Finland's capital city Helsinki, compact with a mere 620,982 inhabitants, may be the centre of business and bustle, but you're never too far from the natural bounty – the nation's greatest appeal. Celebrating its centenary of independence this year, Finland is generally known for its magnificent green lung (the country is surrounded by over 72 per cent forest) and dreamy blue lakes – 188,000 of them to be precise. Helsinki is no different. At Helsinki Central Park, you can take your morning jog in a serene space filled with birdsong where locals work out, walk to work or relax; in the winter, cross country skiing tracks spanning 180 kilometres, surround the city. Follow this with a brave-hearted icy dip in the Baltic Sea or the Gulf of Finland and surrounding lakes in winter or a muscle-soothing session in a sauna all year round. Helsinki is known for its Jugend or art nouveau style, which evident in the Central Railway Station, National Theatre and National Museum. The father of Functionalism, Alvar Aalto, has left his mark here and in the broader Scandinavian region.
Designated a World Design Capital in 2012, Helsinki's streets echo the theme of "embedded design" – practical elements that are useful and aesthetically interesting. Consider the striking, somewhat alien Chapel of Silence in Kamppi, built outside a shopping centre to provide a safe, quiet space, and the 1969 Temppeliaukio (Rock Church) in Töölö, which resembles a space ship emerging from solid rock. Helsinki's famed Design District exemplifies the spare sleek lines and minimalism Scandi-design is so famous for.
Per capita, the Finns consume the most coffee (kahvi) worldwide and you're never far from a good brew. And you'll need one to stay up late – the city is an ideal launch pad for Aurora Borealis hunters, while your best chances lie above the Arctic Circle, the Northern Lights can be seen on clear nights and early mornings outside the city limits.
A comfortable bed
Hotel Haven, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is conveniently opposite Helsinki's Market Square and the harbour. Rooms are clad in plush soft furnishings and come with Elemis bath products. Some of the suites in the higher categories boast harbour or town square views. Breakfast in the historic Sundman's building next door is outstanding. Doubles from €180 (Dh767).
Founded in 1969 in the former YWCA building, Hotel Helka appears bland from the outside, but inside you'll find an ode to Finnish design. Expect furniture by Alvar Aalto, locally-made beds and even private saunas in some rooms. Doubles from
A turn-of-the-century palace on the outside, and a lifetsyle hotel on the inside, Glo Art Hotel is centrally located within Helskini's Design District. With towers, balconies, imposing arches and a grey granite exterior, it's a magnificent example of European Art Nouveau architecture melding with Finland's National Romantic style. Doubles from €140 (Dh595).
Find your feet
From the upper steps of the Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square, an imposing white church with four green domes, you’ll be able to observe hoards of tourists and locals who use it as a meeting point. It’s one of Helsinki’s defining landmarks. Market Square is the pulse of central Helsinki located at the South Harbour, come here to browse the stalls crammed with local specialties, and use it to access the verdant Esplanadi Park, Market Hall and the departing ferries.
Meet the locals
Finland is synonymous with sauna. Reserve a spot online at the newly built, superbly designed (there are very few public saunas remaining) Löyly (from €19 for two hours, towel, seat cover, soap and shampoo). Or try the Helsinki Allas Sea Pool, which has an electric sauna. Swimming in the freezing sea or in a hole drilled into the sea in winter, is par for the course and the locals will demonstrate how.
Book a table
While meat is popular with most main meals, you can opt for the vegetarian tasting menu at SPIS, a small restaurant near the Market Square serving "pure Nordic" which showcases the influences of Sweden and Russia on Finnish cusine. Tasting menus start at €50 (Dh213) for four courses. Sapas or tapas are all the rage. Juuri does a modern version of traditional dishes like trout roe with potatoe, mushrooms with sour cream and pike perch with white beet. You may want to select them all and skip the mains (€7.8 each; Dh33).
At the Old Market Hall, built in 1888, Finland's classic produce and artisanal edibles are at your disposal – cheese, meats, fish, berries, bread and pastry – look out for Karelian rye-flour pies and "pulla" – cardamom-flavoured buns.
For Finland's famed floral prints, head over to a Marimekko outlet for fabrics and women's clothing.
Classic, curvy Aalto vases and covetable glassware can be found at Iittala and for an insider's perspective on the coolest boutiques and galleries, book a Design Walk, which runs every Friday for €20 (Dh85).
What to avoid
The Helsinki SkyWheel will give you a panoramic view over the city but at €12 (Dh51) for 10 minutes, is largely underwhelming and any photographs you take will have an unflattering blue tinge.
Factor in a half-day at least to visit the Suomelinna Sea Fortress [entrance €37 (Dh157)]. A ferry gets you there in 15 minutes and guided walks and restaurants will keep you happily occupied.
Norwegian Air has direct daily flights from Dubai, return with checked luggage and taxes from €260 (Dh1,120).
For more details on Helsinki, visit www.visithelsinki.fi/en