Nestled on a rugged cape embraced by the Baltic Sea, Finland’s capital is interestingly one of the Europe’s most gorgeous and captivating capitals. It retains a character that is noticeably distinct from the other Scandinavian capital cities but similar in terms of appearance and spirit experienced in other towns of Eastern Europe. The character reflects its enticing geographical location, on the legendary rift between the Russian and Swedish kingdoms. Although truly Scandinavian, the city’s architecture and minds of people seem to be truly Russian.
Although small, Helsinki offers a big holiday pack full of exciting things to see and do, including a few World Heritage Sites. A multi-ethnic vibe permeates in the city, which is evident in its museums and across the clean streets full of multi-cuisine restaurants and cafés. Above all, the most interesting aspect for lazy travelers and eager movers is that no corner of the city is more than a short ride of tram taken from the centre.
(Photo credits: mondogonzo)
With more than 300 islands and 60 miles shoreline preserving several maritime attractions, the city is an ideal destination in summer for water lovers. Similarly, winters attracts tourists for skiing, ice skating, and snowboarding because of over 108 miles of groomed cross-country trails, especially popular in the Central Park (Keskuspuisto). For outdoor lovers, hiking, cycling, and golfing are just at its best. In this way, the accessible coastal capital has something for all moods throughout the year.
Getting around Helsinki
Helsingin Kaupungin Liikennelaitos (HKL) tourist ticket (with 1-5 days validity) is best for unlimited travel on any public transport including local trains, buses, metro, trams, and ferry to the World Heritage Site of Suomenlinna. You can get information on tickets, schedule, and routes at www.hsl.fi. For cheaper tickets, consider buying them in advance from post office, tourist office, and newsagents (R-kioski). All tickets are transferrable within an hour of purchase. Tram 4 is perfect for architectural fans, while tram 6 is perfect for art and food buffs.
(Photo credits: davidvankeulen)
For saving significantly, consider getting Helsinki Card (www.helsinkicard.fi) for unlimited travel and free entry to several attractions, including museums. Due to excellent public transport system and on-foot accessibility in most of central Helsinki, taking a car is not recommended.
If not on foot, the town is excitingly explorable through a bicycle on its flat topography featuring (466 miles network of smooth cycling paths with apt traffic signals. The city administration offers free bikes at over 25 stands in the centre (a small deposit is asked but refunded while returning the bike).
Things to See in Helsinki
- Finlandia Hall: One of the striking works in the town is Finlandia-Talo designed in 1971 by Alvar Aalto. Stately modernist, this iconic edifice is the key conference and concert venue. Above all, it is the current address of Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra established in 1882 by Robert Kajanus. It is best to visit the monument for enjoying a performance. In case there is none, be a part of a guided tour that is arranged on specific days in Mannerheimintie.
(Photo credits: landscapehijacker)
- National Museum of Finland: Just opposite is the National Museum, the city’s landmark accessible through a 10-minute walk from the city centre. It is the hub of elite ethnographic and archaeological collections demonstrating Finnish life since ancient times and until today. Of all, the prehistoric Finland exhibitions and the culture of Lapland’s Sami people seem to be the most appealing. Come here on Tuesday between 5:30 and 8:00 pm for a free entry.
(Photo credits: rodrigoquinones)
- Senaatintori: The Senate Square is the neoclassical hub designed in the 19th century by Carl Ludvig Engel, the German architect who was the architect of Estonia’s Tallinn. Facing an effigy of Tsar Alexander II, Tuomiokirkko with its white dome is surrounded by the majestic neoclassical facades of the Helsinki University, Cathedral, Government Palace, and the National Library of Finland.
(Photo credits: maver2000)
- Tuomiokirkko: This one is the Helsinki Cathedral recognized by its majestic, ice-white dome on the Senaatintori’s north side designed by Engel. Despite being constructed for Lutheran worship, the religious edifice possesses a typical Russian Orthodox feeling. The stone steps to the cathedral are ideal for observing the capital life.
(Photo credits: Henri Kotka)
- Sea Fortress: If you are in Finland’s capital, it is worth taking the tour of Suomenlinna (Sea Fortress), a World Heritage Site nestled about a mile offshore from the harbor of Eteläsatama. Erstwhile the stronghold of the Swedish kingdom with population more than Helsinki, the fortress safeguarded the shore from Russian attack before finally surrendering in 1808. It was also the reason why the Russians shifted the capital tag from Turku to Helsinki four years after the surrender. Right now, the fortress complex features a variety of museums, restaurants, and bars. Although the looming cannons are still there, the island is a peaceful sanctuary ideal for summer picnics. You can catch a ferry from Kauppatori, which takes 15 minutes to reach to this island (free with a Helsinki Card).
