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

You know you’re in Finland when…

Some days I wake up and it takes me a while to realise I am still in Finland. Voices float up from the street and then it dawns on me, ‘Oh yeah, I’m in Finland. And everyone speaks Finnish.’

I’m also reminded by things around our house, as although ours may not be a typical Finnish home, I’d say it is pretty standard for most Helsinki apartments.

Here’s what is different to our home in New Zealand:

There are two front doors, about five inches apart and the first front door has a slot in it for the mail to be delivered through.


Just inside the apartment are two open wardrobes for hanging jackets and putting shoes. As winter approaches this becomes even more important and now holds gumboots, gloves, hats and scarves too.


There is a thermometer just outside the window near the front door. As winter approaches we check it every day before we go out so we dress for the weather and not our heated apartment.


There are heaters in every room that are turned on by the building manager once the temperature drops below a certain level for a few days in a row.


The washing machine is in the bathroom.


There’s a sauna off the bathroom.


The pipes in the bathroom are exposed.


The windows are triple-glazed and there are two doors out onto our balcony to keep the cold out. In summer we had the balcony open but you can also pull the windows across to make it more like a conservatory.


This photo was taken before we unpacked but is pretty much how our balcony looks again as the plants and armchairs have been brought inside for winter.


We’ve seen dramatic changes in the view from the balcony in the five months we’ve lived in this apartment.











You may notice that every apartment has external ladders too, which I believe is to do with removing snow from the roof. There are not many chimneys either, although Joulupukki (Santa Claus) comes in the front door on Christmas Eve so no worries there.


Oh yes, and there’s always this: the Finnish flag which is raised by each building manager on public holidays and special anniversaries. My brother-in-law also told me the flag will be raised to half-mast if someone in the building has died – a good time, he says, to call in if you are looking for a place to rent!

Update: how could I forget this??

Helsinki Second Hand

Miko and I spent hours recently at the playground near Kaivopuisto. He was so tired when we left he fell fast asleep in the stroller. I took a new way home and was pleased to come across Ravintola Sea Horse and its little kiosk across the road. People were enjoying cool beverages in the late-afternoon sun and I decided to join them and read a few pages of my book while I had the chance.

Ravintola Sea Horse kiosk

Ravintola Sea Horse kiosk

After a pleasant half-hour I wandered up towards the city centre and came across Helsinki Second Hand, a huge warehouse with a ramp leading down to just below street-level.


The store was full of antiques and furniture, some familiar and some that seemed very nordic. It reminded me of Junk & Disorderly, a second-hand store we really like back in Auckland.


The markets and second-hand stores here are full of glassware and crockery with the two big names being Arabia and Iittala. Arabia has been making ceramics, porcelain and other forms of pottery in Finland since 1874. Iittala has been making glassware since a factory was opened in the town of the same name in 1881.


Large pieces of industrial furniture are as popular here as they are at home, with old farming items from traditional Finnish life featuring too.

NOT Miko's new bed

NOT Miko’s new bed

Now that summer is here, huge cruise ships frequently come and go from the nearby ports of Tallinn, Stockholm and St Petersburg. There are some great vintage posters you can get and the booming horns of boats can be heard across the city as they slowly pull out of Helsinki’s various ports.


Thankfully they’re not enough to wake a sleeping child and Miko slept soundly until we got home, giving me a good amount of time to navigate the store without having to say once, ‘don’t touch!’

Helsinki Secondhand



I heart Kiasma!

I don’t really like art galleries. Or Christmas fruit cake. And as a woman of a certain age I feel like I should –  but sometimes I stand in front of paintings wondering how long before I can move on to the gallery cafe or gift shop.

A giant rose made from soft jube sweets

A giant rose made from soft jube sweets

But I loved Kiasma, Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibitions are tactile and interactive, offering inspiring representations of ideas, rather than classical depictions of iconic scenes.

Someone has been mucking around in the office

Slow day in the office?

In one room we were invited to wander through thousands of coloured ribbons, feeling our way blindly as we tried not to bump into each other. I later doubled back to go through again because I just felt so happy in there amongst all that colour.

Where's the entry/

I know the door is here somewhere….

I loved the glasshouse that was filled only with green items, like the work of a colour-blind bower bird or an OCD backyard hoarder.


It’s a very greenhouse

I wandered around big coloured blocks depicting the houses of an Italian village and large copper circles that spelled terve (welcome) in braille. I laughed with strangers as we tried to figure out why our images were not reflected in the mirror before us.


Holiday scenes depicted on perspex

I was deeply moved by the work of Alfredo Jaar, a Chilean artist who addresses political and humanitarian issues with his art. One Million Finnish Passports is a room of just that, showing how many people would have been permitted into Finland had they a more open immigration policy. The Silence of Nduwayezu is a room containing a million slides of the eyes of a boy who saw his parents killed in front of him. Many of Jaar’s works comment on the world’s failure to talk about issues happening in African nations.

