Travel Guide Helsinki
Without a lengthy history or any must-see sights, Helsinki still manages to attract its fare share of tourists. What it has, it does well with. The city excels in design, architecture, the arts, and has an up-and-coming dining scene. It’s a bit far-off geographically to be on anyone’s 21-day European whirlwind, so the travelers that do make it here are more discerning. If you do make the effort to reach Helsinki, plan extra time for the rest of Finland. There is some outstanding nature (think thousands of lakes, endless forests, and the northern lights), an intensive sauna culture, and a social democracy in action with one of the best public education systems in the world.
What to See in Helsinki
Helsinki has a smattering of museums, churches, and one main historic sight. Keep in mind, this is not Rome. You’re not coming here for ancient history. In the center of the city, you can’t miss the rail station. If you don’t arrive by train, go and check out this fabulous building. It’s built in the Finland Romantic National style. Keeping with the architecture theme, head a couple kilometers north of the center to the Olympic Station. Finns are proud of hosting the 1952 Olympic games. Their stadium was built in the Finnish modern style and visitors cant ascend the tower for a view over the stadium and much of the rest of Helsinki. The Rock Church, or Temppeliaukio Church, is another uniquely Helsinki structure. There’s a handful of other buildings around the city exemplifying Helsinki’s architecture, like Finlandia Hall, Kiasma, and Käpylä wooden town, just to name a few, which you could explore if you have a deeper interest.
Ateneum Art Museum – This is the most popular museum in the country, with collections including Finnish art from the 1750’s to the 1960’s, as well as a variety of western art. Admission 12 €. Free with the Helsinki card
National Museum of Finland – I was a little underwhelmed by the National Museum, but I still think it’s a worthwhile place to visit to get a scope of this country’s history. Even though the nation of Finland may be relatively young, it does have an rich and storied past that begins long before the name “Finland”. Exhibits range from the prehistoric to the present. The museum is set inside the magnificent Jugend building from 1910. Admission 7-9 €. Free with Helsinki card.
Museum of contemporary Art Kiasma – Situated in an intriguing modern structure designed by Steven Hall, the Kiasma displays temporary exhibits ranging from the very interesting to the very wacky. I love how the museum allows natural light to filter through the glass surfaces. Admission 12 €. Free with Helsinki card.
Design Museum – Helsinki is known for its modern design and a great way to get an introduction the stylish contributions that Finland has made to the world in the form of furniture, kitchen ware, interior decor, and more. Located in the trendy Design district. Admission: 10 €. Free with Helsinki card.
*Note that most museums are closed on Mondays and many offer a free period to visit at least once per month, sometimes once per week.
Helsinki card – I might recommend getting the Helsinki card. This gets you into most museums for free and aboard public transport as well. Costs: 24 hours 44 € , 48 hours 54 € , 72 hours 64 €.
What to Do in Helsinki
Suomenlinna Island Fortress – The high-priority historic attraction of Helsinki is its offshore island fortress, Suomenlinna. Construction started with the Swedes in 1747 and was taken over by the Russians in 1808. The fort showcases the foreign powers that have battled over the territory we now call Finland, which got its independent only in 1918. The fortress, spread over a few islands, and its museum, could be seen in 2-3 hours, but a leisurely, more in depth view could take a half day. Public ferry boats make the 15 minute trip about every 20-60 minutes. Be sure to stop by the Suomenlinna Museum (6.50 €, free with Helsinki card) and watch the video which explains much of the history. You can even join a tour of the islands (10 € , free with Helsinki card), starting at the museum.
The Sauna – The Finnish National Pastime is sitting in a super hot wooden room and sweating like a champ. I’m sure you’re heard of it, it’s the sauna. The sauna was invented by the Finns and perfected by them, too. Try either of the following: Kotiharjun Sauna Oy or Sauna Hermanni for great local experiences.
Indoor swimming – As an alternative to, or in addition to the sauna, try Yrjonkatu Swimming Hall for an opportunity to swim nude. How often can you say you’ve done that? Admission 5-14 €. Discount with Helsinki card (Closed in summer).
Panorama Sightseeing bus – If you’ve spent the money on the Helsinki card, you might as well take the panorama sightseeing bus around for 1 hr 45 min to get acquainted with the city’s past and present. The audio tour is presented in 12 languages. Alternatively, a canal tour is offered by boat. Ticket bus: 31 € , canal boat 24 € , Free with Helsinki card.
