Thursday 13 December 2018

Hot Helsinki - From saunas to Sibelius on a Finnish city break

The Finnish capital makes for a super city break... awkward sauna moments included, says Lizzie Enfield

Aerial view of Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) sea fortress in Helsinki, Finland
Aerial view of Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) sea fortress in Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki sauna
Hotel Katajanokka, Helsinki
Tentsile Ecocamp

Lizzie Enfield

I arrive in Helsinki during unusually warm weather, hot enough to make use of the Allas Sea Pool, a garden-like oasis of pools and saunas in the middle of the city.

Set the mood

Finnish culture revolves around saunas - they exist in every hotel and on practically every street corner. Historically, these were the places where Finns brewed their beer, washed their laundry and cured their hams... though these days it's more about sweating, chatting and clinching business deals. Immersing myself in it all, I do laps watching the bustle of the harbour fish market, a skyline dominated by flat-fronted buildings and the domed Lutheran cathedral and, out to sea, the ferry making its way to Suomenlinna island (right). Water, nature, architecture, history and design: Helsinki makes for a heavenly city break.

Guilty pleasure

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Hotel Katajanokka, Helsinki
 

Going straight to jail! I feel a slight sense of foreboding as I walk along the (carpeted) landing and unlock the door to my cell. But Helsinki's former prison is now the four-star Hotel Katajanokka, and the bedding and bathroom are enough to remind me I'm here out of choice. Barred windows, striped shirts and other themed souvenirs - not to mention 'jail burgers' on the menu - keep reminding me of its austere past. But, as I sit in the sheltered courtyard, listening to live music with a shot of Lakka (cloudberry liqueur), I can't say my time is anything other than pleasurable. Double rooms start from €149 in low season. hotelkatajanokka.fi

Top tip

Pick up a bike and cycle to some of Helsinki's quirky neighbourhoods. I pedalled up a steep hill to Kallio, now branded the bohemian 'hipster' part of town. A stay at Scandic Passic hotel (scandichotels.com) allows easy access to both the city centre and this more residential area.

Cheap kick

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Tentsile Ecocamp
 

The great outdoors; or total freedom paddle-boarding across the pristine waters of a forest-fringed lake. Just 40km from Helsinki (served by frequent buses and trains) is Nuuksio National Park, a vast wilderness where you can paddle, canoe or hike through valleys and gorges formed by the Ice Age. Here, I spend the night in the Tentsile Ecocamp, suspended high above the forest floor, listening out for European nightjars and failing to spot an endangered Siberian flying squirrel. nationalparks.fi

Insider intel

Finland is notoriously pricey, so get the most out of the city with the Helsinki Card, which covers public transport, entrances and discounts to a host of museums and attractions. It costs €48 for 48 hours. Use it to visit the Design Museum (designmuseum.fi), or take the ferry to Unesco-protected Suomenlinna island (above), built as a fortress in 1748 and home to the Sibelius Monument, a vast wave of steel pipes.

Glitches

Depending on your level of Celtic reticence - and mine is quite high - nudity! Saunas are everywhere, and I felt slightly prudish wrapped in a towel, while my fellow sauna goers were starkers. Be prepared!

Helsinki uliaKivela.jpg
Helsinki sauna

Get me there

Lizzie was a guest of Visit Helsinki (myhelsinki.fi).

Both Norwegian (norwegian.com) and Finnair (finnair.com) fly direct from Dublin to the capital. The Finnair City Bus links with the city every 20 minutes (€12.50 return).

A canoe, hike and stand-up paddleboard weekend with Much Better Adventures (muchbetteradventures.com) costs from €505 and includes a night at the Katajanokka Hotel, treetop camping and all activities and meals.

Read more:

Lapland: What's it really like to visit Santa's hometown?

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