Finnish food may not have the global cachet of some other cuisines, but there are lots of delicious things to eat and drink in Helsinki and surroundings. Here, one writer’s picks for the top 10 tastes of Finland and what you must eat and drink when you visit.
Admittedly, Finland is probably not the first place you think of when you’re dreaming up your 2020 travel vision board, especially if culinary immersion is a key reason you travel in the first place. It is for me—and I’ve gotta say, while I was looking forward to spending a week surrounded by Finnish design in Helsinki and in search of the Northern Lights in Lapland, the countryside in the north of the country, my initial perception was that the food would be some version of Scandanavian blah.
What I found instead is that pure, Arctic ingredients directly from nature are a key element of Finnish cuisine, and used in a very thoughtful, unexpected way. Chef Markku Seppänen, chef of Design House Idoli / Gourmet Gallery, tells us that dishes are influenced by both Eastern and Western cultures but one of the things that makes Finnish food unique is that energy content in the food is very high.
“We use ingredients that preserve well, with modest use of spices but a large variety of herbs. Dairy products and bread are common, as are plenty of fish from our clear water lakes.”
He stressed that purity of ingredients is a big part of Finnish cuisine, and I can tell you from personal experience you can taste this freshness in every bite—it does not disappoint.
Here’s everything you need to eat if you travel to Finland:
Reindeer meat is indeed everywhere in Finland, and before you get on a high horse about eating Rudolph, let me assure you that it’s pretty darn delicious.
“Anything prepared from reindeer causes concerns due to the image of the reindeer being in the front of Santa’s sleigh on his travels across the globe,” jokes Seppänen, who personally served me a mind-blowing Reindeer Calf Liver Pate—upon an apple bed garnished with lichen and cranberries. The meal prepared at Design House Idoli / Gourmet Gallery was an intimate, design-meets-dining experience that should be top of your list if you’re visiting Ivalo in Lapland.
Finland’s widely noted dish of reindeer is generally served in a variety of ways, mostly accompanied by red wine when prepared as a filet or rump, as is done at one of Lapland’s other celebrated restaurants, Restaurant Aanaar at Hotel Kultahovi. The indegenous Sami people in this region have always adopted a waste not, want not attitude toward food and so this practice is well-established whenever reindeer meat makes its way onto a menu. Case in point: For the truly adventurous, Restaurant Aanaar also serves a Reindeer tongue toast with reindeer calf’s liver, mushroom jus, and pickled lingonberries.
2. Salmon Soup
If you’ve ever had a lobster bisque, you know that warm, comforting first gulp can pretty much turn even the worst of moods around. The Finns have perfected Lohikeitto (aka, salmon soup), which has a much lighter broth that seems equally as hearty and rich but surprisingly is not overly fishy in taste. It’s good on its own but naturally I also found it to be the perfect vessel for soaking up the tasty breads that fill up every table at every Finnish meal.
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Most Scandinavian countries have a version of mulled wine or Glögg, but the Finnish version Glögi is really in a class of its own. Look—Finland is cold and they know it. When you’re surrounded by a winter wonderland of snow so high all you can see is white, you need something warm to get you through the day, and Glögi is just that. Sometimes, um, enhanced by a spirit like vodka or rum, the mulled wine popular around Christmastime often has rich notes of cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The best part? Your cup is usually lined at the bottom with fresh raisins and almonds—trust me, you’ve never tried anything like it.
Pro tip: For an extremely relaxing experience, I’d spend a day in Helsinki at Löyly, a traditional Finnish sauna set in a contemporary building with panoramic views of the Helsinki waterfront—and a pretty dope restaurant on property with floor-to-ceiling glass so you can take in the views and grab a bite. I did just that, taking the polar plunge offered to guest outside the sauna, and then quickly followed it up with a giant glass of Glögi to thaw out.
4. Korvapuusti (Cinnamon Buns) & Brioche
Cafe Regatta, a red cottage cafe overlooking the sea that originally stored fishing gear, is easily one of the cutest experiences I had in Helsinki. The very tiny, cozy cafe decorated in nautical and Finnish paraphernalia is known for their cinnamon buns, another thing the Finns excel at making. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their blueberry pie, too.
Cinnamon buns and pastries on the whole are pretty spectacular everywhere you go in Finland—which came as a major surprise to this writer. Helsinki’s Ekberg is the fantasy-land capital of pastries, and a good place to start exploring.
You can try a few of them at the cafe, which also serves a traditional breakfast buffet including muesli, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and cured meats, but I’d recco beelining straight to the neighboring patisserie, where I found gorgeous, gooey sweets and fresh-baked breads that delighted all of the senses.
Look out for the Insta-worthy brioche, with a pastel pink cream topping. It’s the perfect balance of flaky outside, gooey-soft inside and a hint of sweetness—and looks like something you might expect from a “Great British Baking Show” challenge. Other Ekberg show-stoppers include chocolate-dipped croissants dusted with pistachio, perfectly-formed macarons that would make the French cry out in jealousy, and custardy raspberry tarts.
