Helsinki: combining Nordic, Scandinavian, and Baltic vibes. On the of most northern European cities, Helsinki is starting to make waves on the travel scene. Simultaneously green and cosmopolitan, Helsinki is full of hipster coffee shops, cool architecture, and peaceful city scenery. Here’s your guide to this eccentric city: get kudos for discovering this hidden gem…
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Why Visit Helsinki
Helsinki, Finland’s capital, offers something for everyone: both the nature-loving outdoor type and the sophisticated city dweller will appreciate the city’s laidback vibes.
Compact, friendly, and diverse, Helsinki is a great city for solo travellers and families alike. You can pretty much cover the entire Helsinki central area by foot, and it’s very easy to travel on local transport services (train, metro, tram, bus, and pay-as-you-go bikes).
Helsinki hasn’t lost its connection with nature, and as it’s situated on the Finnish archipelago; Helsinki is the city of sea and islands. The peaceful Baltic Sea and the rocky islands around the city provide a contrast with the cobbled streets and markets.
As a city, Helsinki feels surprisingly cosmopolitan, jam-packed with cool shops, global restaurants, and local events.
Visiting Helsinki in the summer and winter are two very different experiences: think carefully about what season suits your travel style more!
Best Time to Visit Helsinki
Helsinki really comes into its own in the summer, especially around Midsummer (end of June). Midsummer is a national Finnish holiday with pagan roots, for Midsummer (Juhannus) people tend to travel to their country houses (“mökki”; and no, it’s not as glamourous as it sounds), and celebrate around a midnight bonfire (“kokko”). Helsinki has a big communal bonfire on Seurasaari (an island off the coast), and it’s definitely an experience to be in the city when the sun hardly sets during Midsummer nights. (You might want to bring an eye mask if you’re a light sleeper). July is also a great summer month full of events and festivals, but Finns tend to go back to work by mid-August (unlike other European countries).
For the winter lovers, January onwards will be the best for cold and snow; February is probably the coldest month (and it’s also nice because the sun starts to return).
Spring and Autumn visits to Helsinki can also be fun, but the weather may be a bit more unpredictable! Thankfully Helsinki is well equipped for all weather with loads of lovely indoor spots (and underground walkways for the winter).
Top Things to Do in Helsinki
Helsinki is perfect to walk around as the centre is compact. There are tram and metro services that run all the time, so it’s easy to squeeze all the main attractions and parts of town into a few days. These are my recommendation for a trip to Helsinki, but to be honest you’re probably just as well off just going for a little wander on your own!
Kauppatori (Central Market)
Pictured above, Kauppatori is an outdoor market that holds lots of cool food and produce stalls. Just a stone’s throw away from Senaatintori (below) and looking onto the sea, Kauppatori is a great place to grab a quick snack (like fresh strawberries and peas in summer), or get on a boat tour and explore your surroundings.
An old military fortress about a 20-minute boat trip away, Suomenlinna is a lot more exciting than it sounds (and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site). A trip to Suomenlinna is a lovely experience, and the island itself has loads of cool things to see, as well as cafes, museums and restaurants.
Senaatintori is a really nice part of town: the focal point is the white Domesday Church (Tuomiokirkko): a super iconic Finnish view. People from Helsinki like to sit on the steps in the sun and have a chat. (The church isn’t that impressive inside thought). There are quite a few little shops and cafes around, as well as a little museum or two on the streets that come off the central square.
The Finnish National Museum (Kansallismuseo) is worth a visit, though it’s currently part-closed due to some centenary upgrades. Normally quite pricey, you can get in for free on4 PM on Fridays. Ateneum Art Museum is by the Central Railway Station (which is also a pretty cool building) and is a great place to find out more about Finnish art. Check out some other museums here. (Museums in Finland can be pricey so you may need to invest in a Helsinki card).
I love a covered indoor market called Hakaniemen Halli which is just by the Hakaniemi metro station. Covered markets are big in Helsinki and this is a lovely place to buy fresh, organic produce and cool, local gifts. (There’s also another great one by Kauppatori).
Esplanade is probably the best place for high-end boutiques, but you should also check out shopping centres like Kamppi and Forum. Department stores like Sokos and Stockmann are also must-sees; Stockmann is famous in Finland for its size and quality.
Helsinki is great for shopping because there are loads of small boutiques all over the city, so you never know what you might find. Thrift stores (UFF stores) are very popular too; Finns are all about recycling!
A new addition, this trendy public sauna is very popular, so book in in advance. Löyly will give you a great way to experience Finnish sauna and the elements, as you can throw yourself straight into the Baltic Sea after a bit of sauna…
Finnish Design & Architecture
Finland is probably best known for its design and architecture around the world, and there are loads of things to see for design junkies! You can go to the Design Museum, visit the famous Temppeliaukio/Rock Church (major tourist attraction), Sibelius monument; or you can just walk around with a camera and capture the beautiful city details. Finnish design shops are a great place to look for unique designs and souvenirs.
Some Finnish design brands to look out for:
- Lapuan Kankurit
Also, check these cool buildings out:
- Sibelius Monument
- Temppeliaukio/Stone Church
- Hiljaisuuden Kappeli (Kamppi)
- Finlandia House
- Musiikki Talo
Where to Stay in Helsinki
Hotels in Helsinki aren’t cheap, so budget travellers may prefer hostels or Air BnB (a lot of Finns use this service now).
Good chain hotels to look out for are the Sokos hotels or Radisson ones (there are a few of those in town), and Hotel Kämp is the fanciest hotel in town. You might even want to try out an art deco or boat hotel…(boutique hotels here).
Find and book these hotels on our favourite accommodation search website: Booking.com
Another great alternative for accommodation in Helsinki is Airbnb, where private rooms start at $30 and offer a unique way to experience the city from a more local perspective.
Don’t have an Airbnb account yet? Sign up now and receive a discount to put towards your first Airbnb stay!
Where to Eat and Drink in Helsinki
Finns love their coffee! Definitely, spend time visiting cool coffeehouses like Kahvi Charlotta and Fazer Café (Fazer are famous Finnish chocolatiers). Coffee in Finland is dark and strong, and very cheap. Finns consume coffee on a HUGE scale.
Helsinki people love to eat food from around the world, and the city is packed with Nepalese, Thai, Mexican and Lebanese restaurants. Finns like to have a big lunch, so lunch deals are generous and include a buffet style menu with a side salad and coffee.
Like all big cities, Helsinki also has loads of places for a quick bite to eat (Vivos and Puttes are currently popular), and loads of fast food chains. Brunch is big in Helsinki: check out Kiila’s legendary brunch for some awesome Finnish food and drink.
Traditional Lappish food can be found at these restaurants(and, yes reindeer and bear meat is on offer): Lappi and Saaga. They are pricey and touristy, but they offer a truly unique dining experience.
In terms of nightlife, Helsinki has loads of cool bars like Steam Helsinki who specialise in gin, or the Annankatu hotspot Loose. Helsinki can easily go from classy to grungey, and Kallio is an edgy part of town for late-night hotspots. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with the city centre bars. (Finns also love karaoke and heavy metal).
FYI: you have to pay for ‘door service’ in Helsinki bars and nightclubs; just give your coat to the door staff when you enter. The payment is not optional, and it’s not a tip. Just one of those Helsinki things.
How Much Time Do You Need in Helsinki
Helsinki is great for a city break that lasts a few days, but you could also stay a few weeks and go out to nearby places like Nuuksio Nature Park or Porvoo Old Town (super picturesque).
Helsinki is only 3 hours away from St Petersburg by train, and a quick boat visit to Estonia’s capital Tallinn is a must-see for anyone staying in Helsinki for a week. You can also hop on a cruise to Stockholm for a night or two if you want to check out Sweden at the same time (recommended).
Things to Know About Helsinki
- It can be an expensive city, but there are loads of things to do for free too; balance prices out by walking and being savvy about mealtimes.
- Public transport is awesome and pretty cheap so make the most of it.
- All Finns speak English so it’s easy to get around. (If you want to impress: kiitos means thank you, but there is no word for please).
- Finns like to talk to visitors and tourists but generally, they can seem a bit ‘quiet’ compared to other nations.
- Helsinki is really clean and safe: a great city to travel in.
Here are some great itineraries to give you some inspiration for planning your trip:
- 36 hours in Helsinki by The Telegraph.
- 36 hours in Helsinki, Finland by The NY Times.
- 48 hours in Helsinki by The Independent.
Kayleigh Töyrä is a Finnish blogger and Copywriter working in digital. She loves to travel and live abroad: so far, she’s been lucky enough to live in Helsinki, South of France, Chile, and now England. Always on the lookout for cool new places to visit! Come say hi on Twitter or Instagram.
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