Yes I know, Copenhagen is the Scandi city everyone is currently obsessed with - it has an increasingly important fashion week, an army of super cool design labels cropping up by the second and what seems to be an endless supply of gorgeous women with killer style (my personal favourites are Jeanette Madsen and Thora Valdimars) who dine at equally aesthetically pleasing cafes and restaurants on a daily basis… and yes, if I had the money I would quite happily buy the entire new Ganni and Rotate Birger Christensen collection right here and right now BUT hear me out.
Because for me Helsinki really is the true gem of this region (and I know all you geography nerds will point out that Finland isn't technically part of Scandinavia but you get the idea). Why? Helsinki is effortlessly cool, as yet undiscovered by the annoying hipster masses and a haven for anyone that appreciates good quality food, a modern and advanced approach to living, understated design and a diverse mix of cultural activities on offer.
Since my first visit to Helsinki 4 years ago, the city has really flourished and I have been back to visit every summer since, noticing change and further development every time. It’s almost like they’ve gone the extra mile to catch up with their cool neighbours, Stockholm and Copenhagen, which has seen a plethora of amazing brunch places, wine bars and outdoor bars by the sea open up, truly transforming Helsinki into not only a beautifully serene city by the sea but one that is seriously fun and interesting to young people with good taste.
The last two times I came I was there for Flow festival, in my eyes still the best organised and programmed city festival in Europe (you can read all about my time there here), so didn’t get to do too much outside the festival, which is why I was so excited to come back this summer for 3 days to really explore the city that Helsinki is now - with all of its new culinary additions but also cultural attractions that I hadn’t had the time to properly tackle before.
Good thing then that I had the perfect local guide in my friend Emmi, who I have known since my uni days when she spent a year abroad in London, and who I have been on many trips around the world and thus fully trust when it comes to choosing only the best spots, and in a very unlike Stella move left her completely in charge of our Helsinki summer weekend itinerary. She did an absolute fabulous job and even though I have always loved Helsinki, this trip made me truly fall in love with this city.
It isn’t a cheap place, even for London standards, but it is clean, friendly and modern and a place that quite rightly always comes in high up in quality of life rankings. It is safe without being boring, laid back yet full of things to do and by the sea so never quite feeling like you are in a polluted capital city.
For your next city break why don’t you give Helsinki a chance and do something a little different (I had to explain to quite a few of my colleagues “what Helsinki is") because trust me you won’t regret it.
HOW TO GET THERE:
The flight is around 3 hours long (2 and a half hours with tail wind) and Norwegian Air is your best bet for a cheap flight from London, with daily flights going out of Gatwick. If you book ahead, like I did, you can get return flights for under £150. I’ve found Norwegian, though no frills in their lack of free snacks and the like, to be super reliable, with friendly staff, free wifi on the flight (great for someone like me that hates flying that can keep everyone on the ground in the loop if I am still alive) and state of the art planes so can only recommend them, heck they somehow managed to get me to Singapore in one piece last year!
Helsinki’s main airport is very close to the city and you can hop on either the P or I train once you land, which will get you to the main Helsinki station and city centre in 25 minutes. Top tip: download the HSL app beforehand for free in the app store. The app allows you to map your way from the airport to your accommodation as well as around the city, let's you see suggested routes and gives you the option to buy paperless digital tickets at your fingertips (how advanced compared to TFL am I right?!). I got myself a 3 day ticket for the 2 most central zones which cost me 16 euros and which was great value for money, especially considering how easy the tram network, the main mode of transport in the city, is to navigate.
If you want to have a picnic by the sea with some fizz or rose in hand or generally want to pick up a bottle of wine outside a restaurant environment, be aware that normal Finnish supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell any beverages with more than 5.5% alcohol. So if you don't fancy beer or cider you will have to locate an ‘Alko’, a government operated supermarket that is licensed to sell wines and spirits. There are quite a few in town, most notably one downstairs at Stockmann, Helsinki’s most famous department store, next to a very well stocked food hall, but a quick google will reveal some others as well. One last thing to bear in mind - while supermarkets are open on Sundays, Alko’s are not so plan ahead if needed.
