When I zoom out on Google Maps, Helsinki looks like a giant yellow blob, all the places I’ve starred clumped into one big blotch. I’m fastidious about noting go-to venues, but when I see the little yellow marks dotted around the city, it feels somewhat overwhelming, especially for a small city. Then again, that’s also to be expected: Helsinki has a surprisingly excellent dining scene few people know about. Here, how to eat your way through the Finnish capital in a day.
① Pastries from Fleuriste
I’ll admit, Fleuriste is not my find. It was recommended to me by umpteen locals who couldn’t stop raving about the cinnamon rolls (korvapuusti)—and with good reason. Tucked down a narrow street, Fleuriste is a small and homey coffee shop that peddles those legendary buns. I take mine to go, retreating to the icy street outside to open the packaging, which reveals a pearl sugar-coated pastry: crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside, with lashings of cinnamon and delicate flavors of cardamom. Needless to say, I go back. Twice.
② Coffee from Good Life Coffee
For all the coffee the Finns drink (they drink the most coffee per capita in the world), it’s hard to believe the artisanal brew is a new thing for them. "We don’t drink coffee for the taste," one Finn tells me. (Huh? OK.) But in Helsinki, that’s all changing. One of the most popular coffee spots is Good Life Coffee, in the emerging district of Kallio. Outside, a board reads Avoid Bad Coffee; inside, millennials tap away on keyboards doing just that: sipping the best brew in the city.
③ Lunch at Sandro
Sandro is Helsinki’s first foray into healthy, Moroccan-inspired food. The owner, Richard McCormick, is a mini local celebrity with other notable restaurants under his belt, including The Cock and Holiday. There are three Sandros in the city, but pick any one, and it’s guaranteed to be good. During lunchtime, the restaurant serves a market table menu of seasonal Ottolenghi-style dishes like cauliflower with turmeric, and grilled lamb with rosemary and figs. Watermelon is available for dessert, and warm mint tea is always on tap.
④ Snacks at Old Market Hall
But really: Who wants watermelon for dessert? At the Old Market Hall, a refurbished waterfront spot built in 1889, you can get everything from fresh shellfish to soups and, most importantly, cakes. Your mission is to find a Finnish favorite: Runeberg torte, a dense almond pastry loaded with raspberry jam and topped with icing. It kicks fruit’s butt any day.
⑤ Drinks at Trillby & Chadwick
This speakeasy is impossibly hard to locate, and you’ll likely spend 20 minutes circling the cobbled street cursing at Google Maps before finding the entrance. But that’s part of the experience. Once you’ve figured it out, ring a bell and wait for a voice to sound from a small hatch. Inside awaits a romantic wood-and-wallpaper-clad room with dim lighting and Billie Holiday emanating from the speakers. There are three rules: no table-hopping, no photographs and exit out the back door. Ask the waiter to seat you at one of the low tables, then order a Black Market (mescal, Chartreuse, lime and cinnamon) and pat yourself on the back for discovering this hidden gem.
⑥ Dinner at Spis
Choosing a place for dinner in Helsinki isn’t easy, because there are so many good options. But I’ll try make it simple: Just book a table at Spis, an understated joint with rustic brick walls and simple wooden seating. The 18-seat restaurant offers two set menus (four or six courses), which celebrate Nordic ingredients, including local veggies, reindeer and turbot. With natural wines and hyper-seasonal dishes, Spis is the perfect low-key example of just how underrated the Finnish food scene is.
Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.
Formerly an editor at GQ SA, Mary Holland is a South African travel writer based in New York. You can follow her on Instagram @missmaryholland
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