The Silence of Nduwayezu, 1997 Alfredo Jaar

The Silence of Nduwayezu, 1997 Alfredo Jaar

I left Kiasma feeling informed and entertained and a bit better about myself for genuinely enjoying an art gallery experience. In fact I felt elated because I enjoyed it so much. And as it was raining outside I was happy there was still time to look around the art gallery gift shop.

I’d love to know – what have been your favourite art gallery experiences?

Kiasma – Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art

Alfredo Jaar

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?


A Heart Stopping Post

I was home alone, making a sandwich in the kitchen when I heard it: the unmistakeable sound of a door in our apartment being tentatively opened. I froze, like a reindeer in the proverbial headlights, my knife poised mid-air, my eyes huge in my head. I stood frozen, straining to hear. There it was again, this time more confidently, a door somewhere in our home being pushed open. The muffled sound of a hand, reaching into a bag. This is it, I thought, I am going to die, making a sandwich and I’m not even sure I have the strength to put up a good fight with this butter knife.

What I thought was happening....

What I thought was happening….

Then footsteps, walking away now. I heard myself exhale, loudly. It was the postie, delivering mail through the slot in our front door.

What was actually happening Photo credit: Riitta Kumpulainen

…what was actually happening.  Photo credit: Riitta Kumpulainen

In fact we have two front doors, about five inches apart and the first has a slot in it for the mail to be pushed through. The letters then sit securely in the space between the two doors until you collect them. This amazes me – to gain access to our building you need a key to open a gate and a heavy door at street level and then we are a few floors up. The fact the postie has a key to get in and is then expected to visit every front door in the building seems like such hard work. And we are only one building in the street!


In New Zealand and Australia, credit cards and packages are often delivered to unlocked mailboxes near the road and we trust they will still be there when we collect our post. I once had to open a mailbox with a pair of bolt cutters for a man who had gone to prison (work related, another story). I was surprised that no one said anything as I cut the padlock, his being one mailbox in a block of ten.

Finnish Post logo

Finnish Post logo

The Finns of course are not content to just settle with secure mail delivery – in 2011 they were the first country in the world to implement a carbon neutral postal service. Participation in initiatives designed to offset the carbon output of mail delivery is provided at no extra cost to consumers. Which is good news for us, as our postcards home can now be good for the heart and for the planet.

Finns first in the world to deliver carbon neutral post

The Reverse Vending Machine

If you’re at a party and a New Zealander says to you “Well, we’re probably going to start thinking about heading off sometime soon,” it basically means: Say goodbye, we are going. Finnish people, from what I can tell, are much more direct. For example, unless you always takes the stairs, you will be familiar with the Finnish elevator company, Kone. Kone means machine. Enough said.

Kone - making elevators since they were made out of wood

Kone – making elevators since they were made out of wood

So I love the name given to the recycling stations found in most supermarkets and grocers here – the reverse vending machine. Instead of putting money in and getting a bottle out, you put bottles in and get money out. Brilliant.

Pullo ja Bottle & can return

Pullo ja tölkkipaulautus – Bottle & can return

I mentioned here earlier that there is no plastic recycling in our apartment building. However the return rate of recyclable plastic bottles, glass bottles and drink cans in Finland is over 90%! The scheme works so well, with the return on containers set at 0,10€ for glass bottles, 0,15€ on cans and up to 0,40€ on plastics. This is refunded in the form of a voucher that can be spent in-store or sometimes as money from the cashier. Some machines also provide the option of donating your refund to charity.

Woohoo - its like winning the lottery every time!

Woo hoo – its like winning the lottery every time!

After spending a few days in Helsinki you start to notice there’s a community of people who make their way around collecting used cans and bottles to earn a bit of cash from recycling. After a big festival or event like Vappu (May Day) it’s not long before the streets and parks are cleaned of leftover rubbish. In fact people deliberately leave bottles and cans out for those who collect them, to save them having to sort through the city’s bins.

Nice little nest egg there

Nice little nest egg there

I did wonder what stopped someone from just wheeling the whole recycling bin out of our apartment building down to Siwa to help fund their grocery bill but had it explained to me that not all bottles and cans are eligible. A Corona beer or imported wine won’t necessarily have the required pantti mark on it. This is the deposit paid when purchasing these items that is refunded when returned to one of the 4000 or so reverse vending machines across the country.

Karhu = bear so its Bear Beer

Karhu = bear so its Bear Beer

And here’s an interesting fact: glass bottle recycling was first kick-started by the introduction of Coca-Cola into Finland during the Summer Olympics held here in 1952. Since then Finns keep topping world statistics in recycling rates and the number of cans returned in one year is estimated to be able to reach around the globe three times. I’ll be looking for a job soon but in the meantime will be doing my part in reclaiming some of the EUR 310 million generated by returns annually. I’ll drink to that!

