There’s a crazy Scandinavian tradition known as ice swimming, which involves people submerging themselves in frozen lakes. Unappealing as it sounds, advocates claim it has wide-ranging health benefits, from improving circulation to boosting energy, and the custom is enjoying something of a renaissance in Finland.
Luckily for me, my guides had arranged an experience of this cultural initiation during a trip to Helsinki. And so, on a bitter, drizzly afternoon in April, I stood shivering in a swimsuit by the partially frozen Baltic Sea. The first tentative steps felt deceptively warm – my limbs too numb from the stinging rain to register the temperature. But as the icy water covered my chest, the shock of cold left me gasping for breath. I flailed about for a few ungainly seconds before scrambling back up the ladder as fast as my stupefied limbs would carry me.
Admittedly, as I exited the water a surge of adrenaline followed, leaving me feeling invigorated and seemingly immune to the outside air. Nevertheless, the second half of the ritual is infinitely more appealing: a dash into the warm embrace of a traditional Finnish sauna. Icy droplets evaporated from our skin transforming the hot, dry air into a humid, steamy environment as we languished gratefully in the heat.
After the initial gush of warmth, however, “relaxing” in 176-degree F heat quickly becomes something of an endurance test for the uninitiated. After a ten-minute effort, I gratefully emerged to the relatively cool antechamber for a chilled cider and a chat.
Sauna is a huge part of daily life for Finns; a typical session lasts up to two hours, dipping in and out of the heat, and while nudity is normal in same-sex environments, Finns won’t be offended if you choose to remain covered.
Our guides had chosen a unique location for our ice swimming and sauna debut: Uunisaari Island, accessible via a short ferry ride in summer or bridge in the winter. Along with a restaurant, there are two saunas, a beachfront and jetty with a permanent ice hole throughout winter, plus a fabulous 8-10 person outdoor Jacuzzi with picturesque views of Helsinki’s coastline (prices start from $330 for 10 people for two hours; uunisaari.com).
An alternative venue for individuals or smaller groups is the newly opened Löyly public sauna, a striking modern structure occupying a beautiful spot on Helsinki’s waterfront comprising two mixed saunas, a large deck terrace and restaurant. A two-hour booking costs $21 per person (loylyhelsinki.fi).
Meanwhile, a different kind of deep-freeze – cryotherapy treatment – is offered at Haikko Manor & Spa. The “Super Cold Treatment” sees open-minded health and beauty seekers subject themselves to a three-minute blast of super-frozen air (around -185 degrees F) inside a large silver chamber. Any longer and you’d be facing hypothermia and death, but in short blasts the extreme cold is used to target aches and pains, improve sleep and restore energy. The spa also offers saunas and wellness pools, including a bubble bench, animated rain showers and a cold well. (A day pass to the sauna and gym costs $33 per adult, “Super Cold Treatment” $42 per person; haikko.fi/en/haikko-spa).
Haikko Manor itself is a beautiful, centuries-old lakeside chalet with an Imperial Russian heritage, set about 40 minutes from the city center. Large rooms in the main building are quaintly old-fashioned, with four-poster beds and hand-crocheted wall hangings dating to the 19th century. Each one comes with a balcony, providing breathtaking views over the lake and alpine forests, where hiking opportunities abound and watersports take place in the warmer summer months (overnight rates for a Classic Double Manor room start from $218; haikko.fi/en).
The Manor is located just outside Porvoo, the wonderfully preserved “medieval Helsinki,” first established in 1380. The ancient town is populated by multicolored wooden structures that line the banks of the Porvoonjoki River in picture-perfect splendor.
Wandering around the cobbled streets is a bit like stepping into the set of a Finnish period drama, but most of the buildings have been converted into modern boutiques, restaurants and cafés, which make for a lovely day exploring. From the independent chocolatiers to the old-school children’s toy store, the unusual shops draw plenty of local Helsinki-ites for day trips. As the second-oldest town in Finland, Porvoo also holds many secrets about Finland’s historical background under both Swedish and Russian rule – the country only gained independence in 1917, so expect big celebrations for the centenary next year.
Back in the main city, Helsinki proves to be quite small by world capital standards, though elegant and beautiful. Enjoy an overview of the main sites by hopping aboard the 90-minute Panorama sightseeing bus, which departs from Esplanade Park at 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM ($34 per ticket). The audio-guided tour weaves through the city’s main attractions, starting at the resplendent Senate Square, the oldest part of the city, featuring iconic Helsinki Cathedral, a statue of Alexander II and the neoclassical architecture of the Government Palace and University of Helsinki.
