My guide to visiting Helsinki, Finland

Bear Park in Helsinki

‘Of course tango is very popular in Finland…’ declared my guide Tuula Rissanen, like it was a well known fact.

We were in a car whizzing around the sights of the city — Tuula had a lot she wanted to show me and we only had limited time.

It wasn’t until we were standing at the top of the tower at the Olympic Stadium, breathing in the spectacular views across the city, that I thought about tango again. Dark, moody, passionate — not characteristics that I would associate with the people of Finland. Why would this dramatic Latin dance be popular here?

‘Well the Finnish have a reputation for being a bit shy and introverted…’ explained Tuula, ‘…dancing the tango is one way that we overcome that.’

Finland is an unusual part of the world in many respects.

For centuries this was a country that formed part of the Kingdom of Sweden; for a brief period it was controlled by the Russian empire; and since then — after being granted independence in 1917 — it has been a buffer between East and West. These influences are still very apparent in Helsinki today — Tsarist Russian architecture blends seamlessly with a Scandinavian simplicity.

‘Stockholm. We always compare ourselves to Stockholm!’ laughed local politician Ville Ylikahri. ‘In many ways we are much more conservative than Sweden and our western neighbours — that is the Russian influence.’

But the people of Finland are proud of their culture, proud of their language, and proud of this country that feels a little like the frontier to a wilder world beyond.

I was there for five days and I could have happily stayed for longer.

My base for my stay in Helsinki was the Glo Hotel. Right in the centre of town, an easy walk from the main train station, modern and stylish.

I went for a walk to explore the neighbourhood, stopping for a drink at Strindberg — a big space with an old-world cafe feel. They were serving Heineken beer on tap and a small glass cost €5.70. I sipped it slowly. Most of the locals seemed to have bought beer at the supermarket and were drinking in the park.

It was Wednesday night and I’d arranged to meet up with Pentti Syrjala who is in charge of PR and marketing for the club Adams. Syrjala started his career as a flight attendant for Scandinavian Airlines, but then moved in to the fashion world before joining the team behind Adams. Dressed head to toe in black, he was cool, friendly, and spoke impeccable English.

Adams has been open for a couple of years. Built in 1886, this venue used to be an old movie theatre and, as well as being one of Helsinki’s top clubs, it also houses the restaurant Shanghai Cowboy. Before Adams took over the space, Shanghai Cowboy was a pop-up restaurant in town — it’s kind of an Asian and Mexican fusion, which works. We drank Corona and snacked on burritos, quesadillas, and tacos — all with an Asian twist. Two DJs from the Indonesian island of Bali were working the Shanghai Cowboy room, warming it up with some electro funk.

The club has a capacity of around 600 and, according to Syrjala, primarily plays ‘modern electronic dance music’ and attracts a mixed, cool, young, Helsinki crowd. Licensing rules are pretty strict in Finland so everything shuts down at 4am. After that the options are either an underground after-party or a house party.

Syrjala was looking forward to summer: ‘People’s personalities change when the sun comes out — there’s lots of great swimming options in summer and terraces for drinking and hanging out.’

Thursday was the Ascension Day holiday in Finland, so most things were closed. I’d arranged a tour of the city with local guide Tuula Rissanen. We met in the hotel lobby.

Small but packed with energy and passion for her city, Tuula had done her research and she made it clear that she was equipped to not only show me all the traditional sights, but also some of the gay neighbourhoods and bars (‘for the rainbow people’ as she described it). ‘I’ve also printed out some information on some of the more hard-core places too…’ she winked at me.

We started off by walking to Senate Square — dominated by the massive cathedral, then we jumped in a cab and drove around the port area and through the city. Jumping out at Toolonlahti (Lake Toolon) we then walked up to the Olympic Stadium — the 1952 Summer Olympics were held here and it’s worth a visit. You can climb the stadium’s tower for spectacular views across the city in all directions.

As we stood, contemplating the view, my guide Tuula turned to me and pronounced sagely: ‘We are a small country, with an odd language, and an unusual personality.’

Next stop was the Kallio neighborhood — a cool sort of alternative district — and we headed to Bear Park where we met up with Mikko Autio who owns Kulmakahvio bar and kiosk.