Finland Tops The World in Bottle Recycling





Breaking free in the Baana & beyond

Miko is great company but we don’t get much of a break from each other these days.  So its a real a treat for me to have a walk by myself – no stroller to push; no wrestling a human octopus into a jacket and no need to hear myself issue instructions like ‘Stop licking me, I am not an ice cream!’


On a beautiful spring day last weekend I managed to escape on my own for a couple of hours and set out to explore the Baana, without really knowing where I would end up.


Like New York’s High Line, Helsinki has transformed a former freight line into a safe route for pedestrians through the heart of the city. Called the Baana, this ‘Low Line’ is carved out of the streets and provides a 1.3km passage from West Harbour to Töölö Bay via Kamppi. With an entrance at each end and four ramps to street level along the way, there are paths marked out for those on foot as well as those travelling by bicycle.


Near West Harbour there are ping pong tables, a basketball court and seating areas, all of which were being used on the sunny day I set off. Like most of Helsinki there were loads of people passing by on bicycles, safe from the main traffic area. After coming out near the city I carried on towards Töölö and the peninsula known as Hietaniemi.


One of the nicest thing about this time of year is seeing Finnish people just relishing the sunshine and taking the time to sit with friends and relax in its rays. I can’t help but smile when I see people sitting alone, eyes closed, face lifted to the sun with looks of pure bliss on their faces.


This lake is so close to the city but feels miles away. The number of birds returning to the area after their winter travel is increasing, their presence made known by the camera-shutter sound of their wings.


The foliage on the trees is changing dramatically and the shades of green at the moment are so fresh, like a giant salad tossed on the ground.


I walked past a large cemetery and further on passed by the back of a hospital where women were tending the vegetable garden. It seems nature is left untamed here, no fancy hedge trimming or pruning; each plant’s journey towards the sun left uncompromised after such a long winters sleep.


The hospital garden

I felt so refreshed by the end of my walk I looked forward to heading home and putting my feet up. Best of all I was ready to spend time with Miko again, musing over the mysteries of life, because really, its important to know, ‘Does everyone have bottoms?

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.’

An island of animals never before seen

Helsinki Zoo (Korkeasaari)  is one of the oldest in the world and is home to a treasury of animals that seem very exotic to us Southern Hemisphere folk. Established in 1889 it is housed on an island which you can access by ferry or bus. On a sunny but crisp spring day we took the bus, as like many things in Finland the ferries are on limited service until June.

The bridge to Korkeasaari

The bridge to Korkeasaari

The girl in the ticket office told us no balloons were allowed inside the zoo so we had to hand over the one Miko had been given at Helsinki Central Railway Station and leave it in the office with my name on it. I thought this was a good idea as I do worry about balloon skins being left around where birds or small animals can eat them.

Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?

Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?

Like most people I have mixed feelings about zoos but if they’re for education this zoo really did provide us with an opportunity to see animals we have never seen before or have only seen in books. It was wonderful, like walking around Dr Doolittle’s island or a world where new animals are invented. Some animals looked familiar with just a slight difference about them – like the Mongolian horses or Hemione who were no doubt offended by us mistakenly calling them ‘donkeys‘.

Idyllic setting for crazy nesting birds

Idyllic setting for crazy nesting birds

We were greeted at the front of the zoo by a sign warning us about the Canadian geese on site. It’s breeding season here and they are aggressively protecting their nests at the moment. Built at ground level the nests are quite large and dotted throughout the zoo gardens.  One bird will sit on top of three or so eggs while its mate fiercely launches attacks on hapless passersby. It made for a day of much dodging and squealing as these large birds bore down on people honking and flapping their wings while the nest-warmer smugly changed position on top of its brood.

Not much further now Shirley...

One mongoose, two … mongeese?

Due to the cold temperatures here some animals are moved inside for winter and so there are no elephants, giraffes or zebras like we see at home. Inside the Tropical House we saw lots of crazy little moustachioed tamarins that could fit comfortably in your hand if they would sit still long enough. They are named Keisaritamariini in reference to the moustache favoured by the German Emperor at the end of the 1800s.

A jurt (yurt)

A jurt (yurt)

We spent most the day saying ‘What is that?’ and searching for the names of each species of animal on its sign. We saw Brazilian Aguti, Patagonian Mara and Vicuna, Bactrian camels with two shaggy humps and Pére David’s deer which looked a bit like reindeer to us. It was really hard to take photos that do the zoo and its inhabitants justice but I really recommend checking out the Helsinki Zoo website which includes information in English and pictures of ice sculpting and other events.


Kind of like an Ibis in a red dress

And what of the balloon? Well, I dutifully approached the girl in the ticket office and said ‘Um, there’s a balloon here for Mel?’ and gave it to Miko who then saw the ice cream stand and in his excitement let go of the string. We watched the balloon immediately head high up in the sky, giddy with new found freedom after listening to the girls in the office for the last three hours, and can only hope it headed back to the city and not to Korkeasaari.