HELSINKI — I alight from the tram when it stops in the trendy Kellio neighbourhood of Finland’s lovely capital and find myself walking down narrow streets bordered by midrise container buildings.
This former industrial area — the grungier little brother to Helsinki’s glamorous city centre — is being transformed into a hip district occupied by students and artists.
The girl I pass, with her hair dyed green and pink wearing a bright green skirt with orange tights, confirms I’m in the right place.
Kellio is on every tourist’s must-visit list these days when they come to this vibrant seaside city of beautiful islands and great green spaces. It’s also one of Helsinki’s most popular areas to live — the most densely populated urban area in Finland, in fact.
As I walk past terra cotta brick buildings that are now home to chic cafés, restaurants, bars and street-front boutiques, it’s hard for this millennial to imagine this creative area was once the industrial engine of Helsinki.
Above: Kellio is filled with lots of eclectic shops selling everything from funky furniture to coffee.
One building stands out from the rest — Rupla is a creative space combining art exhibitions, shops and a café. I push through the building’s mustard-coloured door and my eyes are instantly drawn towards the bold strokes of artwork that line Rupla’s walls.
A sparse collection of plants and mismatched couches gives the café a cozy vibe. I can’t take my eyes off the collection of classical music albums that lay next to a vintage record player.
Staff is scurrying about preparing trays of food for the 11 a.m. brunch buffet rush. Each tray looks more appetizing than the last.
My schedule tells me it’s time to go. My stomach urges me to stay. Another tray passes. Okay, I’ll stay. It’s not advised to tour on an empty stomach, anyway.
After my scrumptious lunch, I head back out to explore and a tight turn onto Castreninkatu St. leads me to the entrance of a semi-underground vintage shop, Frida Marina. The owner makes use of every nook and cranny to proudly display clothing and accessories dedicated to the 1950s through the 1980s. It’s like I’ve stepped back in time.
Above: Old warehouses are now now home to chic condos that are liked by young professionals.
Every few steps along the streets of Kellio, I come across lots of vintage finds — from electronics to photography, leather to furniture.
One can never fully coincide with the opening hours of these shops, which are as varied as their moods. Should they decide to close early or even open on that day is left entirely up to the owner’s whim.
One such example is Fargo Vintage. The sign on the door implies the shop is closed. But I see two men lounging on a couch inside engaged in a lively conversation. We make eye contact. I flash a shy smile. They open the door and I step into vintage heaven.
An old vinyl record player, a broken radio, steel spotlight lamps from the last century, a deer skull mounted on the wall, a stone sculpture of a foot — or hand, it’s hard for me to tell — are just some of the items thrown into an organized disarray that is this shop.
When I ask the shopkeeper where he obtained the items, Harry Juutela tells me they’ve been collected and passed down through the generations in this family-run business.
Above: Kellio is one of the most colourful areas in Helsinki and a very expensive place to live.
Back on the streets, I stop mid track in front of a barber shop when see a man — his tattooed body looks like a canvas — concentrating on shaping another man’s short boxed beard in what’s known as Beard Park. The grooming salon is another Kellio landmark that draws a lot of attention from locals and foreigners alike. One thing that strikes me is how the equipment — razors, scissors, trimmers, brushes, waxes and combs — are so meticulously arranged against the shop’s brick walls.
Come midday, I’m in need of a coffee fix, so I enter the colourful Bear Park Café, another eclectic shop that is, you guessed it, decorated with lots of bears. I also find stacks of old coffee cans filled with grinds sitting alongside a bunch of rainbow flags.
The overly friendly barista greets me unabashedly.
“We serve the best gay coffee around here,” he proclaims.
It was pretty good.
The coffee energises me, so I hop on my Pelago street bicycle — it’s the best way to get around this compact city — and head off to the Cable Factory, Helsinki’s largest cultural centre.
The handsome brick structure — another leftover from the industrial days — boasts three museums, 10 galleries, dance theatres and art schools. The building, where steel cables were produced from 1943 to 1987, also hosts various concerts, exhibitions, festivals and fairs throughout the year.
Authentic, honest and down-to-earth, Kellio is one neighbourhood that impresses in a non-ostentatious way.
In this day and age of modernity, there still exist places around Helsinki for millennials like me to come to terms with ourselves and acknowledge an alternative means of life.