I had a dreamy stay at this centrally located, boutique style hotel. Staff were a delight and looked after us from start to finish. Room fittings were top notch and brand new, and the rooms themselves felt very spacious. Overall I can’t recommend The Indigo Helsinki enough, especially considering value of money and the location you get, ideal for exploring the city.
LOCATION: In the poshest part of town, a short walk from the main market square and surrounded by lots of cute cafes and boutiques. The hippest part of town, Kallio, where a lot of the foodie spots were located I went to on this trip, is also only a short tram ride away and there is a stop literally right outside the hotel entrance!
ROOMS: Modern, clean and with an incredible shower. I had one of the best sleeps in a very long time there so the beds must be pretty good too.
BREAKFAST: Included in the room price, breakfast is served from 7am until 11am every day, just by reception, in a nice and bright dining room. You can also get a very decent cappuccino made for you and I liked the selection of fresh fruit, lots cheeses, smoked fish and bread. Perfect to fuel up at ahead of a day of exploring Helsinki.
Way Bakery & Wine bar is the type of local spot everyone would love in their neighbourhood. Friendly staff, Scandi chic interiors and an attention to detail to food and wine that made me love Way at an instant.
Emmi had told me how famous their bread and churned butter had become in Helsinki since they opened and though I was initially dubious how something as simple as bread and butter could be that hype worthy upon trying it for myself I really did understand why. Why? Well their sourdough bread is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever had, fluffy, with just the perfect crust and an absolute must try for any Helsinki visitor.
Come in for breakfast and have yours with a variety of toppings like cheese, ham or a hard boiled egg and be prepared to be wowed - simplicity at its absolute best, especially as each slice of bread comes with the most incredible churned butter, topped with coarse sea salt.
Bread and butter a foodie highlight? For sure if it is done to utter perfection like here, I for one have been lusting after it ever since finishing every last crumb of my portion. At night they offer a selection of wonderful wines and small plates, of course served with more fantastic sourdough, and I for sure will return to Way, both for breakfast and dinner. Bread that is almost worth getting on the plane for alone.
St George is a brand new boutique hotel in Helsinki’s centre that gives out all kinds of Soho house vibes and that also happens to have a very cool bakery in its basement for which you don’t even have to book one of their snazzy rooms for to make the most of and which serves incredible baked goods.
I have tried many, many cinnamon buns in my time and Emmi has always attempted to show me the best Helsinki has to offer on my visits, but St George's bun was hands down the best bun of my life - juicy, sticky and full of flavour, I could have easily eaten 3 in one sitting. Not that they only do buns well, all the cakes and breads looked outstanding and being located just by a leafy square, with plenty of outside seating, St George’s bakery is the ideal ‘fika’ spot for something sweet and a cup of coffee. A new Helsinki favourite.
Kekri’s home is a canopy kiosk, one of the many retro looking sheds dotted around the city that used to sell refreshments to locals in the 30’s and 40s, of which many have fallen into disarray and disuse since. To combat these wasted spaces a lot of the kiosks have recently been transformed into foodie pop ups and Kekri is one of those.
Here the little space is used to serve up some fantastic modern twists on Finnish culinary classics, to be enjoyed on one of their outside tables, and I have to say the dishes don’t only sound quite spectacular on their menu (rye-blueberry bread, smoked vendace, maple syrup bacon, apple salsa verde, sorrel crème fra?che, juniper powder & pickled wild herbs anyone?!) but taste it too! We only stopped by for an afternoon snack but I would have happily tried my way across the menu - clearly here there is a kitchen at work willing to experiment and create exciting new dishes that will challenge your tastebuds.
We shared the infamous ‘Karelian pasty 2019 Vol. 2' - a modern take on the classic finish Karelian pie, which consisted of deep fried balls of rice porridge with a crispy rye crust, served with the most moorish egg-butter mousse dip. This was an utter and unexpected delight to eat, not only because it came served out of an unassuming kiosk but also because at Kekri they are not afraid to push the culinary boundaries to transport Finnish cuisine straight into 2019.
Located in the up and coming neighbourhood of Kallio (think of it as Helsinki’s Hackney), Harju8 looks like it may as well be down a leafy street in the East Village and has a cosy local bistro vibe about it, with plenty of outside seats and shabby chic interiors.
