City Guide: Helsinki, Finland

A city that has long defined itself by its aesthetic pride, low-key Helsinki’s deep reverence for nature, tradition and a balanced way of life is the secret behind the capital’s future-facing outlook and enduring title as a global cornerstone of art and design.

Read the full story in Volume 37: Craft.

Encircled by more than 300 inlets and islands, Finland's watery capital has always moved to the beat of its natural surroundings. In winter, the city's position (just five degrees south of the Arctic Circle) leaves it wrapped in darkness for more than 18 hours a day. Come June, the capital is raised from cosy slumber with near-infinite daylight that moves life outdoors: Alabaster skies are swept with a hazy hue, café terraces spill merrily onto the waterfront and bright-eyed bathers flock to its beaches.

Perhaps in reaction to its counterpoint of seasons, Finland has never been a place that does things by halves. A global leader across industries including tech, sustainability and design, the country's international accolades abound. This year marks Helsinki's 10th anniversary as World Design Capital, while the World Happiness Report has once again ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world (for the fifth year in a row).

An art installation at Amos Rex, one of Helsinki's contemporary art spaces
Helsinki Cathedral in Finland's capital

Helsinki cathedral, left, and an art installation at contemporary art space Amos Rex

Yet despite its heaving trophy cabinet, the Finnish capital remains humble and understated. "Helsinki is a 'come as you are' sort of place," says Leena Karppinen - a local who was born in the city. "Finnish identity is built on modesty so it's not in our culture to be showy." It's an attitude that seeps into every thread of the city's fabric, too - from its design and architecture right through to its food and drink offering.

Once one of the poorest countries in the world, things changed for Finland after it gained independence from Russia in 1917, henceforth earning its place on the international map for its pioneering moves in functional design. The newly democratic republic prioritised practicality and affordability - a radical movement that elevated simplicity into an aesthetic choice, and a blueprint for design that still defines the city today.

Midsummer in Helsinki, when long balmy days are spent dipping between saunas and the sea, is a strong reminder of the grounding force of nature. Art, craft and design may be Helsinki's proudest exports, but it's the city's proximity to the natural world that fuels its enduring creative spirit.

Discover more stories from the Craft issue here. | Visit myhelsinki.fi to find out more.

Simple pleasures: Where to stay in Helsinki, Finland

Stylish interiors at Hotel St George, a luxurious boutique stay in Helsinki, Finland

hotel

Hotel St George

Set within a 19th-century former newspaper building, Helsinki’s most luxurious boutique stay offers 148 exceptionally designed rooms and five suites, next to the Old Church Park in the heart of the city. A showcase for the capital’s taste in art and design, the hotel’s reception is home to a hypnotic Ai Weiwei kite installation and a Monocle shop, with stairs that lead to a state-of-the-art wellness centre and café – St George Bakery – whose name gets whispered among locals for its unbeatable cinnamon buns.

Address

Yrjönkatu 13, 00120

The lobby of the Klaus K Hotel, in Helsinki, Finland

hotel

Klaus K Hotel

Hugging the edge of Helsinki’s Design District, this quirky hotel in an art nouveau building takes its cues from Finnish folklore and mythology. Think egg-shaped beds, colourful murals and a show-stopping, halo-like artwork crowning its reception desk.

Address

Bulevard 2-4, 00120