What surprised me the most about my visit to Finland is that Finnish design is not just something that you see in the shops of Helsinki. It’s a way of life, and one that reflects their history and innate quirkiness.
When babies are born, the Finnish government gives the family a box full of goodies, including outfits, nail scissors, diapers, baby books, toys, shoes, gloves, and a sleeping bag for the baby (Families can choose to get 140 Euros if its a second child). Here’s the amazing part: The box itself can be used as a bed, complete with mattress. So Finns are literally exposed to good design by birth. No wonder so many of them grow up to be stylishly put together, like the woman above.
Touring the city, though, starts with Senate Square. Reminiscent of St. Petersburg’s neoclassical architecture, Helsinki’s historic buildings include Helsinki Cathedral, built by Carl Ludwig Engel in 1830. Engel designed most of the Square, which served as the capital for the Grand Duchy of Finland before the country received its independent in 1917.
I didn’t have time in the city to really dig into some of the major design sights. I would have loved to have visited the Design Museum or toured the Finlandia Talo which I saw from a distance.
We did take a design tour, after hearing about Helsinki’s role as a World Design Capital in 2012. It took us through the Eira, a wealthy Helsinki neighborhood known for its Jugendstil – a style of Art Noveau – homes.
Also on our tour: Temppeliaukio Church, a building that was blasted out of stone in the heart of Helsinki. The exposed granite walls – designed and blasted by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen) have made the church a great place for concerts, and it’s become a tourist attraction.
I found Helsinki full of surprises. I had heard that the Finns were quiet and introverted, but I didn’t realize their sense of playfulness that comes out in their design, much of it inspired by the outdoors. Their most famous composer, Jean Sibelius, was influenced by the Finnish landscape.
So it stands to reason that the Sibelius Monument is meant to interact with nature. Designed by sculptress Eila Hiltunen, the abstract piece is made up of 600 pipes, meant to resemble those of an organ. You can go underneath it to hear the wind passing through.
The Finns were green before green was a thing. At the Hotel Kamp, probably the nicest hotel in Helsinki, you can use their Pelago bikes, which they keep out front.
Even as we left town for the long train ride to Lapland, we encountered design. The granite Central train station is an amazing example of late Art Noveau (the stone men that you see on the sides have also been used as animated spokesmen for VR, the state-run railway).
Because I was traveling by train, I decided not to buy some of the awesome Finnish glassware I saw in stores in the Design District and at Arabianranta. Perhaps the best known brands are iittala and Marimekko, but there are tons of up-and-comers out there. I could have easily spent an entire day shopping in Helsinki.
I was the only one in my group who knew about the fictional Moomins, hippo-type creatures trolls that live in the Finnish woods. My friend Ted gave me the book Comet in Moominland years ago, and while I was never inspired to read the entire series, I do think that the characters by Tove Jansson are cute – and another example of Finnish quirkiness.
Thanks to The Eurail Group, which sponsored my trip to Finland.