Helsinki: The last-minute Nordic city break to soothe weary Britons, with a wild island, art and saunas

Through the moss-covered linden trees and lush undergrowth, a small red-brick building appears on the stony path. Nature has done its best to camouflage the structure, with a thick carpet of shrubs and grass covering the roof.

The sense of mystery grows as I step inside the small warehouse to find a blue crystal glowing in the darkness. A computerised stained-glass window and a giant video screen show footage of a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea.

I’m on Vallisaari, the wildest of around 330 islands that form the archipelago around Helsinki. It’s a 20-minute ferry ride from the harbour next to the Finnish capital’s market square, but it feels like another world.

Abandoned military buildings that have been colonised by nature are scattered around Vallisaari island (Photo: Julia Kivelä/Visit Finland)

The Swedish made a military base here in the 17th century. Tsarist Russia reinforced it, and Finland’s own armed forces took over the site after the country gained independence in 1917. But when the fortifications were abandoned it was the turn of plants and wildlife to colonise these granite rocks.

A greater variety of flora can be found here than anywhere else in the region, along with warblers, bats, owls and 1,000 species of butterflies and moths.

Vallisaari is next to the larger Suomenlinna sea fortress, a six-island complex complete with museums, parkland and restaurants. But I find that a few hours on its smaller, ghostly neighbour – which opened to the public in 2016 – is a highlight of my time in and around Helsinki. It offers a slice of quiet solitude that complements the buzz of the city.

The wild shore of Vallisaari (Photo: Matti Pyykkö / Helsinki Biennial)
The wild shore of Vallisaari (Photo: Matti Pyykkö/Helsinki Biennial)

This summer Vallisaari is hosting the Helsinki Biennial, a festival of modern art founded in 2021, which explains that crystal – it is part of a spooky installation made by Lithuania’s Emilija Škarnulytė.

On a gentle two-mile hike, I find that many of the old army storehouses around the uninhabited island serve as venues for thought-provoking artworks. They are broadly themed around environmental concerns, with examples including a rainbow of plastic collected from the sea and a film warning of the threats to native reindeer.

Other works have been placed among the trees. Fungus-like designs drape from branches and trunks, and unsettling sculpted figures lurk among the greenery I take in every detail of the forest as I try to spot them on my walk.

One of the artworks in the forest of Vallisaari at the Helsinki Biennial by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas (Photo: Rob Hastings)
One of the artworks in the forest of Vallisaari at the Helsinki Biennial by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas (Photo: Rob Hastings)

The Biennial has been a fitting addition to a city already celebrated for its growing art and design scene.

Back in the heart of Helsinki, an architectural walking tour takes in the subterranean gallery of the Amos Rex art museum, lit by giant portholes in its white concrete domes, and the Oodi library, which resembles a giant ship sailing through Makasiinipuisto square (and has a tempting café).

An afternoon is enough time to visit Temppeliaukio church, which was built into solid rock. Its round copper ceiling and angular struts resemble the set of a 1960s Ken Adam film set.

What I enjoy most about the Finnish capital, however, is its proximity to nature.

Having got a taste for the wilderness in Vallisaari, I head for Helsinki Central – a rail station that’s a destination in itself; its 1919 clocktower is an art-nouveau beauty – for a journey to Nuuksio National Park. After a journey of less than an hour, by rail and bus, I’m looking down on the calm waters of Nuuksio Pitkäjärvi, one of Finland’s 57,000 lakes, from the wooden terrace of the Haltia nature centre. I’m surprised to find such tranquility so close to a capital city.

Nuuksio National Park has beautiful lakeland views (Photo: Natura Viva)
Nuuksio National Park has lakeland views (Photo: Natura Viva)

I’m meeting Anna Nyman, a biologist who gave up her stressful office work conducting scientific research to run foraging walks and workshops in the countryside. Exploring the footpaths of Nuuksio, an enchanting experience, can be done independently. However, I find peace in Anna’s guidance through the spruce forest and its small meadows.

After we pick blueberries, she points out wild herbs like pineapple weed, yarrow and ground elder. She teaches me of their health benefits, and explains how even daisies and dandelions can be used in cooking. A cynical city-dweller like me could be skeptical about these teachings. Yet, as we share Anna’s homemade nettle tarts and sweet fireweed while listening to conifer needles rustling in the breeze, I feel inspired.