It can feel a little too “hip” for its on good, tattooed waiters too busy at times chatting with regulars than to serve you and I am not a massive fan of self service by the bar when it comes to sit down dinners, but I did really like the atmosphere of the place, indeed it is the spot to watch the cool kids of Helsinki congregate over Aperol Spritz's.
They also serve some pretty good food - lots of small plate veggie options like parsnip fries with vegan mustard mayo, which I had on this occasion as we only popped in for a drink and snack, but also many amazing looking mains with lots of vegan and fish options and a focus on using seasonal veg. One place I would be keen to return to for dinner and perfect for taking a bigger group.
Flat NO 14 won me over with their novel way of serving brunch. Once seated you are given their menu and a highlighter and are then encouraged to select and mark 3, 5 or 7 brunch options of their menu, resulting in a kind of brunch tapas spread that allows you to try both savoury and sweet options. Whether you go for half an avocado with nut crumble, broad bean and beet hummus, porridge or eggs, it means you can try a little bit of everything which is exactly how I like to eat. Portions are pretty decent, which meant 3 plates proved plenty to fill us up but really the world is your oyster here when it comes to ordering. My tip: Be adventures and try the Skagen, a Swedish inspired prawn, mayo and dill dip that may sound odd but tastes delicious and is not your average brunch option.
Putte’s has been known to serve some of the best pizza in Helsinki for a while now and we weren’t let down when we headed there for a chilled Sunday dinner after a busy weekend of exploring the city.
They are not afraid of an inventive topping, their Silence of the Lamb pizza features lamb with North-African spices, mozzarella, tomato, rucola, but here that boldness works a treat.
Their dough is perfectly stretchy yet light and I adored my slightly odd sounding NIERI? pizza which was a fishy delight and came topped with arctic char (similar to salmon), mozzarella, parmesan, mascarpone, fennel - not your average Franco Manco margarita but all the better for it.
Drinks are decently priced and pizzas get served up quick and efficiently. If you have a craving for pizza with a difference that still gets all the basics right Putte’s is your spot, we weren’t surprised to see how busy it was on a Sunday, Helsinki’s people know where it's good.
Recently opened, this public library, cinema, cafe and meeting place has been designed to resemble a boat and is proof that modern architecture can add to the communal feeling of a city. Make sure you check out the view from the top floor.
The Helsinki Art Museum is definitely worth a visit with its changing exhibitions showcasing Finnish artists from all decades, and is a perfect pit stop if you need a break from sightseeing or the weather isn’t playing ball.
Make sure you to dedicate a morning or afternoon to explore this 18th-century sea fortress and nature area with centuries-old artillery and defensive walls, spread across 6 linked islands which is only a 15 minute ferry ride away from Helsinki’s main market square.
The ferry ride itself is worth it alone. You can use your HSL day ticket to get on a little boat which will get you there and which comes every 10 minutes or so, allowing you to enjoy a very quaint boat ride that this little Londoner already found super exciting.
Once on the island you can simply enjoy the beautiful untouched nature, explore the old fortress and take in the lovingly kept wooden summer houses that make the whole place look super picturesque. Many bring picnic supplies and find a hidden spot right by the sea or amidst nature to sit down at but I also highly recommend Cafe Silo, an unexpectedly stylish cafe on the island that serves excellent coffee, baked goods and artisan ice cream.
It can feel rather daunting to try a new work out class by yourself, let alone find one that you like and become a regular at.
Everyone knows the feeling, signing up to a new class, not quite knowing what to expect. I mean in the first place you put yourself in quite the vulnerable position because, let’s be honest, who apart from supermodels looks amazing in skin tight lycra Lycra AND who ever looks good sweating and red faced after an intense workout?! I certainly do not. Plus there is is always that underlying fear of being the one person that has no clue what to do and who everyone suddenly starts hysterically laughing at.
Of course most of the above are silly irrational fears because we are all in the same boat when it comes to exercising and I am yet to go to a class where I feel judged or the like. Quite on the contrary I have really enjoyed going to lots of different classes around London and trying new kinds of working out previously unknown to me.
Needless to say the enjoyment of a class can be very much dependent on the instructor, the studio and the kind of exercise you like (I quite enjoy being pushed to my limits) but with classes in London rarely being cheap, you are hard pushed to find a good one under £15, I hope the below guides helps you a little to navigate your way through London’s ever expanding fitness scene and encourages you to give one of the classes a go!
