Inner Circle

Helsinki by Design

Yeoh Siew Hoon explains why she had dreamt of going to Finland as a child.

Helsinki by Design
It was thus with a sense of wonder that I landed in Helsinki one October morning. On the approach, a golden sunrise split a piercing blue sky. “Minus three degrees,” the captain said.

When I was in my teens, I started writing to a penpal from Finland. Those were the days before you can just click and make friends. I chose a Finnish penpal because, to a girl growing up on a tropical island, having a friend in a land of snow and ice fired my imagination.

We wrote to each other for a few years and each time I sent off my letter, I’d await his reply with anticipation. Yes, we actually had to wait for letters, sending and receiving weren’t instantaneous back then. Jukka Touvinen would write to me about his life, what he did in school, his family, the cold winters, the snow.

From his words, I started painting a picture of Finland in my head, and it became a place I knew I must visit one day.

It was thus with a sense of wonder that I landed in Helsinki one October morning. On the approach, a golden sunrise split a piercing blue sky. “Minus three degrees,” the captain said.

I was met off the aircraft – I had been invited to speak at an airline conference – and whisked off to a lounge where I waited for an immigration officer to stamp my passport and a staff to pick up my baggage. There, a driver was waiting to take me to my hotel, about 30 minutes away.

In the car, I wondered what Jukka would think of me arriving in such style.

I like Helsinki. It’s got a really nice vibe to it. The city is small and perfect to explore on foot. The people come across as formal and stiff at first impression, but if you make the effort to break the ice, they are friendly and helpful, and have a somewhat dry sense of humour. The long winters and yearlong gloominess might have contributed to that.

My trip in Finland turned out to be quite lucky. I had three crisp and cold, but sunny days to explore Helsinki. I took a tram into the city – an €8 ticket gives you a full-day pass, plus a ferry ride to Suomenlinna island, a maritime fortress built in 1748.

I didn’t make it to the island this time. There was plenty to keep me occupied in the city, plus I felt it was rather chilly to be on a boat.

For me, Finland is about design and food, and the first place I visited was the Helsinki Design Museum. Two exhibits were open – one a retrospective on Finnish design, the other a special “China by Design”.

It was interesting learning about how Finnish design had evolved and yet kept to its core principles of simplicity and clean lines. Their interpretation of Chinese design was also eye-opening – from thermos flasks to cabinets and drones. 

You can see the entire exhibition in an hour or so, by then you might want to head to the museum coffee shop at the lobby, which has good coffee and Korvapuusti (Finnish cinnamon buns).

The museum is located within the Design District and it’s fun exploring the shops around Punavouri. Some of the shops are so well-hidden and have such obscure entrances but when you enter, you find a treasure trove of Finnish products, fashion and home furnishings.

I had been recommended to try a Finnish “tapas” place, Juuri, just one block from the Design Museum. The food was beautifully presented and flavourful – it’s a good place for solo travellers since the portions are small and you can try lots of different local dishes.

I recommend a couple more places when you visit Helsinki. Senate Square is a beautiful plaza with the Helsinki Cathedral overlooking everything surrounding it. Check out the inside of the church – not as ornate as the cathedrals in southern Europe, but there is a simple elegance to it.

Stockmann is Helsinki’s KaDeWe or El Corte Ingles. It’s a good one-stop shop to check out local goods. Next to it is the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookstore), described by Michael Cunningham as his favourite bookstore. It’s wonderful to find such a big bookstore where one can browse, read, have coffee and just be in the presence of books.

I walked out of it with more books than I needed – but who can resist classics from Issac Asimov and Terry Pratchett? Jukka would have been pleased, I think, with my purchases. I remember he liked science fiction and fantasy, too.

Note: With Christmas on its way, rooms in Helsinki will get booked up quickly. If you fancy a snowy holiday, but aren’t quite ready for the frigid temperatures in Finland, the Christmas lights on Bond Street might be a warmer and more attractive option. It might still snow, though!

 Make a booking at Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, London Back to Heart Talk 

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