There are few cities in Europe that feel as forward-thinking as the capital of Finland. The Finns have pushed into the modern era and embraced design, food, and art. No place is this more evident than in Helsinki. It’s a marvelous city that delighted us with plenty of things to do.
For such a modern city you never seem to be too far away from nature – the city features a marvelous amount of green space and it’s spread out across a series of islands in the Baltic Sea.
Then you add the cities delicious restaurants and Finn’s clear affinity for having a good time. They even have a word in Finnish, “kalsarikannit,” a word to describe sitting at home in your underwear drinking with no intention of going out.
15 Reasons To Visit Helsinki
Coffee Is A Way of Life
Cafe culture in Finland is massive, so much so that it’s considered a fundamental part of life. Even Finnish employers are required by law to provide their employees with coffee breaks. During the day you’ll find locals enjoying a fresh-baked pastry and coffee while on break. With all that great demand that means Helsinki has tons of delectable cafes and coffee shops that serve up some amazing coffee and food.
That cafe culture extends to all of Finland. Finns are obsessed with the brew and consume more coffee than just about any other country. In fact, they were number one for coffee consumption until 2020 when the Netherlands just passed them — either way, it’s still a heck of a lot of coffee.
We’re coffee fiends so we set out to enjoy a few cups of coffee ourselves and explore the burgeoning café scene. It seemed as if there was at least one café to pop into every block, which made another great retreat from the cold. Café Regatta is a small café in Töölö that is every bit as charming as it looks.
Café Regatta doesn’t serve up specialty coffee like cappuccinos or espressos, but they are great for filtered coffee or hot chocolate. Our favorite spot in the center of the city would have to be the beautiful Kappeli. Try to stake out a window seat! Another must is Cafe Ekberg, it is the oldest cafe in Helsinki. They’re well known for their tantalizing pastries and creating classics such as the “Alexander” cake.
Revel in Sauna Culture
We’re probably all familiar with one of Finland’s most popular exports and that is the sauna. It’s a source of national identity and pride as Finns and residents of Helsinki view it as an important part of life that is vital for your health.
The city is littered with saunas for public use and the private saunas are in abundance as they make appearances in apartment buildings, homes, hotels, and even offices.
We visited the traditional, Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall in the city center for a traditional experience. The historic swimming hall opened in 1928 and is the oldest and first indoor public pool in Finland. It’s interior features a 28-meter tile pool with brass finishings and multiple saunas and steam rooms.
Most notable is that saunas here are all done in the nude — genders are separated by designated days. That nude policy extends to almost all saunas in Finland as it’s considered unhygienic to wear swim trunks in the heat. It’s part of a larger part of Finn culture that encourages
For design fiends and a more touristic spot try out the Allas Sea Pool that is located in the harbor.
English Speakers Welcome
If you can’t speak Finnish there is no reason to stress as English is pervasive throughout Helsinki. Almost all bars, cafes, and restaurants have English menus or even default to English menus. We never ran into any issues when visiting the city and found it easy to navigate.
The world-class universities in Helsinki even offer classes in English and English majors. It all makes for inviting space for visitors who are less experienced travelers or those seeking a new place to call home.
Safe For All Travelers
All are welcome in Finland and it makes for a great destination. Single female travelers, members of the LGBTQ community, and minorities will all find Helsinki a welcoming place. Beyond that Finland is considered one of the safest countries in the world with Helsinki being one of the safest cities in the world.
It’s why we recommend Finland and most Nordic countries as a tremendous place for first-time travelers or solo female travelers. It’s not just the community that is accepting, but governance too with a slew of laws that help ensure equality.
Tremendous Access To Nature
What’s tremendous about Finnish culture and Helsinki is the easy access to nature. The city itself maintains 40% of the land with green spaces. That means there’s plenty of spots to escape the city buzz and catch a breath of fresh air.
We visited the city in the winter and loved the Helsinki Winter Garden. It’s a botanical garden at the bottom of Central Park that visitors and locals alike can come to enjoy exotic plants and beautiful gardens. Although they are called “Winter Gardens” they are actually open year-round for people to enjoy.