For me working out regularly has really helped with my anxiety, stress release and getting me to sleep so that the money I have spent on classes has never felt like a waste but rather a really good investment in my personal well being!
All my friends will tell you that I am a little Barry’s Bootcamp obsessed and I am not the only one. It may not be cheap, £22 for a single class although you can buy monthly packages that work out a lot cheaper, but for me it really is the best workout in London. The instructors are world class and push you further than you would ever in the gym by yourself. They also make every session different - yes, there is the basic set up of a mix of floor work using weights, benches, body weights and booty bands, and hard core running on a treadmill, but the length of rounds and exercises differ in every class so that you will never grow complacent or bored of the workout.
It is an hour of hardcore working out but your level of fitness will improve very quickly if you start going regularly and you will notice real progress. I started on beginner speeds, the instructor will always give you three speed options, one for beginners, one for intermediate runners and one for the crazy advanced runners, and I nowadays almost solidly run intermediate speeds.
Mentally and physically the red room, where the class takes place, will really push you and I am yet to try a work out after which I feel more satisfied, slightly exhausted but also full of endorphins. I personally love the East London studio, it’s pretty big, has the best staff (shoutout to my favourite front of house toned goddess Rachel) and runs classes seven days a week - from super early 6am sessions, which I personally love as someone that has lost all ability to sleep in, to late evening ones - one of my favourites is the 7:50pm back and chest session with Louis every Wednesday.
It takes a bit of trial and error to figure out which instructors you like best but my personal favourites are Alex (who for a reason gets most of the prime time morning slots during the week), Sam and Louis (whose sessions are known as the hardest). Make sure to book ahead though, classes are always opened a week in advance and book out super quick. Also book a T space if possible, that means you start the session on a treadmill and then move to the floor after your first round (F space) - I always find an easier way into the workout. Will I shut up about Barry’s any time soon?! Nope probably not and that is fully none #spon. See you in the red room or the dark, loud and sweaty downstairs space that is where the Barry’s magic happens.
Cost per class: £22 (but cheaper if bought in bulk or you go for one of their monthly packages)
I am not going to sugarcoat it, Sweat IT very much feels like a ‘Barry’s light. There is the dark basement workout room, filled with treadmill and ‘rigs’ instead of benches for the floor work and there is the blue light filling the room instead of Barry’s iconic red light for added atmosphere. Classes are shorter (50 minutes which with all the changeovers felt too short) as well as shorter rounds and I was not a fan of their touch screen treadmills that made it hard to change speeds, especially when sprinting. I also didn’t feel their instructors were particularly infectious or encouraging and after three sessions trying out Sweat IT as part of their intro offer (£30 for 3 classes) I was left feeling like Sweat IT will burn some calories but leave you feeling a little meh otherwise.
Cost per class: £21 (but cheaper if bought in bulk or you go for one of their monthly packages)
Rebel1 again follows a similar workout pattern to Barry’s with treadmill intervals followed by bench / weight work. I did like the brand new Angel location with very snazzy fittings and changing rooms but again the class lacked the energy and excitement and I guess regular and committed clientele you get at Barry’s that pushes you that extra mile further. One perhaps to check out for newbies for this kind of workout as classes are shorter (45 minutes) and I did really like the new Angel studio which is super conveniently located right by the station.
Cost per class: £21 (but cheaper if bought in bulk or you go for one of their monthly packages + £16 first timers class offer)
I am usually not a fan of the classic circuit training class, finding it a bit boring and laborious if I am honest, but I have to say I really LOVED the Stamina 50 class at Psycle. It was bloody hard and longer than your standard 30 minutes HIIT circuit training but Ryan was an excellent trainer (I did his Thursday evening class at Psycle's Mortimer Street studio) who guided us through how to use all the different stations. I also liked the variety of the stations in the circuit (rowing machines, box jumping, cycling) and the longer periods you spent at them rather than your standard minute. If you want to tone up quick this is the class for you, even me as regular gym goer was knackered after.
The central London Psycle location happens to also be very nice, super modern and spread over several floors, with each floor dedicated to different kinds of work out - spinning, barre HIIT training, you name, and I found the staff there generally very helpful and nice especially to newbies!