5. Rye Bread
Holy cannoli is the rye bread in Finland worth noting. Seriously, I don’t think I have ever tasted a rye bread I liked before digging into the bread basket at Shelter, a hip Helsinki restaurant with plenty of vegan and veggie options that could rival any trendy cosmopolitan city eatery. Be on the lookout for dense versions and smear as much jam, butter, or honey on as humanly possible—you can thank me later.
6. Lappish Cheeses
Though I generally enjoy a stinky French Langres or Trou du Cru, something about the fresh, mild Lappish cheese totally hooked me. Its texture is firm—yet soft, kind of like if a swiss cheese made a baby with a creamy brie.
Leipäjuusto, which is better known in the States as “squeaky cheese” is called as such thanks to the sound it makes when you bite into it. Lucky for you, you don’t have to fly over 4,000 miles to taste it because it’s conveniently available for purchase online. Though if you do get the opportunity to have it as I did in Finland, opt for it served warm, sliced like a pie, and accompanied by cloudberry jelly. Yummers.
I also discovered the wild tradition of Kaffeost, or dunking your squeaky cheese in coffee (hey, it’s just dairy after all, right?) and my days of asking the barista for almond or oat are officially behind me.
7. Fazer Marianne Mints
If the red and white striped wrappers weren’t joyous enough, the flavors of these little mint treasures will instantly get you hooked, as they did for me. In fact, as I write this, I’ve already downed three in less than a twenty minute sitting.
Minty but not *too* minty and delicious on the exterior, the more you suck on a Marianne mint, the closer you get to the glorious smooth milk chocolate center—the highlight of the whole candy experience. Make sure to stock up on bags and bags of them because they’re cheap and you will get hooked.
Fazer Marianne Chocolate-Filled Mint Candies, $8.29 on Amazon
Order a little taste of Finland online.
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8. The Long Drink
Have you ever traveled and been pushed into trying the local beer, only to immediately regret it after your first sip? I have, but that was not the case with The Long Drink, which is not technically a beer but is the adult beverage most Finns will advise you to try at least once while there.
The backstory on the ‘long drink’ is connected to the 1952 Summer Games, when the Finnish people were recovering from WWII and trying to figure out a way to impress tourists with a one-of-a-kind boozy experience. The refreshing, spiked citrus soda was born, and the rest is history.
Now randomly co-owned by actor Miles Teller, it comes served canned or on tap in Finland, and since the next generation of Finns wanted to share the category of ‘long drink’ in the USA, you can also find it in Connecticut, Georgia, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio, and Massachusetts for a stateside experience, too.
The Finnish Long Drink, price & availability varies on Drizly
Are you in one of the lucky states listed?
9. Gravad Lax
The light, fresh, salted fish generally made from salmon is buttery and melted in my mouth like prosciutto wherever I scored it in Finland. Many of the vendors with display cases at Helsinki’s famed Hakaniemi market and Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli), proudly display their smoked salmon preparations, often enhanced with dill, black pepper, rose pepper, or lemon pepper, and sometimes cucumber-topped. I was also baited often by the beautifully-presented salmon-topped toasts, sometimes given a contemporary twist with a layer of fresh avocado.
Grilling sausages with your family is somewhat of a Finnish pastime, as was told to me by the Raekallio family, who are caretakers of HaliPuu or the “hugging tree” forest, a peaceful forest near the resort town of Levi that’s blanketed in pillowy snow in the winter and filled with Arctic pine trees that you can adopt and care for. My conversation around a small hut and campfire in the HaliPuu forest immediately zeroed in on the things Finns love to grill most, which include many different varieties of sausages.
There’s groat sausage or Ryynimakkara, and blood sausages or Mustamakkara—and since Christmas is such an important holiday in Finland, you better believe they have a special version for the most joyous time of the year. Called Rusinamakkara, I was lucky to get in on this tradition that’s made of pork, onions, barley flakes, syrup, and even some raisins.
Finnish Cooking Class, $72 on Airbnb
Consider a cooking class hosted by a local if you want to try making your own Finnish food.
P.S. – A Note on Some Other Must-Eat Meals & A Great Place to Stay
Helsinki may not yet have the street cred that its Scandinavian neighbor Copenhagen does, but its food consistently surprised me. Look into making reservations at Restaurant OLO, a Michelin-starred experience with a special truffle menu and coursed menus that highlight both Finnish and international ingredients. Grön’s beautiful website photography and Instagram instantly drew me in, but a focus on plant-based seasonal menus filled with mushrooms, onions, and potatoes has me dying to go back. The popular Restaurant Savoy is another notable institution in Helsinki, around for over 75 years and currently coming back in late January after going through renovation.
When you’re ready to lay up your feet, I’d recommend looking into the Hotel Indigo Helsinki – Boulevard. Things I loved: It was big on design, walkable or a short ride on Helsinki’s amazing public transportation to basically everything you’d want to see and eat in town, and it had its very own guest sauna. The restaurant and bar downstairs also has many local wines and beers on its menu and offers a great happy hour to try them all, too.
Helsinki Lodging, prices vary on Airbnb
Or check out your Airbnb rental options.
Header image courtesy of Thorsten Kraska / Moment / Getty Images