You’re never far from water or forest in Helsinki. At the southern tip of the country, the Finnish capital sits on the Baltic Sea. You can catch a tram to the beach or watch the ferries depart for Tallinn from Allas Sea Pool.
In Finland they have something called everyman’s rights, which means you can forage for berries, mushrooms and herbs in the woods. Though at this time of year, you’re more likely to be padding around in your cosy house socks or toasting yourself in a sauna.
Saunas are to Finns what baths are to Brits, though we might not go for an icy plunge after wallowing in the tub. Between 5pm and 7pm on a Saturday, most Finns will be in one.
On the Baltic: Sunset views of Helsinki harbour and Uspenski Cathedral
They practise sauna yoga and, driving into the countryside, you’ll pass house after house with little wooden cabins for sweating it out in the garden. Traditionally, women even gave birth in the sauna (not when it was on, thank goodness).
These days, they are trendy places to hang out and designer versions are cropping up all over Helsinki.
I spend a sunny Sunday afternoon at Allas, full of friends chatting in the heated open-air pool (a balmy 27c) while couples shriek in the sea pool (6c now). In winter, they offer skinny-dip nights and ‘wine and stretching’, which must really loosen you up.
In the sauna, with sea views through a small window, mothers and daughters sit quietly on throwaway mats in the heat. ‘The discreet’, as the sign puts it, can wear cossies. People sunbathe (not nude) on the terrace and the cafe serves salmon bagels and coffee. Finns love their coffee. You will buzz your way around this city fuelled by caffeine and cinnamon buns.
Sunny afternoon: Watch the ferries depart for Tallinn at Allas Sea Pool
Helsinki is not as obviously beautiful as Stockholm or Copenhagen, but it has its moments. Senate Square, with Helsinki’s white cathedral as gleaming as post-sauna skin, overlooking the city is one.
Its onion domes might remind you of St Petersburg. Finland was part of Russia from 1809 until independence in 1917, and you’re less than 200km (124 miles) from the Russian border. Are the Finns and Russians alike? We both like spirits, a local tells me, impishly. Finnish gin is very good, with Napue voted the world’s best. I have it garnished with seasonal sour red berries.
Gleaming: The onion domes of Helsinki’s white cathedral are one of the city’s highlights
The new Amos Rex gallery in the centre of town has a similar effect to the gin — giddying. In an Art Deco building with a cinema upstairs, it’s an immersive and futuristic experience. Even the staff, wearing shiny bronze quilted jackets, look as if they are crewing a trendy spaceship. One room, where neon lizards climb the walls and fluorescent butterflies flit, is like stepping into a Pixar animation.
Opposite is the Central Railway Station, an Art Nouveau masterpiece. For design you can take home, go to nearby Artek, the furniture company started by Alvar Aalto, the renowned Finnish architect. He believed everyone should be able to afford good quality furniture, a similar philosophy to that of William Morris but without the Arts and Crafts flourishes.
Masterpiece: The Central Railway Station is an imposing example of Art Nouveau design
His house and studio, in what used to be a suburb, are both open to the public. You can only visit on a tour and it’s worth booking ahead. I warm to Aalto when I learn that he discouraged washing windows because dirt makes the light softer.
Of course, his home is beautiful and clever. All the family bedrooms face the morning sun and the living room has wide window ledges for pots and pots of cactuses. Plants creep up the walls like Jack’s beanstalk. Aalto brought the outdoors in long before it became a trend. His studio is light-filled, with the sort of furniture you wish you had the discipline to save for.
Artek still manufacture many of the chairs and lights, and Aalto’s inexpensive glass tumblers are used in most Finnish homes. From here, walk to the sea, where you’ll find a cafe overlooking a grassy, then rocky shore and a sandy bay that must be bliss in summer.
If Aalto has tickled a fancy for retail therapy, then go to Stockmann, the shopping mall in the centre of town. On the way back in, stop off at Finlandia Hall, also by Aalto, beside Toolonlahti Lake and park, ideal for strolling.
When the light begins to fade, call it a day and go to Hotel Torni, where the rooftop bar’s bestseller is the view of the sunset out to sea.
I am staying on the same street in the new art-filled Hotel St George (home to Ai Weiwei’s dragon, among other things), which has soothing rooms, a stonking breakfast buffet — pans of sizzling sausages and oven-baked omelettes — as well as a lively spa with a chatty sauna and freezing plunge pool.
Dip in: One of Helsinki’s designer saunas at the St George Hotel
Eating in Helsinki is a revelation. The city’s kitchens use local produce and there’s a trend for ecological dining.
At Natura, ten minutes from St George, the food is delicious, as is the sharing-style menu at Boulevard Social, a five-minute walk and full of groups enjoying platters of mezze and textured chocolate puddings.
Oh, and Allas is open until 10pm, so you could have one last steam and sea plunge. Go on, I dare you.