24 hours in Helsinki

It’s a city for swish design, coffee, Scandi food  and technical clothing. Don’t kid yourself. Helsinki in winter is cold. But there are plenty of things to warm you up, from the original saunas (saw-na) to epic hot dogs.  You could go for a week. You could turn your visit into a two day minibreak (though watch out, lots of restaurants and shops will be closed on Sunday). Or you could have one spectacular, action packed day.

Here’s 24 terrific hours in Helsinki; sourced.

10.30 pm arrive and go to your hotel, via Jaskan Grilli for a hot dog

One thing they do well on these loftier longitudes is hot dogs. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the beauties you’ll find in Iceland. There are some stonkingly good specimens in Copenhagen- and in Helsinki, it’s all about Jaksan Grilli. Both the New York Times and Not Quite Nigella foretold its merits.

It’s an austere looking steel square shack tucked into a quadrangle behind the Finnish Parliament. It’s not the easiest spot to find on foot, though considering the queue of taxi drivers parked and waiting for their late supper in front, they should know the way.

The most famed item on the menu is the Kannibal (meat pie, beefs, fried egg, two ham patties, ham, sausage and 14 condiments). The rest of the menu is in Finnish. There are sauce bottles suspended from the roof like pendulous udders from machinated cows.

If asked, The Hungry One will heartily endorse the ‘La Dolce Vita’ (Euro 6.50). It’s a monster of a thing, a distended length of sausage, three types of cheese and a fried egg.

There was a moment of slight concern when we saw the server make movement towards a jar of tinned pineapple in its construction. Luckily it was just to shift it out of the way to make room for the condiments. Our advice? Go heavy on the garlic, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard for the full throttle experience.

Nb, you can eat on park benches next to the stall. Though at midnight in November, it’ll be pretty cold.

Jaskan Grilli
Dagmarinkatu, Helsinki, 100, corner of Toolonkatu
Open 19.30-4.30am
(Nb, if you get lost and you’re this kind of person, The Hungry One even made notes of the longitude and latitude)
It’s 60°9’52”N and 24°56’48”E

12 am – Check into Hotel Kamp

Hotel Kamp is where you want to stay if you can plump for it in Helsinki (though a standard room is less than you’ll expect for a hotel regularly voted one of the best in Europe). It’s smack bang in the middle of the city centre, within dashing distance of both the harbour and the design district. It also has one of the best saunas in the city in its spa.

Courtesy of http://www.hotelkamp.com/

As a hotel, it’s elegant and refined, stately but warm. There’s complimentary wifi in the lobby (you do have to pay if you want it in your room). The beds are king size, the sheets soft with impossible thread counts. They do have those slightly infuriating European square-ish soft pillows . The marble bathroom in a standard room is big enough for both of you to stand with your arms outstretched and twirl. There’s even a novelty Kingfisher blue rubber ducky there to keep you company.

Hotel Kamp
Pohjoisesplanadi 29

10 am – Walk through the design district to Kaffa Roastery for coffee

Caffeine is a big thing for the Finns. They drink up to 10 cups a day; largely black and filtered.

If you’re hankering for an espresso, if you want access to some of the best beans in the city, or both, you want to walk to Kaffa.

Kaffa is more of a roastery than a cafe. Beans  are sourced from single estates all over the world and carefully treated in the back of this warehouse space in the depths of the design district, before being parcelled off to appease other local cafes and at -home-drinkers. The flat whites are of serious quality, with mallow-soft milk and espresso with twinkling notes of berry fruit and caramel.

There are spots to sit on stools at the window, overlooking the straight grey street. Or else get a take away and start browsing in adjacent homewares store- which also has a cafe where you can get a smorgasboard style brunch if you’re particularly peckish.

For more on Kaffa, go here.

Kaffa Roastery
Pursimiehenkatu 29 A
, Helsinki, FI.
+358 10 4226700

Nb, not open Sundays.

11 am – Wander through the design district and potentially do some shopping (nb, if it’s a Sunday, most things will be closed)

Leave room in your suitcase. That’s my advice for all of you coming to this fine city. I did not. For one, I adhered to my ‘one shoulder bag’ rule (see travel essentials)- fine for a weekend in summer, a little more of a challenge if you’re away for five days in sub zero temperatures. Helsinki has been named the ‘World Design Capital’ for 2012 and the city is peppered with sleek and intriguing home wares, jewellery , clothes and shoe stores.  While prices in Helsinki aren’t cheap, they are much cheaper than what you’d see these trinkets for at Scandi design stores in your home city.

