The popularity of humble wooden shacks known as mökki, or summer homes, reveals much about what Finnish people value most: simplicity, sustainability, and deep communion with nature. Finland is one of the most forested nations on earth, with 70 per cent of its surface covered by fir, birch and oak trees. Even in the bustling capital of Helsinki, there is an average 105.70 square metres of green space per person, according to TravelBird. Hundreds of protected and recreational areas also surround the city, fanning out in a radius of 40 kilometres called Viherkehä (Green Ring). The “right to roam” enshrines the general public’s access to these lakes, rivers and land areas – for hiking, swimming, foraging, camping and a host of other activities. Although traditional Finnish cuisine features game and other meats, a new generation of restaurateurs are now showcasing the region’s seasonal, sustainable, plant-based, forest-sourced fare. So from golden chanterelles and deep green nettles, to fragrant feral herbs and nutrient-packed bilberries, prepare for a walk on the wild side.
Top 5 places to visit
Located a short ferry ride from the heart of Helsinki, Suomenlinna is an 18th Century sea fortress surrounded by picturesque walking trails along rambling paths and windswept cliffs. With its centuries-old artillery and defensive walls, it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1991. Amid the ancient stone, and militaristic monuments, keep your eyes peeled for delights from the natural world, such as sea birds and wildflowers.
NUUKSIO NATIONAL PARK
Lush primeval forests of oak, birch and spruce, freshwater lakes and rugged rocky gorges are the rewards awaiting those who venture into Nuuksio National Park, less than an hour’s drive from the city. Extensive walking, biking and horse riding trails are there to be explored. Pack a picnic or bring a basket, because this is a prime place to forage for wild foods including mushrooms and berries. You haven’t tasted a raspberry until you’ve plucked it from the bush yourself.
In the Finnish language, “löyly” means the steam that arises when bathers throw water on a sauna’s hot stones. It also refers to the life force of any living thing and, as such, Löyly captures both the visceral and spiritual dimensions of Finland’s favourite pastime. Stretched languorously along the Helsinki waterfront, Löyly offers a traditional smoke sauna and a wood-fired sauna, plus easy access to the ocean when it’s time for a cool-down swim. Healthy meals are also available on-site.
Kiasma’s unassuming street façade conceals a treasury of riches. Part of the Finnish National Gallery, this museum of contemporary art exhibits works by local and international artists. “Goodness” is the theme of the 2019 program, which will commence with a show by New York-based Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, aka Shoplifter, who creates installations from synthetic hair. Prepare to be surprised and challenged.
A bicycle ride around Katajanokka, an upscale island neighbourhood located close to downtown Helsinki, can be unexpectedly rewarding. Keep your eyes peeled for charming architecture, moored icebreakers bearing names like Otso (“Bear”) and Sisu (“Grit”) and cafes at which you’re likely to be the only tourist. Explore the grounds of the Hotel Katajanokka which was renovated and reopened after serving as a prison from 1837 to 2002. The SkyWheel Helsinki and Allas Sea Pool are also located on Katajanokka.
VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN EATERIES
It was only a matter of time before the shipping container craze reached the port city of Helsinki. Cargo makes great use of space, with a breezy terrace atop the café proper. Soak up the sleek, industrial ambience as you chow down on delights from a vegetarian and vegan breakfast and lunch menu, accompanied by some of the city’s best coffee. Fresh, energy packed juices are also a popular choice.
Where: Ruoholahdenranta 8, 00180 Helsinki
Yogic by name, yogic by nature. From superfoods to comfort foods, all dishes at OmNam are 100 per cent vegan and most are gluten free. You could fill up on soup or the salad bar, but the a la carte menu is when OmNam really comes into its own. Think dashi roasted greens with organic tofu and seasonal mushrooms, or raw lasagne with zucchini, carrot, marinated mushrooms, nettle pesto and cashew cream.
Where: Annankatu 29 B, 00100 Helsinki
YES YES YES
Yes Yes Yes. It’s a bar, a restaurant, and an interior designer’s dream. Fight your way through the foliage, order a glass of rosé and prepare yourself for a visual, taste and olfactory treat. Select something from the piping hot tandoor oven which assumes pride of place in the open kitchen, or perhaps explore the roots and greens menu. How good does whole artichoke, cherry vinaigrette and corn cashew hollandaise sauce sound?
Where: Iso Roobertinkatu 1, 00120 Helsinki
Buffet restaurants don’t usually ring my bell, but Silvoplee is an exception. The daily changing vegetarian buffet boasts more than 30 different dishes, the majority of which are made using ingredients which are both live (not heated above 40°C) and organic. The raw vegan cakes including tiramisu, carrot and mocha caramel, are perfect for sweet tooths. In case you needed another reason to visit, Silvoplee also follows fair trade principles.
Where: Second Line 7, 00530 Helsinki
Located within the Allas Sea Pool complex overlooking Helsinki’s waterfront, Allas Café offers healthy, affordable lunches which are popular with the business crowd and leisure seekers alike. Soup of the day (parsnip with sage and peanuts on the day I visit) which comes with green salad and carve-your-own bread. Work up an appetite beforehand in one of Allas’ three pools, or pencil in time for a postprandial sauna.
Where: Katajanokanlaituri 2a 00160 Helsinki
Dining at 23-seat Ora is like being taken by the hand on a thrilling gastronomic journey. Chef and owner Sasu Laukkonen showcases Finnish ingredients sourced from forests, lakes and farms. Depending on the season, anything from porcini mushrooms and marigolds, to meadowsweet and sea buckthorn berries, will take their twirl in the spotlight. Ora’s degustation menu is easily and lovingly adapted for vegan or vegetarian diners.
Where: Huvilakatu 28A, 00150 Helsinki
What’s not to love about Nolla? The Nordic region’s first zero-waste restaurant offers fine dining using locally sourced, organic produce. In an attempt to reduce the 70,000 kilograms of waste the average restaurant produces in a year, nothing wrapped in single use plastic is permitted through the door – demonstrating that creative cuisine and environmental credentials can co-exist. Vegetarian and vegan menus are available on request.
Where: Liisankatu 2, 00170 Helsinki
Small, intimate Grön offers a four-course standard or vegan menu which shifts according to the seasons. On the night I visited, dishes include the tomato tartlet filled with roasted garlic, ramson and gooseberries, followed by roasted beetroot with herbs and, finally, edible blossoms, and fresh blueberries with woodruff ice cream. The restaurant’s naturally leavened sourdough bread is a delicious revelation.
Where: Albertinkatu 36, 00180 Helsinki Finland