Helsinki, Finland: Design District - Shopping & Museums

00100 Helsinki, Finland

If you ever need proof that Helsinki is a design-lover's dream (aka 'hipster heaven') you'd only have to look to Design District Helsinki

Spanning the areas of Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, Kamppi and Ullanlinna; the district (which has its own website devoted to events including late night shopping) is a delightful smorgasbord of shops that cover vintage, decor, interior design, and fashion - all easily within walking distance as Helsinki is a very compact city designed for le flâneur (what's the Finnish word for that?). Although Design District Helsinki seems to be a badge of honour sported only by some shops; museums, galleries, and even flea markets inevitably fall into the area covered by the district and are certainly worthy of a visit when you're in Helsinki. In fact, never mind a designated design district - I think the entire city of Helsinki is a design district, hence my title: Helsinki, Design District (instead of Design District Helsinki).

Shops & museums I sought out during my short stay in Helsinki:


A Finnish design classic. No visit to Helsinki is complete (or should I say finn-ished?) without paying pilgrimage at the red-poppy patterned temple of Finland's most beloved fabrics. I mentioned in my post First (Ten) Impressions of Helsinki that throwing a boomerang into a crowd would retrieve at least ten Finns decked in Marimekko's iconic print. I was dazzled by the array of Marimekko's vibrant patterns at their branch on upmarket Pohjoisesplanadi (North Esplanade) available on fabrics, dresses, accessories, homeware etc. but showed remarkable restraint and bought only a cushion cover - in the iconic red poppy print, of course.

Moko Market & Cafe

This colourful candy box of a boutique is so sweet a treat that it deserves its own blog post, and that's just what I did. I could repeat my raves about Moko Market's organic café; eclectic offerings in the way of decor, vintage, coffee table books, and art prints could just read my post on Moko Market & Café.

I saw few shop displays I didn't like in Helsinki's Design District. It seems that almost every shop window is filled with thoughtful and attractive vignettes that at first look rather simple, until you lean in closer and find unexpected, quirky elements that are somehow all tied together. Above; this shop display seems straightforward enough until I realised that the framed insects were at odds with the beach theme - then I realised that the shapes (of their legs, wings etc) echoed that off the plants in the print on the left, which in turn look like coral, linking it to the print on the right which was a continuation of the beach sand in glass jars, finally coming full circle to the kaftan and swimwear posters on the bottom left. Subtle touches like that. The shop below; is that seagull wearing a captain's hat?! And these are just two random shops I walked past but didn't get the name off - think of how many stories you could read behind all of Helsinki's shop displays! 

On the subject of stories, treasure hunters seeking a diamond in the rough among a sea of flea-market bits and bobs should grab their proverbial compass (really just a handful of euros...this must be the only place in Helsinki that doesn't accept credit cards) and head down to the Hietalahti Flea Market.

Hietalahti Flea Market

"In the summer, the beloved Hietsu Flea Market opens and creates a great deal of buzzing and swarming right next to the Hietalahti hall. After rough treasure hunting, the catch can be dragged home to safety via the relaxing atmosphere of the cafés and restaurants of the hall." Don't the Finns paint such wonderful pictures with their words? I found a pair of vintage Marlborough moleskin trousers for €2 and a vintage Burberry sports jacket for €10 - but our astonishingly pocket-friendly sartorial finds paled in comparison to a vintage Tommy gun that I'd surely have bought if only it would pass through customs!

Design Museum, Helsinki

Inside the classical facade of this imposing building is a contemporary museum that is surprisingly funky. There's no other way to describe it. A craft room downstairs invites visitors to draw fashion illustrations with crayons and add them to the gallery, the walls throughout the exhibits remind you which hashtags to use for social media as well as strange messages like "Feel free to take pictures but not the furniture" (is that Finnish for 'Take a seat, just not literally'?), and there were some seriously surreal outfits in their current exhibit 'An Anthology of Finnish Fashion'. Upon exit, you rank your experience by placing the sticker given to you at entry on one of four walls in order from 'meh' to 'YEAH!'

Kiasma Museum Of Contemporary Art

This museum is what a Nordic vision of the future looks like - all undulating sweeping corridors and skylights drenching the minimal, almost stark interiors in pure, white light. I had to blink and check that I had really stepped into a monochromatic wonderland and not gone colourblind, especially after Kiasma Museum Of Contemporary Art's lack of colour-palette extended to the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective on the third floor. About the retrospective; now I know not everyone wants to spend their Sunday with a larger-than-life penis staring at them from the walls, but there's so much more to Mapplethorpe's photography than just nudity - Mapplethorpe is the lens behind many celebrity portraits you'd recognise. Hot off the press from Paris to Helsinki, this retrospective is a must-see if you're in Helsinki now.

 Sinebrychoff Art Museum 

Just because this historical museum houses collections of Old Masters and the 19th century estate of the Sinebrychoff family doesn't mean it's stuffy. Sure - the collections include some of the world's most valuable European paintings, and the current exhibit 'Rococo - Nordic Intepretations' is an interesting education on the Nordic fascination with the rococo fashions and how it affected Swedish economy; by taxing ostentatious  costumes and introducing the national costume of Sweden as a frugality measure. But the  Sinebrychoff Art Museum is also fun - they provided a dress up corner for you to wear crazy Rococo wigs, costumes, etc. and take selfies with.

...and finally:

Military Museum of Finland

I found this museum...chilling. Partly because the sound effects in the air-raid shelter were a tad too realistic, somewhat because the shadows cast by helmets covered the mannequins' eyes which made them look like faceless instruments of war, also for the way that the Nazi swastika was displayed so matter-of-factly on Finnish tanks in the museum carpark. Most unnerving of all was the death mask of a prominent colonel, all wide-mouthed and almost smirking in his final F-you to the mortal coil. But I'm glad I went, it was a real education on Finland's quite complicated history especially the confusion about which forces they were allied with in the Second World War. No wonder, as this museum is part of the Finnish National Defence University. Definitely worth a visit if you want to better understand the country's history.

And thus concludes my admittedly superficial tour of Helsinki's design scene - both hipster and historical. It's worth mentioning that museums in Helsinki aren't free, which might come as a shock to Londoners who are frankly spoiled rotten. My entrance fee to all museums were covered by the Helsinki Card, which was very kindly gifted to me by Visit Helsinki. Now that you've read my posts about Helsinki's islands, shopping, and museums, only one topic remains - food! That's a post for tomorrow, so bait your breath - serious Finnish food porn to come on the blog. 


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