(Photo credits: marcella)
- Kiasma: Nestled in Mannerheiminaukio 2, the Contemporary Art Museum or Kiasma is a top-class museum that itself is a figurine. This is perhaps because it is built by Steven Holl, the award-winning architect. Held within this geometric wave are the illustrations of Finnish art and design right since 1960s. There is also a superb bookshop and an ornate café.
(Photo credits: ldm)
- Sibelius Monument: Do visit the Sibelius Park to experience the Finnish efforts for independence at Sibelius Monumentti (Sibelius Monument). Built with hundreds of steel pipes, the notable monument is dedicated to the popular Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius who wrote tunes as a sign of rebel under harsh Russian rule. The tunes are synonymous with Finnish patriotism. Most Finns consider reaching to this monument as a pilgrimage.
(Photo credits: Evil Genius)
- Church in the Rock: Sanctified in 1969, Temppeliaukio Church or ‘Church in the Rock’ is an iconic building in the town. It was constructed into the bedrock located underneath Helsinki and completed using the quarried stone. This makes its inner walls appear a bit unrefined, while the roof is an innovative dome of copper plates. It is best to come here during a concert for enjoying impressive acoustics.
(Photo credits: archer10)
- Cable Factory: Last but not the least; you should not miss Kaapelitehdas, the obsolete Cable Factory in the Ruoholahti district accessible through tram 8 line or metro. Originally possessed by Nokia, the factory was leased to artists turning it into a most popular artists’ colony in Finland. Today, you can explore 12 galleries, recording and design studios, offices of dance companies, art museums, TV and radio stations, and theatre companies. With free entrance, the complex welcomes visitors daily. For lunch, do consider its Ravintola Hima & Sali.
Things to Do in Helsinki
Germany, too serious for us
- Soaking in one of the men or women saunas (Sauna Arla or Kotiharju sauna) in the city for a unique Finnish experience
- Hiking, biking, or cycling in the Nuuksio National Park waving over woodlands and lakes in north west of the town (consider 2-mile Haukankierros Trail for getting introduced to the park and going high over big rocks for great vistas)
- Swimming at the Hietaniemi Beach, Mäkelänrinne Swimming Centre (the largest in Finland), or Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall featuring a Roman bath
- Ice swimming at Kuusijärvi Recreation Centre in Vantaan
- Boating (cruising) for 1.5 hours around the harbor
- Touring the historic town of Porvoo (one hour by bus) full of attractive wooden houses, cobbled streets, gardens, boutiques, cruises in the archipelago, restaurants, and cafes
- Exploring Vihti full of hills, lakes, manor houses, valleys, and tranquil villages as well as adventures such as snow mobiling, horse riding, canoeing, hiking, cycling, golfing, cross-country skiing, and gliding
Places to Eat In Helsinki
Helsinki is famous for its ‘New Nordic Cuisine’ (creative experimental) that you can taste in small restaurants, especially at Eteläranta’s Restaurant Palace. The Esplanade Park and Market Square are ideal for tasting street food but if you are looking for some budget restaurant experience, here are some to consider.
- Café Ekberg in Bulevardi for sandwiches, salads, soups, bruschetta, and on-site patisserie
- Ravintola Zetor in Mannerheimintie as a legendary restaurant for Finnish fare
- Restaurant Bellevue in Rahapajankatu for Russian delights such as blinis (pancakes), borscht (red cabbage soup), and pelmeni (dumplings), except for Sunday and Monday when it is closed
Note: Many places in the town are gay-friendly.
Shops In Helsinki
Helsinki is an exciting town also for avid shoppers who can take home several souvenirs and other items. Whether it is handicrafts, music, design items, or clothing; Helsinki is undoubtedly the best place in Finland for buying the best for your home. The perfect downtown shopping streets are Esplanadi and Aleksanterinkatu, apart from an exclusive Design District that is famous for its classic and rare creations.
The city’s biggest market is organized at Kauppatori, a cobbled soul square where you can buy seasonal Finnish foodstuffs as well as souvenirs from the seafront. Late summer and autumn fills it with different types of berries including lingonberries, blueberries, and cloudberries as well as food stalls offering Finnish delicacies.
Places to Stay
You can choose one of the Scandinavian chain hotels, boutique hotels, and even hostels. A few moderately priced hotels are also there to attract those on strict budget.
Europe Tours from Helsinki
Best Time to Visit Helsinki
May-September with only four hours of night, as November-March can be very freezing and dark