Have you dreamed of visiting Finland for a while and now finally made up your mind once for all?
Have you seen amazing pictures of Finland and now you want to go and see for yourself?
Have you always been impressed by northern culture and tradition and now you want to experience a true Finnish adventure?
In 2018 my answer to all these questions was a huge YES! That’s why my husband and I decided to take the leap and book a flight ticket to Helsinki.
Since we didn’t know pretty much anything about the Finnish outskirts and countryside, we thought that starting from the capital would be a great first step. And, looking back, it was pretty spot-on.
We had, in fact, such an epic weekend in Helsinki that we took off with a great desire to come back one day and explore the rest of the country. Unfortunately, so far we didn’t manage to go back, but that’s definitely on our bucket list!
That being said, if your answer to the questions above is a big YES too, you really don’t wanna miss all the precious information in this article!
I’ll, in fact, share with you the story of the mind-blowing weekend we had in Helsinki a couple of years ago and, with this article in mind, I am sure you will have an extraordinary weekend in Helsinki as well.
As always, I’ll start answering a couple of frequently asked questions about Helsinki and then we will rehearse your epic weekend in Helsinki together.
Without further ado, buckle up and prepare to be amazed!
Is Helsinki worth visiting?
Big YES! We decided to visit Helsinki as the first stop of our Scandinavian tour and it flabbergasted us! Its history, culture and tradition are impressive as well as the way the Finnish respect and feel their roots. That was very likely the part that amazed us the most about Helsinki!
What is Helsinki famous for?
Helsinki is famous for:
- Being the world’s northernmost metro area, the northernmost capital of an EU member state and the second-northernmost country capital in the world (second only to Reykjavík);
- Its long-standing sauna culture;
- Its extent daylight hours in summer (at least 15 hours a day from May through August, and almost 19 hours on the summer solstice);
- Its heavy metal music festivals and live pubs;
- Being the world’s happiest city.
Is Helsinki expensive?
From a tourist’s point of view, it’s not quite as costly as the other Scandinavian capitals, such as Stockholm, but it is pricey compared to almost anywhere else in Europe.
Being accommodation, food and drinks quite expensive and undoubtedly indispensable, an effective way to save some money, without too much renouncing on the sightseeing part, is getting a Helsinki card.
It includes free entry to top Helsinki attractions, a free panorama sightseeing bus tour, a travel card for unlimited journeys on public transport, and a guidebook.
You can buy the card for 51€, 63€ or 74€ ($59, $73 or $85) for either 24, 48, or 72 hours, with a significant discount if you buy it online with some advance.
What do they eat in Helsinki?
The most common Finnish sweet specialities are:
- Pulla, the Finnish version of cinnamon rolls that take different name depending on fillings, toppings and dimensions;
- Runenberg Tarts, cylinder-shaped pastries with almonds, cardamom, cream and cinnamon, soaked in either rum or arrack, crowned with raspberry jam topping, and surrounded with a ring of sugar ice;
- Leipäjuusto, a several centimetre-thick circle of cheese made with cow’s milk (most often), then fried or baked in the oven and served with cloudberry, strawberry or raspberry jam;
- Mustikkapiirakka, a blueberry pie;
- Fazer Blue Chocolate, an inseparable part of the country’s cultural heritage and gastronomic tradition;
- Ahvenanmaan Pannukakku, a large, extra-thick oven-baked pancake made of leftovers;
- Salmiakk, a four-cornered-lozenge-shaped salty liquorice, which is the most popular Finnish sweet.
Savoury specialities include rye bread and pies, meat dishes, such as Poronkäristys, reindeer meat served with potatoes and red berries; Grillimakkara, typical Finnish sausages; and Kaalikääryleet, cabbage rolls with meat (usually beef), onions, and spices, commonly topped with lingonberry jam.
And many fish dishes such as Silli e Mäti, new potatoes with herring (Silli) or fish eggs (Mäti); Muikku, fried vendaces served with potatoes and/or garlic mayo; Kalakukko, a seafood quiche made in a rye bread crust; Salmon; Baltic Herring; Crayfish; and Kalakeitto, a classic fish soup made with potatoes, carrots, dill and seasonal fish.
What is the best time of year to visit Helsinki?
If you visit Helsinki in May and June, you will find mild weather (18°C/65°F), lots of events like the Vappu Festival on May 1st (which marks the end of winter) or the Finnish Carnival in early June, and few tourists.
