Helsinki in Summer

Bathed in a dizzying twenty hours of sunlight and lapped by clear Baltic waters, Helsinki in summer is nothing like the dreary ices cape you'd expect from the world's second mostly northerly capital and the hub a country long in the grim shadow of the Soviet Union. Helsinki has shaken off its Cold War gloom and if the long, frigid winters, austere Lutheranism, and hard fought history have made its people a little glum, all the ice melts in the nearly Mediterranean summers. Helsinki is Nordic--and therefore packed with impeccable design, open-minded liberalism, and briny Baltic cuisine--but also entirely its own beast. The Finns speak an isolated language, dance a minor-key tango, and head bang to perhaps the best metal music in the world. Fly in for the crayfish parties, the functionalist architecture, and buzz-worthy new Nordic cuisine, but make sure you do it in July and not January, no matter how cheap those off season tickets may be.

Straddling bays, peninsulas, and islands and surrounded by a spray of verdant minor islands,  Helsinki is nearly icebound in winter but, once the sun starts shining--and the ice breaking ships running--locals and tourists alike flock to the water. Hit up Suomenlinna, an 18th century Swedish fortress spread across several rock islands and accessible from Helsinki's Market Square by regular ferry. The formidable military fortress, site of many Baltic battles, is now an open air museum, artists' colony, village with breweries and cafes, a popular picnicking destination, and one of Finland's premier tourist attractions. Boats also ferry visitors to Seurasaari, where authentic Finnish houses have been collected from all across the country and reassembled in an open air museum, and Korkeasaari, home of the Helsinki Zoo. The adventurous traveller may want to join the locals at Pihlajasaari, known for its sandy beaches, lax attitude toward swimming wear, and abundant beer and cider.

If you like your nature a little more stately and well-heeled, head to Esplanadi Park, a manicured promenade in central Helsinki and a popular space to eat an open-faced sandwich or bask in live music. Esplanadi plays host to some of the most popular events on the Finnish cultural calendar, including the Marimekko Fashion Show, displaying the graphic stripes and exploding florals Jackie Kennedy helped make famous, and the mid-summer pole-raising and folk dancing in high June. If Marimekko's florals don't sate your appetite for Finnish design, head to the Design Museum, where a neo-Gothic facade conceals some of the swankiest, most clean-lined design to come out of the ever minimalist Fennoscandia. Scope about a bit of design and sports history at the Olympic Stadium, home of the 1952 Games and the famous, stark white Olympic tower, an icon of functionalist architecture by Yrjö Lindegren and Toivo Jäntti, originally built for the cancelled 1940 games. The stadium now boasts a youth hostel, a Museum of Sport, and the Uimastadion, a vast outdoor pool whose water slides draw up to 5,000 visitors a day in the shining summers.

Catch some more architectural splendor with the Sibelius Monument, sculptress Eila Hiltunen's stunning tribute in 600 welded pipes to world renowned composer Jean Sibelius; Finlandia Hall, a congress and concert venue designed by Finland's best known architect Alvar Aalto; and the Parliament House, where a classic frontage hides a quirky neoclassical-functionalist-art deco interior. Architectural traditionalists will appreciate the Helsinki Cathedral, whose green dome and neoclassical pillars dominate Senate Square and has become the de facto symbol of the city. If you're not sick of the design yet, hit up the Korjaamo Cultural Factory, an old tram depot that now houses galleries, a cafe, bar, club, theatre, and even the Tram Museum. Helsinki is packed with eye-pleasing attractions, whether you yearn for the untamed splendor of nature or the clean lines of man-made marvels. The list of sites and venues is endless.