However, during the winter you’ll find lovely Christmas decorations and that winter cheer in the air. It’s a great cheap thing to do in Helsinki as it is free to enjoy. It’s the perfect spot to spend an hour relaxing, bring a book! A perfect fit that is indicative of Finnish culture and their way of life.
Speaking of that fresh air Helsinki has some of the cleanest city air in the world. It all plays back to a tremendous quality of life. Few capital cities have a refuge from city life. This is not the case in Helsinki where you can easily escape to their Central Park for a day.
The park runs south to north for almost 10 kilometers covering thousands of hectares. Throughout the park, you can take part in outdoor sports, jog, enjoy the gardens, and search for wildlife.
The park plays home to various species including the muskrat, raccoon dog, brown and arctic hare, the elk, and the fox. Bird lovers can also enjoy a day here looking for the Eurasian jay and garden warbler, among various others. We know how hard it is to get in your precious nature time while in a city from our New York days, and highly recommend checking out the park at least once no matter the season.
Be Inspired To Learn More
The University of Helsinki operates an amazing library that is well worth checking out. The Kaisa House is the library of Helsinki University. It’s a cool stop to relax, have a coffee, read a book, and explore innovative architectural design.
Design and education for that matter are important aspects in Finnish life. The country’s education systems scores amongst the highest in the world and the four universities in Helsinki are exceptional.
Many even offer the opportunity to study in English so if you’re seeking out a place to study abroad it might be worth considering Helsinki! At the very least, we can not recommend a study abroad program enough. It’s a life-changing event!
The Helsinki Peninsula Begs To Be Explored
Off the coast of Helsinki lies a cluster of islands that make for wonderful spots to explore and recreate. UNESCO World Heritage Suomenlinna is one of those islands that is easily accessible from the city. Suomenlinna is a fortress built in the 18th century when Finland was still part of Sweden. It’s an interesting sight to see when visiting Finland.
To get here you must take a ferry or waterbus and it takes about 20 minutes from Market Square. Once there you can explore by yourself or hop on a guided tour. There are also plenty of restaurants, cafes, and museums to duck into while visiting the fortress of Suomenlinna.
Helsinki has a thriving food scene with hundreds of restaurants to tantalize the taste buds. You can find cafes, traditional haunts, and even a few Michelin star restaurants in the city. It all follows the trend in Nordic countries moving towards fresh and locally produced food with close ties to the surrounding environment.
There are over 1200 restaurants in Helsinki and they account for about 4% of Finland’s GDP! You will have no trouble finding a good restaurant and need to spend at least one night to delve into the food scene.
If you’re interested in some classic foods try Hernekeitto, herring, lingonberry pie, reindeer, moose, ruisleipä, and mämmi. A few of our favorite eats were at Savotta, where we found traditional Finnish food in a charming and cozy interior where the servers are dressed in olf Finnish logging wear.
We also sampled Finland’s modern-day food scene at The Holiday, a contemporary neighborhood restaurant on Katajanokka island, and Juuri in the design district. If you’re after a romantic thing to do in Helsinki we found the most intimate experience at Savotta.
Walk or Bike
Helsinki’s public transportation is amazing! You can get just about anywhere on the buses, trams, and trains. You can also get to Estonia, Russia, and Sweden via ferry. Or you can always use your own two feet or a bicycle like many of the locals!
Nearly a third of all journeys in Helsinki are done by foot! There are 1,200 km of maintained cycle lanes in Helsinki and since the city is a manageable size it’s a great way to get around. So you can forget about sitting in traffic when your out exploring the city.
One thing to know when you travel to Finland is there is no such thing as trespassing — to an extent. Everyman’s Right refers to the public’s right to access public or privately owned land for recreation. So once you’ve had your fill of Helsinki’s public parks head out into the Finnish Countryside for some exploration.
This doesn’t include houses, gardens, or military bases, so don’t go squatting on someone’s porch, but it does allow people to enjoy the land and inland water for their own well being. The only stipulation is that you must do so responsibly and safely. It’s about respect and shared experiences within the community.
