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Paula Parviainen’s Travel Black Book

Helsinki hot and cold

You can dip naked in an icy hole and whip yourself with birch leaves in a sauna when you visit the Finnish capital

Who: Paula Parviainen, 54, Finnish ambassador to Singapore. The mother of two adult sons began her career as an air stewardess, flying with Finnair for 11 years.

Favourite destination: Helsinki, Finland

Why: Helsinki is surrounded by water and lots of parks where Finns enjoy their evening walks or jogs, boating and canoeing in summer or cross-country skiing and skating on ice rinks in winter.

It is full of culture, with several theatres for opera, ballet and music concerts as well as comedy clubs and pop, rock and metal music shows found in many live clubs.

It is a buzzing place with outdoor events such as concerts in the parks and many new initiatives to bring citizens and visitors together, such as Restaurant Day (www.restaurantday.org/en/) where anyone can set up a pop-up restaurant in the streets of Helsinki and serve his favourite dishes.

Favourite hotels

Hotel Haven (www.hotelhaven.fi) is elegant and quiet, with 77 rooms and a nice wine bar, right in the heart of Helsinki.

It is by the sea and next to the Old Market Hall (vanhakauppahalli.fi/en/), which has the freshest products such as fish, berries, reindeer and pulla, a mildly sweet Finnish sweet roll or dessert bread flavoured with cardamom.

Klaus K (www.klauskhotel.com/en/) is a hip design hotel, with modern decor influenced by Finnish artists and themes from the Finnish national epic Kalevala: mystical, passion, desire and envy.

It is in Bulevardi 2-4, Helsinki's main shopping street, and is known for its sublime breakfasts of organic Finnish products sourced from within 100km of Helsinki.

Favourite restaurants

My favourite classic Finnish restaurants are Olo (olo-ravintola.fi/en) and Chef & Sommelier (www.chefetsommelier.fi/en/home).

Olo is the flagship restaurant of Pekka Terava, a famous Finnish chef. Expect innovative, fine- dining menus highlighting local produce. Chef & Sommelier is a small and cosy neighbourhood bistro in my favourite residential street, Huvilakatu, which is full of colourful jugend (art nouveau) houses.

Atelje Finne (www.ateljefinne.fi/en) is a more bohemian restaurant which is popular among artists and is next to the big art museums, including Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (www.kiasma.fi/en). It serves a menu inspired by traditional Finnish cuisine.

Favourite neighbourhood

Kaivopuisto Park and its islands is where you can dip your toes in the Baltic sea or go for a swim and read your book, even during lunch hour.

You can go boating, jogging or canoeing in the summer and, in the winter when the sea is frozen, you can go ice skating, ice fishing or dip naked in the avanto, a hole in the ice, which is good for circulation.

Kallio used to be a working-class neighbourhood, but it is now a trendy, hipster area, with music clubs and corner pubs.

Not to be missed is the Design District Helsinki (www.designdistrict.fi/), where you can find dozens of little design shops and art galleries, nice coffee shops and restaurants.

Finnish culture

Go to a sauna - it is an essential part of every Finn's everyday life, even in the cities.

The best saunas are wood-heated cabins by the lake where you can smell the wood burning in the stove, make a bunch of fresh birch branches and whip yourself or your neighbour with the leaves, which helps the body detoxify, relaxes muscles and gives a nice smell of birch leaves.

One sauna to try is Uunisaari sauna (www.uunisaari.com). It is on an island off Kaivopuisto Park and is especially nice in winter - you get there by walking on the Baltic ice.

Fun day trip

Nuuksio National Park (www.nationalparks.fi/nuuksionp) in Espoo is a 30-minute drive from the city centre and always a nice destination to experience the wilderness.

In the summer, go for hikes, berry-picking or swimming in the lakes. In the winter, the park offers ski tracks and a sauna with ice swimming.

Ideal length of stay

Four to seven days in Finland, including a long weekend in Helsinki with a day trip to Nuuksio.

StopOver Finland (www.visitfinland.com/travel-trade/things/stopover-finland/) has itineraries lasting five hours to five days.

Foodie souvenirs

I buy smoked reindeer, smoked freshwater white fish, dried mushrooms, berry products and rye bread and salmiakki, the Finnish salty liquorice, and Fazer chocolates. You can find them at the Old Market Hall or the Stockmann department store.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Helsinki hot and cold'. Print Edition | Subscribe