The Finnish capital is a city of artists, architects and islands. You'll see dozens of the latter under your plane when you land. Some are nature reserves, some are nature reserves – don't confuse them – and some are home to museums and galleries, part of the formation of world-class events and institutions that make Helsinki one of Europe's best, but least screaming – cultural destinations.
Next summer, Helsinki's first art biennial will take place on the island of Vallisaari. But you don't have to wait for your first taste of island life.
A good place to start is Kuusisaari, accessible by bridge and a bus ride from the Kamppi Lahiliikenne terminal in the city center. The island was heavily wooded when collectors and philanthropists Signe and Ane Gyllenberg built their large house and gallery here in 1938, and it still looks like a park. The wooded gardens reach the coast and you can have a picnic and paddle.
Water World: "Helsinki is one of the best cultural destinations in Europe, but less shouted," writes Michael Hodges. Pictured are islands in Helsinki harbor
Back inland, Villa Gyllenberg has regular art exhibitions, as well as a permanent collection that includes much of Helene Schjerfbeck, the 20th-century Finnish portrait artist.
A five-minute walk from the villa, you'll find the Didrichsen Museum of Art, a twentieth-century, two-story dream house designed by Viljo Revell for Finnish collectors Marie-Louise and Gunnar Didrichsen in 1959, with instructions clearly to make it groovy. If Austin Powers were Finnish, that's where he would live. In addition to the incredibly cool liquor cabinet, complete with original 1960s Dubonnet bottles, sunken inner tanks, teak interiors, and original light fixtures and stereo, there is an art collection that includes works by Picasso, Chagall, Emil Nolde , Miro, Rothko, Kandinsky and Schjerfbeck.
For those who lean towards the more traditional in Helsinki, the Ateneum Gallery is a large European institution with a large collection. Van Gogh and Gauguin are here, alongside Finnish painters of the 19th century golden age, such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The almost perpendicular center staircase should not be attempted if you have something stronger than coffee. But if you're ready for a drink, walk around town to Katajanokka Island. Cross the walkway to the island's Kanavaranta pier area, just below the city's Orthodox cathedral, and you'll find bars and restaurants in converted waterfront warehouses.
If you like Art Nouveau, known as Jugendstil in Finland, Katajanokka Island is an open-air style museum. In the early 1900s, several great architects, including Eliel Saarinen, were given building blocks to design, and on streets such as Katajanokankatu and Luotsikatu, you will find bear-decorated doors and mythological figures.
Saarinen's masterpiece is Helsinki's central station. The four stone giants holding glass globes that guard the facade are embedded in Finnish culture, appearing in movies and music.
Head to the island's Kanavaranta pier area just below the city's Orthodox Cathedral (pictured) and you'll find bars and restaurants in converted waterfront warehouses.
Flights from Gatwick to Helsinki with Norwegian cost starting at R $ 960 (www.norwegian.com) Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Helsinki offers standard rooms starting at £ 125 per night, not including breakfast (radissonhotels.com)
Ready for more islands? Take a bus or ferry to Korkeasaari to see snow leopards and 150 other animals at the island's zoo.
Ferries also take you to Suomenlinna's "sea fortress", a 271-year-old garrison that housed anti-aircraft units in World War II and is now one of Finland's most popular tourist attractions.
Or take the train to Karjaa and then move to the charming old-world town of Ekenas, which is in the 4,000-island islet of the Ekenas Archipelago that houses eagles and eagles. The train ride should take 50 minutes in total, and before you board, check out the station's Presidential lounge, which still features Saarinen's original furniture and accessories.
Ekenas has a wonderful folk museum, which has a permanent collection of Helene Schjerfbeck's work and a café specializing in robust local food – dishes like 'salty pie', full of minced eggs and, as expected, very salt . There are more places to eat by the water, such as the new Fyyren restaurant on the pier, which specializes in herring and breadcrumbs. Back in Helsinki, explore the huge Hietaniemi cemetery on the edge of the city center.
Look for Schjerfbeck's tomb, as well as modernist architect Alvar Aalto and Moomins creator Tove Jansson. To squeeze into a museum, walk along Etelainen Rautatiekatu to the Helsinki Art Museum for galleries dedicated to Jansson and Schjerfbeck.
Time for one more island? Lonna (take a ferry from Market Square pier) is home to a museum that preserves the operation of anti-Soviet mine operations that leave its shores during the Cold War, as well as a restaurant, also called Lonna, which serves Contemporary versions of traditional Helsinki dishes like whitefish with a flower salad. This is the place to watch the sunset over a Finnish vodka, of course.
- Helene Schjerfbeck is now on display at the Royal Academy of London.
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