Finland’s passion for innovative design, fine dining and heritage soon dispel the Baltic chill, discovers Patrick McPartlin in Helsinki
Thanks to Denmark and Sweden benefiting from the Nordic Noir phenomenon and Norway becoming a byword for the success of its oil industry, you could be forgiven for assuming Finland was a little late to the Nordic party.
The nation does have some convincing claims to fame – as the originator of the “baby box” starter kit for newborns, and the home of Father Christmas, the Moomins and Eurovision thrash titans Lordi – but now that a new air route has opened up between Edinburgh and Helsinki, there’s a proper opportunity for Scots to discover what our most distant Scandinavian neighbours really have to offer.
On the flight to Helsinki, I learn about the country’s reputation for design, with the Marimekko at the forefront – the brand works alongside Finnair and helps kit out aircraft, with its iconic patterns appearing on everything from blankets to napkins.
As we begin our approach, Finland’s islands can be seen beneath the clouds and I’m struck by the landscape’s similarities to Scotland.
Our introduction to the Finnish capital is a walking tour, taking in some of the city’s design icons. The University of Helsinki’s library, completed in 2012 to honour the city’s status as World Design Capital, is one highlight, while shops like Kauniste (www.kauniste.com) and Artek (www.artek.fi) offer a glimpse into Helsinki’s history of design.
Our tour culminates in a visit to a traditional sauna on the island of Uunisaari (uunisaari.com), a short boat ride from the city centre. There we learn that “sauna” is an ancient Finnish word, and that there are over three million in Finland – working out at around one for every household.
Our guide, Karri Korppi, (happyguidehelsinki.com) tells us that Finns consider saunas a “necessity, rather than a luxury”, which is perfectly understandable once we’re sat in the sauna drinking beer and chilling out (so to speak).
It’s all very relaxing, until Karri tells us it’s time to take a “refreshing dip in the sea”. This is the Baltic Sea we’re talking about, and there’s a definite chill in the air as we walk to the end of the pier.
I peek down into the water. It looks cold, and it’s too murky to see the bottom. Karri tells us not to worry because it’s shallow enough to stand in, but that’s the least of my concerns.
As it turns out, the ordeal isn’t that bad, after all. The thought of submerging ourselves in the Baltic Sea proves worse than the fleeting shock of the icy water.
In fact, it’s over all too soon, and after our first experience of Finnish tapas, which are typically enjoyed after the sauna, we head back to Hotel Haven before going out to experience Helsinki’s nightlife and burgeoning cocktail scene.
A21 Decades (a21.fi), which offers classic cocktails as well as its own unique concoctions, is worth a visit, as is the well hidden, but intimate, Liberty or Death.
The following day, we head to Porvoo, one of Finland’s six medieval towns. Home to a stunning 15th century Lutheran cathedral, Porvoo’s beautiful old town, which was saved from demolition in the 1800s, is a mix of bright colours and wooden houses in the traditional Finnish style. There’s just time for lunch at the excellent Gabriel 1763 restaurant (www.gabriel1763.fi/lng/fi) before we travel to Råmossa Lodge (ramossa.fi/).
Situated in the middle of a forest near Ilola, the lodge is in perfect wilderness. All we can see are trees, sky and the black lake.
Jussi, who owns it, fills us in on its history over coffee heated on a campfire overlooking the lake. His own story is fascinating – a former worker in Helsinki’s finance sector, he gave it up to focus on Råmossa, which he now runs full time.
Although it’s hard to pick a highlight after we hike up to the “laavu” or base camp at the top of the hill, dinner at the lodge, prepared by Porvoo-based chef Georg Simojoki – who had a spell in Scotland – is a strong contender. While the sun sets behind the trees, we are served up pike, salmon, wild rice, gin-based ice cream and so much more. Råmossa’s appeal is all too clear to see.
The following day dawns grey and damp as we take a ferry to the island fortress Suomenlinna, around 20 minutes from Helsinki and a Unesco World Heritage Site. I’m expecting something a little like Fort Boyard, so I’m surprised when our guide tells us that around 900 people live on the island and that school camps regularly visit for retreats.
Built on six islands, Suomenlinna was constructed to try to ward off any attacks on Finland, and to stockpile munitions for the Finnish contingent of the Swedish Army and Royal Swedish Navy, but the fortress surrendered to Russia in 1808 during the Finnish War, leading to Russia’s occupation of the country the following year.
There’s so much history embedded in the fortifications at Suomenlinna, along with a navy dockyard and Finland’s last surviving submarine. Formerly a prison camp, part of Suomenlinna is still home to a minimum-security penal labour colony and the inmates work on the maintenance of the fortress.
Back on the mainland, lunch is served at the Finnjävel (www.finnjavel.fi) restaurant, a new eatery that has just opened up near the harbour. Over numerous courses we are introduced to traditional Finnish cooking methods by head chefs Henri Alén and Tommi Tuominen, and we also learn that the restaurant has been custom designed, from the cutlery to the lighting and chairs.
After a few hours to ourselves to get a last feel for Helsinki and pick up some souvenirs, there’s just time for a quick visit to the impressive Michelin-starred eatery Chef & Sommelier, where we’re treated to more Finnish delicacies, including reindeer.
We’ve crammed a lot into our time in Helsinki, but there is still so much more to explore.
Finnish? I feel like we’ve barely started.
• Finnair operates three flights a week between Edinburgh and Helsinki, with a five-times-weekly service operating until 14 August. Fares start from £162 return including all taxes and charges, as the company promotes the destination as an easy and eco-friendly transfer destination for travellers heading to Asia. Book at www.finnair.com. Stay at Hotel Haven in Helsinki from £136 per night including breakfast. Book at www.hotelhaven.fi/en. More information on planning your trip to Finland is available at www.visitfinland.com