The quiet achiever of the Nordic gang of capitals, Helsinki tends to fly under the radar. It deserves a wide audience - for its cool quirks, saunas and sights, great design, and the gorgeous outdoors at its doorstep.
Icelandair offers cheap flights to Helsinki from North America for year-round thrills. From long summer days exploring lakes to winter visits to Santa's Village, Finland is a country for fun and fresh air.
Before you head for lake swims and saunas, how about pulling on your swimsuit for a geothermal soak in Iceland? When you book flights to Helsinki with Icelandair you have the opportunity to add a stopover in Iceland at no additional airfare.
Architecturally, Helsinki is a unique blend of styles, putting its own spin on Swedish and Russian influences with a side order of splendid art nouveau. There's a photogenic face-off of the Lutheran and Orthodox cathedrals near Senate Square, nicely contrasted with the earthy pleasures of the remarkable Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church), built into a piece of granite.
The harborside kauppatori (market square) is a hub for souvenirs, market produce and boat tours - for a quintessential Helsinki excursion, grab picnic supplies and take the 15-minute ferry ride to Suomenlinna, a maritime fortress built over six small islands. Afterwards, end a perfect Finnish day with a sauna - modern at the beautifully situated Allas Sea Pool, or go old-school at the wood-fired Kotiharju Sauna, built in 1928.
The new Nordic food movement spread to Finland, and Helsinki is home to some first-class fine-dining restaurants, where farm-fresh and forest-foraged ingredients shine. Look for menus that showcase local fish and some left-of-center meats like reindeer and moose (and even bear). Seasonal wild mushrooms and berries are well worth seeking out. The revered, amber-colored cloudberry is a highly prized summertime treat.
For dining like a local, make a beeline for a kauppahalli (market hall) - Vanha Kauppahalli has been selling produce since 1888: Finnish favorites like smoked fish, cinnamon buns, rye bread and super seasonal harvests are all on offer in a gorgeous setting. For drinking like a local: coffee, and then more coffee. Did you know Finns drink more coffee than any other nationality?
The market halls are tops for gourmet edible souvenirs (cloudberry jam, salty liquorice), but don't stop there. Finnish design has a remarkable reputation - shapes and patterns are often inspired by a strong connection to nature. If you want to get under the skin of this city's creativity, seek out Punavuori neighborhood, at the heart of Helsinki's design district. The area is dotted with whimsical boutiques, vintage stores, galleries, and workshops of young designers.
Big local names to drop: Marimekko is renowned for its bright, cheerful fabrics, made into clothing and home furnishings. Iittala makes stunning tableware and glassware. Design aficionados may have heard of homegrown architecture and design heavyweights like Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen.