My City Guide to Helsinki – for Design*Sponge

Many of you will have lived in Helsinki, live there now or are thinking of visiting in the future.

I’ve just put together a City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge – a design blog run by Brooklyn-based writer, Grace Bonney. According to the website they currently reach over 1 million readers per day – so if your favourite Helsinki cafes are soon full of international visitors – um, sorry about that.

City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge

My City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge

I’d love to know any additions you would make to the list. I’ve tried to include some old faithfuls as well as some new favourites.

You can find the guide here: City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge

Walking through a winter wonderland

There are so many new traditions for us here in Finland, especially around Christmas time. On Sunday we headed over to Seurasaari for our first Christmas path.


2.30pm Helsinki – just before sunset

Seurasaari is an island connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge. We caught a bus there full of families, babies in strollers, children and dogs. We squashed in together and there was a feeling of excitement in the air.


The bridge was decorated and there was a tree where children could hang homemade decorations. I’m not sure of the significance of these bundles of wheat but they seem to be popular at Christmas time and Saint Lucia holds one in her arms.


Seurasaari is an open air museum that features buildings in original styles from around Finland. You can wander the island for free or pay to enter different museum exhibits.



Upon arrival we were greeted by women handing out maps and Christmas cards and there was also a group of carollers.


The Christmas path followed the main walking track around the island with special events dotted along the way amongst the old buildings.



Before long we came across a group of forest animals handing out piparkakut (ginger biscuits) to the children.



Back off dad – kids only


Soon we came across a sign pointing the way to ‘Lasten puuro’ (children’s porridge).


I’d read on the website to bring a bowl and spoon and so we lined up like Oliver Twist and Miko was spooned out a share. We joined other families at long tables set with milk and cinnamon mixed with sugar.


With warm bellies full of rice porridge we set off again and came across a row of buildings bedecked with ginger-bread. Check out the foundations on these houses.


Look at foundations on these buildings!

The path was decorated all the way around the island with handmade crafts and traditional Finnish pieces. Colourful scarves were tied around tree trunks to show the way.



 By 3.30pm the light was beginning to fade but lights and candles brightened the gloom.





Around the next corner we came across a large group of people singing Christmas carols. There was also a large area where people could burn candles.



Many Finns will visit the cemetery on Christmas morning to light candles just like these on the graves of loved ones.


Along we walked until we came to a clearing with stalls selling glöggi (mulled wine) and a woman leading children in traditional songs and dances. Best of all was the chance to see Joulupukki (Santa Claus) and his wife – and despite the amount of people – no queue!


After staying for a while and enjoying the moment we walked on as the sun had dropped quite low and taken the temperature with it.


We walked through a maze made out of hay bales, but the best was yet to come! We came across a field full of people cooking over fires. We were handed a stick with damper on and found our cooking spot.



It’s a Christmas miracle that Jonny’s hair did not catch alight

It was soon time to leave and make our way home. We had one of those amazing experiences where, despite the large crowds, a bus pulled up just as we arrived at the bus stop and we managed to get a seat.


This was a free event and one we all really enjoyed. I would highly recommend it if you’re in Helsinki this time next year.

We will be celebrating Christmas on the 24th December here in Finland. I send a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read my blog this year, commented, added information and advice. As well as staying in touch with friends & family back home I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of meeting some great Finnish people through my blog and I’m very grateful for these new friends and how they love to show us Finnish life, often inviting us to places & events they know we’ve never seen before.


I get a few emails from people travelling to Helsinki and have been asked by a teacher if she can share my stories with her Russian students. I also love hearing from people who have lived here and like to share memories about their life in Finland. I’ve even been contacted by a doctor in Israel asking where to buy ice skates in Helsinki! Thank you for all your input.

Wishing you all a very Hyvää Joulua!


Finding Saint Lucia

Here’s a confession: I used to love watching beauty pageants. When Miss New Zealand was crowned Miss Universe and then went on to marry an All Black* I remember thinking ‘Could life possibly get any better than this?’ (it was 1986 and I was 8).


Lorraine Downes – she always woke up looking like this

So I quite like it when a person is selected from a group of applicants and not only wins but is given a crown. A crown! Which is why Miko and I braved the cold and went to see Saint Lucia last Saturday night.


The celebration of Saint Lucia is popular with Swedish-speaking Finns and is marked on 13th December. This was once thought to be the winter solstice and some elements of the festival still celebrate the bringing of light after the darkest day.


We met some friends and had dinner at the Christmas Markets before waiting with a large crowd for Lucia’s appearance. A TV screen in Senate Square broadcast the 2-hour service happening inside Helsinki Cathedral, including the crowning of Lucia.