Bring Your Swimsuit
With all of those islands, saunas, and water space there are a plethora of swimming spots. City residents take full advantage of these and it’s a refreshing way to enjoy a summer day or even a winter one! The city has 27 public beaches along its 123 km of shoreline.
Of course, this is Finland so it’s not just a summer thing! Helsinki has 13 winter swimming spots are maintained throughout the winter and kept free of ice for some chilly swims.
Whether you’re into design, modern art, photography, natural history, or classical art there is no shortage of museums and exhibitions in Helsinki. Visiting the many museums makes for the perfect thing to do in Helsinki in the winter.
At the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) you can find a rotation of exhibitions in a modern building. While at the Ateneum Art Museum, the grand building next to the train station, you will find classical art pieces including one of the most famous in Finland, The Fighting Capercaillies. We also ventured into the Kiasma, a contemporary art museum with interactive art.
Finland feels very much about the new and the clear love of design can be found throughout Helsinki. In fact, Helsinki has been declared a UNESCO City of Design. So, any visitor to the city must explore some of the cities architecture.
Learn About the Moomins
The Moomins are celebrated and loved characters created by Tove Jansson, one of the most famous Finnish artists of all time. They are cartoon creatures resembling that of a cute hippo family. I’d say they are probably comparable to Winnie the Pooh or the Peanuts characters in the United States, but maybe even bigger among the Finnish.
Everyone knows and loves the Moomins, and you can get involved with that love too even as a guest. There are four Moomin cafes around the city as well as two Moomin shops. If you’re lucky you may even spot a few Moomins roaming around the streets of Helsinki.
Way Of Life
Above all Helsinki feels like a city about enjoying life whether that’s in art, nature, sports, education, or food. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Finland has been ranked as the happiest country on earth by the UN’s World Happiness Report.
It’s not just the lifestyle that many Finns enjoy, but the way in which the government supports their lives too. Finns are now allowed to choose half of their working hours so they can adjust to a schedule that best suits their lives. All workers also receive 30 days of vacation time, rarely work overtime, and enjoy short commutes.
For parents those laws also ensure they can spend quality time with their children with long paid maternal/paternal leave, affordable childcare, and a great education system. It all adds up and whether you’re visiting for a weekend, a week, month, or more you’ll leave wondering if you should stay forever. You can read more about the way of life in Helsinki here.
Things to Know About Visiting Helsinki
- We really enjoyed living in the city like a local and got to stay in our own studio apartment, Aallonkoti. The apartment was extremely comfortable, spacious, and had a full kitchen with a washer and dryer. Bonus!
- Helsinki’s public transportation is amazing! You can get just about anywhere on the buses, trams, and trains. You can also get to Estonia, Russia, and Sweden via ferry.
- We found the Finns to be very stylish in their capital city, especially around dinner time. Pack accordingly if you want to blend in. Remember to bring a warm jacket, winter hat, and gloves in the winter. Good snow boots wouldn’t hurt either!
- As mentioned, the Finns love their sauna (pronounced SOW-Nah). They are actually the ones who invented the concept of sauna over 2000 years ago! You should definitely experience one while you’re in Finland. Oh yea, and no one, and I mean no one cares that you are naked. Just make sure to always sit on a towel or sheet in a public sauna. No one really wants to sit where the other person’s bare bum just was. Most saunas will provide a sheet for you. If you’re still lost check out these beginner tips.
- The Finns are known for being very quiet people. I actually enjoyed the quietness when sitting on the bus, tram, ferry, or in a cafe. That’s not to say that that you can’t easily start a chat with a Finn though! We never were met with any hostility in Finland and just about everyone can speak English well.
- Tipping is not really a thing in Finland.
Quick Facts on Finland
- ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ in Finnish:”Hei” and “Kiitos”
- Capital: Helsinki
- Currency: Euro – (EUR) – €
- Visa: Schengen visa is 90 days in the European Union every 180 days. Many nationalities are granted this on arrival for free. Check with your embassy to see if that is you.
- What to Pack: It all depends on the season, but always have something warm to wear as summer nights can still be cold. We always throw a packable down jacket in our bags when we travel this far North.
- Good to know: About 270,000 people in mainland Finland are Swedish speaking.