Autio was friendly and welcoming — dishing us up black coffee and a cinnamon bun (‘Scandinavian style’) and chatting happily about the local gay scene while continuing to serve a steady stream of customers.

That afternoon the wifi in my hotel was proving to be a bit flakey, so I headed across the street for a coffee at Fazer. One of Helsinki’s most famous cafes, Fazer is a big space — it’s buffet style service which is common in Finland, but the food was pretty tasty and it had really solid wifi. I was happy.

Friday was a good day just hanging out and exploring the city. I had coffee with a local gay power couple, politician Ville Ylikahri and club owner Karri Nieminen. We met at Cafe Engel which overlooks the Senate Square. You learn a lot about a city by hanging out with the people who live there. I was really starting to like Helsinki.

It was Friday night and I needed to see some of the city’s nightlife. When I’m travelling by myself I always find it a bit of a challenge to push myself out the door and into a club, but I gamely headed to Hercules — which pitches itself to the 30-plus gay market. Maybe I was a bit early, but it was pretty quiet. I stayed for a couple of beers and then headed back to the hotel.

Saturday was a day for swimming. It was spectacular weather — warm, sunny, a sharp and clear blue sky that made the city look like a photo-shopped postcard.

I walked across town to the Olympic Swimming Pool. Built for the 1952 Summer Olympics, this is a great outdoor facility. A big pool for some serious lane swimming, a diving pool (with all the boards and platforms), plus a kids pool, a water slide, and a grandstand perfect for sunbathing. There was also a sauna of course, located in the changing rooms so single sex which was good. I get a bit embarrassed about being naked in front of women.

In the afternoon it was more swimming, but this time at the indoor pool in the centre of town. Built in 1928 this is a beautiful old pool, but what’s a bit unique about it is that they have separate swimming times for men and women — no mixed swimming. The reason for this is that everyone swims naked. According to their website people have been ‘permitted’ to wear bathing suits from 2001, but based on what I saw no one does.

It’s a bit of a surreal experience but I totally loved it. It wasn’t really a sexual atmosphere, just men of all ages, shapes, and sizes, hanging out, swimming, naked. The routine is you leave all your clothes in a locker, shower, you swim a bit, shower, sauna for a bit, shower, swim a bit more, shower, sauna, and repeat. I was really clean. It’s the kind of place that would be great to hang out with your mates — it’s sort of what I imagine Ancient Greece to have been like.

Saturday night, my last night in Helsinki, and I had my heart set on the city’s most popular gay club. DTM stands for Don’t Tell Mama. I got to the club at about midnight. It’s a big space and there was a good number of people there. The decor was old-school-gay-club, awash with mirror balls and even a marble statue in the entrance of a couple of naked guys wrestling. This is a young crowd, gay boys and their girl friends. Upbeat and happy, this was their Saturday night. If I was in my early 20s and living in Helsinki I’d be here every weekend, dancing with my friends.

Where to stay

  • Glo Hotel: Right in the centre of town, an easy walk from the main train station, this is modern and stylish. Rooms are functional, service is spot on. They have a gym and a spa.

