FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Helsinki: Driven By Design

Dec 1, 2012
2012 / December 2012

When Lee Ehnqvist lets her three children taste her handcrafted cupcakes, she isn’t just an indulgent mother. As one of the bakers at Mormor, a boutique cupcake shop in downtown Helsinki, Ehnqvist is also studying their faces while they eat to see if the kids are enjoying both the flavor and the colorful design on top.

In Helsinki, designated as World Design Capital 2012, Finnish design comes in many packages, large and small, from Mormor’s playfully designed store and cupcakes to the 247 acres encompassing Jätkäsaari, a former industrialized area now being developed into one of Helsinki’s designer-driven waterfront neighborhoods. The Finns take design seriously, celebrating their most famous designers, like Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen, with a reverence usually reserved for kings and presidents. In their capital city of Helsinki, even city trash cans, metro trains, streetlights and door handles display an understated elegance.

Helsinki is a joy to explore, either on warm summer days when the city’s many parks and marinas thrive with activity or during wintry afternoons when glass-enclosed cafés, heated trams and snowy landscapes are bathed with the brief, ethereal sunlight. One-third of the city is considered “green space,” crime is rare, and in Helsinki, English is almost like a second language.

To discover Finnish design during a day in the city, start the morning at Klaus K, a family-owned design hotel in a 1913 building offering the best buffet breakfast in the city at its Ilmatar Restaurant. Conveniently located in Helsinki’s trendy Design District, it is an easy walk to many Finnish design shops, including Iittala’s flagship store; Artek, a furniture and home accessory company founded by designers Alvar and Aino Aalto in 1935; and the large Marimekko shop filled with colorful and iconic clothing, textiles, bags and other decorative items.

After browsing through the expensive but gorgeous shops, walk to the Design Museum, housed in an 1894 Gustaf Nyström-designed building. There are permanent and rotating exhibits here, all focusing on Finnish design. Take a tram to the new Chapel of Silence, shaped like an egg cup and covered by strips of fir. It was designed by Mikko Summanen as one of Helsinki’s new Design Capital projects. This non-religious site offers no services but is so quiet and beautifully lit by a small opening in the ceiling that many Finns stop in to meditate for a few minutes during their busy workday downtown.

Nearby is the granite and stone Helsinki Central Station, a beautiful 1919 building designed by Eliel Saarinen. The station bustles with commuter activity during the morning and evening rush and provides service to distant Finnish cities as well as to St. Petersburg, Russia, via the high-speed Allegro train.

Finland’s most famous architect, Alvar Aalto, built a home in Helsinki in 1936, and this remarkable Modernist structure is worth visiting if time allows. Located in Munkkiniemi, a short distance from city center, it is easily reached by tram.

In late afternoon, take the metro to the Kallio district, 10 minutes from downtown, where the Kotiharjun Sauna is Helsinki’s last, totally wood-heated public sauna. The sauna is a Finnish pastime, so popular there are more than 2 million private saunas for 5 million Finnish citizens, but few public saunas. Kotiharjun Sauna is open Tuesday through Saturday; reservations are not necessary.

Have an early dinner at Savoy Restaurant, with its gorgeous interior designed by Alvar Aalto, looking much the same as when it opened in 1935. End the day at a performance of the Helsinki Philharmonic in the Helsinki Music Centre (closed in summer), a two-year-old concert hall designed by Marko Kivistö. The architect created a stunning glass roof and green copper façade, and the uniquely shaped birch panels inside the hall account for its perfect acoustics.

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