From there, the tour skirts some of the capital’s famous coastline; highlights include the South Harbour, which offers daily cruises to Sweden’s Stockholm and Tallin in Estonia, as well as the inhabited sea fortress of Suomenlinna – one of the most popular tourist excursions for those interested in Helsinki’s history.
Capital of Design
However, arguably the city’s best selling point is its inherent, understated coolness. Just like the Finns, who are a laid-back, practical people, the city’s unique flavor emerges through its cultural manifestations. Unsurprisingly, Helsinki was named Design Capital of the World in 2012, and a distinctively Finnish design aesthetic continues to permeate all aspects of society.
Quirky architectural examples include the Kampii Chapel, or Chapel of Silence, built on busy Narinkka Square to give people a moment of calm. The striking hull-shaped structure – made of light wood – is a Lutheran chapel, but everyone is welcome to seek respite in the tranquil sanctuary. Even more unusual is the Temppeliaukio “Rock” Church, hewn from solid stone. The combination of exposed rocky walls and a giant circular copper dome ceiling with skylights is beautiful and bizarre.
The strong design mentality has also fostered fantastic shopping opportunities. From luxury goods at the iconic Stockmann department store (the “Harrods of Helsinki”) to fashion boutiques and beautiful housewares stores, there’s plenty to keep even the most jaded shoppers enthralled. Iittala beckons to those looking for timeless crockery with an unmistakable Finnish aesthetic. A “quick look inside” inevitably turned into a half-hour shopping session; I fell in love with the “Tanssi” mystical forest-themed dinner set design by artist Klaus Haapaniemi – I wasn’t the only one who left the store clutching parcels (iittala.com).
While furniture might not be top of your vacation souvenirs list, it’s still worth wandering around Artek to be inspired by the simple, practical designs, modern silhouettes and quirky soft furnishings (artek.fi). Fashion lovers must also visit the central Marimekko boutique, whose bold patterns and bright color palette have made it Finland’s most internationally renowned fashion brand.
Aside from the big players, the Design District is dotted with around 200 independent outlets, ranging from jewelry boutiques to art galleries and museums. Some combine multiple elements; Lokal is a self-defined “concept store, home to independent Finnish art, design and crafts,” with rotating exhibitions and a café at the back (lokalhelsinki.com).
If your taste runs more to gastronomic adventure, try the Nordic-inspired flavors of the Michelin-starred Olo restaurant. The airy courtyard venue in the center of town has an unusual inside-out feel, with a soaring glass roof and indoor balconies. It attracts a cool crowd and has an unpretentious ambience. Seasonal tasting menus show off the natural, clean flavors of Finland’s landscape. Expect fresh, simple dishes such as radish and dill salad, pike perch with sour cucumber and arctic char with new potatoes. The pairing menu starts from $345 per person (olo-ravintola.fi/en).
Then there’s Savotta, a charmingly nostalgic Finnish restaurant housed in a 250-year-old building. Downstairs, the rustic interior evokes an old logging cabin (savotta), complete with costumed staff and traditional folk music piped through the low, wooden ceilings. The menu is a smorgasbord of unusual Scandinavian flavors, from bear salami and reindeer tongue to Baltic herring and blueberry pie. During the summer months, try to bag one of the alfresco tables offering gorgeous views directly onto Senate Square. Set menus with wine start from around $77 per person (ravintolasavotta.fi/en).
There are plenty of great hospitality offerings, including Hotel Lilla Roberts, a delightful new place that opened in August 2015 on a quiet side street just a stone’s throw from the city center. The stylish new property from Kämp Collection Hotels is centered on the idea of “hygge” – a Nordic expression that refers to a warm, friendly atmosphere. The 130-room property, a former police barracks, combines a whimsical modern style with historical charm. The lobby boasts a roaring log fire and eclectic furniture, and rooms are lavishly decorated with stylish soft furnishings and art deco bathrooms. Next door, the hotel’s Krog Roba restaurant continues the unique style with luxurious fabrics and dramatic lighting. (Rates for the Lux category start from $250 per night; lillaroberts.com).
For a more “Scandi-cool” feel, Hotel Indigo Helsinki Boulevard – part of IHG’s upscale boutique brand – is another central option. The hotel channels the city’s clean, minimalist style, with 120 individualized guestrooms featuring muted tones, graphic stencils and ergonomic furniture. Its Body Mind and Soul studio offers complimentary 24-hour access to hotel guests, with a fitness center and male/female saunas. It’s also an LEED-certified hotel, with features like electric car-charging points. (Superior room rates start from $199; helsinki-boulevard.hotelindigo.com/en).
By Tamsin Cocks