a sidewalk cafe in this northern city.
The lay of the land
The main avenues running through the city are Mannerheiminaukio (north to south) and Esplanadi (east to west). The train station is good orientation marker, as it is the city’s local transportation hub and splits the more urban southern half with the more residential northern half. Don’t forget to pick up a tourist transportation card, which covers all forms of transport - trams, buses, metro and even local ferries - for one, three or seven day. If you’re looking for traditional Finnish cuisine like reindeer, elk and lingonberries, try Lappi Restaurant (Annank 22) right in the heart of town. It’s cozy, a bit kitsch and just delicious.
It’s Scandinavia, so things are looking up! Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1971 and same-sex partnerships have been recognized since 2002. All anti-gay discrimination is banned and Finland even offers full immigration equality for same-sex couples. As Finland is small and adorable, so too is the gay scene - but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly fun! Below are the city’s hottest spots:
•dtm (Iso Roobertink 28) Short for don’t tell mama, dtm is the largest gay venue in Scandinavia. Catering to a young pop-tastic crowd, this is the place to move and groove to your favorite tunes alongside both gays and girls. Once gay central, thought Hercules is attempting to make its claim on this title as well.
•Hercules (Lönnrotinkatu 4) A slightly male-only crowd, Hercules could be seen as dtm’s big brother (or dad). A smaller venue whose popularity is growing, Hercules may very well be the new “gay central” in Helsinki.
•Arctic Ice Bar (Entrance from restaurant Copacabana, Yliopistonkatu 5) Zip up your parka and slide on your ski boots as you slip into a meat-locker size den made entirely of ice. The cocktails are tasty but lets be honest - you’re really there to sip that cocktail in a smoewhat ridiculous environment complete with ice-block benches, ice walls, ice bar and even ice tables. Note the toughness of the bar tender, who isn’t wearing a parka. $15 gets you entry and one cocktail.
•Ateljee Bar (On the top of the Torni Hotel, Kalevankatu 5) Sitting atop one of Helsinki’s tallest buildings, this bar offers classy cocktails, an open deck and 270-degree views of Helsinki. Excellent for wining and dining.
•Shaker (Fredrikinkatu 65) If you want to drink like the Finns, head to Shaker and order a tray of fruit liqueur shots. The music is great and the cliental are just oozing cool.
The must-sees and must-do's
1.Ride the 3T/3B Tram - They literally circle the entire city and the hop-on hop-off nature allowed with a tourist travel card means you can see and do nearly everything jus by riding along. Pick up the tram “guidebook” at the tourist office near the train station.
2. Suomenlina (Catch the ferry from Market Square. It leaves every 40 minutes to make the 15-minute journey to the island. Ferry fare is included in a tourist all-day transportation pass) Build by the Swedes to fend off the Russians, Suomenlina is now a near playground of castle ruins, cannons, grassy knolls, and tiny beaches. It’s the perfect day out when the weather is right. Pack a picnic and stay all day.
3.Senate Square (Unioninkatu 29, Just east of the train station) One of many seemingly “central” squares in Helsinki, Senate Square is watched over by the enormous Tuomlokirkko (Dome Church). Just east and over a small bridge you’ll find Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, which is also worth a visit
4.Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Lutherink 3, a stop on the 3T/3B tram route) This “church in the rock” is literally carved into a rock. Just the roof is visible from outside and it looks as if a space ship has crashed right in the center of town. Gorgeous both inside and out.
5.Kiasma (Mannerheiminaukio 2) Helsinki’s addition to the growing contemporary art scene, Kiasma offers very new-age exhibits set in a fantastic presentation space. An absolute must.
6.Market Square (Market Square, just southeast of the train station) Another central square of sorts, this one offers an excellent outdoor and indoor market selling fantastic fresh food and wares at the best prices in town. Make sure to try the fresh rye bread. It will knock your socks off.