Helsinki: The Scandinavian design capital

Prachi Joshi | Updated on August 02, 2019

Piece of glass: Alvar Aalto’s Iittala collection on display

Stairway to design heaven: The staircase at the newly-opened Central Library

Modern living: The Central Library Oodi also acts like a meeting space

If you love great design and architecture, Finland’s capital is right up your alley

Scandinavian chic made a mark on our collective consciousness with its clean lines, a minimalist aesthetic, whitewashed palette with wooden accents, and, above all, a focus on functionality and sustainability. Swedish and Danish design has been at the forefront of this, but Finland is not far behind. It’s capital city Helsinki, crowned the World Design Capital in 2012, takes its role seriously. Helsinki is a must visit for any design lover.

Design detail

The Designmuseo Design Museum ( has to be the first port of call for any design aficionado. Founded in 1873, the museum has been in its current — a 19th century neo-Gothic structure — premises since 1978. Its permanent collection traces the history of Finnish design to present day through a collection of over 75,000 objects. You can find Nokia’s early mobile phone models alongside bold-patterned clothes and accessories from Marimekko (Finland’s most recognised fashion brand since the 1950s), glassware by the 19th-century brand Iittala, Eero Aarnio’s 1963 Ball Chair, and much more. The museum also runs temporary exhibitions; currently ongoing is Secret Universe (until September 22), with the work of designer duo Aamu Song and Johan Olin who have created clothing, accessories, furniture, and objets d’art inspired by folk arts and traditional craftsmaking techniques. A short walk from the museum is the Design District (, featuring over 200 indie boutiques and ateliers where you can shop Finnish design by young artists and entrepreneurs.

Iconic architecture

Helsinki has a curious mix of neo-Gothic, modernist architecture, and ultra-modern buildings standing side-by side. There’s the neoclassical simplicity of the Lutheran Cathedral contrasting with the over-the-top Byzantine Revival opulence of the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. Alvar Aalto, of course, left his mark on Helsinki with his classicmeets-modern style as evidenced in Finlandia Hall, the Helsinki Hall of Culture, the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookstore) and much more. If you’re looking to catch a moment of quiet, head to the Kamppi Chapel, also known as Chapel of Silence, located somewhatincongruously at the entrance of Kamppi Shopping Centre. With its soft curves and shiny wooden façade, the chapel that opened in 2012 represents the best of contemporary architecture. It has a small altar (though no prayers are held here) and several wooden benches for silent meditation. Nearby, you can see a series of domed portholes protruding from the ground, almost like alien forms. Beneath them is Amos Rex (, a new gallery space for experimental art. Helsinki’s newest architectural landmark opened in December 2018. The Central Library Oodi ( is a €98-million wood-andglass structure styled like a boat with unexpected curves and angles. Along with books, the library acts like a meeting space.

Sauna style

For a country of 5.5millionpeople, Finlandhasmore than 3 million saunas! Almost everyone has access to a sauna, either private ones in their own homes or at their summer cottages, or public ones or at hotels. Many office buildings have saunas for their employees and even the SkyWheel Helsinki (a 40-metre high observation wheel) has a SkySauna, a unique sauna cabin that can fit 4-5 people at a time (plus an onground hot tub). Opened in 2013, Kulttuurisauna ( a peaceful public sauna with a waterfront location in the Merihaka district of Helsinki. The white, single-storey, log-pillared building has a calming vibe with large panoramic windows overlooking the Gulf of Finland. Another public sauna worth checking out is Löyly ( that opened in 2016 in the formerly industrial neighbourhood of Hemesaari in Helsinki. The wind and solar-powered sauna has a free form topography and is made of wooden planks.


Opened in May 2018, the swanky St George Hotel ( has contemporary décor, and over 400 pieces of art, including Ai Weiwei’s Tianwu, a massive silk and bamboo dragon that floats above the entrance lobby. For a more classical hotel experience, checkin at Hotel Kämp (, Finland’s first luxury hotel that dates to 1887. It combines high European glam our with 450 Finnish contemporary graphic artworks. Michelin-starred Olo ( is one of the city’s finest restaurants serving up posh Nordic nosh like wild reindeer entrecote (a premium cut of beef) in a stunning seafront location. Emo ( just adjacent to Hotel Kämp does a fantastic degustation menu; don’t miss their decadent malted rye house bread and a smashing G and T made with the local small-batch Napue Gin. Vegetarians, head to the Michelin-starred Grön ( for their four-course vegan degustation menu. For a more relaxed meal, Yes Yes Yes ( serves potent cocktails in a retro diner ambience.

Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer

Published on August 02, 2019

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