A Perfect Promenade
Whether you’re into window shopping or people-watching, a stroll through the Esplanade Park, or Espa as the locals call it is a must. It is located in the midst of Helsinki’s main retail boulevards and design district and it will more than satisfy both cravings.
In addition to an endless parade of tall, clean-scrubbed Baltic gentlemen and Finnish women in crisp-cut fashions in colors vibrant enough to stand-up to even the dreariest Nordic winter, you’ll find flagship boutiques for Finland’s most famous design brands.
At Iittala, find glassware that anyone would be proud to have on their home bar. Among Iittala’s most famous collections are the icy, textured Ultima Thule drinking glasses that you’ll already have encountered if you flew first class on Finnair to Helsinki. Originally designed exclusively for the airline by renowned Finnish sculptor Tappio Wirkkala, these heavy vessels with their bark-like surfaces feel remarkably pleasurable in the hand. Fair warning: pick up one and you’re likely to take home a set of four.
And don’t miss the flock of designer Oiva Toikka’s decorative glass birds. Issued in limited annual editions since 1972, these pieces have an elegant whimsy that keeps collectors as obsessed as Audubon club members in the wild.
The classic home furnishings of Alvar and Aino Aalto are showcased at Artek, founded in 1935. The stools, benches, and other pieces of furniture here strike a delicate balance between handicraft and mass production, at once instantly recognizable and somehow non-descript. The Aalto designs feel as familiar as air and water, reminding visitors of Finnish design’s global influence.
Also known worldwide, though often mistakenly thought to be Japanese rather than Finnish, is the textile design giant Marimekko. The Helsinki-based company, started in 1949, has a stable of bold pattern artists who follow the company’s credo of “spreading happiness through design.”
Colorful floral supergraphics, giant stripe patterns, and blocky black and white abstractions are company hallmarks, available at their flagship store on everything from bed linens, to coffee mugs, to totebags.
In addition to these and other already famous Finnish designers, you can get ahead of the trends at Tre, an award-winning concept shop that spotlights up-and-coming native design talents in everything from desk lamps and flower pots to jewelry and running shoes.
Cultural Quick Hits
Most visitors will generally want to experience the best of Helsinki by ambling around town and taking in the atmosphere, and there are some historical and cultural institutions well-worth putting on your must-see list.
Helsinki Central Station, hub of the national railway, is an extraordinary specimen of art nouveau architecture. Over 200,000 people a day pass through the granite grandeur of its central hall, guarded over by four muscular sentries on the façade, each hefting an enormous spherical glass lamp. The building was designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who later immigrated to the United States where he became one of the century’s most important professors of architecture and design, influencing students including the Eames Brothers and his own famous son, Eero.
While its street front exterior is pleasant enough, you’ll be astonished upon entering the Kaisa House library at the University of Helsinki, which features a tiered, elliptical atrium that makes one feel as if in the center of a giant, zooming camera lens. Stark white and skylit, the structure reveals endless nesting ovoids as one climbs from the ground floor to the upper levels. Crossing the threshold into this remarkable building by Anttinen Oiva Architects is like stepping from the mundane into the sci-fi fantastic.
Another remarkable library building, the new City Central Library, is scheduled to open in December 2018. Plans and mock-ups suggest a massive wooden bridge capped by a cloudscape.
Temppeliaukio Church rises like a giant eyeball from rugged natural bedrock. Inside, rough, natural rock walls that look like they could tumble down in an avalanche at any moment support a ring of alternating windows and concrete struts, topped by a spectacular, saucer-shaped copper dome. The building’s interplay of the manmade and the natural is breathtaking, as are the room’s sublime acoustics (catch a concert here if you can). While you may never have heard of it, in the realm of modern church architecture, this is up there with Gaudi’s Familia Segrada basilica in Barcelona and Edgar Fonseca’s sci-fi beehive of a cathedral in Rio de Janeiro.
For more architecture along with cleverly curated modern art, don’t miss the eminently user-friendly Kiasma, the contemporary arm of the Finnish National Gallery. Curvy and colorful, the museum’s interior ramps and walkways create an effortless self-guided tour for visitors, and the entire building feels like its been carefully engineered to ward off museum fatigue.