Paul and I decided to go on a winter mini break with some friends, somewhere Christmassy and that none of us had been to before – so we decided to go to Helsinki.
Helsinki is not somewhere that we knew a lot about so we didn’t have much expectation before going, and I had no idea what gluten free eating would be like! From research though I discovered how much of a dream Finland is for coeliacs, although I didn’t find many actual specific recommendations. Perhaps this is a sign of how good Finland actually is as you don’t really need them, everywhere pretty much had gluten free options marked on the menu using the letter G. Lactose is marked in the same way for those that may require this and I found eating out fairly stress free although do make sure that you still state that you’re Coeliac so that restaurants know to follow cross contamination controls for you.
My main sources of information for this trip came from Jesse who has a fantastic website http://www.glu.fi that you should definitely check out for information and whom took the time to email lots of tips and recommendations to me prior to my trip and Beki (#bekitakeapictures) who I’ve followed for a while on instagram. She wrote a blog post on eating gluten free in Finland just in time for my trip! Check it out here. Thank you to you both for helping me make the most of my time eating my way around Helsinki!
For more details on eating out in Helsinki and Finland see my extensive gluten free in Europe guide!
The Hotel – Radisson Blu
Due to price, location and probably the fact it’s a name we recognised we decided to stay at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel. Located near the main train station, a metro station and being very central near bars, restaurants and shopping the location was ideal. The rooms were trendy and comfortable, although a private event on the Friday night meant pumping music in our room until after midnight and there wasn’t much of a bar to relax in either if that’s something you like in a hotel!
Breakfast was included in the room and they had some gluten free items on the hot buffet – bacon, mini frankfurter sausages and scrambled eggs. There was also a cold buffet of meats, smoked salmon, fruits, yoghurts and cheeses. There was also a sign up to ask for fresh items from the kitchen showing an understanding of cross contamination.
I stuck mainly to the omelette station and also the gluten free section!!
It’s not often I see a proper gluten free section let alone one that includes a choice of cereals, bread, muffins, pastries and Karelian pies!
Karelian pies are not something I’d ever heard of until I began researching gluten free in Helsinki. However, as soon as I’d read about them I knew I wanted one! I found mine at the gluten free bakery Kelia Puoti (see below) and apart from the first day had them in the gluten free section for breakfast so they accompanied my daily omelette!
Karelian pies are egg butter filled pies in rye pastry, that may also contain rice or potato. I found the taste of the gluten free pastry alternative quite strong where they’ve tried to replicate the rye pastry in the gluten free version so there wasn’t a lot of flavour to the filling but I still enjoyed them. They didn’t look a patch on Paul’s gluteney hot buttery version that he bought at the Christmas markets though!
This Gluten Free Bakery located in Haneminmen Hali must not be missed by any Coeliac in Helsinki. There was a fresh counter of treats and lots of other products such as gluten free liquorice, pasta, cereal and Foods of Athenry cookies to be found on the shelves.
It was a little difficult to work out what everything was but I ended up with an amazingly intricate and pretty cinnamon roll, a cupcake type thing that they told me was filled with a kind of black marmalade and tasted of Christmas and a Karelia pie. I enjoyed everything that I bought from here!
The market hall is worth a wander for all sorts of food and crafts too, I ended up with a moomin biscuit cutter to take home.
McDonalds – something that is very much a novelty for every U.K. based Coeliac I know. I’ve eaten McDonalds in a few European countries and its so easy, Ive never had any problems with the staff understanding my order and it’s always been prepared separately. This is also a bonus when they are busy as my double quarter pounder with cheese was piping hot, Paul’s on the other hand was a burger off the pile and was pretty much cold. Suffice to say in a busy, somewhat dirty McDonalds he did not get as much enjoyment out of the meal as I did! We were there on Suomi 100, a day of celebrations and it was ridiculously busy and the staff just couldn’t cope. This makes it even more amazing that I was handed my separately prepared gluten free burger!
Classic Pizza was on my list for somewhere that could cater for coeliacs. Turns out they couldn’t – or they were being extremely over cautious. When I tried to enquire about the gluten free pizza to make my order I was told it wasn’t prepared separately so there was a risk of contamination. When I asked if they tried to prevent contamination and if they could prepare it separately I was told that it wasn’t gluten free anyway as it contained wheat starch. I asked if it was still gluten free and she said about contamination. It may have been the member of staffs level of English or trying to help me but I didn’t feel comfortable eating there so we left in search for other gluten free pizza.
Due to the unsuccessful trip to Classic Pizza I googled the other recommendations I’d been given – Koti Pizza and Dennis Pizza. I couldn’t find anything online for Koti about their allergens but Dennis Pizza had a full description. They too contain wheat starch so be careful if you have a separate wheat allergy but they are classed as gluten free. (I assume this would be the same for Classic Pizza).
