Thinking of Going to Reykjavik (Like Everyone Else)? You Should Try Helsinki Instead.

Does it seem like everyone you know is going to Reykjavik this summer? The Icelandic city is indeed a lava-hot destination and it’s not that we don’t want you to check it out, but, really, can all those people fit in the Blue Lagoon? Even the country’s tourist board and Tourism Research Centre are researching how much tourism is too much tourism. Perhaps now is a good time to head to Helsinki. The Finnish capital is pretty hot itself with its fabulous midsummer parties, growing foodie destination reputation, and stunning saunas. It’s easy to get there, too: Finnair has introduced a new stopover option at no additional cost. And you fly in a plane decorated by Marimekko.

And don’t think you’ll miss out on the quirkiness Iceland is known for. Finland has its own peculiarities, such as Restaurant Day where anyone anywhere in the country can open a restaurant for one day. Anywhere. (Bus-stop bistro, anyone?) And of course there’s Eukonkanto, its annual wife-carrying competition. At one of the many cafes that help fuel Finland’s robust caffeine culture, you can ponder how such a rational country came up with this bizarre event, or why Finns, so cooly distant on city streets—smiling at strangers seems as much a badge of an American tourist as a Stars and Stripes patch—have no problem sitting cheek to, well, cheek in their traditionally naked saunas. Intrigued? Here’s how to plan the perfect visit.

Where to stay
Helsinki’s hotels tend toward imaginatively repurposed iconic old buildings (like a number of Art Nouveau gems). The buzzy, 139-room hotel Klaus K in the Design District is inside of a renovated 100-plus-year-old building and The Kalevala, a Finnish epic poem, inspired the new, modern design. Architects Antti-Matti Siikala and Sarlotta Narjus took the themes of the poem—desire, passion, mysticism, and envy—and gave them high-style twists through mixes of textiles, materials, and colors.

Another wonderful hotel option, Lilla Roberts has just the right mix of Scandinavian sobriety, old-world elegance, and woodsy-ness. Before it became the 130-room hotel, it was Helsinki’s power plant and later, its police headquarters. Its Krog Roba restaurant is new, too, but feels like a beloved old-school fixture thanks to its Art Nouveau style and menu of Scandinavian classics feeding a busy lunch crowd.

Helsinki can feel very foreign (that’s got a lot to do with its language—one of the few Roman scripts where it’s almost impossible to pick out a familiar-looking word) and yet its favorite sons and daughters are such a part of our daily lives. Aalto. Iittala. Marimekko. Saarinen. Nokia. The Design Museum collection holds 75,000 items of Finnish design from the nineteenth century to the present, including works by these icons of modernism. This trove of the city’s design heritage is a sensible first stop in the Design District.

The grand Ateneum art museum has an extensive collection of Finnish art from across the ages and was also the first museum to acquire a Van Gogh. The Taidehalli contemporary art museum’s major exhibit on now is dedicated to that “most influential creator of gay pornographic images,” artist Tom of Finland (until August 7), and a retrospective of French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle opens in August.

Helsinki’s churches offer as many lessons in architectural wow as spiritual replenishment. The acclaimed, horn-shaped, wood Kamppi Chapel was designed by young Finnish architecture team K2S for the World Design Capital Helsinki2012 program. It’s familiarly known as the “Chapel of Silence” because it’s intended to give respite from city commotion. Dominating the Kallio district is the Art Nouveau landmark Kallio Church. Designed by Lars Sonck and completed in 1912, it’s surprisingly popular with the neighborhood’s hip young, urban population who attend concerts there. From above, the extraordinary Temppeliaukio Church (also known as the Church of the Rock) looks like a just-crashed UFO. Among other modern features, it has recorded specially composed bell chimes instead of an actual church bell.

The culinary scene in Helsinki is rooted in great relationships between chefs and their farmers—they often even decide together what to plant. This has played a hand in dishes typifying the Helsiniki food experience, like turnip-rooted celery marinated in lavender sauce at Michelin-starred restaurant Ask. The recently renovated Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli), open since the late 19th century, is a first stop to get a primer in Finnish food: cloudberry jam, Mämmi (baked rye porridge), smoked salmon, and the ubiquitous blini that reminds of the country’s proximity to Russia.

Teurastamon Portti is both a butcher shop and a bistro. If you feel like eating a great burger for lunch or trying reindeer carpaccio, this is the place to go. Take either choice out onto the sunny terrace. Tomi Björck and Matti Wikberg are big players on the Helsinki restaurant scene and their fifth restaurant, Bronda, is housed in a huge, and hugely inviting, space with views of Esplanadi Park where the stylish crowd listens to world music while eating shared plates inspired by Mediterranean cuisine. Try veal cheeks braised in curry or local beef tartar in buttermilk.

It’s all about enjoying the outdoors as much as possible during the summer andSouthpark, a glass house with airy interiors by Eliisa Korpijarvi in the charming picturesque Sinebrychoff Park is one place to do that. Its So-Cal health menu includes the option of making your own superseed muesli. Go to hotspot Rosterfor a dinner of charred pike perch, peanut butter, nettles, and vendace roe, and you might end up staying till 2:00 a.m. when DJs spin and forage-inspired cocktails flow.