Summer is also a good time to go and enjoy the late sunsets (around midnight), green spaces and beaches, but that’s also the peak season, so prices are higher.
Go in autumn if you are on a tight budget and do not mind chilly temperatures (9°C/48°F).
Can you see the Northern Lights in Helsinki?
Yes, you can. Meaning that is not impossible, but be aware that it will be quite tricky!
For you to see them the following factor combination must occur:
- the sky must be clear;
- the solar storm that produces aurora must be strong and bright enough to be seen through light pollution;
- you need to find a place where you will not be disturbed by the interference of the traffic lights, such as from the observatories of Tähtitorninmäki or Tähtitorninvuoren puisto.
Plus, be aware that Northern Lights are visible only 10/20 nights a year in Helsinki and Southern Finland in general.
What is the best time to see Northern Lights in Helsinki?
From September to October and from February to March between 9 pm and 1 am on cloudless nights.
We were there in September but we didn’t manage to see them.
Be it as it may, if you asked me, I would not go to Helsinki specifically to see the Northern Lights. I’d rather go to Lapland or Iceland to that end.
What should you not miss in Helsinki?
Let’s get now into details on how to spend an extraordinary weekend in Helsinki.
We started the first day taking the panoramic bus tour included in our Helsinki card (otherwise, it is priced at 32€ per person). It lasted 1 hour 45 minutes and helped us locate Helsinki’s key attractions, learn about the city’s past and present, and understand its layout.
Once we completed the tour, we started visiting the city by foot beginning with the stunning Senate Square in the oldest part of central Helsinki.
1. Senate Square
Senate Square (Senaatintori in Finnish), designed in 1812, is home of famous buildings and landmarks such as:
- Helsinki Cathedral, on the northern edge;
- the Government Palace, on the eastern side;
- the main University of Helsinki building, on the western side;
- the National Library of Finland, on the northwest corner;
- the Sederholm House, on the southeast corner; and
- the statue of Alexander II, just in the middle.
The compound in Senate Square represents a unique and cohesive example of Neoclassical architecture.
The square also hosts a sound installation called the Sound of the Senate Square. It is a 5-minute xylophone composition that can be heard every day at 5.49 pm.
1.1 Helsinki Cathedral
The Neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko) was originally built in the 19th century as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. That was the reason why, before Finland independence in 1917, it was also known as St Nicholas’ Church. It is one of the most famous and important monuments of the Finnish capital and a still-functioning Lutheran church.
1.2 Alexander II Statue
The pedestrian statue of Alexander II, erected in 1894, was built to commemorate his re-establishment of the Diet of Finland and other reforms that increased Finland’s autonomy from Russia. The statue depicts Alexander surrounded by figures representing law, culture, and peasants.
From the Russification of Finland onwards, the statue became a symbol of peaceful resistance, with citizens protesting against the decrees of Nicholas II by leaving flowers at the foot of the statue of his grandfather, known in Finland as “the good czar”.
After Finland’s independence in 1917, many demanded to remove the statue, but nothing happened in this respect. Today the statue is one of the main tourist landmarks of the city and a reminder of the close relationship between Finland and Imperial Russia.
2. Presidential Palace
From Senate Square take right onto Katariinankatu, then left onto Pohjoisesplanadi and you will find the Presidential Palace on your left.
The Presidential Palace (Presidentinlinna) is one of the three official residences of the President of the Republic of Finland.
At the beginning of the 19th century on the same site where the Presidential Palace stands today, there was a salt storehouse. The latter was then destroyed and a rich merchant built his residence in its place. In 1837 it was bought, rebuilt and refurbished for the official use of the Czar during his visits to Helsinki.
It was the headquarters of the Executive Committee of the Soviet Helsinki Workers and Soldiers during the Finnish Civil War (1918). But, once the Whites triumphed over the Reds, it was temporarily used by German and White Finnish military personnel.
Since Finland’s independence, the building has served as the official residence of the President. Today the official home of the President is Mäntyniemi in the Meilahti district, near Seurasaari Island. The Presidential Palace contains, though, the Office of the President of the Republic and the premises are used by the President for official functions and receptions.
The public visits are allowed only on special occasions.
3. Uspenski Cathedral
From the Presidential Palace turn left onto Mariankatu, right onto Päävartiontori, cross the car bridge and continue onto Kanavakatu. Take the path on your left crossing the park, take the stairs and the Uspenski Cathedral will be on your left.
The Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali) is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe and one of the must-visit religious monuments in Helsinki. It was built in 1868 atop of a hill in the Katajanokka island and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Redbrick outside walls and the onion-shaped green and golden domes with Orthodox crosses are all clear evidence of the Russian influence on the building and the Russian impact on Finnish history.
Explore the interior of the cathedral to see how it differs from the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral.
4. Market Square
From Uspenski Cathedral, go down the stairs and go back to Kanavakatu. From there, instead of crossing the car bridge again, turn right onto Kanavaranta. Then turn left onto Kanalkajen, cross the street and the little bridge that you will encounter on your way. It‘s called the Bridge of Love as many lovers have decided to leave a padlock there, symbolizing their undying love. This bridge will bring you to the Market Square.
Market Square (Kauppatori) is one of the most important street markets in Finland and is situated in front of the sea. It’s the perfect place to get to know a good part of Finnish cuisine, try their local products and buy souvenirs of the country from artisans. Next to this square, there’s also the famous Havis Amanda, a female-shaped bronze statue on top of a marble fountain, that symbolizes the birth of a city emerging from the sea.
It is in this square where you can find the pier for ferries heading to Suomenlinna.
5. Old Market
From Market Square go left toward Eteläranta and you will find the Old Market on your left.
The Old Market (Vanha Kauppahalli) is a must-visit for foodies and those eager to have a taste of real Finnish food. On its numerous stalls, you can indeed find all kinds of fish, seafood, vegetables, fruit, cakes, spices, coffee, tea and other typical products of Finland.
Opened to the public in 1889, it is the first indoor hall in Helsinki.
6. Havis Amanda
From the Old Market, come back to Market Square and pay attention to the pink granite fountain with that bronze female figure rising above it on your right. That’s Havis Amanda (Sea Nymph in Swedish).
Erected in 1908, it represents a mermaid standing on seaweed and rising from the water, with four fish spouting water at her feet, surrounded by four sea lions, and symbolizes the rebirth of Helsinki.
At the time of its unveiling, the work drew strong criticism, especially from women that considered its nakedness and seductiveness inappropriate. Not all were against its nudity per se, many, in fact, deemed putting a woman-shaped figure on a pedestal as a symbol of women’s subjugation since it sexually objectified them and made them appear weak.
Still, today Havis Amanda is recognized as an icon of the city and one of the most important and beloved pieces of art in Helsinki.
7. Esplanadi Park
You will find Esplanadi Park, just at the right end of Havis Amanda.
Colloquially known as Espa, is an esplanade and urban park opened in 1818. It is the most famous park in Finland and the green heart of Helsinki. People come here to relax, listen to music, watch performances, and enjoy picnics.
Look for the four historic kiosks. They are so cute!
8. Kamppi Chapel
Go all the way across the Esplanadi Park, then take Pohjoisesplanadi and head towards Mannerheimintie. Turn onto Mannerheimintie. Leave at your right Aleksanterinkatu and the famous Helsinki shopping area, and turn left onto the paved square toward Narinkkatori. Walk through the trees until you see a parking entrance. Kamppi Chapel will be on your right, just before the entrance of the Kamppi shopping centre.
Kamppi Chapel, also known as the “Chapel of Silence”, is intended for personal peace in one of the busiest areas in Finland. It is ecumenical and welcomes everyone no matter which religion, philosophy of life or background they have. Its curved walls, externally made of spruce and coated with a special type of wax that uses nanotechnology, while internally made of alder, give the building a bizarre look. Besides, the ceiling contains plasterboard, which has a sound-proofing effect.
Despite its modernity, the chapel succeeds in gently embracing the visitor in its interior and makes them have this feeling of being protected from the bustling city life outside, almost like being inside their mother’s womb.
Are you into experimental contemporary art? Stop by Amos Rex Museum then!
You can find it on Mannerheimintie just a few steps from Kamppi Chapel. The entrance is included in the Helsinki card, otherwise has a cost of 15€ p.p.
9. The Parliament House
From the Kamppi Chapel go back to Mannerheimintie and head northeast. You will find the imposing building called Parliament House after about 500 metres (0.3 mi) on your left.
The Parliament House (Eduskuntatalo) is a hybrid of neoclassical and 20th-century modernist style design. Its main facade is made of red granite from Kalvola and includes 14 Corinthian columns. It was inaugurated in 1931 and is the official location of the Finnish Parliament.
