Travel: How not to do Helsinki

by | Culture, Travel

written and photographed by JOY DICKINSON TIPPING

I am a member of Dallas’ Credo Choir, which takes yearly trips overseas. This summer, we sang our way across the Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia. The tour company offered to tack on two days in Helsinki, a short ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland from Estonia. Sold! Because surveys yearly rank Helsinki among the most expensive cities in the world, I thought, I’ll write a ‘luxury Helsinki’ story for FD!

Not so fast, O Wandering One: Although Helsinki is a mecca of opulent shopping, spas, dining and hotels, we arrived smack during the midsummer festivities. They take place around the summer solstice and are major holidays in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. Hello, Helsinki. Hi, lovely weather and gorgeous, clean environs. A hearty welcome to empty streets and closed-up — well, just about everything.

Onward. I might not experience luxury Helsinki myself, but I am a reporter. For suggestions, I queried people who carried Louis Vuitton bags or wore Marimekko. I blatantly pressed my nose against the windows of top Finnish shops Asuna and WOA Work of Art, and gazed longingly into the sumptuously designed windows of department-store oasis Stockmann. You’ll certainly want to visit the flagship Marimekko, Finland’s most famous design company. It won international élan when Jackie Kennedy wore a Marimekko shift dress on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1960. The brand’s graphic, boldly colorful pieces aren’t for the meek of heart or style, but to go classically Marimekko, get something in designer Maija Isola’s Unikko poppy pattern. Also check out the Design District, 25 streets in the Kamppi and Punavuori areas, for smaller boutiques.

Where to stay? The 125-year-old Hotel Kämp, which boasts a drop-dead-gorgeous facade and lobby along with a fascinating history, got enthusiastic raves from my sources. (It’s where they send their pickiest in-laws.) Kämp has long been favored by international artists and visiting royalty. It was designed by pioneering neo-Renaissance starchitect Theodor Höijer and claims to have the first hotel elevator in Finland. For the ultimate sybaritic treatment, book the Presidential Mannerheim Suite, which has its own private sauna. As of early October, daily rates ran from about $228 for just-regularly fabulous rooms to $4,056 for the Mannerheim Suite. For relaxation after too much shopping, you need not go far: the hotel’s splendid Kämp Spa, which combines European therapies and Eastern philosophy. One enthusiastic customer described it as “exactly what I want heaven to be like.”

Ah, yes, the food: Helsinki contains enough luxury restaurants to keep a well-heeled foodie busy for months. Modern-cuisine favorite Savoy, probably the most expensive of the lot, runs about $82 to $114 for dinner, not including wine. (It has an especially interesting list, I’m told.) Savoy also serves an array of updated traditional Finnish dishes.

All of these sites are in or easy to reach from the central city, via walking or quick cab rides. Private cars and drivers abound, as well as excellent public transportation, if you’re into that. Which you are probably not.

JOY DICKINSON TIPPING is a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News Arts & Life section. She has written two literary travel guides, Haunted City: A Guide to New Orleans for Anne Rice Fans, and Scarlett Slept Here: A Book Lover’s Guide to the South.