Hundreds of girls apply to be Lucia each year and the winner is decided by popular vote after a panel selects the top ten. Lucia needs to be musically gifted and her role in Finland is to bring light, joy and good cheer during the long, dark Nordic winter.


After being crowned, Lucia descends the stairs from Helsinki Cathedral to her horse-drawn cart

The original Saint Lucia was born in 283 and there was an attempt made to burn her when she refused to give up her virginity to her future husband, choosing instead to devote her Friday nights to Christian scholarship. But Lucia did not burn and now wears a crown of lights upon her head.


Another story credits Lucia with helping Christians that were hiding from the Romans and suggests her crown of candles is a result of needing to have her hands free as she brought food to them in the catacombs. So practical Lucia!

Modern-day Lucia is still associated with charitable acts and collects money to donate to worthy causes.


Whatever the reason for her crown of lights, it’s a good reminder to all Finns that there is light beyond the winter darkness, as Lucia and her followers parade through the cold December streets. (Yes I did squeal when I saw her).


And do I still watch beauty pageants? No. I guess you could say… I saw the light.

*All Blacks = New Zealand’s national rugby team

St Lucia – Wikipedia

The Chosen One – This is Finland

Helsinki Christmas Markets

I’ve lost track of time. When I went to buy our Christmas tree yesterday I couldn’t figure out why it was on sale. And then I realised – there’s only one week till Christmas! A common complaint in NZ and Australia is that Christmas merchandise starts appearing in stores around October but I haven’t noticed that so much here, with things really kicking off just this month.


Helsinki Christmas Markets run from 8-21 December and over 100 colourful cabins have been set up in Senate Square. Nerea and I went down on a cool and crisp day to check them out.

IMG_4356One of the hardest things about the Baltic wind right now is having cold ears! The markets have piles of warm woollen mittens, hats and ear warmers to choose from.


You can see this mannequin is also sporting a knitted neck warmer. Plainer versions are really popular for children to stop cold air slipping down their jackets and are easily removed so they are not too hot once indoors.

IMG_4351There’s a range of food on offer – including the ubiquitous smoked salmon, pickled vegetables, pickled herring, berry jams and sauces.



You can also find reindeer pelts and sheepskins to warm up your home – or why not go the whole fox if that’s your thing?


Finnish baking is on offer, such as traditional ginger biscuits (piparkakut) as is glögi, Finnish mulled wine popular at Christmas.

IMG_4361 IMG_4358

There are also warm Kareljan piiraka and lihakeitto (meat soup) as well as pulled pork rolls and vegan burgers to be found.



If you are in Helsinki I recommend stopping by before the markets close in five days time!

And for anyone feeling even slightly grinchy I have included below what may just be the cheesiest photo I have ever taken.


The Night of the Dead

I quite like cemeteries. There’s one in Parnell, Auckland that has stories about the early white settlers and their relationships with local Maori. I’ve also been to one in Perth, Western Australia that has cages over the freshly dug graves so that wild kangaroos won’t dig them up. But I didn’t expect to be wandering around in the dark in a Finnish cemetery last night.


Hietaniemi Cemetery is a huge piece of land that contains the graves of some of Finland’s most notable people, including fallen soldiers. We walked past it every day on our way to the beach last summer and I was fascinated by what I saw.

A stall outside sells potted plants for placing on graves. This intrigues me because in NZ we tend to just lay fresh or plastic flowers down. In Finland however they plant the flowers into the gravesite so that they continue to grow.


They also have a bucket of trowels and scissors you can borrow to dig the plants in and tend to the gravesite.


Traditionally burial in Finland has been free for members of the Lutheran Church (attendance not compulsory) and I believe you can pay someone to tend to your loved ones grave if you are unable to do it. Burial plots in NZ and Australia can be quite expensive and there are advertisements on TV to get funeral insurance so you can have the send-off you want.


As we move into the colder months in Helsinki the plants being sold for grave sites are becoming more hardy, things that have more of a chance of surviving winter.


Yesterday was All Saints Day, where Finnish people remember those who have passed away. We don’t mark this day in NZ so were surprised by the public holiday.

Finnish traditions go a long way back, including Joulupukki (the Christmas goat who later became known as Santa Claus), solstice celebrations and children dressing as witches on Palm Sunday. I guess the missionaries who arrived in NZ in the 18th century only brought with them the traditions they wanted to keep and not any they may have considered pagan.


It’s traditional for Finnish people to visit the graves of loved ones on 1 November. The cemetery stalls and markets were selling havu – branches bundled together to lay on graves – and candles. I tentatively headed off to the cemetery by myself last night in the dark to witness this part of Finnish life.


The streets around the cemetery were full of people and cars, as though there was a major event on. The grounds were full of people, including children, lighting candles on graves.