Where to Eat in Helsinki
Ravintola Juuri – When asking for good, local food recommendations, Ravitola Juuri was at the top of the list. Juuri is focused on sourcing good quality raw ingredients and using organic produce when they can. They’re going for “authentic flavors, wild herbs, crazy ideas, love for artisan produce and the skill to make incredibly tasty food.” Lookout for local-specific cuisine including elk, reindeer, and cloudberry.
Cella – The service isn’t spectacular here, but Cella is a cozy restaurant and bar where you can try some traditional Finnish favorites like reindeer meat and meatballs and mash potatoes. It’s filled with locals every time I’ve visited.
Sandro – Sandro brings a little bit of Morocco and North Africa to the trendy neighborhood of Kallio, about one kilometer north from the city center. It’s worth the easy tram ride to this hipster district and nothing beats a delicious dinner after a relaxing / invigorating sauna experience at nearby Kotiharjun. Check out Sandro’s Vegan & Veggie Garden Brunch on Saturday.
Market Square – Head to the Market Square farmer’s market for traditional souvenirs and delicious food and snacks like pan-fried vendance (fish).
Where to Stay in Helsinki
This also checks the “do” category. Stay in a cool hotel. Check. Helsinki has a few design hotels, and if your budget allows for it, I highly recommend staying at one. Hotels in Helsinki are generally pricey, but their are a few hostels if you’re keen on saving a few Euro.
Hotel Lilla Robert – Helsinki’s newest design hotel is an outstanding choice. I love the style here, both in the room decor and the lobby. The front desk staff is also great with recommendations for eating, drinking, and sightseeing. Breakfast in their adjoining restaurant is also top notch. Lilla Roberts is everything you’d expect from the fine people who brought you Hotel Haven and Hotel Fabian. Centrally located in the design district, close to museums, restaurants, and bars. Excellent option for business or a weekend urban getaway.
Helka Hotel – This hotel oozes chic with its design rooms and superb style. One of my favorites, for sure. Plus the staff is super helpful and friendly. The stylish and cozy rooms are outfitted with cool art and useful amenities. Make sure you visit the sauna before you leave, another well-designed part of the hotel. Central location is relatively close to the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and the Finland National Museum.
Hotel Haven – Beautiful, small, independent luxury hotel situated in a central Helsinki neighborhood. Incredibly nice rooms have a harbor view. Staff is sincerely welcoming and helpful. Only drawback I can think of is they don’t have a sauna. But still five stars all the way.
GLO Hotel Art – The lobby is impressive here and so is the building. Protected by law, it is set in a University Student Union from 1903. The oldest part of the building holds meeting and conference rooms, and the rooms are situated in a new part of the building. Decent rates and a great central location make GLO Art a great choice.
Klaus K – The original design hotel, Klaus K is a hip place to stay in Helsinki. Each room here is designed individually, by different designers. Everything in super stylish and you’ll feel like a (cool) celebrity. Great location, too.
Hostel Erottajanpuisto – Centrally situated in a historic building in Helsinki, Hostel Erottajanpuisto has high ceilings and wooden floors which give it a classic feel. Beds aren’t too cheap, though. They’ve got 8-bed dorms, 4-bed dorms, doubles, and singles available. A fully equipped kitchen is available for guest use and there’s free Wi-fi. All rooms at Hostel Erottajanpuisto have an in-room sink and access to shared bathrooms and showers. Also 24-hours reception is a plus, which is rare in these parts. Bed linen is included in the price.
Hostel Suomenlinna – This Hosteling International hostel is located on the island of Suomenlinna off the coast of Helsinki. If you’re looking for a quiet place to stay, i.e. a place where there are no cars or traffic, this would make a neat experience. You’ll save a few Euros by getting a dorm bed out here, but keep in mind, you’ll have to pay a couple Euro for the ferry ride into downtown Helsinki. The hostel is clean (no shoes allowed) and there is a kitchen for guests to use. They also have private rooms as well.
How to get around Helsinki
Helsinki is known for its efficient public transport. There are trams, buses, the metro, commuter trains, and the Suomenlina ferry. The 2 and 3 tram line is ideal for sightseeing around the city. With the Helsinki card, free travel applies on all forms of public transport.
Get into Helsinki
Getting into the city from the airport is easy and inexpensive with convenient bus and train options. There are also ferry boats which deliver you to the central terminal from foreign cities like Tallinn or Stockholm. If arriving by train from another city in Finland, you’ll be well positioned in the central part of Helsinki to explore the city.
Pick up the Helsinki’s Visitor’s Guide published by the Helsinki Tourism Bureau. It’s an excellent guide and has tons of cool local things to see and do.