When I arrived at Dennis I wasn’t told about the wheat starch but was told that their pizzas are prepared separately. Based on what I’d read online and what the waitress told me I decided to eat here.
My Pizza was amazing – large and thin gluten free pizzas I think are a rarity and I had mine topped with Parma ham, burrata, basil, olive oil and pine nuts. I am definitely going to have this combo again whenever I get the chance to make up my own pizza as it was so good and I devoured every mouthful.
Paul and I visited Helsinki for four nights, our friends came for three only arriving late the second night and missing dinner. That meant the four of us ate out in the evenings together for Friday and Saturday night. Paul and I had two extra meals, one was the quick McDonalds on the day we arrived. The second was at Kappeli, a restaurant that my friends Finnish colleague had recommended but we couldn’t get a reservation for on the Friday or Saturday. Make sure if you want to eat here (and you should) you book well in advance. We seemed to only just about get a table for two at 17:30 on the Thursday night.
This was a non – gluten free recommendation but gluten free was marked on the menu. Located in an old cafeteria dating back to 1867 it is worth a trip, even if it’s just to the Cafe part which I saw had gluten free cakes in the counter!
We skipped starters as I wasn’t keen on the reindeer carpaccio or beetroot which were the two gluten free options. Paul later did not thank me for this as his meal wasn’t that large. What we did have was totally amazing though – Paul had lamb shank with potato purée and I had a prawn risotto made using a saffron bisque. As saffron is one of my favourite flavours I absolutely loved this dish and wish I could go back for it again and again.
The desserts were also incredible with so many gluten free choices. I had the molten chocolate cake that came served with a delicately flavoured vanilla and orange ice cream and cloudberry. Paul had a simply divine cloudberry panna cotta. I managed to have a mouth full but beyond that he wasn’t too happy that his choice was also gluten free as he didn’t want to share it!
With a beer and a glass of wine the two course meal came to €100 for the two of us, so Helsinki is not the cheapest to eat out in once you get away from the casual food but we both left Kappeli raving about the food rather than worrying about the price.
Lappi is a traditional Northern Finnish restaurant so we figured we should give it a go! If you decide you want to eat here definitely make a reservation as on the Friday night when we went they were fully booked. There were a couple of groups in front of us who got turned away to be told the next available reservation was Monday (it was 19:30 on the Friday at this point) so certainly seems popular.
The restaurant was like a wooden chalet, very traditional and quaint. We could see why it was so popular! Having had pizza for lunch we again skipped the starters to be able to manage our main courses. There was a choice of reindeer dishes or a few fish dishes. Unfortunately the salmon dish on saw on Beki’s blog post about Lappi that I would probably have had was no longer on the menu so instead I braved the reindeer. I’m not the biggest fan of red meat but I tried the sautéed reindeer served with mash and berries. The reindeer was nice, I loved the creamy mash but the dish really worked when all three components were eaten together. The berries really brought some life to the quite rich and heavy meal. Seeing as though we were in Finland in a traditional restaurant I’m glad I gave the dish a go, although it’s not something I feel the need to have again!
Paul had the reindeer steak, served with a berry sauce and potato cake which he really enjoyed and said the meat was tender with no fat. The sauce was also a highlight for this meal, not just the meat.
I was told that the main meals except the white bait that is coated in flour were gluten free. Sadly the same could not be said for the desserts. Despite being full we all fancied something sweet which is how I ended up with the only gluten free dessert in front of me – Finnish farm cheese with cloudberry jam (all sounds ok up to that point) covered in cinnamon cream. Say what? Now I love cheese and I loved the cinnamon cream, but together this sweet and creamy cheese dish was just bizarre and not for me! I can say I gave it a go but it’s not something I’d recommend! The blueberry sparkling wine that I had was a much more preferred local specialty!
At the airport Paul had seen an advert for Goodwins and was immediately lured in! It’s safe to say their advert of a huge steak was successful at getting us to their restaurant as without dinner plans for the Saturday night and gluten free marked on the menu we gave it a go. This turned out to be an amazing decision as the meal was absolutely unreal. I had pork, but the others ordered Chateau Briand or Filet Mignon all with sides of chips. I had fried potatoes and mushrooms and all four of us had the peppercorn sauce. Every single plate was wiped clean and there was not a single complaint.
The dessert menu was too tempting to say no to and for the gluten free option that meant creme brulee. This is fine by me as I love Creme brulee! The dessert was three mini brulees – one traditional, one pistachio and one coffee. I’m not a lover of coffee but ate it, and I liked the traditional one but I loved the pistachio. This is saying something as I don’t normally like to mess with the classic but the delicate creamy pistachio flavour was just so moreish!