Cost per class: £22 (but cheaper if bought in bulk + £22 first timers offer which buys you two classes and a buddy credit so you can take a friend)
I was never used to be a big fan of spinning but instantly loved the no bullshit approach to it at Boom Cycle. The Holborn studio I frequent may not be the most fancy spinning studio but who cares - the classes here are affordable compared to some competitors (more on this later) and the instructors are bloody brilliant! Every class I have been to had a great sense of team spirit and even when I was far from good or steady on my bike during my first few classes I never felt judged or not part of the class. Forget about the fancy spinning studios with lots of hype and head to one of Boom Cycle's locations - they’ve made me a real spinning convert! My favourite instructor: Duncan - his Thursday evening class is addictive with great tunes and he really is the best and most encouraging instructor you could wish for!
Cost Per Class: £18 (but cheaper if bought in bulk + £29 first timers offer which buys you three classes)
I really liked the Shoreditch Psycle studio which is super modern and snazzy, the spinning studio even has a little light show going as you cycle away, and I also appreciated the variety of spinning classes they offer rather than just sticking to your standard 45 minute session.
I tried the 60 minute class on a Sunday with Wolf which was challenging but manageable and Wolf was a great instructor that made sure all the moves were done right by his class and also had a fab selection of tunes. I am keen to try their 90 minute class soon and really rate their commitment to offering a bit of a different approach to spinning than most competitors in London.
Cost Per Class: £18 (but cheaper if bought in bulk + £29 first timers offer which buys you three classes)
I had the most disappointing of my spinning experiences so far at Soul Cycle. Soul Cycle is of course not to dissimilar to Barry’s in terms of its cult following in the States, so when they opened their first studio in London, just off Oxford street, there was A LOT of hype, many proclaiming the mecca of spinning had finally arrived in the UK.
I guess that meant my expectations were set high, particularly considering the rather heavy price tag of £24 for a 45 minute session, and I couldn’t help but be a little let down by the overall experience. The space itself isn’t effectively designed, changing rooms are way too small and cramped and overall it felt like they tried to squeeze too many paying customers into every class to make it a pleasant experience - even waiting outside the studio it was hard not step on someone’s spinning shoes.
The class itself was not amazing, a little too preachy for more liking rather than about the spinning and considering the price tag it just felt like I was paying to be at "the famous Soul Cycle" rather than to have a proper good spinning session.
Cost Per Class: £24 (but cheaper if bought in bulk + £16 first timers offer for one class)
This class at FLY LDN has to be my absolute favourite barre class in London. Courtney is a one of a kind energetic instructor whose classes offer the perfect mix of classic ballet elements and strength training, all to a super fab soundtrack. Your glutes will be on fire during the class and if you want to tone up in a fun way and are fan of ballet this is the class for you. For me the 45 minutes of his Saturday class fly by in no time! The studio itself, near Liverpool street station, is also super modern, with big changing room and never feels too cramped!
Cost Per Class: £17 (but cheaper if bought in bulk + £10 first timers offer for one class)
I tried a few classes at Barre focused studio Define, near Oxford Circus, and thought they were all pretty great in terms of their level of teaching and studio amenities. My favourite class was Define Mat with the lovely Becky. It is not for the faint hearted, basically hardcore muscle building work with some ballet elements, weighted down by ankle weights, but boy do you get to work your muscles! Becky is also so encouraging and full of energy that the class, though quite advanced, still felt fun and I for sure felt the next day I had had a proper workout - perhaps not if you are after a classic Barre work out but perfect if you want to get toned.
Cost Per Class: £20 (but cheaper if bought in bulk + £30 first timers offer which buys you two classes and a buddy credit so you can take a friend)
BARRE @ BLOK
Although I love the Blok studio in Shoreditch, its all very slick and modern, I have to be honest and say the classes I have tried, whether Barre or more HIIT based, have never been amazing considering THE price per class. They also have always felt a little oversubscribed, with Barre being so busy that you constantly felt like you were about to get kicked in the face at any point and instructors really don't get the chance to give proper feedback or corrections to individuals where needed. Maybe I was unlucky with the classes I have tried so far but for now only the great studio and changing rooms left a positive impression on me.
Cost Per Class: £17 (but cheaper if bought in bulk)