There are few cities in Europe that feel as forward thinking as Helsinki. The Finns have pushed into the modern era and embraced design, food, and art. No place is this more evident than in Finland’s capital. It’s a marvelous city that delighted us with plenty of things to do in Helsinki.
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.
Helsinki is a wonderful city to explore full of things to do and delicious food to eat. We spent a week here around Christmas time and could not have had a better time exploring a city. Helsinki may not be your typical European city destination, but it is well worth a special trip to Finland for.
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What to do in Helsinki
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. Personally, one of our favorite building designs would be the Kaisa House.
The Kaisa House is the library of Helsinki University. It’s a cool stop to relax, have a coffee, read a book, and explore the innovative architectural design. If this all sounds great to you, head to the design district! In this neighborhood, many of the design firms are located amongst a plethora of restaurants, stores, hip hotels, and museums.
Sample Finnish cuisine
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.
Side note: Finland isn’t the most affordable country to eat out in the world. If you prefer to eat in we found Lidl’s in Helsinki which is easily some of the cheapest grocery stores in Europe
Take a day trip to Tallinn
A few years ago we visited both Riga, Latvia, and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, but we missed Estonia. It was a city we’ve heard a lot of nice things about so we were ecstatic to find out that the Tallinn is only a two-hour ferry ride away from Helsinki! We woke up at 5 am one morning and made our way to the Helsinki harbor to head over to Tallinn for the day. It was the perfect day trip from Helsinki and a great opportunity to explore a new city.
It’s only 70 miles south of Helsinki and has one of the most well preserved old towns in Europe. Cobbled streets and medieval houses make up this historical district but, that doesn’t mean that Tallinn is stuck behind the times! Estonia has a bustling technology sector home to thousands of startups and e-businesses. It brings a young hip vibe to residential neighborhoods with breweries, coffee shops, art galleries, and restaurants.
There are many sights to see in Tallinn and to really make the most out of a trip we recommend at least two days. However, we were able to have a fun time with only a day. You can head to the lively Christmas market with folk dancers if it is winter season, eat your way around the Medieval old town, check out the beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, walk the city walls, ice skate, and more! The city center very compact and easy to walk around. If you’re there for more than a day consider getting the Tallinn Card to save money on all the attractions.
I know that Tallinn really isn’t a “thing to do in Helsinki,” but I just had to include it here as we had such a fantastic day trip from Finland’s capital.
Have five cups of coffee a day
It’s not coffee addicts like the Italians or Turks that consume the most coffee in the word. Oh no, that title would belong to the Finns. On average they consume 12 kg of coffee per person a year or about five cups of coffee a day for the adults.
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. A few of our favorites were Café Regatta, 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 so this is good for filtered coffee or hot chocolate. Our favorite spot in the center of the city would have to be at 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.
Enjoy the Christmas cheer
We visited Helsinki right before Christmas, which felt like the perfect time to head to Finland. When the season comes Christmas cheer is abundant in Finland’s capital city. Several of our days in Helsinki were marked with snowfall and the city glistened with Christmas lights. The Christmas lights shine in every corner of Helsinki, there is a public ice rink next to the Central station, and soft Christmas music can be heard all around.
Senate Square is home to Helsinki’s Christmas market and it all sits right below the Helsinki Cathedral. Almost every night of the week you will find over 100 shops here selling anything from baked goods, Finnish meats, to Christmas scarfs and mittens. Then, of course, there is glögi (Finnish mulled wine), that can be had with or without alcohol.
We found Santa Claus a few times paying a visit to the Christmas markets and there is the iconic carousel that is free for children to enjoy. We didn’t find the Helsinki Christmas market to be the most lively European Christmas market we have ever visited, but definitely found it charming, cheerful, and a great thing to do in Helsinki in December.
Head to the Winter Garden
The Helsinki Winter Garden is 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. The winter garden is free for visitors to enjoy, but check their website as opening hours vary. It’s the perfect spot to spend an hour relaxing, bring a book!
Get lost in nature
Few capital cities have a refuge from the 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.
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.
For the time being, a Tove Johnsson exhibition stands in the HAM that is fun and interactive. There are also 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.
Head to Helsinki’s oldest swimming pool
Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall was built in 1928 and is now the oldest public swimming pool in Finland. It’s located in the center of the city and locals and visitors head there every day to relax in the saunas and go for a swim. The architecture and design here was world class at the time it was built, and the interior still stands timelessly over the decades.
Heading here is a fantastic place to experience Finnish sauna culture. Cameron and I both knew we had to experience Yrjönkatu – the kick is we had to go on separate days as most people swim naked (you must sauna naked). Men can head to the pool on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday while women can enjoy the pool on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. There is a whole set of rules to Finnish Sauna culture, but we’ll leave that for its own post.
The pool has three separate saunas – infrared, steam, and a traditional wooden sauna. Afterwards, you can enjoy yourself on the top floor with a beer and food as the pool is serviced by Cafe Yrjö. If you don’t feel comfortable swimming naked you’ll need to bring your own swimsuit or rent one. The staff will provide you with a towel, bathrobe, and sauna towel. If you want to shower afterward be sure to bring your own shower supplies as there are none here.
Dip into a sea pool
Another option for experiencing Finnish sauna culture in a unique environment is the Allas Seal Pool. This floating sea spa is located right on the Market Square and has a few outdoor swimming pools, a sauna, and café.
One of those pools, is indeed, a sea pool. A pool where you can jump into water that is the same temperature as the Baltic Sea the complex overlooks! Note, that you don’t have to sauna naked here, but most people do. They also have a coed sauna, when it’s not privately booked, where you wear bathing suits and can hang out with others in your party.
Have a night out on the town
Helsinki is not known for having the best weather, but that’s probably not what you came to Finland for anyway! Some days it can be cold and rainy – especially in the summer. So what do you do when it’s cold and rainy outside?
We were able to enjoy the weekend in Helsinki and loved the nightlife scene. The Finns know how to have a good time (in a classy way of course). There is no shortage of trendy bars and clubs in Finland’s capital. Some of the best bars in the city are Ateljee Bar, located on a hotel rooftop and Steam Helsinki, which serves of delicious gin concoctions in a steampunk set. We are not big on clubbing but according to The Guardian, Kaiki Club has been voted one of the 25 best clubs in all of Europe!
Side note: Like the rest of the Nordic countries, Finland is not exactly a cheap destination. Alcohol prices are high so if you are on a budget you may want to consider bringing in your own booze and have a few drinks at your hotel or before going to the bars.
Enjoy a day at the zoo
After our year across Africa, we have a hard time stepping into zoos. However, we know that not everyone can head into the wild and enjoy the many beautiful animals that populate our earth and most zoos do great things for animal conservation and funding. Helsinki Zoo is a 30-minute bus ride from the city center is perfect for families that want to see some Arctic animals like the lynx, wolverine, and reindeer. The Helsinki Zoo also houses Coco, the oldest sloth in the entire world!
The zoo dates back to 1889 and is located on its own island. Meaning you can visit one of the oldest zoos in the world right in Helsinki. You won’t find any elephants, giraffe, or zebra here as the zoo strives to only have animals that can adapt to the climates of Finland.
Visit a fortress!
Off the coast of Helsinki lies a cluster of islands. UNESCO World Heritage Suomenlinna is one of those islands that are 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 here you can explore by yourself or hop on a guided tout. There are also plenty of restaurants, cafes, and museums to duck into while visiting the fortress of Suomenlinna.
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 persons 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. Which 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.
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