In spite of the crowds, at times I would find myself alone, wandering amongst the headstones. Looking down towards the water I could see thousands of candles, as the bells tolled in the chapel. It was 3 degrees and my breath made white clouds in the night air.


I was amazed that candles had been lit on nearly every grave, even on those of people who had died in the early 1900s – it seems no one is forgotten on this day.


Wandering around the cemetery at night I actually tried to scare myself, narrating a horror movie in my head with me as the lead actor, but it didn’t really work. There was a special kind of stillness about the place. It seemed like a beautiful time to remember those you’ve lost.


I think this is a beautiful tradition that would be good to commemorate in NZ. We are such a multi-cultural country I’m sure there are Maori traditions or newer cultures that have brought with them similar customs. I think a lesson from Finland is that even the things which we’ve buried need not be forgotten.

Nothing wrong with your herring!

The Baltic Herring Festival is one of Finland’s oldest events and has been running in Market Square since 1743. This year from 5th -11th October the event was held for the 272nd time.


 The festival is made up of stalls and boats that are moored close to the steps leading down to the water. Vendors sell their wares directly from the back of their boats and in some cases you can eat lunch onboard.


For sale was herring in an array of marinades and sauces. There were also delicious homemade pickled beetroots and gherkins on offer.


It seems most the vendors had travelled from the Åland Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Finland near Sweden.

The produce all seemed to come straight from the land and included crunchy fresh apples, sea buckthorn berry sauces and jars of honey.



The Åland Islands lie between Finland and Sweden. More than 90% of the population live on Fasta Åland and there are another 6,500 skerries and islands to the east, one of which shares a border with Sweden. In 1921 the League of Nations decided that Finland could retain sovereignty over the Åland Islands but they should be made an autonomous territory. Residents have therefore retained the right to keep using the Swedish language and their culture and local traditions are protected.


For those of us visiting the markets this means the vendors also brought with them the darkest rye bread I’ve ever seen, which is made with malt.

It has an almost sweet, raisiny taste and can be eaten just with butter.



It was a blustery day that we visited the markets, about five degrees and there was a very cold wind coming in off the Baltic Sea.

We eventually had to retreat into Old Market Hall for hot seafood soup and bread.



 We ventured out again though after warming up and brought home rye bread, gherkins with chilli and punajuuri (beetroot) for dinner.

For me, herring is an acquired taste but with the markets having such a long tradition I suppose I’ve got all the time in the world to get used to it.




Åland Islands

Sunshine and Samba

The sun shone brightly on a fabulous riot of colour and sound at the annual Helsinki Samba Carnival yesterday. Smoke from Brazilian BBQs filled the air in Senate Square and mingled with the beating of drums as last minute touches were made to dancers outfits.



An estimated 30,000 people lined the streets to watch members of Finland’s samba schools sashay and strut their feathers in a parade that lasted nearly three hours. It was the most alive the city has felt since we arrived and the crowds cheered, clapped and blew whistles in appreciation.



World Cup fever has taken hold and footballs featured in costumes while young boys wowed the crowds with their ball skills.




Babies and children, men and women of all ages and abilities took part in the parade. Music was provided by groups of singers and musicians on the back of trucks that formed part of the procession.




I met up with the boys after Miko’s nap and he couldn’t wait to ask me, had I seen the peacocks dancing in the streets?


Trash and treasure in Helsinki’s parks


I used to love Cleaning Day at work in Sydney. I remember singing ‘I’m having the time of my life‘ from Dirty Dancing as I hurled old paper files behind me, ready for the shredder. We were like a big messy family in that office and we’d fill a skip outside with rubbish that people would sift through on their way past. One year I saw a man take home a big double wardrobe we were giving away, balanced carefully on his ten-speed bicycle. Another time a well-meaning client brought us in a gaudy statue of a dolphin sitting on a log that he had just found and would look great in the office! I thanked him and then put it back in the skip where he had got it from.


So there’s something so exciting about seeing the people of Helsinki being encouraged to clean out their homes and then hold outdoor sales around the city. Siivouspäivä, or Cleaning Day, is held twice a year with the event being held for the fifth time just last Saturday 24th May.


People can set up to sell their unneeded belongings anywhere around the city. I saw stalls outside apartments, on street corners, in parks and on pavements. There were loads of clothes and kids toys for sale as well as homewares and books.


People were out enjoying the sunshine, perusing the stalls and having picnics. Stallholders were drinking wine in the sun or eating with family and friends. There was a lovely festive feeling as the city’s belongings were moved from one home to another.


At the end of the day community development agencies UFF and Fida arrive in certain spots to take away any unsold goods to sell in their charity stores. Bins and recycling areas are also advertised on the Siivouspäivä website to avoid junk being left behind. As the website says, its ‘the neatest festival of the year.’