Biologist Anna Nyman teaches people about wild food identification and preservation, medicinal herbs and sustainable foraging (Photo: Helsinki Partners)
Biologist Anna Nyman teaches visitors about wild food identification and preservation, medicinal herbs and sustainable foraging (Photo: Helsinki Partners)

Visitors can camp or stay in log cabins at Nuuksio, and there’s a reindeer park a mile up the road.

But having learnt so much about Finland’s native ingredients, I’m eager to return to the city and taste how Finnish chefs make best use of them. I find that Helsinki’s restaurants are blooming.

Among them is Nokka. Based in a restored 19th century harbourfront warehouse, it specialises in seasonal foods sourced from the wild. Beneath a rowing boat hanging from its wooden beams, I’m wowed by a starter plate of local delicacies: oak-smoked herring with a delightfully leathery smell, a dark reindeer salami with pickled mushrooms, cured duck breast, and split peas with black garlic and sea buckthorn berries.

I’m jealous of my girlfriend’s ramson ravioli until my main turns up: two tender cuts of reindeer (one shank, one roast topside) with asparagus, lingonberry and a root vegetable puree that’s so good that I have to order another box of focaccia-style bread to mop it up.

A plate of local delicacies at Nokka, the restaurant led by head chef Ari Ruoho which uses seasonal ingredients from forests and smallholdings across Finland (Photo: Helsinki Partners)
A plate of local delicacies at Nokka. The restaurant led by head chef Ari Ruoho uses seasonal ingredients from forests and smallholdings across Finland (Photo: Helsinki Partners)

I also visit the sophisticated Nolla. This is perhaps Helsinki’s most best-known dining destination. Its dishes are zero-waste with a focus on nose-to-tail sustainability. The moreish skewered chicken gizzards are testament to its success. Next, watching the evening trams roll by outside, I enjoy some delicate grilled whitefish – caught in one of those thousands of lakes – and served with lemon and thyme butter and charred zucchini.

It is a year since one of Nolla’s founders, Luka Balac, opened another nature-inspired restaurant, Elm. And, to my mind, this newer offering is even better than his last success.

Elm is in a formerly derelict 19th century wooden villa on the edge of Kaivopuisto, Helsinki’s oldest park. There’s a delightfully rustic air about sitting on its veranda and sipping a port-and-tonic cocktail while waiting for a feast of charcuterie, grilled octopus and organic beef filet to arrive. It feels like being welcomed into the chef’s home.

Before I leave Helskini, I must try its most visceral method for getting in touch with nature: a dip in the Baltic.

Visitors to Löyly can step down into the Baltic within seconds of emerging from one of its saunas (Photo: Helsinki Partners)
Visitors to Löyly can step down into the Baltic within seconds of emerging from one of its saunas (Photo: Helsinki Partners)

I prefer swimming in temperatures approaching that of a warm bath, but I want the full sauna experience. The city’s best – Löyly – looks out on the sea and has two ladders at the waterside.

Even at the height of summer, the cold takes my breath away. But I’m in. And while I can’t say I enjoy the eight or nine seconds I brave, I feel great afterwards – refreshed and energetic, and pleased I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone.

Immersing yourself in nature has longer-term benefits, I find. I’m returning home more relaxed than I’ve been in ages, and I’m already planning my next revitalising trip to Finland.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Finnair offer flights between the UK and Helsinki, with return fares starting from £166. Flights are available from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Staying there
Scandic Grand Central Helsinki, in a restored Art Nouveau building next door to the central railway station, has rooms from €149 a night.

Visiting there
Helsinki Biennial is free to visit, The FRS Finland ferry to Vallisaari from Helsinki’s market square sails at least once an hour throughout the day; €19.89 return for adults, €9.95 for children aged seven to 17 and free for under-sevens,

Nuuksio National Park is free to visit, A day-long public transport ticket, covering travel around Helsinki, a train to Espoo and return bus to Nuuksio costs €11, Anna Nyman runs foraging walks from €39 per person,

More information