As one of the cultural capitals of Northern Europe, Helsinki is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination, and it’s easy to see why. In many respects, the city seems to have it all – it’s brimming with incredible achievements of design, including the work of legendary architect Alvar Aalto, and was named the world design capital in 2012. The city also has over a hundred kilometers of shoreline and hosts many acres of stunning parks, as well as a thriving culinary scene with several Michelin-starred restaurants. As one of the burgeoning cultural players of the continent, The Culture Trip decided to hear a bit more about what makes this city so special and did so in a conversation with Laura Saksala of Visit Helsinki.
Describe Helsinki in three words.
Fresh, surprising and dynamic.
Where should culture lovers go in Helsinki?
Helsinki has a lot to offer for culture lovers – architecture, arts and design – and urban culture is flourishing. Just to name a few hot spots and tips:
Architecture must-sees: Helsinki Cathedral, ‘the Rock Church,’ Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Parliament House, UNESCO World Heritage sea fortress Suomenlinna. Legendary Alvar Aalto architecture can also be seen in the center of Helsinki.
Arts: The Kiasma, Ateneum and HAM museums.
Urban culture: e.g. the Abattoir area with food-related small businesses and restaurants, and Tori Quarters in the historical center of Helsinki offers both Finnish design and architecture in a historical milieu.
What is the proudest moment in history thus far for Helsinki?
The proudest moment must be when Helsinki became the capital of Finland in 1812. In the recent years, there are many other moments we can be proud of: for example, year 2000 when Helsinki was one of the European Capitals of Culture; year 2012 when Helsinki was the World Design Capital; and year 2014 when Helsinki had the honor to be part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and earned the status, ‘the City of Design.’
What are the biggest changes the city has undergone?
The biggest changes in Helsinki’s history are happening right now. Helsinki is in the middle of a massive transformation that will totally rewrite the script for the city. Helsinki is going through a major process of renewal as former industrial and harbor areas close to [the] city center are being transformed for new uses. Many of Europe’s biggest urban development projects are actually underway in Helsinki.
Helsinki is a relatively young city, with 59 percent of the population coming from more rural areas of the country, while at the same time, Helsinki is opening up and becoming more international. This combination makes our city culture quite unique and cozy: one could say Helsinki is a big small town instead of a small big city.
There was a time when Helsinki was considered a distant place on the edge of the universe. Today, Helsinki is a known link between the East and the West. The closest destination from Europe on the way to Asia and a halfway stop between North America and Asia. We are also in the center of the vital Baltic Sea region. Trains from Helsinki to St. Petersburg now take only three hours.
Do you have any exciting upcoming events?
Summertime is particularly full of exciting events, but there are constantly things going on in the wintertime too. Coming up in 2016 we have:
Helsinki Day, June 12: Helsinki celebrates its birthday with many cultural events around the city.
EuroGames LGBT sports games, June 29–July 2 and Helsinki Pride, July 2.
Flow Festival, an alternative music festival, August 12–14.
Helsinki Festival, culture program all around the city, August 19–September 4.
Helsinki Design Week, September 1–11.
Why do you think your city has made the top ten in most modern cities? What makes it such a special place to visit or live in?
Helsinki is a city in transformation. You can make a difference here and have an impact on the future. Human-centered approach, technology, efficient networks, low hierarchy and transparent society enable good ideas to take off quickly.
Helsinki is a city driven by design. Cities exist for people, and in Helsinki, we believe that design helps us to develop a human-centric city. Design is a good tool for making smart decisions for the future. Understanding the needs and expectations of people helps renew the city and to produce better solutions.
Helsinki is also a future-oriented city, where technology and innovations meet the needs of the everyday life. There is a bustling start-up culture in Helsinki which nourishes innovations, improving not only the business but also our everyday life. Thirdly, you will find both the buzz of a big city and the relaxing urban nature just around the corner in Helsinki. The sea and the archipelago surrounding us provide both maritime business and a unique environment for both visitors and citizens.
What’s the most bizarre Finnish tradition to be found in Helsinki?
We are a bit bizarre here in Finland and Helsinki. Perhaps one of the most bizarre traditions, at least for foreigners, must be ice swimming in the winter. Many people do it for health reasons; it is known that it lowers your blood pressure and has many other health benefits. Many people go ice swimming even without a sauna. For some people, even the sauna tradition is bizarre. There are over three million saunas in Finland, meaning that many of us have saunas even in the smallest apartments in the city centers.
Easter is coming up, and there are some Easter traditions which can be bizarre to foreign people. At Easter time, children dress as witches and stroll around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, saying traditional short rhymes and asking for candy. During Easter, we (or at least some of us) eat ‘mämmi,’ which is a weird-looking dish made of water, rye flour, and powdered malted rye.
Tell us about the typical local cuisine in Helsinki? We’ve all heard the horror stories about rotten fish…
Typical local cuisine includes fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. Ecologically cultivated food, local flavors and locally produced food are very trendy in Helsinki at the moment. Many restaurants have this trend on the agenda. Seasonal products include mushrooms and berries in the summer and autumn, fish all year-round, wild herbs during the summer season and different vegetables throughout the year.
The restaurant scene in Helsinki is truly flourishing, and new restaurants pop up almost every month. There are also four Michelin-star restaurants in Helsinki.
Street food culture has risen during the last few years, mainly due to the Restaurant Day phenomena, which originates from Helsinki. Different kinds of street food festivals are frequently organized.
Can you suggest some activities that would make the best itinerary for a tourist visiting Helsinki for a 24-hour stay?
I would recommend a visitor to visit the main sights and some more beyond the normal routine – for instance, the Abattoir area with food related businesses and restaurants, where you can taste the local flavors and buy design souvenirs to take home with you.
To get a general idea of Helsinki, you might want to go on a sightseeing tour by bus.
If you don’t want to go on a traditional sightseeing bus, you can also take the 2/3 tram which is part of the public transportation in Helsinki. It is a normal tram, which means that there is no commentary. However, you’ll see the city and the main sights and can follow the route with a special route map.
Helsinki changes every day, and we believe that our city will be one of Europe’s most dynamic cities in the future. Helsinki is currently growing and developing faster than ever before. High numbers of professionals and businesses are moving to the city. Whole new districts are under construction; new sectors and technologies are merging, and the city is becoming increasingly international.
According to estimates, there will be 860,000 people living in the city, and 1,882,000 in the region by 2050. The new residential and working areas currently under construction make Helsinki one of the fastest growing metropolises in Europe.
We believe that the future of Helsinki is what we make out of it. Cities are for the citizens, and this is certainly true of Helsinki. This is a city in which you can contribute to solving major problems and building one of the most advanced forms of daily life in the world.
Helsinki is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s Local Favorite 2016 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.
Interview by Henry Oliver