You don’t have to look far for proof of this statement. In an effort to make the city more bicycle friendly, urban planners have converted a former freight-train line into a greenway that runs below street level from the Western Harbor to Hakasalmen Park and Töölö Bay. Baana, as the path is known, is yet another example of the country’s clean, functional design aesthetic, with hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs and flowers planted along its 1.3-kilometer route. Or there’s the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, built as part of the World Design Capital program. Set on Narinkkatori Square, the curvaceous timber structure is something of a minor miracle: a meditative space purpose-built as a refuge from the bustle of downtown.
“The thing is,” Visuri said as she brushed her long blonde hair out of her eyes, “when it’s nice to live here, it’s also a nice place to come and visit.”
I visited in March, after the winter thaw, and the picturesque waterfront was teeming with people going about their business. If nothing else, Helsinki is eminently walkable. After passing the construction site of Kulttuuri-sauna, a bay-side public sauna designed like a latter-day Roman bath by architects Tuomas Toivonen and Nene Tsuboi, I headed across a causeway to Tervasaari for lunch. The tiny island’s sole restaurant, Savu, occupies an old log building that originally stored tar barrels. Now, it serves pine-tar beer—which tastes like a smoky lager—and things like reindeer sausages and alder-smoked salmon. Helsinki has plenty of artisanal coffee bars (Kaffa Roastery comes to mind) and a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants, but for a taste of Nordic tradition, Savu’s hard to beat.
Compared to most other European capitals, Helsinki is small, with just 600,000 people. Yet it’s full of verve and style. For Finns, upscale boutiques and chic galleries are now familiar parts of the urban landscape. So too is the impressive Design Museum, founded in 1873, and the Design Forum, a promotional organization whose premises, across from a triangle of green called Diana Park, host an indoor bazaar full of inventive items such as handcrafted birch lampshades and neckties made from recycled seatbelts.