Let me be honest –I’m not the biggest fan of Helsinki. The city is nice, but after visiting so many other Europeans capitals, I wasn’t impressed. However, what it lacks in wow factor, it compensates with an awesome vibe. And that’s the part that I actually enjoyed. So if you’re looking for cool things to do in Helsinki, you just found the best guide! Even if you’re traveling on a budget, fear not, you’ll be amazed at the little treasures the city has, regardless of your travel style. Let’s explore together what to do in the Finnish capital, from the must see to the unusual spots!
I spent 3 days in Helsinki during August, and I was treated, mostly, to sunny days. I know, it must have been a miracle! It also was that I found a Couchsurfing host, because accommodation in the city was completely out of my budget. Beyond the money, though, having a local showing me around allowed me to discover little quirky treasures I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Thank you so much Tuomo for your hospitality and for being a great guide of your beloved Helsinki! Now I get to share the knowledge : )
Where is Helsinki? – Basic facts about the city
The Finnish capital sits in the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea, which shares with Estonia and Russia in Northern Europe. It’s in the southernmost region of the country, but still a bit more to the north than neighbors Stockholm and Oslo.
Although it’s a capital city, and a quite vibrant one (at least in summer), in many ways it feels like a small town. It seems like every one of its inhabitants is enjoying the few sunny days they get in the outside terrace of a café, sunbathing in a park, or swimming in the beach. Being a seaside city and having forests all around are features that Finnish people value, and maybe that’s why the pace of Helsinki seems different than that of other European capitals.
In 1550 King Gustav Vasa of Sweden strategically founded the city across the gulf from Tallinn, which was Danish back then. The name was Helsingfors (still is in Swedish). In 1812 it became the capital of Finland. In 1809 the country was annexed by Russia, and the city was rebuilt in the Empire style. Today it has a population of over 600.000 people, although the Greater Helsinki region (including Espoo and Vantaa, since these cities feel more like Helsinki’s suburbs) has a population of over 1.3 million. Foreigners make up almost 20% of the population, most of them coming from Russia and Estonia.
The city is officially bilingual –every sign on the streets will be both in Finnish and in Swedish, and most people speak perfect English. Summers are short and mild (average high is about 20°C). If you’re lucky like me, you’ll get to see some sunshine, and Finns will be happy. If you want to visit Helsinki in winter, be warned! It’s one of the coldest cities in Europe, with a record low of -35°C, but probably it looks magical covered in snow.
This is a bit of an odd recommendation, but if you want to understand the personality of the Finn people better, get the short storybook Finnish nightmares, where Matti will teach you how not to deal with social situations, and you’ll have a good laugh in the process.
How to get to Helsinki?
Regardless of how you get to Helsinki, prepare yourself to be shocked. Even the border control officers are hot! It’s like it was part of the job description. “If you want to work at the airport you have to be blonde and handsome”. Take a deep breath and enjoy it. Oddly, it didn’t feel like that in the city :/
Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport
The airport is well signaled and easy to navigate. Using public transport to get to the city can’t be easier. Follow the signs ‘buses’, get a ticket from the machine (because it’s much cheaper than to buy it from the driver), and board bus number 615. In 30 minutes you’re in the center (more details on tickets a bit below). Of course, there’re also taxis. The ride will set you back €30–50.
Railway Station & Bus Station
Both of them are conveniently located in the city center and connected to the metro.
Trains from Russia and northern Finland will drop you at the Central Railway Station. The Central Bus Station is in the Kamppi center (for both long-distance national and international buses). Marshrutkas (minibuses) from Russia will park 100 m from it.
If you’re going to Russia from Helsinki note that the marshrutkas leave from outside the bus station. They’re parked in front of “Kahvi Charlotta”.
You can reach Helsinki from the sea. There are frequent ferries from Tallinn (Estonia) and Stockholm (Sweden), and limited services from Rostock and Travemünde (Germany), Gdynia (Poland) and Saint Petersburg (Russia). This is not only a convenient way to arrive, but also a scenic one –you get a sightseeing tour with your transportation!
The port (regardless of which terminal you arrive to) is close enough to the center to walk, but you can always purchase a day pass to move freely around the city. Most passengers book a sightseeing tour, but I’d recommend skipping it. The city is easy to navigate on your own, and it’s much nicer to see without following a few dozens of people.
