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Helsinki, Finland

By David Rothenberg
Published January 30, 2006

Helsinki is a beautiful port city with parks on islands, outdoor cafes and markets, a cool elegance and a love of art and design.

You’ll find it at the only place in Helsinki where five streets converge into one point.: Fredrikinkatu, Laivurinkatu, Laivurinmantie, Tarkkampujanki and Pursimiehenkatu. At this verbose but quiet junction is the famous record store Digelius Music, known throughout northern Europe as one of the best places to peruse the wealth of possibilities that world music has to offer.

          As soon as you step into this venerable institution you know this is no ordinary music shop. There are reams of music magazines, not just the latest issue but all of the back issues. There are new and used CDs from all over the planet, and piles of record company catalogs, free for the taking. You will find discs you have sought for years and discover new hybrids of world sounds that you never thought possible.

Digelius (Laivurinrinne 2, 00120 Helsinki, phone: 358 9 666375, is a renowned meeting place for world music players and aficionados from the world over. This is a nexus not only of five streets, but of thousands of musical travelers who trek along the invisible map of exciting new and old music that mixes the traditions of the world’s many cultures and sounds.

          One of the store’s owners, Emu Lehtinen, greets me as if I’m an old friend, even though I have not been inside the place for several years. Not five minutes later, I run into a friend from New York, Finnish jazz singer Sofia Laiti. A few minutes later in comes Philip Page, born in Texas, who has worked at Digelius for years and now also runs Hoedown, a management company that handles many of the cutting-edge contemporary Finnish world music acts, among them the five cheery women of Värttina, the punk accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, and the mysterious Lapland yoiker Wimme Saari, who even wrote a song for Page.

          Finland is a place with a rare language, related only to Hungarian, nearly impenetrable to the outsider. (Take another look at those street names.) This is the nation at the edge of Western Europe that staved off the glowering Soviet presence for years. This is the cool, forested place that invented the sauna and the cell phone.

          The summer days here are endless and the late-night light incredibly crisp, on the elegant yellow and white waterfront buildings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Helsinki is a beautiful port city with parks on islands, outdoor cafes and markets, a cool elegance and a love of art and design.

In music, Finland has been both original and opportunistic. There is a Finnish belly-dancing society, for example, with hundreds of members. And although there isn’t a local club w

  Travel notes

The telephone prefix in Helsinki is +358 9.


Finnair flies directly from JFK New York to Helsinki: 1-800-950-5000. SAS also flies to Finland. 1-800-221-2350.



The Radisson SAS Royal, a short walk west of the main railway station, is a modern deluxe hotel with striking architecture and all services. (above prefix + ) 695-80.


Hotel Helka Helsinki is located in the heart of Helsinki in an elegant, older building with lots of charm. 613-580.

Hotel AVA Helsinki is located in the outskirts in Vallila, a few kilometers north of the city center. It’s the cheapest full-featured hotel in town, $30 and up. 774-751.


Kappeli is the famous historic restaurant encased with greenhouse-like glass windows right on the Esplanade, between the center of town and the sea. Standard Finnish fare: Fish, reindeer, potatoes, just what tourists expect. 681-244.

Maxill is a casual place with impeccable Nordic design and Euro-esque food. 638-873.

Hariton is the most intimate of the city’s Russian restaurants. 622-1717.

Kosmos is the famous artists’ restaurant, dating back to 1924. Understated art deco style, hangout for establishment artist types. 647 255.


Sauna Bar sometimes has interesting world-tinged dance music. 586-5550.

Uudenmaankatu is the late-night street, with bars to suit every taste, right near one another. Tapasta for tapas, Liekki and Bar 9 for that unsteady Finnish mood, and Soda for a trendy dance club.