Design runs deep in Helsinki’s DNA perhaps emboldened by Finland’s sauna culture which serves as a defacto coffeehouse tete-a-tete or perhaps it’s the majesty of mother nature that endows the city inspiring vistas of green spaces, forests and the Baltic sea.
Modernist master Alvar Aalto, Finland’s most famous architect, helped shape Helsinki’s cityscape with 14 iconic buildings all while building the design brand Artek.
Aalto’s prolific fifty-year career in Helsinki produced many pieces of furniture and decorative items emblematic of midcentury modernism.
Established by the King of Sweden as a trading town with Russia in 1550, Helsinki for 700 years belonged to Sweden until the Russian Republic claimed it. Finland gained its independence 100 years ago from Russia and has spent most of 2017 celebrating the centenary of Finnish independence. Helsinki’s population numbers more than half a million and most locals don’t see themselves as Scandinavian (grouped in with natives of Sweden, Norway or Denmark). The Finns speak their own language that defies categorization.
As a Design Tourist, Helsinki is a must-see for its architecture, design and creative culture. Whether you choose to travel during the city’s long summer days or longer winter nights, there is much to discover and experience for curious, creative minds.
Stay in style at the Klaus K Hotel, located in the city center in an old Art Nouveau building with interiors inspired by Finnish folklore. Each hotel room is uniquely created in collaboration with some of Finland’s most famous contemporary artists.
I particularly like the massive custom headboards that command entire walls in each of the rooms and the playful references to Kalevala lore.
The Helsinki Design District is a deep dive into Finnish design and shopping. Located in the center of Helsinki, this cluster of more than 200 creative businesses spans 25 streets and includes design and antique shops, fashion stores, museums, art galleries, restaurants and showrooms. The district is divided into themed walkable routes for design enthusiasts.
Next, walk over to the Museum of Finnish Architecture in the middle of the Design District, Finland’s only architecture museum. Founded in 1956 and housed in a neo-Renaissance edifice, the museum features Finnish and international touring exhibitions, a permanent exhibition on 19th century Finnish Architecture and architecture walking tours of the city.
The Esplanade, Helsinki’s main grand boulevard connecting much of the central part of the city, offers upscale stores and flagship stores of Finland’s most beloved brands including Artek, Marimekko and Iittala.
The promenade runs through the central part of the city ending at the harbor area.
The Arabia district is another haven for design lovers that centers around the Arabia ceramics factory dating back to 1873.
Another design hot spot is the Tori Quarters, between the Market Square and Senate Square, populated with neoclassical buildings that house artisanal shops showcasing a variety of handmade products.
To experience the design legacy of famed Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, I recommend a visit to the Alvar Aalto Museum.
Tour his personal home, the Aalto House, also open to the public. Designed 1936 using simple uncluttered materials, the home doubled as a work studio until 1955, when he designed Studio Aalto to house his expanding practice, a short walk from his home. The studio is opened for public tours as well.
During the winter months, Helsinki sees about six to eight hours of daylight with the sun rising at 9 a.m.-ish and setting at 3 p.m.-ish. Taking advantage of longer nights, the city shines the light on art and culture with special events during those months.
The Lux Helsinki light festival takes place in Jan. 6-10th in the city center featuring public installations of light art along the main route between the Market Square and the Kruununhaka district at the darkest time of the year.
During the Christmas season, public spaces come alive with Helsinki’s many Christmas markets including one in Senate Square and a Christmas Festival at the Cable Factory.
The holiday season kicks off at the end of November with the opening of the Christmas Street along Aleksanterinkatu.
Sweat it out and appreciate the modernist architecture of the Löyly sauna, open to the public in the Hernesaari district on the southern tip of Helsinki. The eco-friendly, seaside complex includes a traditional Finnish smoke sauna, two other wood-heated saunas, a year-round terrace and a restaurant.
The Finns love to sweat and socialize in public and private saunas which explains why the country has more than 3 million saunas and 20 public saunas in Helsinki. An annual Sauna Day in Helsinki invites privately owned saunas to open their doors to the public held in March.
No matter the season, Helsinki delivers; whether you time a visit during Helsinki Design Week held in September, take advantage of the long summer days or celebrate the holiday season. For more on design destinations, subscribe to The Design Tourist Channel