• Image about Helsinki
South Harbour with Old Market Hall and Lutheran Cathedral in the distance
Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy

Before being tasked with visiting Helsinki, I knew embarrassingly little about the city — only that it was home to the ’52 Winter Olympics, Nokia and Angry Birds creator Rovio; that its resemblance to nearby St. Petersburg, Russia, led to its being used as backdrops in such films as Doctor Zhivago, Reds and Gorky Park; and that the biggest thing to happen here since Finland winning its independence in 1917 was probably Conan O’Brien’s visit in February 2006, about which locals still speak in awe-struck tones.

If You Go

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress
Iso Mustasaari island

Hotel Kämp
Pohjoiseplanadi 29

Temppeliaukio Church
Lutherinkatu 3

Bar Llamas
Iso Roobertinkatu 14

Iso Roobertinkatu 20

Digelius Music
Laivurinrinne 2

Pony Ride
Pursimiehenkatu 17

Ravintola Sea Horse
Kapteeninkatu 11

Kafe Mockba
Eerikinkatu 11

Corona Bar & Billiards
Eerikinkatu 11

Sokos Hotel Torni
Yrjönkatu 26

Stockmann Helsinki
Aleksanterinkatu 52

Akateeminen Kirjakauppa
Multiple Locations

Artek Helsinki
Eteläesplanadi 18

Arabia factory outlet
Arabiakeskus Hameentie 135

Juuri Keittio & Baari
Korkeavuorenkatu 27
Helsinki, which wasn’t even Finland’s capital city till the Russians moved it from Turku in 1812, may not be high on the amateur traveler’s itinerary. But this sequestered Scandinavian paradise is surprisingly easy to fall in love with. The Economist recently ranked it among the 10 most livable cities in the world. Its population count is just higher than half a million, and none of its major destinations is more than a 15-minute walk from wherever you may find yourself (a coffee shop, usually — Finns are said to drink more of it than anyone else in the world).

Much of the population lives in the city center, a bustling mélange of new and used bookstores, coffeehouses, restaurants, record shops, furniture stores, fashion houses and theme bars easily accessed by the green tram that ambles through narrow streets. It’s as though someone drew Manhattan’s East Village on a plastic sheet and popped it into the oven. Helsinki: the Shrinky Dink of European capital cities, far hipper than you’d ever expect and far warmer than its brutal winters would suggest. There are also several lovely hotels in and around the city center; I saw them on the way to mine — the Hotel Kämp, a five-star joint otherwise known as the Hotel Where Celebrities Stay When They Come to Helsinki. Word is, this was composer Jean Sibelius’ haunt of choice, and Michael Jackson is said to have stayed here.
  • Image about Helsinki
Ravintola Sea Horse, affectionately known as Sikala by locals
Perttu Saksa

Those guidebooks I purchased ultimately proved of little use, underscoring nothing but the broad-daylight highlights — the myriad art museums and Russian churches that decorate the downtown. (One must-see, the circa-1969 Temppeliaukio Church carved into and out of a single piece of granite, was closed during my trip; winter here offers plentiful downtime, during which makeovers occur.) What the books don’t reveal is the hidden city, which begs to be explored.

On my second day in the city, the Helsinki Tourist & Convention Bureau provides me with a guide, Anna, a substitute French and math teacher in her early 30s who speaks a half-dozen languages. She’s the opposite of most Finns, which is to say outgoing, brash and pleasantly loud. She was born and raised in Helsinki and, like most Helsinkians, left once or twice but, like most Helsinkians, came back and would never dream of leaving for good.

We spend our Monday, from first cup of coffee till close to last call (which comes at 4 a.m.), off the grid, wandering the streets — Uudenmaankatu, Annankatu, Iso Roobertinkatu and other seemingly random assortments of consonants couched in excessive vowels. We pass monuments and statues whose backstories even natives don’t know. There is something called the “Three Blacksmiths” statue, which looks just as it sounds. I ask: “Who are they?” Anna answers: “Three blacksmiths.” Good enough.