The Finns are huge coffee-drinkers: They average four or five cups a day. Join the locals at Café Aalto, tucked away on the second floor of the Academic Bookstore, which was designed by native architecture legend Alvar Aalto. Savor the frozen-in-time modernist setting with a coffee and apple tart or Korvapuusti (cinnamon and cardamom bun).

Tyyni is a darling hut of a café, with a lovely terrace and even its own small pier on a patch of sand on Töölö bay. Order a coffee and chill in the serene scene. Just off to the side of the new Helsinki City Museum is El Fant, one of hip Helsinki’s favorite coffee spots. The Scandi-chic space is inviting, the coffee is made by favored local roasters Good Life Coffee, and it is poured by Jarno Peräkylä, 2016’s best barista of Finland. Breakfast gives you the opportunity to try an oat cappuccino. If you’re here for lunch, try the salad with fresh summer peas. Later in the afternoon, it’s about the Lakkakakku (cloudberry cake) so bursting with berries it’s surely a health food.

It’s all about the outdoor champagne terrace in summer in Helsinki. Holiday Bar opened a few months ago; you might end up chilling all afternoon on one of the terrace’s 100 seats, enjoying sun and bubbles (and some eats from the food menu that is Hawaiian-, Asian-, and Mediterranean-inflected). The A21 bar team, Patrick Seppä and Laura Nissinen, recently returned from Reykjavik where they won an international cocktail competition. The Sex in the Forest, decorated with berries, birch, and spruce, is a seriously delicious forage-inspired cocktail—it’s like a romp in the woods.

Another take on sophisticated Helsinki nightlife can be found at Club Le Roy—where a chic Helsinki crowd savors a glass of champagne but isn’t above occasionally bonding way into the night with some Finnish karaoke. More dive-y and indoor options include the cosy Musta Kissa; and Bier-Bier, a fun pub which offers craft beer flights.

There is supposedly one sauna for every two and half people in Finland. Check modesty in your coed locker: Finnish saunas can be naked (although several have designated men’s and women’s days and few these days scoff if you do choose to wear a bathing suit). The brand-new Löyly sauna is the talk of the town, jutting out of Helsinki’s harbor, it looks like a massive pile of logs and is the work of architect firm Avanto. Residents of the hip boho Kallio neighborhood take their steam at Arla, built in 1929 and one of the oldest public saunas in the city. Another great place to sweat in Kallio is Kotiharjun, built one year before Arla, and a relic of the time before every apartment building or house had its own sauna. Bring sauna beer and snacks (for some reason Helsinkis love snacking on small tomatoes at the sauna).

Shoppers should first set their course for the Design District, especially the main arteries Uudenmaankatu and Erottajankatu, which are full of galleries, shops, and museums; and Kallio, the hipster hood with a community feel and a proper rebellious streak. Finnish textile designer Maija Arela and her daughters Anni and Viivi sell their luxurious, cooly casual cashmeres and cotton jerseys at Arela. Stop by the flagship of shoe designer Minna Parikka whose rabbit-ear high-tops and other surreal colorful shoes are worn by the likes of Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.Luxbag is, as its name suggests, the place to pick up brands like Balenciaga and Valextra. Its gorgeous interiors are by Esa Vesmanen who also designed the chic all-white optical store Salme Optic where Helsinkians head for cool, subtly colored plastic frames. Liike sells breakout Finnish labels. A visit to any of the iconic textile design house Marimekko’s Helsinki outposts is a must. You’ll see hundreds of happy large prints besides, of course, the well-known poppies.

Tomorrow’s Antique is perfect for vintage savoy vases to pack, or furniture to ship home. Artek 2nd Cycle also has a serious collection of Alvar Aalto chairs and products from Eames. Variety Second-Hand & Vintage’s owner is a bit of an America-phile so there are lots of quirky old Americana, as well as rarer shades of Converse kicks. Vinyl and retro music aficianados should visit Kallion Retro music store.

Late Night
After-hours, try a spin on the SkyWheel at the port area, which, this summer, is offering a particularly Finnish take on the city observation wheel: SkySauna. As its name suggests, it’s a sauna bath in the sky. After, enjoy a stroll and ice cream at famed café and chocolatier Karl Fazer. For something more party-hearty, make your way to Punavuori and Töölö districts to enjoy the neighborhoods’ many cool clubs.

Day Trips
It’s easy to make day trips from Helsinki. Try a ferry ride to Suomenlinna to see the 18th-century Swedish maritime fortress. After a visit to that UNESCO World Heritage Site, take the stone stairs down to the shore to meet up with locals sunbathing on the beach. Or take easy public transportation from the Eliel Saarinen-designed Helsinki Central Railway Station to see the Otaniemi campus of Aalto University. Or get outdoors with a day trip to the breathtaking, thick forests of Nuuksio National Park.