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The Finnish capital is awash with understated Art Nouveau buildings, centenarian cafés and harbourside heritage, but it’s also at the heart of the country’s modern design, from its art galleries to shops selling Nordic homewares.

Museums and galleries
Designed by American architect Steven Holl, the quirky and curvaceous metallic Museum of Contemporary Art, or Kiasma, has been here for 15 years but is still a symbol of the city’s modernisation. Inside are cross-media installations and exhibitions of kinetic sculpture, alongside Finnish and worldwide art from the 1960s to the present (Mannerheiminaukio 2; closed Mon; £7).

The Finns’ almost-mystical closeness to nature has always underpinned their design. The Designmuseo is home to a permanent collection entitled Finnish Form, which looks at the uniqueness of Finnish design since the late 19th century. The museum’s shop offers the chance to stock up on design classics and new products from emerging designers (Korkeavuorenkatu 23; closed Mon, except Jun–Sep; £8.50).

Just north of the city centre, the restored Arabia factory is home to the Arabia Museum, which showcases the legendary Finnish ceramics company’s creations of the past 140 years. The factory is still producing Arabia products and Iittala glassware, which can be viewed by taking an organised tour, plus there is an outlet store selling specials (Hämeentie 135; closed Mon–Tue in winter, Mon in summer; guided tours £3.40).

Bars and restaurants
Ring the doorbell to enter the swanky A21 Cocktail Lounge. The interior is sumptuous in gold and there are cushioned booths curtained off with silk. Innovative cocktails are the biggest draw, in particular the Finnish blends that include lakka (cloudberry liqueur) and rhubarb (Annankatu 21; 6pm–2am Wed–Thu, until 3am Fri–Sat; cocktails from £11).

Owned by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki and designed by local rock band the Leningrad Cowboys, Zetor is a fun restaurant and pub with a kitsch Czech tractor theme. Kitted out as a barn, complete with stuffed animals and plenty of tractors, it’s a shrine to rural nostalgia. Hearty dishes, such as sautéed reindeer and hotpot, are complemented by Finnish booze including sahti – a traditional ale flavoured with juniper berries (Mannerheimintie 3–5; open daily; mains from £13.50).

Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino created the 1930s design for Savoy’s standout dining room with blonde wood and Artek furniture throughout, and some of the city’s best views. The Nordic tasting menus have a strong emphasis on foraging, with flowers and berries featuring in all plates. Sample dishes include cold smoked white fish with malt bread pudding (Eteläesplanadi 14; lunch and dinner Mon–Fri, dinner Sat; threecourse lunch menus from £57).

Shopping
Design Forum Finland promotes the work of Finnish designers and runs a shop that hosts their work. It’s a good starting point to get an idea of the array of fashion, jewellery, ceramics and furniture on offer in the city – such as Sami Rinne’s quirky cups with reindeer antlers, skulls or angel wings as handles (Erottajankatu 7; closed Sun; Sami Rinne cup £30).

Founded in 1951, Marimekko has created Finland’s most celebrated designer fabrics, having bucked trends to focus on bright, colourful patterns and florals. The retro appeal of its classic shirts, bags, curtains and fabrics fills homes with flowers once again, but there are also newer designs, including a range of Converse shoes sporting Marimekko’s graphic prints (Pohjoisesplanadi 33; closed Sun; Converse shoes £95).

The prolific Alvar and Aino Aalto set up Artek – a homeware, glassware and furniture store – in 1935, and it maintains the simple design principles of its founders. Classic products include the threelegged birch Stool 60, along with works from other Finnish brands such as Woodnotes, which sells carpets and blinds. The store also houses exhibitions from time to time (Eteläesplanadi 18; closed Sun; Stool 60 £140).

The article ‘Mini guide to design in Helsinki’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.

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