Restaurant Day (Ravintolapäivä)

Established in Helsinki in 2011, Restaurant Day is described on the official website as ‘a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant, café or bar for a day.’ People can sell their wares to the public by setting up a food stall wherever they like: at home, in a park, on the street or at the railway station. They are only limited by their imagination and their cooking skills. 

Setting up in Vanhan Kirkon Puisto (Old Church Park)

Setting up in Vanhan Kirkon Puisto (Old Church Park)

Restaurant Day is now held four times a year in 27 countries around the world. We were lucky enough that the latest was held last Saturday on a bright and sunny spring day. We headed down to Vanhan Kirkon Puisto (Old Church Park) quite early and watched as the first stalls were set up.

Cafe Tivoli

The girls at Cafe Tivoli

My first purchase was from two girls who had set up a stall of home-made baking called Cafe Tivoli. Their chocolate brownie was delicious and a good accompaniment to our morning kahvi (coffee).

The goods at Cafe Tivoli

Some of the goods on offer at Cafe Tivoli

Jonny’s brother had a good looking falafel roll from another stand and Jonny bought a wrap from Soul Mamma’s Kitchen. It advertised itself as a vegan stall but he chose a goats cheese wrap from the menu. It came without goats cheese so was at least true to its vegan claim if  not the menu.

Soul Mama's

Soul Mama’s Kitchen

Apparently food in Helsinki has come a long way in recent years but there is not as large a selection as we have at home. So it was really exciting to see offerings from cuisines as diverse as Korean, Moroccan, Dutch and Russian.

Cakes served with tea from the samovar

Cakes served with tea from the samovar

There was also a Brazilian barbecue offering a World Cup special of a main plate with a grilled banana and guarana. The boys were firing up their large open grill with a huge piece of meat on it as well as little chicken hearts on skewers.


Traditional Finnish fare was represented too; one of the most popular stalls we saw was run by a Finnish women’s assocation selling kahvi and pulla (coffee and pastries).


We saw the chef from the Mexican restaurant we had eaten at the night before setting up a stall; apparently Restaurant Day is a good way for people to try new recipes out on the public. I read one interview where a woman who was hoping to open her own Indian restaurant planned on using the day to gauge the popularity of various home-cooked dishes she hoped to put on her menu.


My only regret on this day was having breakfast before we came out. We had to head out to another event around midday so I didn’t quite have the appeptite to try as many things as I would have liked. But I’ll know better for next Restaurant Day, which will be held in mid-August.


Hyvää Vappua!

The only May Day I’m familiar with is the distress call made by captains of marine vessels as they face disaster at sea. And by ‘familiar with‘ I mean I’ve watched them on TV from the comfort of my couch. So it was with pleasure that I experienced my first May Day and it wasn’t a disaster at all!  


A sea of white caps converges on Esplanadi for the capping of Havis Amanda

Vapuu is a variation of the name ‘Walpurgis Night’ (Walpurgisnacht), a feast observed in Germany for Saint Walpurga since the 8th century. The celebrations being on 30 April and carry on into the 1 May which is a public holiday in Finland and signifies the start of Spring. It is one of the biggest holidays on the calendar, up there in significance with Christmas, New Years and Midsummer.

Students start celebrating from the week before and their area of study is identified by the colour of their overalls

Students start celebrating the week before and their area of study is identified by the colour of their overalls

On the 30th April, crowds converge on Market Square in white caps, identifying them as university preparation school alumni. The festivities really kick off at 6pm when a white cap is placed on the head of the statue of Havis Amanda by a group of students raised high in a cherry-picker. As her new ‘crown’ was placed on her head this year a large cheer went up from the crowd, a huge glitter bomb went off and the sound of many bottles of sparkling wine opening could be heard all around.


Other statues don’t have to feel they’ve missed out on a cap either

As well as sparkling wine, people drink sima, an alcoholic drink similar to mead, although the honey used in production is now comonly replaced by sugar. The alcohol content is generally so low it is considered okay for children to drink and is usually accompanied by munkki (doughnuts) or  tippaleipä (funnel cake).


Sima and tippaleipä

Helium balloons are common accessories and sellers can be seen on nearly every street corner from the morning of the 30th April. There doesn’t seem to be a particular theme; we saw champagne bottles, life-size superheroes and of course the ever-present Angry Birds characters.


The next day it is customary to have a picnic in the park and we were lucky enough to watch the crowds in Kaivopuisto from the warmth of Ravintola Kaivohuone (Kaivohuone Restaurant) as the temperature dropped down into the low single-digits. We heard there was a sauna set up in the park but the rain drove us back from exploring further. After the company brunch we caught the tram back to our apartment with some friends who helped us drink sima, sparkling wine and eat doughnuts in true Finnish style into the early evening.