1 pm – Lunch at Skiffer

Pizza (or liuska as it is in Finnish) may not be the first thing you think of for lunch in Helsinki, but go with me here- there are plenty of opportunities to eat smoked fish later on. The original Skiffer is a well loved Helsinki pizza spot and bar on the island of Liuskaluoto – a terrific excursion for summer, where you can catch a ferry out, see the view over Kaivopuisto and watch boats come and go on the harbour.

In winter, you might want to hit up the newly (November 2012) opened branch in the centre of the city.

It’s cosy, dark walled, sleek and modern. There’s wine by the glass and a good selection of local beers. And the pizzas are both original and sublime. Broadly oval, a rectangle having an identity crisis of sorts, the edges are as crisp as Italian music bread, while the centres sigh and sog under the weight of the fillings.

And these are no standard pepperoni jobs. Raving successes were beef tongue, brilliantly soft, paired with poached egg, caper berries, pickled red onion and watercress and another with goat cheese, strawberries, pine nuts and rocket.

A pizza will set you back between 13-15 euro. The staff are young, good looking and charming. The atmosphere is casual but fun. And best of all, it’s warm.

Erottajankatu 11
00130 Helsinki
Area: Kaartinkaupunki
045 344 5351

14:00 The Design Museum and wander down to the harbour

There are plenty of museums in Helsinki, but perhaps the best to pop into is the Design Museum. It traces the affinity between Finnish culture and design- and like many cracking design museums around the world- it has a golden gift store.

Afterwards, wander down to the harbour to take some atmospheric photos of many shades of grey; water, sky, docks and lamps.

Helsinki Design Museum
Korkeavuorenkatu 23, 00120 Helsinki, Finland
Open Tuesday- Sunday 11-6
(Is a good option if you’re in town on a Sunday).

17:00 Sauna at Kamp

There are more than two million saunas in Finland. I’d hazard that the one at Kamp Hotel is one of the nicest. Book an appointment at the spa. Wear your swimmers, or go natural  with a towel for immediate modesty if you’re that way inclined. Wrap on your fluffy robe and ascend to the spa. Depending on what package you’re booked into the hotel, you may have the sauna included. If not, it’ll be around 20 euro each, but there’s no limit on the time you spend in there.

Unlike a Turkish or Moroccan hammam, the sauna at Kamp is for both genders and a visit there is quite a social expedition. The central vestibule is warm, but not blistering. There are lounges, bowls of green apples, cold filtered water and magazines and newspapers. There are showers for cleansing before and afterwards. And there are three choices of sauna; there’s an Italian grotto, there’s a traditional wooden slatted steam room and there’s a hammam style tiled space with drizzlings of water. Stay in and sweat for as long as you dare.

My advice: don’t order a beer while you’re in there. Drink lots of water. Avert your eyes when elderly Finnish men sit with their legs astride wearing nothing but a scant towel. Make sure you take off your make up before you go. Be prepared to sweat, get quite hot and feel quite spaced out and a little stoned. Then drink a lot more water afterwards.

20:00 Dinner at Spis

There’s been a lot written about New Nordic Cuisine; from Noma to Faviken, if it’s foraged, clean flavoured, presented in a restrained way and served with natural wines, in a simple space, potentially by a fellow with a novelty moustache, you’ve pretty much hit the culinary jackpot.

Spis is a petite space, seating only 18. The menu is largely themed around seasonal local vegetables, with delicate portions of protein. All of the ingredients are slavishly local.

If there’s a suggestion that you start your evening with one of their beer cocktails; a light pale ale, spritzed with elderflower, do say yes.  However, a word of warning. If you get swept up into the experience and nod in assent to the charming floor staff; yes to the ‘surprise’ menu and yes to beverage pairings, you might end up with a drinks bill that’s more than you intended to swallow. The wines are natural (with limited amounts of chemicals introduced in their production) and well paired – yet the pours are generous and these are Nordic prices for the luxury of booze.

This is innovative dining, in a friendly space. There’s a variety of breads, served throughout the meal and an artful eye in plating. Textures are king, with one of the primary courses of our nine course tasting menu featuring potatoes and mushrooms in various guises; creamed, roasted, diced and aerated. The taste of the ground, made ethereally light.

Additionally, if they offer you a nip of Oland Apple brandy (produced in a similar way to Calvados on a small island in the Baltic sea), do say yes. But be warned- at this stage  you probably won’t feel much of the cold on your walk home.

Restaurant Spis
Kasarmikatu 26, 00130 Helsinki
+358 (0) 45 305 1211
Open: Tue-Sat 17.00-24.00
(bookings recommended)

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  1. Love the sauna advice! Looks like 24 hours well spent!

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