Flying into Helsinki is an exhilarating experience. As the plane descends, you get a very close look at the 330 tree-covered islands that make up the archipelago around the city, one reason the Finnish capital is such a striking destination. Once you’re in Helsinki, it’s obvious that the city has more to offer than just beautiful nature. As well as its famous design heritage, the city is home to a wealth of innovative galleries and museums that will make any art lover happy. And since they’re conveniently located close to one another in the city centre, you can get a good insight into Helsinki’s art scene in just 24 hours. Here are the places not to miss.
It’s easy to surround yourself with design in Finland, which is home to renowned design brands like Marimekko, Ittala and Artek. Even its hotels are well designed. Hotel Vaakuna, in the city centre, was opened in 1952, the year Helsinki hosted the Olympic Games, and was where Olympic guests stayed. The beautiful lobby – all polished wood, mid-century modern furniture and original metal lamps – serves as an eye-catching introduction to the hotel, which also has a rooftop restaurant where you can eat your breakfast with a view of the city. And naturally, there are numerous saunas at Hotel Vaakuna, a must-try when you’re in Finland; just remember they’re all nude saunas.
Part of the Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum is named after the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare and opened in 1887. Its 31 galleries hold Finnish art from the mid-18th century to the 1950s, as well as a number of works by international masters like Marc Chagall and Paul Gauguin. The handsome building used to be an art school, and you can see how students would enjoy working in the high-ceilinged, light-filled rooms. Today it’s an environment to savour – take a few hours to wander the collection, displayed in fascinatingly themed rooms that look at, for example, the romantic depiction of nature in Finnish paintings or the unexpected emergence of jesters and harlequins in Finnish art during WWII. As well as the permanent collection there are temporary exhibitions that often use the gallery’s artworks to impressive effect – like Silent Beauty, a thought-provoking comparison of common themes in Nordic and East Asian art.
Another must-visit is Kiasma, Finland’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which is also a part of the Finnish National Gallery but focuses on more modern works than Ateneum. Kiasma was designed by American architect Steven Holl in 1998, and the building itself is beautiful, a gigantic curved edifice resting in the middle of the city. Inside, its dynamic design makes the rooms a lot of fun to wander around, and provides a background that really complements Kiasma’s chosen artists. This is where you’ll discover exciting young Finnish creatives like Ilu Susiraja, well-known international artists and participatory and experiential artworks. Take a break in Kiasma’s restaurant-café in the ground-floor lobby and try some of the dishes built around local Nordic produce – the smoked salmon lasagna is a tasty take on the Italian classic. Make sure to get a combined ticket to Ateneum and Kiasma if you plan on visiting both, as it’s cheaper.
The newest addition to Helsinki’s art scene is Amos Rex, which launched in 2018 and created an urban playground with its innovative architecture. As above, so below – start the visit by exploring the outside of the gallery in the central courtyard, where you can even climb the porthole-style skylights that light up the underground space. Inside Amos Rex the focus is on everything from experimental contemporary art to ancient cultures, and there’s a nice balance between new works and retrospectives. It certainly feels like the younger, even hipper cousin of the more established Helsinki galleries, and is conveniently located in Lasipalatsi, the ‘Glass Palace’, in the centre of town – just minutes away from Kiasma and Ateneum.
In the Lasipalatsi complex you’ll also find the Lasipalatsi Restaurant, another Helsinki destination with a remarkable design heritage. The functionalist Glass Palace was designed in the 1930s, and the pared-down style permeates the restaurant, giving it a charming Wes Anderson vibe. With a menu that has both classic dishes and seasonal specialities, it’s a great place to discover authentic Finnish cooking. Fish is usually a good bet in the Nordic countries, but if you’re a carnivore, don’t miss out on the roast beef of reindeer, which is served with vegetables and a juicy gravy. For dessert, always choose something with blueberries if they’re on the menu – Finland’s boreal forests yield supremely flavourful berries. After dinner, end the evening with a drink in the bar, or if it’s summertime, swing by the courtyard for a beer at outdoor bar Dekki.