Club culture and winter swimming: what to do in Helsinki

What to do in Helsinki – public saunas, an artful hotel and classic Finnish cuisine are all on our Helsinki tour, courtesy of Wallpaper* contributing editor Emma O'Kelly

Suomenlinna church is among Wallpaper’s guide of what to do in Helsinki; here it is seen amid autumn trees, with a river in the foreground
Suomenlinna church, part of the Suomenlinna fortress, a Unesco world heritage site in Helsinki
(Image credit: Photography: Leena Karppinen)

Nowhere does mid-winter quite like Helsinki. The arrival of the snow, and the special light that it brings is a welcome change after grey November, and candles, fairy lights, rugs and throws accompany the dazzling blanket of white. Instead of hibernating in the sub-zero temperatures, the city buttons up, braces itself and keeps going. Nowhere is this more evident than on the waterfront, where fleets of icebreakers carve channels through the frozen seas so that commuters can go about their business, and ice swimmers relish the buzz that the change in season brings. As Wallpaper* contributing editor Emma O’Kelly – author of the upcoming book Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat (published by Welbeck in September 2023) – discovers, the Finnish spirit of never letting the weather stop you is invigorating and infectious, and when you head home from Helsinki to almost anywhere else, winter doesn’t seem so bad. 

What to do in Helsinki: the Wallpaper* tour

interior view of a Helsinki restaurant, set tables and wine glasses

The restaurant at Finnjävel, Helsinki

(Image credit: Photography: Nico Backströmin)

Mention dill meat, summer vegetable soup or pork stew to Finns of a certain age, and they grimace in horror. These unloved staples were survival fodder in post-war Finland, but at Helsinki restaurant Finnjävel, they’ve been resurrected, shedding any negative associations along the way. The Michelin-starred restaurant offers a five- or eight-course tasting menu and the adjoining bistro serves much-loved classics such as Hasselback potatoes, apple ‘donuts’ and mushroom porridge, and for Christmas, reindeer tongue and potato pudding. (opens in new tab)


People perch outside Kulttuurisauna in Helsinki

People perch outside Kulttuurisauna in Helsinki

(Image credit: Photography: Leena Karppinen)

In winter, Helsinki’s public saunas usually cut ice holes into the sea to cater for winter bathers, and Kulttuurisauna, on the water at Merihaka, is a picturesque place for a chilly dip. The eco-friendly, wood-fired sauna was designed by Tuomas Toivonen of Now architects almost a decade ago, and has a cult following (there’s a rumour one will open in Japan soon). It’s called the ‘culture sauna’ for a reason – silence is compulsory and boiled eggs, pickles and sea-buckthorn shots are the refreshments of choice, rather than the customary beer or long drink (G&T in a tin). (opens in new tab)

Hotel St George 

hotel suite at st george hotel in helsinki, sofas and chairs in green walled room

The St George suite at St George Hotel in Helsinki

(Image credit: Courtesy Nordic Hotels & Restaurants, St George)

The test of a good hotel is how it treats you when you’re bone-dead exhausted, and Hotel St George delivers on all fronts. Friendly staff, comfortable beds, understated design and a peaceful location next to a leafy city centre park make for a restful stay. Basement restaurant Boon Nam whips up tasty Thai dishes, and St George Bakery next door offers a cheery slice of neighbourhood life, where hotel guests and locals congregate for coffee, sourdough and cinnamon buns. (opens in new tab)


The inside of Kaiku club in Helsinki: open space with light streaming through windows, tables and seating on left hand side

The inside of Kaiku club in Helsinki

(Image credit: Photography: Maija Astikainen)

There are tons of studios, bars, vintage shops and clubs in the creative quarter of Kallio, but the line for Kaiku at 1am on a rainy Saturday night is the longest by far. When it comes to clubbing, Helsinki models itself on Berlin, but the eclectic, international line-up at Kaiku offers regular alternatives to techno. In summer, clubbers spill out onto the roof terrace and gather at the outdoor bar. And in winter, they do much the same thing. (opens in new tab)

Yrjönkatu Uimahalli

Yrjönkatu Uimahalli indoor swimming pool in Helsinki

Yrjönkatu Uimahalli indoor swimming pool in Helsinki

(Image credit: © City of Helsinki. Photographer: Shoot Hayley, Jussi Hellsten)

Those who prefer a heated indoor pool to an ice hole should head for Yrjönkatu, the city's oldest public swimming hall. Built in 1928 in classical style, it has a grand 25m pool, three saunas and individual changing cubicles fitted with beds that have an air of Soviet sanitorium about them. Don’t be put off, though, because the saunas are among the best in the city and Café Yrjö upstairs offers a tipple of mead and honey (the Viking hooch of choice) and a signature cocktail served with brandy. 

Dance House Helsinki

large, metal faced building in the snow

Dance House Helsinki's exterior

(Image credit: © Tuomas Uusheimo)

Dance House Helsinki is the first dedicated dance space in Finland, and judging by the dance troupes and circus performers rehearsing in its 700-seat auditorium, it’s long overdue. Local architects JKMM ‘bolted’ the new building onto a former cable factory from the 1920s. With a rolling programme of four performances a week, Dance House is the latest addition to this five-hectare artistic enclave, which includes ateliers, studios and museums, among them The Finnish Museum of Photography. JKMM is stamping its mark all over Helsinki. In 2018, it completed the Amos Rex museum and a new building for the Academy of Fine Arts has just opened on the other side of town. (opens in new tab) 


Vuokko shop front in helsinki, red jumpsuit and two striped dresses on mannequins

A ‘Loikka Red’ jumpsuit at the Vuokko shop on Korkeavuorenkatu in Helsinki’s Design District

(Image credit: Guy Bolongaro)

If you’re inspired by the Design Museum’s current exhibition on Antti and Vuokko Nurmesniemi, one of Finland’s most celebrated designer couples, then it’s a quick stroll along pretty shopping streets to the Vuokko boutique. Nurmesniemis niece Mere Eskolin is now at the helm and the boutique offers a capsule collection of Vuokko’s best sellers, among them the circular ‘Myllynkivi’ dress, first cut out of one piece of fabric in 1964, and the unisex ‘Loikka’ jumpsuit, which looks as modern today as it ever did. (opens in new tab)

Emma O'Kelly is a contributing editor at Wallpaper*. She joined the magazine on issue 4 as news editor and since since then has worked in full and part time roles across many editorial departments. She is a freelance journalist based in London and works for a range of titles from Condé Nast Traveller to The Telegraph. She is currently working on a book about Scandinavian sauna culture and is renovating a mid century house in the Italian Lakes.