Tori Quarters: 17 cafés and restaurants, a long list of events

The last of the tarpaulins covering Tori Quarters buildings has been removed, and Helsinki’s Empire-era centre can start its busy summer season, which promises street parties, theatre, chamber music and good food.

A weekend tour of the Tori Quarters strikes the visitor with the sharp contrast between the area today and the area as recently as the early 2000s, when it was quiet and nearly closed to passers-by.

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The bustle of the Tori Quarters starts from Helsinki City Museum, which has attracted a large crowd of tourists in addition to Helsinki residents. It’s difficult to find an empty table at the local cafés. Remembering the past over lunch at the brewery-restaurant Bryggeri’s patio, the visitor chuckles: this place was occupied by waste containers only a while ago.

Peggy Bauer , Tori Quarters Operative Director, sighs with satisfaction. The vast Tori Quarters renovations are nearing the end, and the summer of 2017 will be the first one in the quarters in nine years when the magnificent buildings are not covered by a single tarpaulin.

The Tori Quarters were revived quite quickly, although it occasionally seemed like the renovations would take forever, and many thought that the changes were too radical.

Helsinki Mayor Jussi Pajunen remembers that a revival of the Empire-style city blocks was discussed as early as the beginning of the 1970s. The buildings were then largely occupied by city operations, and understandably the staff were not eager to give up their central location.

The revival would take brisk decision-making in the first decade of the 2000s as well as an operator that could systematically develop the quarters.

“As a result, the Helsinki City Group company Helsingin Leijona Oy was established. The company has been a crucial factor in the success of the fast-paced process,” Mayor Pajunen says.

Citizens’ living room in City Hall, patio restaurants in inner courtyards

The transformation of the Tori Quarters started after a working group appointed by Mayor Pajunen surveyed the space occupied by central administration. The city operations would have to go, to be replaced by activities that would make the place come to life on evenings and weekends, too: cafés, restaurants and street-level boutiques, as well as entertaining events for city residents and visitors.

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New locations were found for the Real Estate and City Planning departments. City Treasury and Communication Office on Katariinankatu also had to move. The city exhibition and information activities moved out of Jugendsali and into the City Hall lobby, which became a citizens’ living room shared by residents and tourists.

The plans included transforming the closed inner courtyards into public places and opening the personnel cafeteria to the public.

The transformation began from Jugendsali and moved forward from building to building, from block to block.

Dynamic quarters on weekends as well as weekdays

What’s happening in the Tori Quarters today? If you haven’t visited the quarters for a while, it’s time to take a tour, Mayor Pajunen and Bauer suggest.

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You could start the tour from Helsinki City Museum on Aleksanterinkatu, which has been named the museum of the year, and continue from there to the small artisan-style boutiques on the adjacent Katariinankatu, to a café praised for its superb brunches or to an Italian restaurant at the corner of the Market Square.

The Tori Quarters serves the public with 17 cafés and restaurants this summer, as well as with a long list of boutiques. The boutiques sell a wide variety of products ranging from Finnish contemporary crafts and design to ecological cosmetics.

The approximately 40 services of the quarters include the brewery-restaurant and a radio station. The quarters even have their own cinema, Kino Engel, which has reopened after a full renovation.

Other appealing destinations include Robert’s Coffee in Jugendsali and Pizzeria via Tribunali, which serves Neapolitan pizza.

The Tori Quarters keep busy on Sunday. For example, Virka-gallery welcomes visitors to see its exhibitions.

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The summer promises many events in the quarters. The summer season begins in May with the Lovely Helsinki (Ihana Helsinki) city festival, which opens the outdoor restaurant season.

The festival offers a great deal of the beauty, joy and interaction typical of city boutiques, especially with a flower event “the flower shop of your dreams” that welcomes everybody to make their own flower bouquets in a space at Sofiankatu 4 and accompany the bouquets with notes.

Later in the summer, friends of chamber music are pampered with their own festival, and the City Museum’s inner courtyard hosts a stage for children’s theatre. In August, the quarters host a traditional street party.

Broad-ranging collaboration

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The opening of the Tori Quarters to the public was one of Mayor Pajunen’s visions, and he extends his gratitude to everybody who has participated in the project. He himself was eager to create Virka in the City Hall lobby and to transfer the City of Helsinki exhibition space and information service from Jugendsali to Virka, despite a debate about the move that was often heated and few words were spared.

He is pleased that the public has found Virka-gallery and the Virka-info information centre, which includes an immigrant information service. Visitors average 400,000 per year. Admittedly this high number is partially explained by the City Hall’s splendid public toilets, which are used by many tourist groups among others.

According to Mayor Pajunen, a crucial player in the revitalization of the Tori Quarters was the Diocese of Helsinki, which helped to energize the area by illuminating Helsinki Cathedral, highlighting this building’s role as the symbol of Helsinki.

“People associate Helsinki with the Cathedral, which plays a crucial role in the quarters’ appeal. The Diocese of Helsinki has joined the efforts to develop events for the Senate Square.”

The transfer of St. Thomas Christmas Market from the Esplanade Park to the Senate Square was an important move. The market’s new Christmas City has attracted large numbers of visitors, who often have to stand in line to ride the carousel.

Mayor Pajunen is grateful to all elected officials whose support made the transformation happen. The transformation was also made possible by the personnel move. The former chief executive officer of Helsinki, Tapio Korhonen , played an important role by systematically pushing the process forward.

Expectations exceeded

The central status of Helsinki’s Empire-style city blocks is strengthened by the adjacent Market Square, by SkyWheel Helsinki at the Katajanokka waterfront and by Allas Sea Pool.

Helsinki islands can be reached from the Market Square, as ferries to the Suomenlinna sea fortress and waterbuses to the Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari islands depart from the square.

Mayor Pajunen reminds us that in ten years people can walk to the Mustikkamaa recreational island and Helsinki Zoo.

“The area keeps gaining strength as the Market Square and the site originally meant for a Guggenheim museum are developed.”

Has the transformation of the Tori Quarters been a success? Has your vision been realized?

“Whenever we’re doing something new, we can’t be certain about success. The Tori Quarters have exceeded my expectations. The positive change happened faster than I would have believed. For example, I didn’t expect Virka to attract such high numbers of visitors. Moreover, the entrepreneurs of the quarters have been more satisfied than I first expected.”

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