Hotel St. George, Helsinki: northern grandeur by design
The 19th-century neoclassical palace at the eastern end of Old Church Park is a building with history. Having served as both a newspaper office and the headquarters of the Finnish Literary Society, it now houses the five-star Hotel St. George, a collection of luxury rooms and suites - and a showcase for Nordic design, traditional and modern.
Behind the stucco facade (pictured above) lies a marble-and-plate-glass lobby, split over two levels and arranged around a glass lift shaft. Once inside the rooms, the old and the new are brought into harmony: heavy fabric rugs and curtains soften the clean lines of the herringbone parquet flooring and mid-century furniture. The colour pallette is a subtle hygge-inspired spectrum of fawns and forest greens.
Perched on the shores of the Baltic, the Finnish capital has a dramatic location and architecture to match. Its onion-domed cathedral would not look out of place in St. Petersburg - unsurprisingly, perhaps, since the two cities are just 180 miles apart. Though neoclassical at heart, the city has a way with glass-and-steel, too, which shimmers and glints under the northern sky.
What to do
Compact and easily navigable, Helsinki is perfect for self-guided walking tours. Start from the handsome central railway station, walk east to the cathedral and Senate Square, and then south to Pohjoisesplanadi, a grand shopping street which connects the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral and the harbourside food market with a pretty garden square. Or head south, to where the city meets the sea, and take a stroll through Kaivopuisto, a large hilly park with views over the city.
Each of the surrounding islands, easily accessible by ferry, have their own character and appeal. Seurasaari, for example, is an open-air museum, on which traditional Finnish buildings have been built along woodland trails. Costumes guides tell the stories of the cabins and the people who lived in them. On Suomenlinna, you can visit the 19th-century fortress erected in a vain attempt to keep the Russians at bay. It’s now a World Heritage Site, and a counterintuitively peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
What to eat and drink
The Hotel St. George’s Andrea restaurant (pictured below) provides a good introduction to Finnish food. Alongside the usual continental offering, the breakfast buffet includes smoked salmon, herring caviar blended with dill, finely sliced chargrilled lamb and a selection of pungent local cheeses.
Lamb and fish feature at lunch and dinner too, alongside Mediterranean mezze with a strong Nordic accent: you won’t find grilled reindeer heart with chanterelle cream at too many Greek tavernas. Less formal dining options include the Wintergarden restaurant, in a glass-roofed atrium, and the St. George Bakery, which serves Finnish open sandwiches as well as a selection of cakes, desserts and pastries.
When to go
Helsinki is a different place in summer and winter. With long days and highs of 19 to 21C in June, July and August, the city comes out to play. Between December and February, the temperature rarely gets above freezing, and the sun doesn’t stay long above the horizon.
In spring and autumn you take your chances: days may be grey and wet or bright and beautiful, so prepare for the worst and hope for the best. If you’re unlucky, just enjoy the drama of dark cloud looming over the Baltic coast.
How to get there
Finnair flies to Helsinki from London, Manchester and Edinburgh, and BA flies from London. Prices start from about £85 return.