Joanne O’Connor’s Travel Tips column in Sunday’s The Observer about Helsinki and in particular the suburb of Kallio rang a bell somewhere in the sub-cockle area of my heart. Now, I don’t claim to be a fixie-riding true Kallio boy, but I do live next door, so perhaps I can offer a bit of a local’s perspective on Ms O’Connor’s views.
Helsinki (is) a breezy Baltic port with a strong tradition of design, an alternative nightlife and an edgier feel than some of its Scandinavian cousins. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Kallio, just north of the city centre. Once a no-go area for tourists, it’s now home to cool bars, cafés and boutiques.
“No-go area for tourists” sounds indeed edgy, if a bit hyperbolic. Suffice it to say Kallio is no favela, and never was. There are, however, a number of bars, some cooler than others. Read on.
What to do
At the heart of the area is the Hakaniemi market, where you can pick up everything from artisan cheese to local handicrafts (Hameentie 1a).
Agreed. The market square is open for business sporadically, but the charming red brick market hall is open daily. Inside you’ll find quality butchers and fishmongers, which is great if you’re preparing your own food, maybe less so if you’re in town for a weekend getaway. Anyway, it’s the place to go to for horse steaks, which apparently aren’t a hot item where The Guardian is published, and local delicacies such as false morel (please ask for cooking instructions or you’ll die – not a joke), lamprey, reindeer, cloudberries and so on (depending on season).
By the way, you know how all strange animals (such as crocodile) taste like chicken? Reindeer doesn’t; it tastes like kangaroo. Mm-mm.
Continue the spree in the secondhand shops and chichi boutiques of Fleminginkatu Street (…) and the attractive Torkkelinmäki district before stopping for coffee and cake at the charming Villipuutarha Café (Karlsgaten 13).
Coffee and cake? Did I hear you right? You came to Kallio, and want to have coffee and cake? Well, if you insist. Villipuutarha may well be charming, I’ve never been there. (Karlsgaten = Kaarlenkatu, by the way.) Only a block or so away, however, you’ll find the definitely charming (bordering on quaint) Taikalamppu (Torkkelinkatu 21).
If you’re already on Kaarlenkatu and can’t be bothered to venture further, there’s always Roskapankki (corner of Kaarlenkatu and Helsinginkatu) – not so much known for its great coffee as for its cheap beer. Plus, you’re guaranteed to meet interesting natives.
Helsinginkatu, by the way, is the place to go if you want to see professional beer drinkers doing what they do best. The north side of the street is littered with bars competing for the attention of price-conscious patrons and their (welfare) money.
No trip to Helsinki is complete without a visit to a sauna. The city’s hippest place to sweat it out is the Japanese-inspired Kulttuurisauna, which opened last year in a slick white building on the waterfront near Kallio (kulttuurisauna.fi). Cool off afterwards with a dip in the Baltic if you’re feeling brave – or Finnish.
Again, I haven’t been to Kulttuurisauna – but just take a look at that description. “Japanese-inspired”? “Slick white building”? And most importantly, “near Kallio” – in other words, not in Kallio at all.
Instead, head to Kotiharjun sauna (Harjutorinkatu 1), take off your kit, head to the sauna (it will be hotter than +100C inside) and sit stark naked next to a sweating naked Finn. If you’re lucky, he may offer to beat you with a bunch of birch twigs. This actually happened to an Australian friend of mine. We were already getting dressed when Some Dude heard us talking in English, then proceeded to ask whether my friend had ever done this thing called vihtominen. He hadn’t (in fact it was his first sauna experience all up) – long story short, they disrobed, went back to the sauna and my friend got to enjoy yet another facet of famous Finnish hospitality. According to him, this sort of thing would have been unlikely to take place in Brisbane.
Don’t be surprised if there are people dressed in nothing but a towel chilling out outside when you get there – it’s is the done thing, even in January when there is snow on the ground.
Where to eat
The bouillabaisse served at Soppakeittiö, a no-frills soup kitchen in the Hakaniemi market, is a big hit with the locals. New kid on the block Bar Sandro is the current top spot for Sunday brunch: a Moroccan-inspired feast with a side order of live music (sandro.fi).
The bouillabaisse is indeed very popular, and not a bad choice at lunchtime. Nearby you’ll also find Line Café (Toinen linja 3) – the lunch buffet has an abundance of vegetarian, meat and fish dishes.
I’ve never done Sandro’s brunch (in part because I can never be bothered to book a table). Lately it seems that most bars in the area are getting on the brunch bandwagon, so there are several options. Pretty much the only one I can vouch for is Pacifico (Helsinginkatu 15), although a friend lamented the lack of fried bacon.
If you’d rather have pizza instead, your wish can be fulfilled at Salpimienta (Fleminginkatu 7) – the reviews are a mixed lot, but I’ve never been disappointed. Then again, my expectations are quite low when it comes to pizza. Another joint always good for a pizza is the aforementioned Juttutupa, but you might be waiting for a long time if the place is busy (it will be on weekend nights).
For something a bit more upscale (ie. food), there’s the local institution Cella (Fleminginkatu 15), which has been serving locals since 1969. Mash and fried liver with lingonberry sauce, how can you go wrong?
What to Really do
I’d skip the vintage shops for starters.
The answer is Beer
No trip to Kallio is complete without a beer at Pub Sirdie (Kolmas linja 21). Put a coin in the jukebox and pick a record – any record.
If you’re particularly thirsty, go for a false start (since it’s not in Kallio, strictly speaking) at Juttutupa (Säästöpankinranta 6). Try to get a seat at the Revolutionary Table, where according to legend Lenin and his homies sat and drank while planning the Russian Revolution (Lenin was a regular when he was in exile in Finland, the legend part is they’re not sure which table it was).
Other bars always good for a beer – including but not limited to local craft beers – are (in no particular order) Sivukirjasto (Fleminginkatu 5), Kuikka (Helsinginkatu 32), and Hilpeä hauki (Vaasankatu 7) – these won’t be the cheapest bars around, but who comes to Finland for cheap beer anyway?