I am a keen traveler, and although Helsinki is not my hometown, I have come to think of it as such.
Helsinki is one of my favourite cities and one I know well after moving here many years ago. Hopefully, this top-10 list will help anyone thinking about visiting this Baltic jewel.
Helsinki: A Thriving Gem in the Baltic Sea
Helsinki—the capital city of Finland—sits by the Baltic Sea on a peninsula surrounded by over 300 islands. It's linked to some of them by bridges and ferries, so you are never far from the sea. Greater Helsinki has a population of over one million people and although the modern city is spread out, the old center is compact and easily walkable.
Outside of the center, the city starts becoming more suburban, with neighborhoods separated by forests and parks making this a place that's really in touch with nature. The city is full of interest, with rich culture, shopping and nightlife. I have given just a taste here for the visitor who might not have much time.
10 Must-Do Activities in Helsinki
- Take in the View
- Check Out the Art
- Go Shopping
- Take a Swim or Sauna
- Explore the Architecture
- Have a Coffee and Watch the World Go By
- Visit the Islands of Suomenlinna and Seurasaari
- Try a Taste of Finland in the Restaurants
- Visit an Urban Park
- Take a Day Trip
An Activity for Every Season
Helsinki is a city of strong seasonal differences. Wonderful berries fill the markets and sunbathers line the beaches during the long summer days; mushrooms aplenty hit the shelves in autumn; and winter activities range from ice skating and taking frosty dips in ice pools to visiting the Christmas market.
It's important to research when you want to visit, as what can you do and see really changes a lot here depending on the seasons. But no matter when you come, Helsinki is sure to delight.
1. Take in the View
The first thing that you should do is go up high and take a look around. The bar at the top of the Torni Hotel (Yrjönkatu 26) offers a great view right in the center of the old city, and you can have a drink while you are up there. The Sky Room bar in the new Clarion Hotel (Tyynenmerenkatu 2) also offers a great view of the harbour area.
For another perspective in the summer, you could take a boat trip around Helsinki and take in the view from the water. You can easily catch a boat ride from the bottom of Esplanadi at Kauppatori right in the center of the city.
2. Check Out the Art
There are some great art galleries in Helsinki—nothing too big and tiring, but with a wide and deep selection of art that will cater to most tastes. Kiasma (Mannerheiminaukio 2) is Finland's national museum of contemporary art. Across the way is a newly opened contemporary art gallery, the Amos Rex (Mannerheimintie 22-24).
A short metro ride to Espoo is the EMMA art gallery, with a good modern art collection and touring exhibitions. It also has one of the last Futuro houses. More traditional art from before the 20th century can be found at the Ateneum (Kaivokatu 2).
3. Go Shopping
The main department store is Stockmann (Aleksanterinkatu 52). Inside, you will find Finnish products, cafes and restaurants and a great deli and supermarket in the basement, as well as all the usual suspects.
Walk around the Design District Helsinki (a good place to start would be around Fredrikinkatu) in which you will see the old city and have a chance to check out what the local Finnish designers are up to. From clothing to interior design, there should be something for every budget and taste. Don't forget the Moomin shop in Forum shopping center.
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4. Take a Swim or Sauna
Maybe the greatest Finnish ritual is the sauna and a swim in a lake; it's one of the national pastimes. Helsinki offers lots of opportunities for sampling these Finnish rituals.
- Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall (Yrjönkatu 21 B) is an Art Deco classic from 1922.
- The Allas Sea Pool (Katajanokanlaituri 2a), located right at the bottom of Kauppa tori, is open all year round, with saunas and fresh and seawater pools.
- Löyly ( Hernesaarenranta 4) in Munkiksaari is a great place to take a sauna and catch the sun on the large outdoor deck.
- Kotiharjun Sauna Oy (Harjutorinkatu 1)—open since 1928—is the last real wood-heated, traditional public sauna in Helsinki.
- During the summer, Hietaniemi beach (Hiekkarannantie) is a stone's throw from the center and an ideal place to show off your tan.
- Sompasauna in Kalasatama is a private, self-service pop-up sauna with a great atmosphere.
5. Explore the Architecture
The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by American Architect Stephen Holl, now sits alongside Oodi, Helsinki's main central Library (Töölönlahdenkatu 4). Designed by ALA—one of the foremost Finnish Architect firms at the moment—you can have a cake and coffee at Oodi's cafe and look out onto the new urban square, Kansalaistori. Just up the road is Finlandia Hall (Mannerheimintie 13e), designed by the most famous Finnish architect of them all: Alva Aalto.
Not far from there is the Temppeliaukio Church (Lutherinkatu 3), a modern architectural classic built into the Helsinki rock, and a beautiful space to contemplate life. Close to the bottom of the Esplanade is Senaatintori, Helsinki’s beautiful 19th-century square built by the Russians as part of the plan for their new capital city when they took over Finland in 1809.
Tuomiokirkko, a.k.a. the White Church (Unioninkatu 29), sits above the square and is one of the most prominent buildings in the old town. Keep an eye out for the Jugend-style buildings sprinkled throughout the old town.
6. Have a Coffee and Watch the World Go By
Finnish people drink more coffee per capita than any other country in the world (12kg per person). There are some great cafes where you can have coffee and pulla (Finnish sweet bread) or even take lunch also. I have listed some of my favourites below, but there are many more great ones to choose from.
