The arrival of same-sex marriage in Finland has cast the country in new, loved up hue. Or at least for me. In the very least, its cast my last visit to Helsinki, one freezing winter weekend, in a different, warmer light.
Indeed, during my stay in the city – population 600,000, making it smaller than Stockholm and Oslo, but bigger than Copenhagen – temperatures dropped to -8C. The biting breeze from the Baltic Sea was like none I have felt before. Nevertheless, the warmth of romance was all around.
From cool cafes and cozy restaurants to pretty views and historical sights, there are a plethora of date options in this amazing town, founded in 1550.
And while, in the past, Norway’s LGBTI-friendly credentials paled in comparison to its Nordic neighbors (the titan of gay tourism that is Sweden, for example), with gay marriage, Finland is now well and truly having its gay moment. Even more so in the UK, where Finnish gay girl Saara Aalto finished runner up on last year’s X Factor.
Whether you’re considering Helsinki for a romantic getaway or a honeymoon, here are nine of the most amorous stop offs in this magical destination, sprinkled like snow across a peninsula, and 315 islands, where, in June and July, the sun hardly sets.
1 Tour the city
Getting around is easy on the world’s northernmost metro network, and this is the best way to acclimatise to what could well be a challenging temperature, while also taking in the city’s wondrous architecture which swerves frenetically from neoclassical (the government building) to ultramodern (Kamppi Chape).
If you want something more informative, book a professional tour. We went on an interesting one with friendly local Maria Del Carmen Hanninen (AudreyTours), booked via the tourist board.
2 Go for a spin on the SkyWheel
Those of us used to the 135m tall London Eye might be initially unimpressed by Helsinki’s version. It stands at just 52m tall next to Market Square. But given Helsinki’s distinct lack of tall buildings (apartment building Cirrus is the tallest, at 86m), you somehow feel like you’re higher up than you actually are.
Also, SkyWheel has a pretty cool USP – one of the cabins is actually a ‘SkySauna’, where you can have a traditional Finnish sauna experience while moving through the air.
3 Coffee and cake at Bear Park Cafe
Karhupuisto Park is home to the above grand statue, a homage to Finland’s 1200-1500 brown bear population. But there also bears of the gay male variety scouting the terrain of this quiet pocket of town.
Someone entirely sensible opened the Bear Park Cafe nearby some 15 years ago – an adorable but tiny gay eatery where young and old rub shoulders for the delicious cake and with free wifi. It’s got a charming community feel to it and I hope it lasts forever.
4 Take a selfie at Helsinki Cathedral
There are no skyscrapers to speak of, so the most recognizable icon of Finland’s skyline is this gorgeous Neoclassical building, completed in 1852.
The bright green dome is visible from many points in the city, so it’s useful for getting your bearings.
5 Relax at Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall
An exquisite indoor swimming pool, and Helsinki’s oldest, where clothing is optional. I went for a men-only swim and sauna because I wanted to take in the throwback art nouveau interiors. But there are plenty of other options.
6 Lunch at Sandro
I probably had one of the healthiest meals of my life at Sandro, where I delved into the Saturday veggie buffet. It was here that I came to understand you truly can fill up on vegetables.
This is one of Helsinki’s busiest restaurants and booking at weekends is essential. There were plenty of meze style items on offer, from freshly toasted flatbreads and vibrant salads to colourful cous cous dishes. If you want traditional Finnish cuisine (kippers and cloudberries aren’t for me, personally), try the ‘Finnish tapas’ at Juuri.
7 Visit Suomenlinna, the historic sea fortress
For a culture date idea with a difference, just hop on a ferry from Market Square to this glorious UNESCO World Heritage Centre. It sits authoritatively on its own set of islands ahead of the harbor, and is endlessly fascinating. Our visit was made extra enjoyable thanks to the help of local guide Christina Snellman, and the ease of access via the Helsinki Card.
Learning about Suomenlinna’s history (building began in 1748) is to learn about the city, and the country’s history. As UNESCO puts it: ‘It has served to defend three different sovereign states over the years: the Kingdom of Sweden, the Russian Empire and most recently the Republic of Finland.’
8 Take in the view at Ateljee Bar
The Sokos Hotel Torni is 88 m tall. The Ateljee Bar therein sits on the 14th floor. Again, this isn’t that high up, but the views are still expansive. Go in the evening for a Finlandia vodka cocktail as the lights of the city twinkle miles into the distance.
Follow this by hitting the city’s large clutch of LGBTI drinking holes, such as the chic and centrally-located Cafe Cavalier or Northern Europe’s largest gay club, the pumping dtm.
9 Hunker down at Hotel Katajanokka
It doesn’t sound romantic on paper – this sprawling hotel complex used to be a prison. But we had a comfortable, cozy stay at the Hotel Katajanokka nonetheless!
Pictures: Wiki and Pixabay.