Winters in Finland last 200 days and often hover in below-zero temperatures. While this might make Finland’s most famous export, Santa Claus, particularly jolly, for the majority of Finns and visitors alike, it means constant retreat from the bone-chillingly cold, sunless days. But hope is not lost, for the Finns have cultivated several notable indoor options that satisfy the mind and the body.
A subterranean opus: Amos Rex
In 2016, the Guggenheim Foundation had Helsinki in its sights as the next location for their string of museums. After heated public debate, the Helsinki City Council voted against building the museum, leaving the Guggenheim flummoxed but the Finnish quite proud. Buoyed by renewed local interest in Finland’s place in the modern art world, the Amos Rex opened in August 2018 with much fanfare.
Amos Rex, the newest of Helsinki’s modern art museums, is located in Lasipalatsi area in central Helsinki, a historical site built by two architecture students in anticipation of the 1940 Olympics. Lasipalatsi was supposed to be a temporary structure but was preserved as an example of functionalist architecture. Because of this standing, it was impossible for the museum to build in any way that would alter the beloved structure. So they built under it.
Altering only the terrain of the square in front of Lasipalatsi, the museum added smooth mounds of texturized concrete, each one capped by a glass skylight into which passersby can peer down into the museum’s depths. From below, museum dwellers can look up and see silhouetted faces gazing down. There are 24,000 square feet of exhibition space to explore, including the opening exhibit by Japanese art collective teamLab, who installed a temporary immersive digital experience in four rooms that includes algorithm-driven ocean waves and a cornucopia of bright, live graffiti. The exhibit, called “Massless”, runs until January 6, 2019.
General admission is €18. Discounts are available for children, students, and veterans. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Silent sanctuary: Kamppi Chapel
Across the square from Amos Rex sits the bulging, unconventional wooden edifice of Kamppi Chapel, a beacon for anyone looking for a moment of rest, contemplation, or warmth after a day on their feet.
The silent sanctuary is modeled after Italian chapels but in idea alone. Kamppi is minimalist yet comforting. Inside, there are no adornments save for two simple candle holders, rows of simple birchwood pews, and large felt cushions shaped like river rocks. Obscured skylights allow in enough light to keep it from being dim and the pale Finnish wood walls are seamless and rounded to match the exterior shape. It’s so silent that a pin-drop would echo.
There are no regular services and the chapel maintains an ecumenical stance. Entrance is free. Prayer candles and postcards can be purchased for a suggested donation of €1.
Sauna and brunch: Löyly
Nothing is more quintessentially Finnish than a sauna. In fact, a good Finn visits a sauna as often as they go to church, if not more frequently. Typically, public saunas are enjoyed nude in a same-sex environment but as Helsinki seeks to draw more tourists, they are taking into account that levels of comfort with nudity differ among cultures. Enter Löyly, a sauna and restaurant where bathing suit-clad men and women commingle comfortably in hot spaces.
Löyly is relatively new to the Helsinki sauna scene, having just opened in 2016 after a few years of trial and error over the design. At one point the architects sought to build a floating sauna on the Baltic Sea, but the idea was jettisoned when it became clear that high waves and ice packs would prove difficult, if not hazardous. Now, the angular wooden complex is situated on solid ground with a deck that peeks out over the Baltic. Guests hop between saunas and cool themselves with a dip in the sea. In the winter, a hole called an “avanto” is cut in the ice for a truly polar plunge.
The restaurant at Löyly is a modern take on Finnish cuisine. You’ll find elk meatballs, salmon soup, beetroot rösti, and sea buckthorn tiramisu. They also serve a delicious gin and tonic featuring Napue Gin, a locally-distilled favorite.
Reservations for the sauna are recommended in advance. Admission is €19 and includes a towel, seat cover, soap, and shampoo. The restaurant is open for lunch and brunch.
Curious travelers flock to Finland to witness the beauty of Lapland and the shimmering awesomeness of the Northern Lights. Helsinki is the port to those wonders, and the city has much to offer – even in the dead of winter. Amos Rex, Kamppi Chapel, and Loyly are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.