Nordic food culture is fashionable, but Copenhagen and Stockholm usually pip Helsinki to the post when discussing culinary weekend getaways. In this feature we make the case, instead, for Finland’s edgy, design-led capital. From cute cafes to hip cocktail bars, smart restaurants to local street food spots, Helsinki has it all. You just need to know where to find it, and that’s where our top 10 guide to eating and drinking in the city comes in.
On a rainy weekend in Helsinki trendy locals head to Sandro for bottomless lunches and weekend brunches. The stripped-back décor at its two branches (one is in Helsinki’s design district, the other in edgier Kallio) allows the kitchen’s North African food to steal the limelight. Colourful Moroccan ceramic plates are piled high with an array of salads – think chickpea with carrots and beetroot, jewelled couscous and tabbouleh, and pickled cauliflower with crunchy toasted almonds. There’s plenty of choice where dips are concerned – silky, smoky baba ganoush, zingy pistachio pesto and cucumber and lemon labneh – plus freshly baked crusty spiced bread. Finish this veggie-focused spread with coffee or mint tea and tiny squares of chocolate cake and baklava.
On a sunny day, wrap up warm, run down to the western banks of Töölönlahti Bay, bounce along a wooden jetty to this little café in a wooden hut and bask in the sunshine on one if its deckchairs. This lake-like slick of saltwater here is a reminder that Helsinki spreads out across an archipelago and there’s an almost beachside feel to the setting. The friendly Finnish girls behind the counter will tempt you with cinnamon bun biscuits topped with flaked almonds, nettle and peppermint tea and indulgent croissants filled with huge wedges of brie, strawberries and a drizzle of balsamic. If you don’t fancy the jetty deckchairs, there’s a separate seating area, still overlooking the water but where tables and chairs are delicately screened off from the bay by giant plants.
Kahvila Sinisen Huvilan – for ice cream with a view
Walk 10 minutes or so round Töölönlahti Bay to its eastern shore and you’ll come across a beautiful blue clapboard house. Tucked behind it, set back from the water’s edge, is a tiny blue shed that’s home to another charming café. Grab a cone brimming with Finnish blueberry ice cream and lounge on one of the wooden chairs scattered beneath the birch trees. Idyllic.
Hop on the little ferry from the southern shore of Helsinki to reach this restaurant and party spot. Tuck in to thin, crisp pizzas so large that they curl up at either end like a Viking longboat. Toppings are Finnish – try chorizo and crayfish or rainbow trout and summer veg with plenty of dill. Snuggle up under blankets as DJs hang around the decks waiting their turn to spin their mixes out into the crisp air.
Juuri, meaning ‘root’ in Finnish, is where to head to for Finnish tapas, or ‘Sapas’. These stunning little tasting plates adorned with edible flowers, sprigs of dill and botanicals taste great too. Try grouse with birch, chargrilled swede, little salty fried fish – vendace – with creamed potatoes, and beetroot mousse with roasted goat’s cheese. With a generous bread basket from Juuri’s own bakery, this is an ideal light dinner. The compact restaurant wouldn’t be out of place in Helsinki’s design district with its wooden tables, wine-red walls and modern light installations.
This coffee shop is the perfect spot to watch hip young residents of Kallio pass by. The barista is so chilled that a queue often forms but the house-roasted coffee is worth the wait (ideally pair it with a huge chocolate pastry twist). Sit at the communal table and enjoy the calm, Finnish ambiance.
Sauna culture is a way of life in Finland. Moments of silence are not considered awkward but a chance just to sit and enjoy another person’s company. Try it for yourself at Loyly, an upmarket new sauna that’s perched dramatically on the seafront just south of the city centre. Sip champagne by its log fire between sauna sessions and chilling dips in the Baltic Sea. After your two-hour sauna session head out onto a series of wooden decks to enjoy a restorative tipple overlooking the sea. We liked the Napue gin (distilled to the north of Helsinki in Kyro distillery) with Finnish botanicals of meadowsweet, sea buckthorn, cranberries and birch leaves.
This may look rather severe and unwelcoming on the outside but head into the stark white building in Kallio and you soon discover why it’s a local institution. Essentially a posh kebab shop, it’s a great place to get a slice of local life. Order a pitta filled with halloumi and aubergine, or a lamb burger, then sit in the window and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a trendy Finn.
This ancient café dates back to 1957, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a comforting bowl of lohikeitto, a creamy salmon soup topped with mountains of fresh dill (try our lohikeitto recipe here). Alternatively go for breakfast and knock back a Finnish coffee and a Korvapuusti cinnamon roll.
Bar Lilla E may be a hotel bar but it is a destination in itself for those in the know on Helsinki’s hip cocktail route. The spot-lit wooden bar (which sits next to a crackling fire) makes a stylish backdrop to a menu of Nordic-inspired cocktails. Try a Midsummer’s Eve, which recreates the scent of a Scandinavian summer with spring birch-infused Tanqueray gin and St Germain elderflower liqueur (a tumbler is filled with flowers and birch branches are set alight to infuse the cocktail and its immediate surroundings with a smoky aroma), or a Strawberry Cake (wild Finnish strawberries are whizzed up with lemon balm, skyr and Finlandia vodka to create a sweet, creamy drink).
Each cocktail comes with a little extra, be that a tiny cheese triangle and small cup of black coffee on the side, a little juniper salmon smorrebrod or a tiny bed of grass to enhance the freshly mown smell.