The building has five floors, each of which is unique, connected by a white marble staircase and famous paternoster lifts.
It is possible to visit the parliament by booking a free guided tour.
10. Temppeliaukio Church
From the Parliament House turn into Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu, turn right onto Arkadiankatu and then right again onto Fredrikinkatu. You will find the Temppeliaukio Church in front of you at the end of the street.
Temppeliaukio Church, also known as “Rock Church”, is a Lutheran church, completed in 1969, whose peculiarity is that it was completely carved out of solid rock. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city with half a million people visiting it annually.
The walls are roughly hewn stone and this entails two main things: water can still seep creating cute miniature waterfalls, and the acoustic is incredible. That’s why they organize many concerts inside. Besides, the roof is covered by a huge copper dome that makes it even more striking. Also, all around the dome, there is a skylight that lets natural light in. This all contributes to the creation of the surreal atmosphere that you can breathe from the very first step inside this church.
Fun fact: the church has no bells, so every Sunday they play a recording of bells via loudspeakers placed outside.
Entrance fee: 4 € p.p. (covered by the Helsinki card).
11. Sibelius Park and Monument
From Temppeliaukio I suggest taking the bus or the metro, both will take you to Sibelius Park (Sibeliuspuisto) in around 15 minutes.
Sibelius Park is a seaside park constructed in honour of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and one of Helsinki’s major attractions. Known among locals as “Sibbari”, its construction ended in 1940.
Inside this park, you can find the Sibelius monument (Sibeliuksen puisto), entitled Passio Musicae, created in 1967 by pioneering artist Eila Hiltunen.
It is an abstract, kinetic, musical sculpture consisting of an uneven bundle of 600 acid-resistant steel tubes at various heights with the highest pipe reaching over 8 m (27 ft) in the air that capture the wind like a pipe organ. It reaches 10.5 m (34 ft) in length, 6.5 m (21 ft) in depth and 24 tonnes in weight.
To appease the critics arising toward this abstract piece of art, they pretty soon decided to add a representational bust of Sibelius at the foot of the monument, so that viewers won’t be confused, they said.
Fun fact: A smaller version of Sibelius Monument is located at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Besides, a piece of work with a similar concept, also designed by Hiltunen, is located on the grounds of the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.
The park is open every day from sunrise to sunset and the entry is free.
12. Cafe Regatta
If, after the long stroll through Sibelius Park you are feeling a bit peckish, stop by Cafe Regatta, a traditional red cottage cafe by the sea (on the southwest side of the park). Built in 1887 as a shed for fishnets next to a family villa, it is famous for fresh cinnamon buns, blueberry pie and other delicacies served in a charismatic and relaxed atmosphere all year around.
Afterwards, if you are a fan of contemporary art, you want to stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, part of the Finnish National Gallery, on your way back to the city centre. From Sibelius Park, it is a 20-minute bus drive to Kiasma. The admission fee is 15€ p.p. It’s included in the Helsinki Card. It is only a 3-minute walk away from our next stop: Rautatientori.
Otherwise, catch the bus from Sibelius Park and get off at Rautatientori.
13. Railway Square and Ateneum Classical Art Museum
Railway Square (Rautatientori) is an open square immediately to the east of Helsinki Central railway station.
On its north side stands the Finnish National Theatre and just in front of it a memorial to the Finnish author, Aleksis Kivi. On the south side, instead, you can find the Ateneum Classical Art Museum (another part of the Finnish National Gallery).
If you are into classical art, stop by the Ateneum. It has the biggest collections of classical art in Finland with more than 20,000 works of art. This includes Finnish art from 18th-century to the 20th century, plus some 650 international works of art, including Vincent van Gogh’s Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, Cézanne’s The Road Bridge at L’Estaque, Munch’s Bathing Men.
Admission fee: 17€ p.p. It’s included in the Helsinki Card.
That was all for our first day! Before going back to our B&B in Kalevankatu (a stone’s throw from the Esplanadi Park) we decided to have dinner at the Viking Restaurant Harald.
The second day we went directly to Market Square and caught the ferry to Suomenlinna. It took around 15/20 minutes to reach the island.
The price of a return ticket is included in the Helsinki Card, otherwise, it is 7€ p.p.
14. Suomenlinna Fortress
Founded by the Swedish in 1748 on a cluster of over six islands off the coast of Helsinki, the Suomenlinna sea fortress is one of the largest fortifications in the world and has had a vital part in the history of Finland.
