With all the appeal of a big city but without the grime, Helsinki’s attractive harbor, grand architecture, and parks make it a showcase of Northern Europe. A hub of the design world, the city also distinguishes itself with multicultural flair; here, youthful energy mingles with old-world charm.
Water and beaches surround Helsinki in every direction. The city’s main street, Mannerheimintie, passes between the bus and train stations on its way south to the city center, ending at the Esplanadi. This tree-lined promenade leads east to Kauppatori (Market Square) and the beautiful South Harbor. Northeast of the city center lies Kallio, the bohemian district.
Helsinki’s Neoclassical buildings and new forms reflect Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s joke: “Architecture is our form of expression because our language is so impossible.” Helsinki’s Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) and Modernist structures are home to a dynamic design community. Much of the architecture of the old center, however, is the brainchild of German Carl Engel, who modeled his design after St. Petersburg. Older buildings and public squares are adorned with interesting—and, at times, imposing statues. Helsinki has many parks that are perfect for an afternoon stroll, including Kaivopuisto in the south, Töölönlahti in the north, and Esplanadi and Tähtitorninvuori in the center of town.
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Kebab and pizza joints are cheap and popular, but the local Kauppatori markets and Kauppahalli food courts are more likely to serve recognizably Finnish fare. Traditional diet slants toward breads and sausages. In summer, however, menus feature freshly caught trout, perch, pike, and herring; a new wave of five-star chefs in Helsinki are pairing French and Mediterranean ingredients with the bounty of local fisheries. To Santa’s displeasure, bowls of reindeer stew are a staple of Lapland, while Kuopio is known for its pillowy rye pastries. Try the strawberries—Finland is their top European producer. A surprising number of adults drink milk with meals, followed by interminable pots of coffee. Alcohol stronger than light beer must be bought at state-run Alko liquor stores,
Flags fly high on Midsummer’s Eve (June 21), when the Finnish desert their cities for seaside cabins. July is the festival high-season in Finland, with gays and lesbians celebrating Helsinki Pride, Turku’s youth taking to the mosh pits of Ruisrock, and Pori’s residents launching their Jazz Festival. Savonlinna’s Opera Festival continues into early August, while the Helsinki Festival, Oulu’s Music Video Festival, and Lahti’s Sibelius Festival close out the summer.
Bars and summer beer terraces fill up in late afternoon; most clubs don’t get going until midnight and stay crazy until 4am. Bars and clubs line Mannerheimintie, Uudenmaankatu, and Iso Roobertinkatu. East of the train station, nightlife centers around Yliopistonkatu and Kaisaniemenkatu, while in bohemian Kallio, the bars around Fleminginkatu have some of the cheapest beer in the city. A popular night activity is heavy-metal karaoke.