Nowhere is as synonymous with the word “quirky” quite as much as Helsinki, and the capital of Finland has been a bastion of progressive politics, design innovation and gay culture for centuries. Sitting upon a myriad of islands and outcrops, the city is home to an astounding array of architectural styles and masterpieces, with spaces such as the Musiikkitalo concert hall often being classed as some of the finest in the world.
The urban sprawl that is Helsinki is awash with fantastic restaurants, museums, cafes, and galleries, however, the city’s natural landscape is just as awe-inspiring as that which is man-made. The vast Baltic wilderness is rugged and untamed, home to dense forests and stretching plains. The city is at its most charming in winter, when a blanket of snow plunges Helsinki into Christmas mode, with festive markets popping up throughout its streets.
The hometown of Tom of Finland – arguably the world’s most influential producer of gay pornographic images, Helsinki also has a track record of fantastic human rights and is often considered one of, if not the best place to be LGBT+ in the world. Add a growing and exciting gay scene, Helsinki is a must-visit destination for any gay traveler.
Suomenlinna translates in English to “The Fortress of Finland”, and with its vast size and long history, it is just that. The fortress spans multiple islands and is located just 20 minutes from Helsinki harbor by ferry. Construction began in 1748, during Helsinki’s Swedish era, and was designed as a major strategic destination and to protect Helsinki and southern Finland. Having been invaded and acquired by multiple governments, countries, and regimes since this time, Suomenlinna has a truly unique and fascinating history. The fortress is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protecting it from development and destruction.
The archipelago on which Suomenlinna sits is connected with a series of bridges, and the islands are home to a selection of museums and galleries that document the fortress’s history, as well as that of Helsinki in general. The site is free to visit and the ferry ride only charges a small fee, making Suomenlinna an affordable, worthwhile, and enriching experience.
It’s only fitting that one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities also has an impassioned, lively, and non-judgemental gay scene. With a plethora of gay bars, clubs and cruising venues, the nightlife scene in Helsinki is varied and prides itself on creating an inclusive atmosphere that is welcoming of individuals from across the LGBT+ community. The majority of gay nightlife venues are located in Kallio, the main gay district, but Punavuori is also a hub of gay culture, tending to appeal more to wealthy gay guys and those living in the surrounding affluent, hipster districts.
Bear Park Cafe has won awards for the best gay bar in Finland. The venue first opened as a small kiosk and over the last two decades has evolved into the beating heart of the local gay community. Popular with a truly diverse cross-section of the LGBT+ community, the bar has a welcoming and inclusive vibe that is common amongst Helsinki’s gay venues. Few establishments are as camp and full of pride as Bear Park Cafe and themed events, festivals, and performances are often held here, so be sure to check out this lively bar during your trip.
Tom of Finland
The rousing art of Tom of Finland has been a symbol of freedom and liberation for the queer community since the 1950s. At this time, laws in the USA prohibited the production and selling of homoerotic artwork and because of this, Touko Laaksonen- the man behind Tom of Finland, began selling his artwork under the guise of men’s fitness and health illustrations. The depictions of incredibly muscular men, often wearing military uniforms or biking leathers, with almost comically large bulges, hit the mainstream and became an immediate success.
Laaksonen was born in Helsinki and spent most of his life in the city, studying piano at the Sibelius Academy and becoming a well-known figure within the local community. Today, travelers to the city have a unique opportunity to follow in his footsteps, on the Tom of Finland Experience, a guided tour that visits important locations in Laaksonen’s life and explains how his art came to liberate generations of gay men.
The Market Square
Located on the eastern side of central Helsinki, Market Square is likely to be the first thing you notice when you visit the city’s old town. The market is the most famous of its kind in Finland, and its vast size and charming atmosphere make it one of the busiest and most authentic in the world. The epicenter of local life, Market Square is where you’ll find anything that you could possibly want, from hand-crafted jewelry and antiques to the freshest daily caught fish and organic vegetables. Traders come from throughout the region to sell their goods, and you’ll only find in-season produce on the stands of Market Square.
Visitors should be sure to visit Kauppahalli, an indoor market hall that has been operating since 1889 and is home to an array of quaint stalls that are modeled with many original features and sell a delicious selection of Finnish coffee, cakes, pastries, cooked meats and more. The indoor Kauppahalli is a great place to visit if the temperatures are particularly low. Market Square plays host to a number of events throughout the year, including the Baltic Herring Market, which has been held here every year since 1743, so, to make sure that you don’t miss anything special, check what’s happening at the market before visiting.
Helsinki was named the international Design Capital in 2012, and much like its Scandinavian neighbors, the city is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to cutting edge innovation. Spread across 25 streets and occupying over 200 buildings, the city’s design district is a compact and condensed collection of the best designers, studios, and museums in the Helsinki. The government actively promotes and encourages the flourishment of the Design District, and as such, it is one of the most affluent and well-kept areas of the city and a totally worthwhile visit.
Many of Finland’s top design studios and fashion houses can be found in the district, but none are as famous as Marimekko. The vibrant patterns and bold colorways of the company were thrust into the global spotlight after Jackie Kenndey made the house one of her go-to dressmakers during the 1960 presidential elections. For a complete and immersive understanding of the Helsinki Design District, be sure to visit the Design Museum, one of the oldest museums in the world and home to over 75,000 objects and 100,000 drawings. The museum aims to create a dialogue between those who visit and the designs that are on show.
by George Pizani | On: Gay Helsinki