A local’s guide to Helsinki, Finland: delicious seafood, islands to explore and a dash of Arctic cool

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Food

My favourite thing to do in Helsinki is get a fish plate from a stall in the authentically Finnish Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall) on the harbour front. I go there after a heated-pool swim and a quick dip in the icy Baltic at the Allas sea pool. For a white-tablecloth, sit-down meal, head to Kolme Kruunua, an old-school neighbourhood restaurant in Kruununhaka that has preserved its 1950s decor and serves Finnish classics like meatballs and reindeer.

For a more contemporary vibe, try the restaurant at Löyly, the modernist, waterfront sauna complex owned by Finnish film actor Jasper Pääkkönen. The menu includes Jasper’s delicious salmon soup made with sustainably farmed fish – or just relax on the deck with a glass of wine and an amazing seascape.

Inspiration

I love Oodi, Helsinki’s central library. It’s both a library and a living room, where families play in the kids’ area, students work and visitors relax in the cafe. You can borrow things other than just books; I borrowed a power drill to hang some paintings at home – more sustainable than buying one.

Sompasauna helsinki
Sompasauna

Another great place is Sompasauna, a public, unisex sauna with no dress code – you wear as much or as little as you want! I also find the Kamppi Chapel (Chapel of Silence), inspiring. It’s a multifaith space downtown, which is lined with planks of curved alder wood. It won the international architecture award in 2010. It’s very simple, very calm, and if you can’t get to Finland’s forests for a bit of quiet time, this is the next best thing.

Neighbourhood

Kallio, in the east of the city, is a great place to hang out. It’s a little rough around the edges compared with downtown. There are vintage shops, health-food outlets, record stores and foods from all over the world. From the Kallion kirkko (Kallio church) you get an amazing view along one long street that runs across downtown to Observatory Hill. Teurastamo, just north east of Kallio, is former abbatoir now home to cool cafes, bars, markets, a distillery and – of course, this is Finland! – a sauna. There are more great traditional saunas in Kallio, and a short walk away is Kulttuurisauna, Kotiharjun Sauna and Sauna Arla.

Green space

Suomenlinna island.
Suomenlinna island. Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy

Lapinlahti is a beautiful, open park by the water. I go with friends to walk and relax. The former psychiatric hospital there is now full of small businesses, cafes and an art gallery. I might stop off at Cafe Metsäpaahtimo and get some bread from the Danish artisan baker at Primo Bread. It’s also lovely to get out to some of Helsinki’s many islands. Suomenlinna, a sea fortress and Unesco-listed nature reserve is very popular; Pihlajasaari island, to the west, is quieter.

Nightlife

Bardot is a small, cute cocktail bar downtown, part of a restaurant of the same name. Try its Nordic gin fizz, made with Arctic Blue Gin and sea buckthorn. Another fun place is Chihuahua Julep, where you can sit on vintage furniture to drink wickedly good cocktails. You need to ring a bell to get in and leave your mobile in a box – the owners banned them to make people have real conversations. Great idea! For live music, good DJs and a laid-back vibe, try Siltanen in Kallio.

Stay

Hotel Fabian (“comfort” double rooms from €102) in Kaartinkaupunki is a lovely boutique place that has met 60% of the city’s “Think Sustainably” criteria for accommodation. It is perfectly located for the Design District with its small artisan shops. Also check out the Folks Hotel (doubles from €102), which opened two years ago in a renovated train workshop in Konepaja. Family rooms (from €138) have fun, yellow bunkbeds for the kids.

Heidi Johansson has lived in Helsinki for more than 20 years. After six years as a tour guide, she now works at the city’s marketing and investment company Helsinki Partners. She loves travel, gastronomy, literature and the arts