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Travel | Helsinki, Finland

February 18, 2018

After many years of being obsessed with all things Scandinavian, my partner and I decided to embark on a ten day trip to visit Finland, Sweden and Denmark to satiate our curiosity about the countries that brought us Ikea, the Moomins and how to hygge. 

 

Being our first time travelling to all three countries, it was easy to choose which locations to visit. As with most Nordic novices, we picked the capital cities with a stop over in a large town en route to our final border crossing. Our trip would include planes, trains, trams and ferries but our first destination was Helsinki. 

 

Situated in southern Finland, Helsinki is an unassuming city with a reputation for its excellence in design, art and architecture. Its Baltic bays and stone walkways are made for meandering and discovery awaits around every corner with distinctive shops, intriguing eateries and captivating museums scattered throughout its boulevards and back streets.

 

Arriving at Vantaa airport just twelve miles north of the city, we took the train into Helsinki.  We were excited to see the famous Central Railway Station that was described by railway historian, Brian Solomon, as "one of the world's great railway terminal buildings, and one of only a few that embody an art nouveau aesthetic". 

Designed by Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), the railway station was completed and opened in 1919. Although its design is defined as Art Nouveau, it contains many features that would later come to define the Art Deco and Modernist movements. Finished in pink granite and featuring a clock tower, a huge arched window over its main entrance and globe-bearing statues guarding the portal, the structure makes for an impressive welcome to Finland.

Our first wander led us directly to the the Marimekko flagship store on Mikonkatu. For those unfamiliar with the lifestyle brand, Marimekko is synonymous with Finnish design. Founded in 1951 by Armi Ratia, the design house is celebrated worldwide for its original prints and colours that are translated into fashion, bags, home decoration and accessories.

I was positively giddy at being able to wander around an entire store filled with vivid patterns on almost every surface. Although Marimekko items are available for purchase in UK stores, the stockists are few and far between and ordinarily only have a limited range on display. I would come to discover that in Helsinki, the stores are liberally spread around the city and stalls can even be found in local market halls. 

We then went onto Artek on Keskuskatu, a design store that showcases its own collection of furniture, lighting and accessories alongside carefully selected complementary brands. The name Artek is a synthesis of "art" and "technology" and the company strives to remain "an innovative player in the world of modern design, developing new products at the intersection of design, architecture, and art." ('About Artek', www.artek.fi)

Heading east, we arrived at the impressive green domed Helsinki Cathedral. With a stark white façade that was dazzling in the brilliant late afternoon sun, the colossal structure dominates Senate Square whose perimeter is lined by City Hall, the Palace of the Council State and the Presidential Palace. With the Bank of Finland just a stone's throw away, the district houses the political, religious and commercial powers in the form of Neoclassical architecture.

We began day two of our visit at Kauppatori, Helsinki's main market square on the South Harbour, the highlight of which was the adjacent Vanha Kauppahalli (old market hall). The stalls offer a variety of traditional Finnish fare such as tervamuikku (small white fish in tar sauce), bear meat and elk pâté as well as more familiar foodstuffs like cheese and cold cuts from its remote European neighbours in Italy, Spain and France. 

After sampling a selection of culinary delights, we gorged on a visual feast at the Design Museum Helsinki.  The museum holds a permanent exhibition of design objects from the nineteenth century to the present day alongside temporary displays.