Gay Helsinki: Low temps, high spirits

Hip Helsinki has been a hotbed of architectural and interior design for decades, the capital of a Finnish culture thats constantly finding new ways to infuse simplicity with tasteful flair. Having been ruled through the centuries by both of its bigger next door neighbors Sweden and Russia, Finland has been influenced by both, but its ultimately retained a vibe, language and sensibility proudly all its own. Helsinki, where one in ten Finns live, is cute, fashionably stylish, unassuming and straightforward. Essentially, a mirror of the Finns themselves.

Helsinki's LGBT scene, already fairly big and diverse for a city its size (a little over half a million), is currently experiencing a bit of a boom, with several new gay or mixed venues having opened over the last year or so. As in the other Nordic countries, homosexuality is widely accepted in Finland, so much so that the very president, Tarja Halonen, was once the chairman of SETA, the country's LGBT rights group.

The Finns may seem like a serious lot, but theyre actually quite friendly, especially after a few drinks. They can tend to brood in winter, but who wouldn't when sunlight is such a rarity that days are as short as six hours, and even then the skies are often overcast, to say nothing of the snow and sometimes brutally low temps. But on the other end of the Finnish weather spectrum, at the height of summer the sun never completely goes away, and daytime temps usually hover around a near perfect 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. The Finns of summer are accordingly downright giddy.

A few Helsinki must-do's: enjoy a sauna, for the Finns an important and almost religious tradition; shop at Stockmann, the huge city center department store that serves as both all-purpose stockist and meet-up point for locals; visit Kiasma, the citys excellent modern art museum; and wander the Esplanadi, a beautiful downtown park lined by boulevards on either side, where youll find the citys poshest boutiques and cafes.

Restaurants to check out