Today, it is a suburb of Helsinki with around 800 residents, a workplace for about 400 people, and a UNESCO Heritage Site that houses museums, barracks and restaurants. It also has routes that allow walking and even hiking, six kilometres of walls, 100 cannons, exciting tunnels and beautiful parks. It is meant to be seen on foot, so be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and be aware that, being a car-free zone, there are no minibuses or trains, nor any bicycles for hire.
It has served to defend three different sovereign states over the years: the Kingdom of Sweden, the Russian Empire and most recently the Republic of Finland.
The purpose of the fortress was originally to defend the Kingdom of Sweden against the Russian Empire and to serve as a fortified army base, complete with a dry dock. In those times the fortress was named Sveaborg (Castle of the Swedes), rendered phonetically to Viapori in Finnish.
In 1808, the Viapori fortress surrendered to the Russians, which marked a new era in the history of the fortress. It stayed under the rule of the Russian Imperial Government, even though Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland the following year. Sandbanks, barracks and various other buildings were added during the 19th-century Russian period. The defensive system was adapted to match the requirements of a modern fortress, however, over the 19th century, the fortress declined in importance and was left to decay.
After Finland gained independence in 1917, the fortress was renamed Suomenlinna (Fortress of Finland) and served as a garrison and a harbour. The military role of the fortress declined after World War II, though, and in 1973 the area was converted for civilian purposes.
Admission fee: 38€ (included in the Helsinki Card).
14.1 Suomenlinna Museum
Located in the Suomenlinna Centre, it showcases the history of the fortress, spanning more than 260 years.
Admission fee: 8€ (free with the Helsinki Card).
14.2 Ehrensvärd Museum
Located in the official residence of the fortress’s commandants, it showcases the history of the Swedish period of the fortress.
Admission fee: 5 € (free with the Helsinki Card).
14.3 Military Museum’s Manege
It relates the four wars Finland has fought during its independence: the Civil War in 1918, the Winter War in 1939–1940, the Continuation War in 1941–1944 and the Lapland War in 1944–1945, and the story of the Finnish Defense Forces in the post-war period up to the present day.
Admission fee: 7 € (free with a Helsinki Card). You can also visit Submarine Vesikko with the same entrance ticket.
14.4 Submarine Vesikko
The submarine Vesikko, used in the Second World War in the Gulf of Finland in convoy, safety and patrol duties. As the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 forbade Finland from having submarines, the Finnish submarines were scrapped, except for Vesikko. Vesikko was restored as a museum and opened to the public in 1973. You can visit it only during the summer season.
Admission fee: 7 € (free with a Helsinki Card). The ticket includes the visit also to the Military Museums Manege as well.
14.5 Toy Museum
Located in a powder-coloured wooden villa, it is a collection of wartime toys and games, such as old dolls, antique teddy bears, until the 1960s.
Admission fee:7 €.
14.6 Customs Museum
Located on the Susisaari island, it showcases the history of customs and smuggling in Finland. It is open only during the summer season, and there is no entrance fee.
15. Harbour Islands
If you happen to visit Helsinki in summer, from June to September, and you still have some time left after visiting Suomenlinna, I’d recommend having a tour of the Helsinki archipelago made of over 330 islands.
In particular, Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari are two other islands worth visiting, as they used to be military bases closed off to the public, reclaimed by nature and turned into parks dotted with abandoned fortifications and buildings.
A picturesque cruise of the Harbour Island is included in the Helsinki card (otherwise, it costs 25€). It will showcase some of Helsinki’s hidden gems from the water and some top Helsinki attractions such as Suomenlinna, Korkeasaari Zoo, the icebreaker fleet and Degerö Canal.
Helsinki is a city that not everybody understands.
You need to know its history to fathom and respect it. At a first casual glance, in fact, it might seem grey and austere, due to hundreds of years of dominations and the daily struggle under the foreign yoke that indisputably left their trace both on the city landscape and in its inhabitants.
Yet, to a more careful eye, Helsinki shows all the colourful pride of a nation that maintains and preserves its traditions head-on, nevertheless. You can see it in its market stalls filled with its colourful craftwork, in the lush greenery of its parks, in its ultra-modern and top-notch architecture, and in the eyes of its people proudly carrying the history of their city in their DNAs.
We had an epic weekend there and now that you have all this information, I am sure you are going to have an amazing time too!
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