The search for coffee in Helsinki starts with a fact: the average Finn drinks 5-6 cups of coffee per day. Unfortunately, you quickly realise that the majority of these cups aren’t crazy good as the number for speciality cafés in the capital barely reaches Copenhagen and Stockholm’s quality café overload. I went to Helsinki for a few days leading up to midsummer when the weather was ‘as cold as Christmas’, or so the greeter who showed my mother and I around the city said the Helsingin Sanomat’s headline read. Frequent coffee breaks, kahvitauko, were the perfect excuse to escape the highly changeable, and constantly chilly, weather.
Our coffee tour began at Good Life Coffee in Kallio, Helsinki’s Greenpoint. Our greeter helped us find our way along two trams, winding paths and hills. The space isn’t huge, but has a minimal atmosphere that’s immediately welcoming. You can cuddle up on the long corner bench and place your coffee on a low white table while gazing out the huge window. If you prefer a tall table, there are two on the right side. The one in front seats about four people, the one behind, approximately three. When the sun is shining, you can enjoy one of the tables out front. We ordered a filter coffee, an espresso macchiato — be specific, they also serve latte macchiato — and a croissant. The filter coffee was what you want filter coffee to be like: bright and lemony but not astringent. After stomping around Helsinki, the macchiato’s creamy texture and sweet, milk chocolate flavours was more satisfying than it otherwise would have been. The croissant was buttery, though a touch bready and lacking layers, paired well with the coffee. Good Life Coffee might not be in the centre of Helsinki, but it’s only a short walk from the central train station and art museum — not to mention next door to Hakaniemen Kauappahalli, the modern market hall — making it the perfect excuse to see the city’s residential side.
Across Helsinki, in a different neighbourhood with a different ambiance, you’ll find Kaffa Roastery, located next a housewares shop. The space, which just-not a basement, is small, cosy. Order your coffee at the till and hop up on a white plastic folding chair situated in front of a bank of windows. Don’t worry, it’s not dark. The windows are just high enough to let light filter in. I chose the house coffee, which was brewed on aeropress. As the barista brought me my coffee a few minutes later, she told me about their current blend, made from a mix of Guatemalan and Indonesian beans. The first sip tasted like red berries with a balanced, sweet acidity like you find when eating cherries or currants. While the flavour was quite intense at first, it gently melted away, leaving a whisper of coffee and no heavy, syrupy aftertaste. I gleefully sipped away at the entire cup while reading My Struggle: Book One with no regard to the fact that it was quickly approaching six pm. That was fine because, around midsummer in Finland, the sky gives few hints that the evening is about to arrive.
But arrive it did, as it always must. Not that my body realised that and so, when morning arrived, I was exhausted having barely slept. After dragging myself out of bed and shoving some rye bread topped with kermajuusto cheese into my mouth for what I felt amounted to a Finnish breakfast, I ran to Fratello Torrefazione on Yliopistonkatu 6. Unlike other cafes in the city that serve up light, Nordic-style brews, Fratello Torrefazione is heavily influenced by dark, Italian bars and that’s just describes the décor. The cappuccino I had there was notably darker roasted than the other coffees I had in the city. It was rich and chocolaty with that slightly dull, toasted flavour you can find at any number of Italian cafes across the world. Fortunately though, it did the trick and fuelled me for a stop around Seurasaari Ulkomuseo, Helsinki’s open-air museum that’s hidden in the woods just a short bus ride away from the center.
As everyone knows who drinks coffee, caffeine’s energizing effects soon wear off, especially after climbing around old buildings. After returning from Seurasaari and having lunch at Vanha Kauppahalli, the recently refurbished old market, I walked through the harbour and crossed a bridge to Johan & Nyström. Although I’d previously visited the Swedish roaster’s flagship café in Stockholm, I wanted to visit their Helsinki café because it’s frequently cited in article discussing the capital’s best coffee spots. Located on a pier, the room is large with low lighting and cave-like in the best way possible. There’s a bookshelf dividing the bar from some seats, which displays different coffee-related merchandise such as aeropress, logo-ed mugs and bags Johan & Nyström beans. The seating is varied, with some proper chairs and tables on one side and sofas and chairs elsewhere. What the seating lacked in coherence, the coffee made up for. My macchiato was rich with a blackberry flavor that held the depth of a good, slightly bitter chocolate. It sustained me throughout the afternoon, but fortunately not into the evening. When my five am wake-up call came, early enough to make a nine am flight to Stockholm, I was relatively well-rested.
Although Helsinki might have a ways to go to catch up with the complete saturation of brilliant coffee spots that you find in Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen, the city has an interesting selection of cafes for the coffee-enthusiast. And those were just the ones I visited. Had I planned my trip exclusively around coffee, I would have visited Freese Coffee, which, until recently, was only open at the weekend. If I had more time, I would have visited Kahvila Sävy on Aleksis Kiven Katu, a good tram ride outside of center. Add in some pulla and you’ve got the makings for an unforgettable stay in Helsinki.