HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland’s capital comes alive as soon as the snow begins to melt and residents start venturing outdoors again, cafes spill onto sidewalks and the city’s modernist architecture sparkles.
While cross-country ski trails and saunas offer entertainment for visitors during the colder months, the city is best explored after it emerges from its long, dark winter.
The next several months will be a particularly exciting time to visit as Helsinki, the 2012 World Design Capital, holds special events related to design and fashion.
The Design Capital events include the opening of a new public sauna in Merihaka. A wooden pavilion made of renewable and recycled materials will be built near the Design Museum to showcase the country’s new generation of artists.
Helsinki’s long and warm summer days also provide a perfect backdrop to events like the two-week Helsinki Festival of theatre, music, circus, and dance, starting August 17. The Flow Festival, also in August, features world-class artists such as Bjork, Bon Iver, The Black Keys, and Feist.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of 48 hours in the city.
6 p.m. - Start with drinks at Ateljee Bar at the top floor at the historic Hotel Torni, with a 360-degree view over Helsinki. Be sure to check the scenic, if slightly unsettling, toilets.
8 p.m. - Restaurant Sea Horse in Ullalinna offers a perfect introduction to Finnish cuisine, with traditional favorites such as fried herring and Vorschmack served in a dining room that looks little changed from the 1930s.
10 p.m. - Have after-dinner drinks at the tiny Kafe Moskva on Eerikinkatu, owned by film-making brothers Aki and Mika Kaurismaki and known for its Soviet-era interiors and service. The entrance is an unmarked door next to Corona, another Kaurismaki operation with beer and billiard tables.
The Iso Roobertinkatu area is a centre of local night life, packed with bars and night clubs. Newly opened Adams offers a glimpse of the city’s more contemporary scene, and its eclectic sounds and experimental kitchen draw Helsinki’s fashionable set.
9 a.m. - Start your day with a swim and sauna at the Yrjonkatu swimming hall in a beautiful art deco building built in the 1920s.
Bathing suits are optional and were in fact prohibited until 2001. Women and men have separate days and the hall is closed during the peak summer season, so check ahead.
Finish with breakfast on the second-floor balcony.
10 a.m. - Head to Stockmann, a landmark department store that offers a high-quality selection of everything from groceries to fashion. Book lovers should check out the adjacent Akateeminen book store, one of the best in Europe, and the National Library with its gorgeous rotunda ceiling a few blocks away.
Esplanadi is Helsinki’s main boulevard for high-end shopping, with flagship stores of big Finnish brands such as Marimekko, Artek, and Iittala. For independent Finnish designers, head towards Helsinki’s Design District around Uudenmaankatu and Erottaja streets.
12 p.m. - Walk to Kauppatori to check out the outdoor market, which is open every day during the warmer months. Have lunch at the chapel-shaped restaurant, Kappeli, where artists like Jean Sibelius hung out at the turn of the century. It is better known for its views than its cuisine, but the traditional creamy salmon soup is worth a try.
2 p.m. - From Kauppatori, catch a 15-minute ferry to Suomenlinna, an 18th century UNESCO-listed sea fortress built on an island chain.
Before you board, pick up some snacks at the Kauppatori market hall. Suomenlinna is a favorite picnic spot for locals, although it does have some upscale restaurants and a brewery.
6 p.m. - After returning to Kauppatori, take the No. 3 tram towards Kaivopuisto for an architectural tour.
The city is proud of its public transport system, especially the trams, which represent Finnish efficiency and egalitarianism — even top bankers and executives ride alongside blue collar workers and school children. People with babies ride for free.
After viewing the charming, art nouveau buildings in Ullanlinna, get off at the Central railway station and walk towards the newly opened Helsinki Music Center on Mannerheimintie.
Some of Finland’s most famous landmarks are concentrated in this neighborhood: the stone-carved Temppeliaukio church, the red granite Parliament Building and Finlandia Hall, an Alvar Aalto masterpiece. Also nearby are the Kiasma museum for contemporary art and the National Museum designed by Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero Saarinen.
7 p.m. - Rest your feet at Storyville, a live-jazz spot next to Parliament and a favorite spot for locals and lawmakers alike. Grab a seat on the tree-shaded terrace and order a Gin Long Drink, or Lonkero, a mix of grapefruit soda and gin.
8 p.m. - Head to Olo to sample some modern Nordic cuisine. One of Finland’s five Michelin star prized restaurants, chef Pekka Terava surprises guests with innovative combinations such as Finnish salmon and licorice.
Other high-cuisine options include restaurants such as Chez Dominique, Demo, Luomo, or Postres, while those looking for something more casual can choose Lupolo and Muru. All require reservations.
11 p.m. - See Finns in their most uninhibited state at Yokyopeli karaoke bar near Kasarmitori square. Legendary rock club Tavastia is a good place to check out local bands and occasional visiting acts.
8 a.m. - Recover with coffee and a cinnamon bun at any of the city’s outdoor markets.
9 a.m. - Take the No. 3 tram again, this time for a longer ride. Known as the tourist tram for its circular, one-hour route, it is an ideal way to see popular spots. Download an audio guide beforehand at www.dewhurstdesigns.co.uk/helsinki/
10 a.m - Get off at the Helsinki Opera House and walk towards the Olympic Stadium, designed by Aalto for the 1952 games. Join the locals for a swim or try the sauna at the Swimming Stadium - a masterpiece of Functionalist design.
12 p.m. - Have lunch at Elite, a popular Finnish restaurant for the city’s bohemians. Legendary Finnish writer Mika Waltari and film actor Tauno Palo used to dine here.
2 p.m. - For something sweet, head to Karl Fazer Cafe on Kluuvikatu, an old Helsinki institution. The tea salon offers a wide selection of cakes.
3 p.m. - Take the tram towards Arabia, where the old ceramic factory still turns out some of the most well-known pieces of Finnish design.
The factory outlet offers discounts on tableware including Moomin mugs and Aalto vases, and is a great place to stock up on gifts.
Reporting By Eero Vassinen; Editing by Ritsuko Ando and Paul Casciato