Public transport in Helsinki
To get from the airport to the city center you’ll need an ABC ticket. With it you can go anywhere in the Helsinki-Vantaa-Espoo-Kauniainen region, using any bus, metro, tram, local train or ferry. You can buy a single use ticket for 4.60€, or multi day one from 12€ –24 hours ticket costs 12€, and each extra day will add 6€ (for instance 3 days ticket will cost 24€).
If you only need it for Helsinki itself, buy an AB ticket. A single use one will cost 2.80€, and a multi day one will be 8€, plus 4€ for each extra day (8€ for 1 day, 12€ for 2 days, 16€ for 3 days, etc.).
There’re machines to get the ticket in most bus/tram stations and in every metro/train one. Also at the airport and the ferry port.
Cool things to do in Helsinki
From the unmissables to the quirky, here’s everything you should add to your Helsinki itinerary.
Get creative in the library
Probably you’ve heard about the quality of Finnish education, right? The country is always among the best in the world, and a visit to Helsinki public library will help you understand why. Oodi (yes, it has a name) is the coolest library I’ve ever seen. The philosophy is to be “a living room for the citizens”, which means that not only there are thousands of books (in many languages) at your disposal, but also you’ll find a meeting place with workshop spaces for crafts, coworking areas, cafés, game rooms, a balcony with nice views of the city, a children section… The possibilities are endless! From 3D printing, sewing machines and a room for playing instruments to a photography and video studio, from spaces where you’re encouraged to be noisy to quiet areas, from magazines and books to a Titanic-like spot where people take selfies, this is really something special, for sure my favorite spot in the city.
Get the best view of the city… from a toilet
This is one of the quirkiest recommendations I’ve ever gotten. People don’t only go to the Ateljee bar on top of Torni hotel for the views of the city, they go to visit its toilet. Yep, I kid you not. The glass walls allow you to see the city at your feet when nature is calling. Weird aside, it’ll be the fanciest pee you’ll ever take xD
Enjoy the silence in the middle of the buzzing city
Kampin Kappeli –the Kamppi Chapel– defines itself as “a place for meeting people and appreciating peace and quiet in the center of Helsinki”. Beyond any religious beliefs, this wooden chapel is there to escape from day to day hectic life and relax enjoying its unique architecture. They even have staff there to listen to people, so you can go and talk about any issue you might have. All the information is in multiple languages, so regardless of where you come from, you’ll find someone that will lend you an ear.
Try the famous berries in market square
The main meeting point in Helsinki is Kauppatori –the market square. It’s a buzzling place where you’ll find street food, souvenirs, and a green market. The berries that are being sold there are locally picked, and famous worldwide. They are crazy expensive too. But if you visit in summer, you can get a small cup of mix berries and enjoy them siting by the sea to feel like a local.
Head to the suburbs
Vantaa, the residential town where the airport is, is the perfect welcome to the country. Everything looks new or recently refurbished. It’s spooky perfect! Green parks full of happy blond kids playing, blond people strolling around with their dogs, more blond people in their bikes with their blond babies. The suburbs seem to be taking from a tale.
Espoo is greenery all around too (and some more blond people). Explore the forest trails, head to the beach, or just scroll around the quiet streets of Finland’s second biggest city, that overtime became a suburb of the capital.
Go inside the skyline
From white to red, the skyline of the city is defined by religion. The main two buildings are churches: Helsingin tuomiokikko (Helsinki cathedral) and Uspenskin katedraali (Uspenski cathedral).
Helsinki cathedral is a white neoclassical Lutheran church presiding over Senaatintori –Senate square. You walk up the stairs to get closer to god in between tourists taking selfies, locals eating lunch, and couples kissing and hugging. The entrance is free of charge, and you get surrounded by an immaculately white interior where you’ll meet Luther, Melanchthon and Mikael Agricola.
Uspenski cathedral is the opposite of its minimalistic Lutheran counterpart. This red brick Orthodox church is situated in Katajanokka island. It was built in the 19th century as a Russian Orthodox church, which you can easily tell by its onion-topped domes. It’s the largest orthodox church in Western Europe and has free admission. Inside you’ll be treated to beautiful iconostases.
Learn about the history of the country
The best place to get a crash course on Finnish history is the Kansallismuseo –the National Museum of Finland. Built in Romantic style in 1916, it has the look of a gothic church, with a tower standing tall, as if it was a lighthouse of the museum’s location. It covers Finland’s history from prehistoric times to today’s culture –from current music to politics. You can even take a photo to pose as the next Finnish President, which seems to attract kid and adults alike.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 11 am to 6 pm –from 11 am to 8 pm on Wednesday. The adult ticket costs 12€, but it has a free entrance on Fridays from 4 pm. Check their official site for any updates.
