A Design, Art and Food Tour of Helsinki

Helsinki rooftops covered in snow

Image courtesy of Visit Helsinki | Photographer Seppo Laasko

Grand, genteel, maybe even a little conservative, first impressions of Helsinki can lead you astray. The city is a master class in understatement compared with its Scandinavian neighbours. The architecture is a mix of neoclassic, art nouveau and functionalism. It is solid, functional, understated – and beautiful.

Once you’ve settled in and started to explore a bit further, the city’s vibrant, design centric culture begins to reveal itself. With heavyweight names like Marrimeko, Iittala, Arabia and Alto to throw around, this is a city that takes design seriously.

I visited Helsinki over Easter when the snow was still falling and it felt as though everyone had deserted it until the sun planned to heat up. Even though the temperatures were low, there were beautiful sunny days with the sun turning the Gulf of Finland a glassy grey and casting a spotlight on Helsinki cathedral.

Here are some of my highlights.

The Design District

With over 200 shops, themed trails and covering four separate districts in the centre of Helsinki, the Design District needs a trip to itself. It has its own website with a very useful map showing the location of all the shops galleries, design studios and design hotels and showcases the best of Finnish design all in one area. Events include outdoor design markets and late night shopping.

Some highlights:

Pino for household items, recycled lightshades

Johanna Gullichsen - sophisticated, classic woven textiles

Formverk - furniture and lighting Granit – functional home and office products with a focus on storage

Iconic Design

Arabia centre and Iittala outlet - north east of the centre of Helsinki is the Arabia area, an area of old Helsinki where the Arabia factory and museum is located. Famous for timeless tableware designed by a stable of designers, many of whom studied in the University of Art and Design Helsinki. Mon – Fri 10.00 – 20.00 Sat-Sun 10.00 – 16.00

Marimekko – iconic design house, famous for its bright, bold, instantly recognisable textile designs and homeware. The outlet store on Kirvesmiehenkatu has some good pieces.

Artek – at the intersection of architecture, design and art, Artek was set up to showcase the work of Nordic designers. The collection in the flagship store includes furniture, lighting and accessories by Alvar Aalto, Ilmari Tapiovaara, Tapio Wirkkala, Eero Aarnio and Yrjö Kukkapuro. Mon-Fri 10-19, Sat 10-18


Studio Alvar Aalto. Architect, designer and the father of Finnish Modernism, Alvar Aalto’s studio is situated in Munkkiniemi. It was designed and built in the 1950s when Aalto outgrew his home office and is classic Aalto. There are no street facing windows. Instead, windows face an internal courtyard amphitheatre where staff could come together to hear lectures or watch slide shows projected onto opposite walls. The building’s clean, minimal lines lead the eye along its L-shape design. Inside it is open, spacious, airy and light filled.

Kaampi Chapel of Silence Helsinki

Image courtesy of Visit Helsinki | Kamppi Chapel of Silence | Photograher Kaisa Luukannel

Kamppi Chapel of Silence. Spirituality meets consumerism, meets design and architecture. The Chapel of Silence is in the Narinkkatori Square at the entrance to Kaampi shopping centre. It is a stunning, warm minimalist peaceful space in the centre of Helsinki. Designed by architects Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola and Mikko Summanen of K2S Architects Ltd, the alter cross is sculpted by artist Antti Nieminen and textiles are created by Tiina Uimonen.

Monday to Friday 08.00–20.00, Saturdays and Sundays 10.00–18.00

Design and Contemporary Art

Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. The striking glass and steel curve of the Kiasma is a study of natural Finnish light. Designed by New York architect Steven Holl, it is designed to capture natural light at all times of the day. On the outside, it reflects the seasons – soft and sometimes dull greys in winter, transitioning to bright reflections of sunlight as the seasons change. Part of the Finnish National Gallery, Kiasma shows changing contemporary exhibitions by international artists and houses a theatre for contemporary and performance art. Furniture in the cafe is designed by Vesa Honkonnen and Samuli Naamanka.

Tue 10–17, Wed–Fri 10–20.30, Sat 10–18, Sun 10–17, Mon closed

Helsinki Art Museum

Image courtesy of Visit Helsinki | Helsinki Art Museum | Photographer Matti Tirri

Helsinki Art Museum, HAM spreads across the first floor of the Tennis Palace or Tennispalatsi, a building that resembles a huge aircraft hangar and sits right next to Kaampi shopping centre. The building was originally designed by Finnish architect, Helge Lundstrom to service cars during the Helsinki Olympic Games planned for 1940. Due to the war, the games were postponed and the upstairs rooms were used as Olympic tennis courts. The name Tennispalatsi has remained. On the ground floor, the cinema complex throngs with families on a Saturday afternoon movie outing. High art meets popular culture or an example of how art in Finland isn’t actually high brow but democratic and accessible. The collection not only belongs to the people of Helsinki but is exhibited publicly in parks, health centres, schools and hospitals as well as in the museum.

Tues – Sun 11.00 – 19.00

Design Museum. Anyone interested in Finnish design should make straight for the Design Museum. Set up by the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design to serve the needs of the Craft School of Helsinki, the museum presents the history of Finnish design through its design classics. In addition to the permanent collections, a series of themed temporary exhibitions is programmed throughout the year. Highlights include The Torsten and Wanja Söderberg Prize winner Ilkka Suppanen’s amazing work.

Winter: Tues 11.00 – 20.00 Wed – Sun 11.00-18.00, Summer: Mon – Sun 11.00 – 18.00

Food and Drink

The Helsinki food scene isn’t as famous as its Danish neighbours, but it is starting to take off. Here are some that are worth a visit.

Vanha Kauppahalli –The Old Markethall sits right on the harbour, looking out at the Gulf of Finland. It is one of the first indoor markets in Helsinki, built in 1888 and has over 100 stalls selling everything from coffee, traditional handmade rye bread, smoked and cured meats and fish and the ubiquitous dried reindeer. It’s the perfect place to pick up supplies for a picnic before getting on a ferry to Suomenlinnaor Porvoo.

Mon – Sat 08.00 – 18.00

Heitalahden Kauppahalli is the second oldest market hall in Helsinki opening its doors in 1903. Despite its architecture and interion, in contrast to Vanha Kauppahalli, it has a more modern street food vibe and hosts pop up and more established food stalls serving everything from Japanese sushi to pizza. It’s a good place for a pit stop on the Design District trail. A highlight are the sandwiches from Street Gastro – pork, chicken, beef or seitan sandwiches stuffed with herbs, horseradish mayo and salad.

Mon, Tues 08.00 – 18.00, Wed – Sat 08.00 – 22.00

Teurastamo – the abattoir. Street food is starting to take off in Finland. Since the inauguration of Restaurant day, one day in May when anyone can sign up and set up a pop up restaurant for the day, started, the street food scene has burgeoned. Teurastamo is the place to find it. Set up on the grounds of Helsinki wholesale market, Teurastamo is home to a distillery, a coffee roastery, a pasty factory and a flavour school.

Kafe Mockba Part of the Andorra Culture and Entertainment centre once owned by the legendary Kaurismäki brothers, Kafe Mockba is a Helsinki institution. It feels like walking into a film set – womb like red walls on three sides and a wall of off white ruched curtains covering a shop like window are the set for a kitsch display of football trophies and a retro juke box. It’s the perfect spot on Saturday night place to drink cheap champagne and people watch and if you need a game of pool, nip next door to Corona Bar and Billiards.