Fazer chocolate is Finland’s most valued chocolate brand and can be found all over the country. In Helsinki we had a stop off at Fazer Cafe after wandering around in the cold at the Christmas markets where I was extremely excited to be told their hot chocolate is gluten free.
A day trip from Helsinki – Porvoo
Porvoo is Finland’s second oldest city and located about 50km east from Helsinki which takes about an hour by bus. The town has charming red shore houses and candy coloured houses that are very picturesque.
There are also lots of little shops like Petris Chocolate Room that are worth a wander – chocolates from this particular shop had gluteeniton stated on the back.
However we went on a Saturday, something in hindsight I strongly advise against as it was just too busy. Oxford Street kind of busy where it was impossible to walk down the street and impossible to fit into the small, quaint shops or find an empty table in the cafes. We had a bit of a wander but it was too busy to enjoy it.
I had originally planned on eating at Zum Beispiel. A restaurant with an amazing looking menu, that included gluten free options as well as vegetarian and vegan, but it was somewhere that unfortunately can’t be booked on Saturdays. On arrival I can see why, it was just too busy. If you go on a weekday may be make a reservation ahead but for us it just wasn’t worth battling the crowds. Instead we ended up at a cafe near the bus station, somewhere that was still busy but we managed to get a table. There wasn’t any savoury gluten free food in the counter and it was too busy to be bothered to ask if the food on the boards was gluten free but I did have an incredible slice of rocky road! All three cakes on the top shelf of the cake counter were gluten free and the rocky road accompanied my glogi that helped warm me up!
I have been told that the supermarkets in Helsinki generally have a great gluten free selection. As I was eating out all the time, wandering around supermarkets looking for gluten free is over Paul’s tolerance level for what to do on a city break when he has already let me drag him around in search of bakeries and the restaurants I want to eat at! You should check out k-citymarkets and k-supermarkets though if you get the chance.
I did however go to Stockmann and from here I managed to pick up a couple of bits that I was the most keen to get my hands on.
I absolutely love liquorice so I was really excited to discover that gluten free liquorice could be found in Helsinki with Porvoon Lakritisi being the brand that is easiest to find. I saw it in both Stockmann and at Kelia Puoti and I brought some home with me. It tastes just like liquorice and would recommend it if you’re a liquorice fan!
Beki had recommended Pepparkakor biscuits by Semper on her blog and being a huge fan of ginger I wanted to try them! They are thin and crispy ginger biscuits that are absolutely delicious and definitely required at Christmas! Read Beki’s post here to read more about them.
I didn’t eat at the airport but I did spot a Burger King which Jesse said served gluten free but they are not that familiar with gluten free clients so you have to be a bit cautious. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk ahead of the flight.
There was also Nordic Kitchen, which Beki has eaten at with success – check out her blog post on the restaurant here.
Thanks to Jesse and Beki giving recommendations, I unfortunately didn’t have enough time to try them all. Some of the other places recommended were:
*Kakkutupa (cake cottage, a gluten free bakery 11km out of the city but make sure you check opening hours)
*Rosso (nationwide chain that has served gluten free pizza and pasta for ages)
*I was recommended Kukko beer but unfortunately I don’t like beer but might be worth looking out for if you do! (Make sure it is the GF variety that you buy)
*In Stockmann there was a Moomin Cafe which was so cute! It would be fantastic with kids and I spotted gluten free items in the counters.
Sightseeing in Helsinki
We got the ferry over to the 18th century sea fortress and had a walk and wander around the island (wear walking shoes as there are lots of cobbles and grassy muddy areas to walk about on). It made for a nice morning out in the open air although sure it would be a lot nicer in the sun in summer! It was a bit bleak when we went and none of the restaurants and cafes were open. There is also a gnome hunt in December that I’d read on a blog post about visiting Helsinki in December (check it out here). However, you need to pick up the map at the Tourist Information when you get off the ferry, which we didn’t do and missed out!
Helsinki Cathedral and Christmas Markets
There was a large Christmas market located under the cathedral which was Christmassy and fun for a wander particularly with the Cathedral impressively illuminated above it.
There are plenty of other things to see and do in Helsinki. There are other sights like the beautiful Uspenski Cathedral, lots of different museums, parks to wander around and Helsinki Zoo that I’m sure would be great if you go in warmer months! For December there are lots of festivities – ice skating that was located near our hotel, Christmas lights and the wonderful Christmas windows at Stockmann.
Jesse on the email also recommended the following saunas if you want to go to one:
We loved our few days in Helsinki and with the amount of amazing gluten free food available I hope to be able to return one day, maybe for a summer trip! If you decide to visit I hope you have an amazing time!