- Cafe Ursula (Ehrenströmintie 3) is a charming spot by the shore.
- Kaffa Roastery (Pursimiehenkatu 29) roasts its own coffee and uses the most up-to-date methods to brew it.
- Cafe Regatta (Merikannontie 8) is a super laid-back place with its own sense of style.
- Karl Fazer Cafe (Kluuvikatu 3, 00100 Helsinki) is located in the center. It's a great place for brunch on the weekends, and the original '30s deco style is a treat.
- Strindberg (Pohjoisesplanadi 33) on the Esplanade is the best place to experience the height of old-world cafe culture. The atmosphere is straight out of 19th-century Paris or Vienna.
- Kappeli (Eteläesplanadi 1), located in the Esplanade park, is almost impossible to miss. It's a good place for coffee and food.
- You can also find Roberts Cafe, a Swedish coffee chain and Starbucks alternative, in various places around town.
7. Visit the Islands of Suomenlinna and Seurasaari
Suomenlinna is an island off Helsinki which was fortified into a maritime castle mainly by the Swedish in the 18th century. It's now home to many people, some nice cafes, restaurants and an interesting museum. You can walk around the fortifications, and in the summer, its a great place for a picnic. Ferries run regularly from Kauppatori.
Seurasaari is an island and open-air museum where you can walk around and see Finnish traditional buildings from all over the country that have been saved and placed on the island. It's a beautiful location and a great place for a walk.
8. Try a Taste of Finland in the Restaurants
There is a wide selection of restaurants from different cultures from all over the world. This is not the cheapest place to dine, but it's surprisingly diverse and interesting. I have listed a few places to start.
- Demo (Uudenmaankatu 9-11) is a great place to see what modern Finnish cuisine is all about.
- Pastis (Pieni Roobertinkatu 2) is a bit more French contemporary but the atmosphere and food are great.
- Try Grotesk Steakhouse (Ludviginkatu 10) for meat-lovers.
- Sea Horse (Kapteeninkatu 11) is a classic artistic haunt in Helsinki with some no-nonsense Finnish classics. The atmosphere and old-Helsinki charm are a bonus.
- Try Saaga (Bulevardi 36) for Northern European Lappish cuisine.
- Bellevue (Rahapajankatu 3) puts Helsinki's reputation for great Russian food to a delicious test.
- If you're going for more of a street-food vibe, have a burger or kebab at a classic Finnish grillikioski like Jaskan Grilli (Dagmarinkatu 2)—maybe after a few drinks!
9. Visit an Urban Park
Helsinki is full of parks both natural and man-made; over one third of the city consists of parks and green spaces.
- The island of Seurasaari that I mentioned earlier is a great place to walk and sample nature by the sea, or you could visit the newly opened Vallisaari island.
- Kaivopuisto one of the oldest parks in Helsinki, from which you can get great views out to Helsinki and the sea.
- Töölonlahti Bay Park (right in the center of the city) includes many of the main cultural buildings of Helsinki and circles the bay with a path for walkers and cyclists.
- Hietaranta Beach (or 'Hietsu' to the locals) is a great urban beach with basketball, volleyball and a cafe open from June to August.
- Lauttasaari Park at the southern tip of the island of Lauttasaari provides stunning views of the archipelago and the Baltic sea.
- If you're willing to go farther afield, Espoo Central Park is basically a wild forest with paths and bicycle routes.
10. Take a Day Trip
A nice half-day trip is to visit the houses at Hvitträsk, which were designed as shared homes and studios of three architects: Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen. They're built in the Jugend style—the Finnish equivalent of Art Nouveau—and set above a lake in a wooded area. There is a cafe and restaurant there so you can get a taste of the Finnish countryside, history and architecture and have a nice coffee not far outside of Helsinki.
Or take a day trip to Porvoo, one of the few medieval towns of Finland. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the old church that sits on the hill is worth a visit. Farther afield, you could skip across the Baltic by ferry to Tallinn—the capital of Estonia and one of the old important cities of the medieval Hanseatic trading routes. Tallinn's old town is a lot older than Helsinki's, and the city has a very interesting history from its time under occupation by Germany and the Soviet Union.
Practical Information About Visiting Helsinki
- The local currency is the Euro, and all prices in the shops include VAT.
- Finland, like most other European countries, has 230-volt AC (220–240 range), 50Hz current and uses two-pin continental plugs.
- The language is Finnish, but most people speak English well, and Swedish is also widely spoken.
- Tipping in Finland is not the norm, as service is priced in, but tipping at around 10% for good service is a good idea.
Getting Around the City Is Easy
Getting around is easy, with a bus, tram and metro system which uses the same ticketing system. A popular and easy way to get around is with the city bikes—a network of over 3,000 bright-yellow bikes that anyone can use for a small fee.
Hopefully if you are thinking of visiting Helsinki, this article has helped you plan a great trip!
Helsinki City Center
Questions & Answers
Question: Is Reykjavik a city in Finland?
Answer: No. Reykjavik is the Capital city of Iceland, which is also part of the Nordic group of countries but quite different.
© 2019 Lewis Martin