For a small city, Helsinki is really rather grand. Built around the broad sweep of the Gulf of Finland, where ships of all sizes sail by, its wide streets are lined by commanding architecture, ranging from stunning neo-classical, to gorgeous Art Deco, to the glories of Alvar Aalto's Modernism, and interspersed with beautifully manicured parks.
And yet its residents are a lively lot, crowding into bars such as the deliberately grungy Kafé Moskova (it belongs to film director Aki Kaurismäki) and the hipster hangouts in the Kallio district, or turning out to fill the new 1,700-seater Music Centre. There's plenty to draw the foodies, too — five Michelin-rated restaurants in the city. In spite of some good intentions, I never make it to bed before midnight. There's always one last drink to be had at the Ateljee bar at the top of the constructivist Hotel Torni, where you can see the city lights shimmering on the Baltic Sea.
I arrive on a warm Friday afternoon, when the Finns seem to have universally abandoned work, grabbed a beer, headed for the city's green spaces and stripped off all but the most necessary items of clothing. It's not hard to understand how Helsinki was voted most liveable city last year, based on considerations of style (there is a blossoming local food movement, a burgeoning fashion scene, great vintage clothing stores, and a thriving Design District), but also on the quality of its public transport and its proximity to the countryside. Helsinki, a city that was previously top of many people's cool destinations list — after all, temperatures can dip to -20°C during the dark winters — is currently looking incredibly, well, hot.
What's more, Helsinki is designated the World Design Capital for 2012. Not that it needs the help of a title. Since the turn of the last century, the Finns have had a problem delivering anything that isn't world-class design. It's not just architecture — though don't miss the buildings, from the 19th-century cathedral with its Russian-looking blue and gold domes to its romantic 1919 Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen. There's textile company Marimekko, famous for its outsized geometric flower prints; purist furniture makers Artek (has anyone in the West yet to sit on an Alvar Aalto three-legged plywood stacking stool?); and Iittala, world-class glass and ceramics producer.