After being asked a couple of times what is there to see in Helsinki, I decided to write this guide using a previous post about Brussels for guidance.
Helsinki, at the northeastern corner of the continent, can be easily missed when touring Europe. While it is not the largest, nor the most cosmopolitan city of the Nordic countries, it definitely holds its own with a very interesting position and history between Western Europe and Russia. It is a medium-sized city between the forests and the seas with very marked seasonal changes. The majority language is Finnish, Swedish is spoken by a minority and almost everybody has a working knowledge of English. Other languages such as French, German, Spanish or Russian might not be as widely understood, but you might get lucky.
When to arrive?
Plan well according to the weather. Helsinki is 60 °N (as far north as Alaska) even if the climate is milder, so if you want to see snow you might get lucky in January-February, whereas June-July will be the highest part of summer.
How to arrive?
- By plane to Helsinki-Vantaa airport, one of the best in the world and an important hub between Europe and Asia.
- By train to the Central Railway station from other parts of Finland and Russia.
- By bus (e.g. Matkahuolto)
- By ferry or cruise to the Port of Helsinki from Germany, Sweden, Russia or the Baltic States (e.g. Tallink, Silja Line, Viking Line).
From the airport to the city
Quite easy. Local route 615 takes you from the airport to downtown (4 EUR), while Finnair also runs a bus service (5.90 EUR). A taxi ride to downtown will be approximately 30 EUR.
Transport within the city
Helsinki has one and a half metro lines, buses, trains & trams. I would recommend buying a 1-7 day travel card or if you plan to visit a lot of museums and sights, a Helsinki card which has those included.
- Don’t try to take the public transport without a ticket. Even though It is possible, the fines are quite steep.
- There are only night buses during weekends, so I recommend staying at a hotel within walking distance of downtown.
If you’re on a budget, check the hostels from the Finnish Hostel Organization. Otherwise, budget hotels like Omenahotelli are a safe bet. If you’ve got more leeway, international chains like Radisson, Holiday Inn and Finland’s very own Sokos Hotels have some very good locations in town.
Basic tourist information
What to see?
- The Lutheran Cathedral and Senate Square (Tuomiokirkko & Senaatintori)
- Market Square (Kauppatori)
- Esplanadi park
- Suomenlinna, The Gibraltar of the North. An island 20 minutes away from the Market square with an imposing fortress.
- The Church in the Rock (Temppeliaukion kirkko). How do you carve a church out of solid granite?
- Seurasaari open air museum, see how Finns used to live in centuries past.
- Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe.
- Kiasma Museum of Contemporary art. Location is centric, but it’s not for everybody.
- National History Museum. From Fenni to Vikings, to Swedes to Russians to Independence.
- Sibelius Monument. An interesting piece of art that doubles as a wind organ.
- Finlandia Hall: One of the most famous buildings by designer and architect Alvar Aalto.
Within 3 hours of the city centre
- Nuuksio national park in Espoo, 45 minutes from downtown.
- The wooden town of Porvoo, 1 hour from downtown.
- The old town of Turku with its castle and cathedral.
Where to eat, drink & shop in Helsinki?
- Finnish food haunts like Konstan Möljä (Hietalahdenkatu 14), Manala (Dagmarinkatu 2), Kosmos (Kalevankatu 3) or Zetor (Mannerheimintie 3-5) are usually a good idea for an introduction to the salmon, herring, reindeer, potatoes and dill that make the basis of traditional Finnish cuisine (around 20 EUR for a meal).
- Saaga (Bulevardi 35) seems to be the best Lappish restaurant in town, even if it’s a little bit kitsch and prices are somewhat steep (50 EUR for a full meal).
- Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Helsinki was renowned for having better Russian restaurants than Moscow or St. Petersburg. Favourites are Saslik (Neitsytpolku 12), Kasakka (Meritullinkatu 13) or Bellevue (Rahapajankatu 3) (meals between 30-70 EUR).
- If what you want is good international cuisine and budget is not an issue, places like Postres (Eteläesplanadi 8), Luomo (Vironkatu 8) and Olo (Kasarmikatu 44)are quite nice.
- If you’re a teetotaller, you’ll be happy to discover that Finns drink plenty of berry juices.
- In case you’re not, you’ll be happy to discover that Finns drink. A lot. 😛 Especially recommended are Finlandia and Koskenkorva vodkas (or at least, that’s what my friends who drink vodka say). Finnish beers (especially the famous Lapin Kulta) are not particularly great but drinkable. My personal favourite is Sandels. There is also berry-based liquors and interesting concoctions (and national institutions) such as salmiakkikossu or fissu for the more adventurous.
- As for the bars themselves, I like Belge for its assortment of Belgian beers and relaxed atmosphere, Praha for its music selection and Nolla for the company. Some people I know prefer Teatteri for its yuppie atmosphere, though ;). There is also plenty of bars along Iso Roobertinkatu (Iso Roba) for those with interest in a long night out.
- Stockmann department store is the largest in Finland, and its souvenir selection is usually both good and with taste. Sokos is another department store in town.
- Souvenirs are also available at the Market Square for those so inclined.
- While not cheap, fans of Nordic design should definitely check the shops in Design District Helsinki in the area bordered by Uudenmaankatu, Iso Roobertinkatu and Erottajankatu.
- Kämp Galleria, one of the fanciest shopping malls in Finland, is right in the middle of the city and has Marimekko, Iittala and Moomin shops.
- Other malls in central Helsinki include Forum and Kamppi.
Important to know
- Tipping is not needed.
- Kaisaniemi park is best avoided at night, even if during the day is pretty OK.
- Summer is high season for pickpockets. We seem to import them from neighbouring countries.
- During winter the sidewalks can be very icy. Sounds like a joke until you break an arm or ankle.
You can also check my pictures about Helsinki in Flickr.