Go to church in a rock
Temppeliaukion Kirkko –the Rock Church– is a contemporary architecture masterpiece. Here spirituality meets nature. The place is set in a natural bedrock, with an impressive copper dome, exposed rocks and concrete beams. The admission is 3€, but if you’re in a strict budget, you can sneak a peek from the entrance. Usually there are concerts organized in the church due to its amazing acoustic (I didn’t catch one, but I heard wonderful things… maybe next time).
Explore by bike
Helsinki has 1200 km of well-marked cycling paths, and the city is flat, so if there is good weather there’s no excuse not to sightsee by bicycle (which is both good for your health and for the planet’s!). Get a Helsinki cycling map here and rent your two wheels. You’ll find the yellow City Bikes everywhere! There are 1500 bicycles in 150 bike stations around the city. Choose a pass (day, week or whole season, for 5, 10, or 30 euros, respectively) and you’ll get up to 30 minutes of bike use per time. You can always return it and take it again, but if you want it for longer, for an extra fee, you can use it for up to five hours at a time.
Learn about the former occupants in Suomenlinna
Suomenlinna is a sea fortress built in 8 islands, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a short ferry ride away from Kauppatori (market square), which makes it the perfect getaway to have a picnic by the sea close to the city center. If you got a public transport pass, it’ll cover the ferry to the island, otherwise you’ll need to get a special ticket for 5€ that will be valid for 12 hours.
This is one of the most popular attractions in the country, with about a million visitors per year, so prepare yourself to share the fortress with others. The good news is that it’s quite big, so after disembarking the ferry, the crowds spread out.
The construction of the fortress began in the mid-18th century, under the Swedish rule, when it was named Sveaborg (Castle of the Swedes). At the beginning of the 19th century, the fortress fell under the hands of the Russians, and remained as a naval base of the Empire until 1918, when it was annexed by newly independent Finland, and renamed Suomenlinna, which would translate into Castle of Finland. Because Finland in Finish is Suomi. Now that’s a fact for sure you didn’t know : )
There’s an information center when you get off the ferry, where you can get a map of the fortress with all the must see marked.
Enjoy the layers of art
Beside visiting any of the many art museums the city houses (Kiasma being the most popular one), just look around you while strolling the city. You’ll easily find all the different styles that Helsinki displays.
You’ll see the Swedish rule in Suomenlinna fortress, and the Russian rule in Uspenski cathedral. Neoclassical architecture in Senate square, Neo-Renaissance in Ateneum, Modernism in the Rock church. A mix of traditional and contemporary styles in Oodi –the Central Library, Experimental art in Amos Rex, Art Nouveau in the Central Station, Classicism in the Parliament building, Functionalist architecture in Lasipalatsi, and examples of the wooden northern houses in Löyly. Helsinki is nothing short of an open-air art museum.
Take a panoramic tour… in a tram
If you got a transport card and you’re feeling a bit lazy, jump in tram number 2 or 3 to get a tour of the prettiest areas of the city. The route is an eight shaped loop. Start in Kauppatori (Market square) and get off if something catches your eye. It’s a cheap and super effective hop on hop off alternative. You can see more details about the route in this brochure.
Search for wild animal footprints in the city center
To create a stronger bond between city dwellers and nature, a group of artists marked twenty bronze titles with the footprints of wild animals found in Finland: weasel, otter, mink, fox, lynx, wolverine, and bear are among the “Silent Footprints” exhibition. Some of the animals are either endangered or already extinct, making it not only a fantastic work of art, but a strong message.
You’ll find them in a square located in Simonkatu, between Lasipalatsi and Forum.
Get out of the city
This are the coolest day trips you can do from the capital, so you can explore a bit more of Finland, even with limited time.
Leave the country!
Helsinki is not only the entrance gate to northern Finland, it’s also located just across the pond from Tallinn. The Estonian capital deserves more than one day, but you could even squeeze it in as a day trip with a simple ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn. This excursion will also let you understand what a big difference being under Soviet control meant. Before World War II Finland and the Baltic States had a somewhat similar history of occupation, but their fate after the war is still visible in their levels of development today. Don’t get me wrong, I’d say Estonia is a developed country, but the scars of the USSR are still noticeable.
If you have more time and you’re able to get a Russian visa (or you don’t need one, like we lucky Chileans), you could also add a trip to the Karelia region or to Saint Petersburg. There’re frequent buses and trains, and less frequent ferries, going to Putinland.