How to live like a Local in Helsinki
Spending time in Helsinki’s relaxed wine bars, steamy saunas, cheap and cheerful restaurants and inspiring art galleries are just some of LP Local Violetta Teetor’s top tips for coping with the city’s notorious ‘Brrr!’ factor. Unless you’re brave enough for an icy Baltic Sea dip that is…
LP Local Violetta Teetor sitting on a bright yellow City Bike in Helsinki © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
LP Local Violetta Teetor enjoys zipping around Helsinki on a City Bike © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
East is best… and Helsinki’s eastern district of Kallio is where I live and spend most of my free time. The area used to be a workers’ neighbourhood but these days it’s been taken over by the young (and me!) and trendy. Take a stroll down restaurant-and-bar-lined Vaasankatu, if only for the sleaze factor: it’s the only red-light district in Finland that I know of.
Helsinki’s size… is one of its best features, and without exhausting myself I can easily walk or jump on a City Bike between destinations and feel freedom. When the rain or cold sets in, public transport gets me where I want to be in a flash.
Running… is my outlet and a good way of seeing a chunk of the city. Best of all, it’s free! There are several routes I like that average around 5km. I swing around Töölö Bay, where ducks nest and people can rent an SUP for a calm paddle, then I head over the railway track nearby, an ideal place for train spotting.
A scenic view of waterbirds wading amidst the reeds in Helsinki’s Töölö Bay © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
The view from a scenic running route around Helsinki’s Töölö Bay © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
Inclement weather… calls for indoor pastimes and my favourite places to go – come rain or shine – are art museums and galleries. Kunsthalle Helsinki is housed in a pink, period building in Töölö, and showcases international artists including Pop Art icon David Hockney, as well as locals such as IC-98. Kiasma has the best contemporary art, featuring the work of artists such as Grayson Perry, while Ateneum is a treasure trove of Finnish masterpieces. Gallery hopping is easy down Uudenmankatu – pop into Café Bar No.9 for its frequently-changing exhibitions and stay for its popular coriander wok dish (chicken or tofu); a reasonable €10.40.
Eating… is what I do best and I constantly keep my eyes peeled for great new restaurants. One of my favourites, Going Greek, is just down the road from where I live. It’s perfectly laid-back and makes the best gyros (Greek-style kebabs) with plenty of fresh herbs and spicy sauce. For a bit of a splurge, I hop on Tram 3 to the other side of town, to Baskeri & Basso (literally beret and bass) or ‘Basbas’, as we like to call it. The blackboard menu never disappoints and there’s a good-humoured vibe.
Lunch is cheap… No really, it is: you can get some excellent fare for around €10. For a taste of Lebanese elegance, I love going to Café Rouge, where the hug from owners Maggie and Tony is as warm as the comfort food they serve. Väinö Kallio, housed in a historic building formerly occupied by cooperative society Elanto, has made a smooth transition from wage office to lunch spot without losing any of its retro charm. €11 buys you a buffet with the choice of salads, two hot courses and more. Come nighttime the stage is taken over by bands, stand-up comedians and other acts.
A floating deck with outdoor pools and loungers at Allas Sea Pools in Helsinki © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
Allas Sea Pools in Helsinki has several outdoor pools to cool down in between sauna sessions © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
Sauna sessions & swimming… are a weekly occurrence for most Finns – at least the sauna bit. While Allas Sea Pools and Löyly are the hip spots, I prefer the unassuming Kulttuurisauna, where genders are separated to allow for nudity, the most comfortable way to be in a sweatbox. If you’re brave enough, swimming is possible all year round: dive from the jetty into the Baltic in summer, or carefully lower yourself into the icy sea the rest of the year.
Bargain hunting is fun… especially when you’ve nabbed a ‘one-of-a-kind’ at Relove, a second-hand shop with rails of clothes from locals who have lovingly parted with their favourites. Meanwhile, the charismatic owner of Crazy Boutique, Arja Hongell, will tweak your style and help you dress to kill.
A weekly dose of culture… keeps me stimulated and balanced. Just going to Musiikkitalo (Helsinki Music Centre) is a buzz, with massive sculptures inside and out, and musicians rubbing shoulders with the general public. There are plenty of free concerts but paying to listen to the Helsinki Philharmonic, led by their current conductor Susanna Mälkki, is worth every cent.
LP Local Violetta and friends chatting and drinking wine around a table at Hemingway’s © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
LP Local Violetta relaxing with friends at Helsinki bar Hemingway’s © Violetta Teetor / Lonely Planet
Drinking holes… are plentiful: the trick is finding the right one to suit my mood. Solving the worlds’ problems with other journos and expats takes place at Hemingway’s in Hietalahti. It may be a chain bar, but you don’t argue when a bottle of wine costs €20, a steal in this expensive capital city. When in need of something a little more upscale, wine bars Wino or Sydney’s serve a range of natural and organic wines.
Winter… spells darkness and sub-zero temperatures, but if I dress right with plenty of light layers and wear boots with a decent tread, it’s just fine. This is the season for cross-country skiing within the city limits at Paloheinä Recreational Area where I can rent a pair of skis and try tracks for beginners or the more advanced when I feel brave. The quiet beauty of snow, and the gentle sliding crunch makes this a memorable experience.
When I get bored… I hop on a ferry and go to Tallinn for lunch – the ferry only takes around two hours.