BorderLines: Helsinki Is Improbable Capital of Happy

The proximity of Russia to this intrinsically Scandinavian land is inescapable. ‘When you live next to a giant, you must show respect,’ one guide told me.

Helsinki. Anthony Grant

“Go to Helsinki,” my Scandinavia-savvy friend told me. “It’s the world’s happiest country. Well, Finland, I mean.” To which I replied that most anyone would be on the road to contentment once they’ve imbibed enough of Finnair’s signature cocktail, Lapponia blueberry liqueur and Champagne. It’s not hard to concede, though, that Helsinki is an almost disconcertingly merry metropolis, with enough great architecture, brilliant design shops, and tantalizing flavors to catapult any wary world traveler to a state of intrigue.

Sipping one of those beverages at 38,000 feet certainly whetted my appetite for more berries and I found them in glorious abundance at Helsinki’s Old Market Hall, an 1889 structure at the wide harbor’s edge. There were blueberries galore and also the plumpest, tangiest raspberries one could imagine — pure unadulterated Finnish simplicity. Speaking of which, don’t bother with bottled water while there: Finland’s tap water is considered to be the cleanest in the world. Don’t conflate the simple with the basic, though, because the level of quality is bound to impress everywhere you go in Helsinki.

In August, I was able to partake of the gourmet food fiesta happening al fresco at Kasarmitori Square’s Summer Terrace. I enjoyed a healthy and delicious rainbow trout stew from Fisken pa Disken, packaged to go so I could savor it in the comfort of my room at the lively Lilla Roberts Hotel. It’s formerly a police headquarters — with the endless corridors to prove it.

Helsinki is brimming with surprises, including some obscure but captivating links to Hollywood movie history. Pop into the stunning Kalevala jewelry shop, for example, and you’ll see some “far out” metallic accessories with an almost ethereal aesthetic. That’s fitting, because the necklace Carrie Fisher wore as Princess Leia in 1977’s “Star Wars” was fashioned by a Finnish design shop that’s now part of Kalevala.

What I truly loved were Helsinki’s design shops, like the one at the super hip Amos Rex Museum. It’s one of those new museum animals, a space dedicated to art that’s also a cool place to simply hang out. As they rightly say, it’s a “protean space that can readily take on various forms and one that’s open to experimentation.” The museum connects to a functionalist-style 1930s building called Lasipalatsi; the protected “Glass Palace” building has been meticulously renovated.

Speaking of glass, you can’t say the word in Finland without mentioning Iittala, one of the most famous glassworks in the world. As part of my excellent Finnish design tour, I popped into the exquisite Iittala store on Esplanadi, one of the capital’s most elegant thoroughfares. I bought a pair of sturdy glass tumblers with a shimmering water motif, based on a 1932 design by Aino Alto. They were packaged so well it made tossing them into my suitcase a snap.

Although I didn’t have time for it, the Allas Sea Pool beckoned. Right next to the Market Square and open all year, it’s a sort of oversized urban spa with both fresh and sea water, replete with three saunas, heated from morning to evening. Instead of luxuriating in the pristine Baltic waters, I ambled about Helsinki’s handsome Art Nouveau quarter, where some of the buildings were built by Eliel Saarinen, father of famous Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who is known for the Gateway Arch and JFK airport’s original TWA terminal. One after another, the towering townhouses in shades of cappuccino and lime green mesmerized. Outside one of them, a nice Finn who saw me admiring the facade spoke with obvious pride about some of the building’s decorative elements. Beyond their penchant for design innovation, it seems the Finns are friendly folks, too.

Let’s not forget that Helsinki has plenty of history behind it. Its monumental Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Eastern Orthodox church in Western Europe, is a reminder of the Russian era and of the inescapable proximity of Russia to this intrinsically Scandinavian land. “When you live next to a giant, you must show respect,” one guide told me. The bottom line is this: Winter chill or not, Helsinki is a delightful city with much more to see and savor than you probably thought. A refreshingly unhurried pace, plus blueberries and saunas galore, only sweeten the deal.

The New York Sun

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