Looking for Helsinki restaurants? Want to know where to get the best coffee in the Finnish capital?Â Nordic food culture is fashionable, but Copenhagen and Stockholm usually pip Helsinki to the post when discussing culinary weekend getaways. In this feature we make the case, instead, for Finlandâ€™s edgy, design-led capital.
From cute cafes to hip cocktail bars, smart restaurants to local street food spots, Helsinki has it all. You just need to know where to find it, and thatâ€™s where our guide to eating and drinking in the city comes in.Â Plus, explore Helsinkiâ€™s new crop of vegan and vegetarian-friendly cafÃ©s and restaurants.Â
Sandro â€“ best brunch in Helsinki
On a rainy weekend in Helsinki trendy locals head to Sandro for bottomless lunches and weekend brunches. The stripped-back dÃ©cor at its two branches (one is in Helsinkiâ€™s design district, the other in edgier Kallio) allows the kitchenâ€™s North African food to steal the limelight.
Colourful Moroccan ceramic plates are piled high with an array of salads Ââ€“ think chickpea with carrots and beetroot, jewelled couscous and tabbouleh, and pickled cauliflower with crunchy toasted almonds. Thereâ€™s plenty of choice where dips are concerned â€“ silky, smoky baba ganoush, zingy pistachio pesto and cucumber and lemon labneh â€“ plus freshly baked crusty spiced bread.
Finish this veggie-focused spread with coffee or mint tea and tiny squares of chocolate cake and baklava.
Kahvila Tynni â€“ for breakfast by the water
On a sunny day in Helsinki, wrap up warm, run down to the western banks of TÃ¶Ã¶lÃ¶nlahti Bay, bounce along a wooden jetty to this little cafÃ© in a wooden hut and bask in the sunshine on one if its deckchairs.
This lake-like slick of saltwater here is a reminder that Helsinki spreads out across an archipelago and thereâ€™s an almost beachside feel to the setting. The friendly Finnish girls behind the counter will tempt you with cinnamon bun biscuits topped with flaked almonds, nettle and peppermint tea and indulgent croissants filled with huge wedges of brie, strawberries and a drizzle of balsamic.
If you donâ€™t fancy the jetty deckchairs, thereâ€™s a separate seating area, still overlooking the water but where tables and chairs are delicately screened off from the bay by giant plants.
Kahvila Sinisen Huvilan â€“ for ice cream with a view
Stroll 10 minutes or so round TÃ¶Ã¶lÃ¶nlahti Bay to its eastern shore and youâ€™ll come across a beautiful blue clapboard house. Tucked behind it, set back from the waterâ€™s edge, is a tiny blue shed thatâ€™s home to another charming cafÃ©.
Grab a cone brimming with Finnish blueberry ice cream and lounge on one of the wooden chairs scattered beneath the birch trees. Idyllic.
Skiffer â€“ for pizza and DJs
Hop on the little ferry from the southern shore of Helsinki to reach this restaurant and party spot. Tuck in to thin, crisp pizzas so large that they curl up at either end like a Viking longboat. Toppings are Finnish â€“ try chorizo and crayfish or rainbow trout and summer veg with plenty of dill. Snuggle up under blankets as DJs hang around the decks waiting their turn to spin their mixes out into the crisp air.
Juuri â€“ for Sapas
Juuri, meaning â€˜rootâ€™ in Finnish, is where to head to for Finnish tapas, or â€˜Sapasâ€™. These stunning little tasting plates adorned with edible flowers, sprigs of dill and botanicals taste great too. Try grouse with birch, chargrilled swede, little salty fried fish â€“ vendace â€“ with creamed potatoes, and beetroot mousse with roasted goatâ€™s cheese.
With a generous bread basket from Juuriâ€™s own bakery, this is an ideal light dinner. The compact restaurant wouldnâ€™t be out of place in Helsinkiâ€™s design district with its wooden tables, wine-red walls and modern light installations.
Good Life Coffee â€“ for the best coffee in Helsinki
Helsinkiâ€™s most trendy coffee shop is the perfect spot to watch hip young residents of Kallio pass by. The barista is so chilled that a queue often forms but the house-roasted coffee is worth the wait (ideally pair it with a huge chocolate pastry twist). Sit at the communal table and enjoy the calm, Finnish ambiance.
Loyly â€“ for drinks in a stylish sauna
Sauna culture is a way of life in Finland. Moments of silence are not considered awkward but a chance just to sit and enjoy another personâ€™s company. Try it for yourself at Loyly, an upmarket sauna thatâ€™s perched dramatically on the seafront just south of the city centre. Sip champagne by its log fire between sauna sessions and chilling dips in the Baltic Sea.
After your two-hour sauna session head out onto a series of wooden decks to enjoy a restorative tipple overlooking the sea. We liked the Napue gin (distilled to the north of Helsinki in Kyro distillery) with Finnish botanicals of meadowsweet, sea buckthorn, cranberries and birch leaves.
Fafaâ€™s â€“ for a quick local fix
This may look rather severe and unwelcoming on the outside but head into the stark white building in Helsinkiâ€™s trendy Kallio district and you soon discover why itâ€™s a local institution. Essentially a posh kebab shop, itâ€™s a great place to get a slice of local life.