At 10 in the morning, Anna suggests we stop in a bar called Bar Llamas on Iso Roobertinkatu street — just for coffee, she insists. It’s a garishly decorated joint that looks like Tijuana exploded all over Finland. After grabbing a cup of joe, we walk one block down to one of the many record stores in the city center, called Stupido. The place is empty save for a clerk named Walter, who looks like Eddie Vedder. He doesn’t say much when we walk in, but when I ask for suggestions, he opens up, asking about my tastes and sharing his own.

He gathers a small handful of CDs from the late ’70s and early ’80s by such local artists as Tuomari Nurmio (whose classic album Kohdusta Hautaan sounds a little like late ’60s Byrds sung in Finnish), Dave Lindholm (who sounds like E of the Eels backed by only a string quartet) and beloved cult figure Pekka Streng (who released only three prog-folk records before his death in 1975 and granted but a single interview). Walter also suggests the Hurriganes, who call to mind mid-’70s American classic rock. I buy my four discs — a total of 35 euros ($48), a downright deal in this expensive city where prices, locals insist, are slowly coming down.
  • Image about Helsinki
Stockmann department store

Anna then steers me toward other vinyl destinations piled up on a corner, Digelius Music — a wonderland of world music — chief among them. We walk deeper and deeper into the sleek, shimmering Design District, where, in front of one storefront called Pony Ride (so named for the vintage pony ride in the window), a woman stands smoking a cigarette.

She invites us inside, where racks teem with extraordinary pieces from decades far gone, like a Victorian-era gown so fragile it looks like it would disintegrate with a harsh word. I tell the woman her store is remarkable.

“Do you really think so?” she asks with a sheepish smile. “I don’t know. I’m so unsure. I’m only 24.”

Once we’re outside, Anna says of Pony Ride’s owner: “She’s like most Finns — very modest.”

We walk for another half hour, ducking into stores to stay warm and avoid the crews scraping snow and ice off rooftops. Finally, we reach our lunchtime destination: Ravintola Sea Horse, a local legend since 1934 and a beloved proprietor of classic Finn dishes such as fried pike perch smothered in butter and grated horseradish, steak topped with onions so brown and sweet they melt like candy, and mashed potatoes drowned in butter. Anna says this is working-class food — hearty enough to sustain a person for a whole day, especially in weather like this. A dish that looked too big to finish is devoured in moments; anything coated with that much butter slides down easily.

But we’re not done yet. A block down is a coffee shop (but of course) selling hamburger-size pastries filled with whipped cream and your choice of paste or fruit jam. “No way I can finish this,” I tell Anna, who’s returned with two cups of espresso. And then it’s gone. It would be a sin to waste something so heavenly.

Later, Anna suggests a drink at Kafe Mockba, a dive bar owned by film directors Mika and Aki Kaurismäki that’s been beautifully re-created from the Nikita Khrushchev era — from its barren walls to its extensive selection of vodka to the Estonian opera singer croaking Finnish over the battered hi-fi. The Kaurismäki brothers opened the bar 18 years ago to escape the crowd at Corona — the next-door billiards hall, which they also own, that’s a destination on any hipster’s tour of Finland. There used to be a time when Kafe Mockba was so secret, the doors didn’t even have handles. You had to really know how to get in.

Anna loves her city and likes to share its secrets. So, down dark and treacherous streets where ice twice claimed me when vodka couldn’t, she steers us toward the 14-story Hotel Torni, which dates back to 1928, when it was conceived by several of the city’s finest architects. It is famous for two reasons: O’Malley’s Irish Bar, beloved by the many English transplants who move (usually briefly) to Helsinki; and the hotel tower, beloved by everyone.

“See that corner up there?” Anna asks, pointing to the back left portion of the tower. She explains that the spot offers an unparalleled view of the city and that couples are sometimes caught getting, well, romantic there. Indeed, Hotel Torni is considered one of the city’s chief landmarks. For several reasons, it turns out.