The pioneering town planner, Patrick Geddes once said, “A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time”. If this is indeed the case, then what better way to get to know a city than to follow the stories of its inhabitants? It’s this idea that’s behind a beautiful new Helsinki guidebook, Helsinki – People Make the City, by New Zealand writer Melanie Dower and Helsinki native, photographer and Creating Helsinki Editor, Laura Iisalo.
Take the Helsinki experience home
Unlike more traditional city guides, Dower and Iisalo’s stunningly crafted book shows what life and work are like in a city regularly listed by magazines such as Monocle as one of the best in the world to live. In fact, Dower says she purposely wanted to do something different to typical guidebooks on offer.
“We wanted to create an insider’s guide to the Helsinki lifestyle so that readers can actually recreate a day in the life of the people featured. Once they’ve enjoyed the experience, they can even continue it in their own home by cooking the favourite meals of the people featured. You can prepare a salmon soup or make the cinnamon buns, no matter where you are the world,” explains Dower.
Food, glorious Helsinki food
Food is the central theme running though the book. But how did the pair pick which of Helsinki’s many fantastic restaurants and café’s to include? “We did a lot of research, we ate a lot of cinnamon buns,” Dower says, laughing. “And Laura did a great job eating meatballs. It took us a year and we only included things we genuinely loved.”
Living la vida local
This helps explain why we meet so many café and restaurant owners in the book. But it’s not just about people in the food business. Shopkeepers, local designers, and even a taxidermist are all interviewed. This is one reason why the book is such a fascinating read. It features interesting Helsinki residents doing interesting things. So how were they chosen? “We picked locals who we thought defined Helsinki at the moment. Even if you know the city, you might not know the people so well,” Dower says.
This ability to follow real people doing their favourite things in their favourite parts of the city is one of the joys of the book. Not only does it give you a unique opportunity to discover new places, but it also shows how the wonderfully vibrant city is made up of wonderfully vibrant people. Six people are showcased, in five different districts: Suomenlinna, Punavuori, Töölo, Kruununhaka, Kallio and Vallila all get featured.
A love letter to the city
One thing that’s striking is how fascinating the book is even to people who’ve lived in Helsinki for years. This comes as no surprise to Dower.
“Finnish people have picked it up and gone wow, I’ve never been to these places in my neighbourhood. It gives locals a deeper look at their own city. I like to think of it as a love letter to the city, one that residents will enjoy just as much as tourists,” say Dower.
We certainly agree with that assessment. In fact, it’s probably even better suited for residents than tourists, as visitors might not find its listings as extensive enough for their needs. That said, it’s a great read and great looking too. The photos and design show that it’s a true labour of love that everyone can appreciate. However, what makes this book really special is the fact it’s not just a book to read, it’s a book to do, with suggested experiences a unique part of its charm.
If you’d like to get a unique insight into your city or are planning a visit to one of Europe’s coolest cities, we thoroughly recommend you make Helsinki – People Make the City top of your book list.
Joel Willans is the Editor of Ink Tank and Co-Founder of Ink Tank Media. Author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men, his prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
Image credit: Viola Minerva Virtamo