Where to eat

  • Cafe Engel: Cafe Engel is one of the few places in Helsinki that still offers table service — in an effort to reduce labour costs most other cafes have switched to buffet self-serve. This place is in a great location — looking out over the iconic Senate Square in central Helsinki. Good coffee and food options.
  • Juuri: Juuri is a Finnish restaurant where I had dinner one night during my stay in Helsinki. I started with a beer — Sandels a Finnish blond beer. Friendly, efficient service, this is quite a big restaurant. They specialise in ‘sapas’ — small appetisers all made with local Finnish ingredients and generally organic. They were also offering a special goat menu — three goat sapas to start, braised goat for main, and a goat milk yoghurt pannacotta with liquorice and raspberry for dessert. Of course I went for the goat menu. You could add a drinks package with it so that they matched everything to the dishes, which of course I did. “The drinks are mostly beer…” cautioned my friendly and patient waitress. “Oh? Fantastic!” I’m loving beer at the moment. With the sapas course they served an Espi beer from the Laitilan Kievari brewery (Finnish of course). Rich and quite fragrant compared to the blond beer that I’d started the meal with. My waitress brought me a wooden board bearing bread and butter. “The bread is from our own bakery” she said proudly with a smile, as she placed it carefully on the table.
  • Spis: One of the highlights of my visit to Helsinki was dinner at innovative restaurant Spis. This is a small restaurant (20 covers max) — exposed brick work, wooden floors and simple wooden furniture. The owner is a cool guy called Jani. ‘So… are you up for a surprise?’ asked Jani, showing me to a table in the corner. ‘Let’s begin then…’ The first thing served was a Norwegian wheat beer, blended with some elderflower, and served on ice. A small handful of delicate root vegetable crisps accompanied the aperitif. Looking around the restaurant it was clear that servings were small and precise — everyone seemed to be on the tasting menu. I’m pretty sure that it was all that they were offering. The atmosphere of the restaurant was quiet, restrained. There’s an attention to detail at Spis that is impressive. Beautiful glassware, serving dishes matched perfectly to the food that is dished up from a quietly focused kitchen — I could watch the chefs in action from where I was sitting, they barely spoke. The next course was a tasting plate of flavour combinations — difficult to describe without sounding too wanky, but cleverly done. The next drink was a Polish mead. I think I’ve only drunk mead once before (at my cousin Michael’s wedding in Australia — a lifetime ago). It was a bit surreal to be sipping into a glass of mead in the capital of Finland — the sweet honey-based drink delivering an intensity of flavour that seemed a bold move at the start of a meal. The amuse-bouche was a carrot puree served with a salt flavoured with star anise — this is restrained cooking, flavours blending subtly and expertly. The savoury carrot balancing nicely against the sweet intensity of the mead. Next drink was a sauvignon blanc from Italy — I didn’t quite catch the name, but Jani explained that the process used by the vigneron (involving the skins of the grapes) creates a unique orange colour and a strong flavour.
    ‘On its own it would be a bit difficult…’ explained Jani, ‘…but in the next course you’re going to have some liquorice that will help the wine…’ I love liquorice. The dish was a combination of liquorice, horseradish, and parsley root — served on a square of slate. A really interesting combination of flavours and textures. The use of ingredients at Spis is reminiscent of Noma in Copenhagen, a definite Nordic sensibility, but it’s less theatrical — a simpler approach in every respect. The next wine was a French Voignier, low alcohol but quite sweet (like a German wine). This was to accompany a dish of onions and sorrel. Next wine was a Beaujolais, a fresh light fruity red wine. Served with a dish consisting of red cabbage and juniper. Next up was a Riesling from Marlborough in New Zealand (an area almost exclusively associated with Sauvignon Blanc). This was served with a dish of poached scallop, salsify, and vanilla. I’ve eaten a lot of scallops in my time, but I can’t remember a chef ever getting the freshness, the texture, and the balance of flavours so right. ‘This is the first time that we’ve tried a seafood dish that wasn’t fish…’, explained Jani, ‘…we’re pretty happy with it.’ Understatement of the year. The palette cleanser was a sorbet of Jerusalem artichoke and douglas fir — simply stunning. A clean freshness and unexpected combination of flavours. ‘You’ll taste lingonberries…’ said Jani, pouring out a 2011 Cabernet Franc from France. This was to go with the main course of Jerusalem artichoke with poached veal cheek and rosemary. Extraordinarily tender. It’s the little things that make dining like this a special experience. The bread was served in a precise order of flavour — first wheat, then onion, then thyme. Dessert was a small dish of carrot and aniseed — which doesn’t sound very desserty, but the carrot had a sweetness that worked nicely. The second dessert was a combination of parsnip, thyme, and caramel, served with a biodynamic white wine from Bordeaux — made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc but preserved with a natural sulfite from the Himalayas. Coffee was cold-filtered and full of flavour, matching with some final sweet taste sensations that included a beetroot marshmallow. I don’t have the words to describe how good this was.

I would fly to Helsinki for a meal at Spis. But then I would also fly to Helsinki for the swimming, the nightlife, the shopping — and maybe even the tango.