Order a pitta filled with halloumi and aubergine, or a lamb burger, then sit in the window and youâ€™ll be well on your way to becoming a trendy Finn. There are 13 outposts in the city, ranging in size, so hunt one down when you need a quick fix.
CafÃ© Succes â€“ for traditional Finnish salmon soup
This ancient cafÃ© dates back to 1957, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a comforting bowl of lohikeitto, a creamy salmon soup topped with mountains of fresh dill (try our lohikeitto recipe here). Alternatively go for breakfast and knock back a Finnish coffee and a Korvapuusti cinnamon roll.
Hotel Lilla Roberts â€“ for Nordic cocktails
Bar Lilla E may be a hotel bar but it is a destination in itself for those in the know on Helsinkiâ€™s hipÂ cocktailÂ route. The spot-lit wooden bar (which sits next to a crackling fire) makes a stylish backdrop to a menu of Nordic-inspired cocktails.
Try a Midsummerâ€™s Eve, which recreates the scent of a Scandinavian summer with spring birch-infused TanquerayÂ ginÂ and St Germain elderflower liqueur (a tumbler is filled with flowers and birch branches are set alight to infuse the cocktail and its immediate surroundings with a smoky aroma), or a Strawberry Cake (wild Finnish strawberries are whizzed up with lemon balm, skyr and Finlandia vodka to create a sweet, creamy drink).
Each cocktail comes with a little extra, be that a tiny cheese triangle and small cup of black coffee on the side, a little juniper salmon smorrebrod or a tiny bed of grass to enhance the freshly mown smell.
Best vegetarian places in Helsinki
Helsinki has plenty of restaurants ideal for vegetarians. Check out these vegetarian and vegan-friendly spots in Helsinki from Finnish chef, food writer and forager Sami Tallberg.
Top-notch service is a key element at Andante, a hip flower and coffee shop. The team serve mean coffees and matcha lattes, and the talented pastry chef has a passion for raw cakes; try a blackcurrant and lingonberry cupcake.
Vegetarian cafÃ©, Cargo, takes its name from the container stores itâ€™s bolted together from. Order a purple haze mocktail, made with wild Finnish berries and rose petals, and a kale caesar with avocado or a vegan burger with wild herbs and cauliflower fritter.Â It also has one of the best terraces in town for open-air dining.
Local Finnish design shop LOKAL is great for quality souvenirs (look out for Anna Kantanenâ€™s elegant coffee pots). It also has a coffee shop that serves local ice creams in summer â€“ try the blackcurrant leaf.
New Nordic Restaurant GrÃ¶nÂ does New Nordic cooking extremely well, using a wide range of ingredients. Youâ€™ll find wild plants, preserved foods and natural wines on the menuÂ all year round â€“ thereâ€™s always a choice betweenÂ Ã la carte or a four-course menu of the day. Typical dishes include milk ice cream, roasted sunflower seeds, green coffee bean oil and roasted sunflower seed caramel. Itâ€™s great-value fine dining.
Date + Kale
The spanking new restaurant area on the fifth floor of Kamppi shopping centre is home to some great spots forÂ a quick lunch overlooking the city. Favourites include Date + Kale, which does a busy trade in raw rainbow brownies and energising plant-based food bowls and dips; think coconut curry withÂ sweet potato, cauliflower, lentils, coconut milk, pomegranate, coriander and black rice.
Expect new-wave brasserie food at The Cock. Run by Ville Relander and Richard McCormick, two stalwarts of the local restaurant scene, itâ€™s known for its relaxed atmosphere (everyone is welcome, dressed up or down, at any time of day). Try the broccoli tempura with wasabi yogurt and avocado or the arancini with spicy tomato sauce and kale pesto.
A warehouse-style venue with modern bistro food, BasBas is also home to the best wine bar in town, with a hip clientele and small plates to share; think avocado and fennel on toast. The main menu is strong on classic French dishes made with quality ingredients. Great service is also part of its success.
A tiny coffee roastery and cafÃ©, Maja is set in a 1970s shopping centre on the outskirts of the city, close to some lovely wild spaces. Fuel-up with a Kono drip coffee then head off island-hopping on foot or by bike. Close by are Lehtisaari and Kaskisaari, two of my favourite foraging spots for wild berries and mushrooms. FollowÂ @majacoffeeroastery on Instagram.
Going strong for around 20 years, Silvoplee is the best-known vegan restaurant in town. No-one goes there for the decor but the lunchtime buffet (plates are priced by weight at the till) is packed with delicious homemade salads, dips and bakes. Thereâ€™s also a cafÃ© attached, serving smoothies, coffees and a collection of raw cakes.
A simple, stylish bistro serving classic Scandinavian dishes with great care, little fuss and a modern twist, Vinkkeli is one of the best restaurants in the city. Seasonality is big here â€“ dishes often come laced with just-picked ingredients, such as a white chocolate panna cotta dotted with redcurrants â€“ and it offers great wine pairings.
Where to stay in Helsinki
Double rooms at Hotel Lilla Roberts cost from Â£150 per night,Â b&b.
How to get to Helsinki
Return flights from London to Helsinki cost from around Â£85 (norwegian.com).
More info: myhelsinki.fi
Written by Alex Crossley,Â October 2016
Photographs by Alex Crossley
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