A Design Lover's Guide to Helsinki

A Design Lover's Guide to Helsinki

Regina Yunghans
Jul 16, 2013

A beautiful city with a thriving and unique culture, Helsinki is a wonderful place for any traveler to visit. As a destination for design-loving folks, it's a downright mecca. The major city of the small country of Finland, Helsinki has way more than its share of innovative art and design, from the past right up through the present. 


  • Finlandia Hall is Helsinki's performing arts building. It was designed by Alvar Aalto in the 1960s and is situated right on Töölönlahti Bay, making the building's outdoor space an awesome place to spend time before or after performances.
  • Suomenlinna Fortress is on a group of islands directly adjacent to the city. I think of it as Helsinki's Governor's Island. Built in the 18th century, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Don't miss the ship yards if you visit.
  • The home of architect Eliel Saarinen, Hvitträsk (above) is also the boyhood home of his son, modernist Eero Saarinen. Open for tours, the villa is located right on the shore of Lake Vitträsk and is an absolute must-visit, at only about 20 minutes away from the city. 
  • Fiskars Village is the location of Fiskars Corporation, the group that owns Iittala, Arabia, and Hackman. You know your orange-handled scissors you probably have in your home? They're Fiskars! The village is home to the Fiskars Museum, and its center houses historic production plants whose architecture alone is worth the trip - about an hour west of Helsinki.
  • The Cable Factory (Kaapelitehdas) is a hub of artists' studios, performance, and art exhibitions. It's a huge converted factory building (they used to manufacture telephone and electric cable here, hence the name) where local artists, musicians, and performers can rent out studio space and also exhibit their work to the public. Check out the schedule if you're going to be in town - there's bound to be something interesting going on.


  • Arabia Museum and Factory (above), is located in the Arabia district about thirty minutes outside of Helsinki. The building is a showpiece of modernism in and of itself. Inside, you can tour the factory to witness how the iconic ceramics are made. Finish up with a stop at the factory outlet shop, which is a wonderland of reduced-price Arabia, Iittala, and Hackman seconds.
  • Kiasma (top photo) is the contemporary art museum of Helsinki. The building was designed by American architect Steven Holl, and is a work of art in itself. The museum is located right in the heart of the city, making it an easy walk. Check out the door handles at the main entry; they're small, bronze-cast abstractions of the museum itself.
  • On an island just outside of the city is the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum. It's full of Finnish vernacular architecture representing each province of Finland. Here, you'll find a grass-roofed hut and a rural wooden church — among other buildings — collected from all over the country, showcasing four hundred years of building.
  • Alvar Aalto's Home and Studio (below) is located in the Munkkiniemi neighborhood of Helsinki. The home (with an in-home studio) was built in the 1930s. A separate office was built when Aalto began gaining so many commissions that more space was needed to work outside of the home studio.


  • Marimekko is one of Finland's best known design exports, a leader in modern, printed textiles. They have a shop on the Esplanade (below), which is a gorgeous, tree-lined street of shops and restaurants. Be sure to stop in here to stock up on home goods and clothes to take home.
  • In case you don't make it just outside of the city to the Arabia factory, Iittala and Arabia also have showrooms on the Esplanade.
  • Stay on the Esplanade to visit Artek's flagship store for your own personal fix of Alaver Aalto's designs, among others.
  • This is not so much for the home, but I have to mention design house Ivana Helsinki for fashion, film, and a small bit of home goods. I have two Ivana Helsinki coats purchased more than ten years ago that still look fresh and contemporary.


  • Visit the city's markets for fresh local fare, from produce to fish. Kauppatori Market (below), with the Old Market Hall, is a particularly fun one to visit because of its location right on the Baltic Sea harbor. Attend the Baltic Herring Festival at this market in the fall.
  • Cafe Esplanad cannot be beat for its coffee and giant cinnamon rolls. It's also a great place to grab a lunch when you're out shopping.
  • Don't miss the Savoy for fine dining. This restaurant was originally designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto and it's simply gorgeous with unmatched views of the city. 
  • For more ideas on where to eat and to find some of the city's cool boutique hotels, check out Helsinki's design district.
(Images: Pirje Mykkänen for Kiasma, Tuppence1/Wikimedia Commons, Aaron AbleIittala, Flickr member Aarni Heiskanen/ licensed for use by Creative Commons, Flickr member Jorge Lascar/licensed for use by Creative Commons)
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