Using public transport in Helsinki: some tips

I’m starting to feel pretty confident on Helsinki’s public transport system, and thought I’d share some of the things that I’ve found / read / observed / learnt about getting around the city efficiently.

OK, so before you arrive in Helsinki there are a few things that I would recommend you do:

1. Visit the HSL website. There is a stack of information available (for example, you could check out the map of the tram routes here).

2. Visit the Reittiopas site (reitti = route, opas = guide). It has a lot of options, so it is worth exploring. In Helsinki we’ve experienced that everyone uses the site, and they’ll often offer to check on your travel times for you. If your phone has web-browsing capabilities then bookmark it on your phone! (You can also use the free internet in the trams if your phone can connect to the internet via wireless – B). If you are planning to travel outside of Helsinki you should check out matka.fi – it is the Reittiopas-equivalent for the whole of Finland.

3. Try learn a bit about the city layout (e.g. main suburbs and location of the main railway station; you can check out my earlier post here). This will help when you are catching a bus (because buses and trams display their final destination next to their numbers) or when you are on a bus (many have internal digital displays listing the next stop [and very occasionally the stop thereafter too]).

4. Buy a good map if you are moving around outside the city centre (all the free tourist maps often stop south of Viikki) . Brigitte got me a copy of the Freytag & Berndt Helsinki city map (from here), and we’ve been very happy with it. (actually, I got it here -B)

A local tram stop. You can (hopefully) see the name of the stop (“Karhupuisto”; karhu = bear, puisto = park), the stop’s number (0255), and the numbers of the trams that stop there (1, 3 and 9).

 

And then when you arrive in Helsinki:

3. Unless you’re catching a taxi or being fetched, your best bet of getting into the city is to take the 615 bus (or one of the variant like the 615T, 615TK, etc.) from the airport to the Helsinki Central Station (details here). The other alternative (a bit more expensive) is the Finnair bus (you don’t have to have flown with Finnair to use the bus; see details here). Both buses end the central railway station (the Rautatieasema) or the square outside the station (Rautatientori), or the square on the other side of the station (Elielinaukio).

4. Visit the HSL service point at the central railway station to purchase a travel card (the shop is actually underground; enter the railway station but then follow the signs to the metro). You’ll need to choose between a period ticket or a value ticket. If you buy a period ticket you’ll want to add a few Euros to the card for “unusual” trips, including trips outside of Helsinki (e.g. to Espoo, to the airport) and late night trips (between 2 and 4:30 night fees are charged, which are not covered by a period ticket). We had a very friendly consultant help us who spoke perfect English – you don’t need to worry about language troubles at this stage. You can pick up a bus schedule (available in English – just make sure you pick up from the correct pile) and a basic city map for free from the HSL office too. If you are a registered inhabitant of the city (like us) and have a Finnish ID number, you get a significant discount on monthly travel costs. Our cards cost just over 40 euros a month each and allow us unlimited access to the trams, busses, trains and metro within the Helsinki region. If you don’t have an ID number, it unfortunately costs about double that. If you need to get a card for 2 or 3 regions, it obviously costs more (e.g. if you are travelling between Helsinki and Espoo every day).

5. The metro is the easiest of the public transport systems to navigate and good place to start (in my opinion!). The metro’s sign looks like this, and you only need to make a choice of heading east (to Mellunmäki or Vuosaari) or west (to Ruoholahti). There is an automatic announcement of station names, so you have to work rather hard to get lost. If you have a value ticket you will need to hold it to the sensor when you enter the tram station – if you have a period ticket you don’t need to have it read (just have it with you in case the police want to check it – you will just need to hold your card up to their hand-held scanner). The metro stops at every station.

A simplified representation of the Helsinki Metro (from www.hsl.fi).

 

6. The trams and buses are a bit more complicated (although HSL’s Reittiopas website makes things much easier), but there are a few things that I think can make it much easier to navigate the city with them.

Helsinki tram routes (original from hsl.fi). You can download much more detailed and printer-friendly versions of this map from the HSL website. Click photo to go there.

 

– Bus and tram stops are marked with clear signs (see photos above and below). The sign displays the numbers of the trams and/or the buses that frequently stop there (other buses probably stop there but there’s often not enough space to list them all). At some stops there are digital displays showing the number of minutes until the next tram or bus departs from that stop (again, this is only shown for the main bus routes – just because a bus isn’t on the digital display doesn’t mean it is not coming). For more information you need to look at the schedules (see an example of the slightly different electronic version here). The schedule is split into three parts: weekdays (Mo. – Pe.), Saturdays (La.) and Sundays (Su.: important, since lots of routes are not active on the weekend). The hours are then listed on the left, and within each hour the minutes of arrival and the bus (or tram) number that will be arriving are listed. It is important to remember that there are multiple bus stops with the same name – for example there are three bus stops within 50 m outside our apartment – so you need to check their four digit number against that given by Reittiopas or the bus schedule (and that also explains why your bus might not show up on the schedule – look for another close by stop).

A bus stop sign (again, you can see the stop name and number, and the two buses that regularly stop there.

A real-time digital display at a tram stop, showing the number of minutes until the next two trams have come on each line. It seems that the #1 line was not running that Saturday… The tilde indicates that the tram is temporarily disconnected from the monitoring system.

 

– When your bus approaches (identifiable by the number on the front and the side of the bus) you’ll need to hail it – just hold out your arm to signal the driver until the indicator light shows that the bus is pulling over. You’ll then board the bus at the front door (passengers generally – but not exclusively – leave from the middle and back doors) and hold your travel card to the sensor (no need to press a button if you have a period ticket). The sensor is straight forward – you press the button that corresponds with the length of the journey you are planning to take (explained on HSL’s website here).  Then take a seat – I would suggest somewhere near the middle of the bus on the right – that way you can read the stop names as you travel along (and if there is a digital display inside the bus you can also see it clearly from the middle of the bus).  You can stand if you want (but hold on!), and note that some seats are marked as preferential for old people, etc. You can sit there, but you’ll need to offer it up if someone else needs it (in fact, you are expected to offer your seat to someone older when the tram or bus is full). There are red buttons marked “stop” near every seat – if you press it there is likely to be a tone from the front of the bus (but not always) and a light should go on in the front of the bus (usually saying “Stop” or “Pysähtyy /Stannar”) – the driver will then stop at the next stop.  You are expected to hop off fairly quickly, so have you things ready to go! The bus will only stop if a passenager has signalled that they want to get off or someone at the bus stop has hailed the bus. You can ask the bus driver to point out a stop for you (and we’ve heard that they are often happy to do so) – but there is no guarantee that they will speak English or known the names of each stop – so it is up to you to pay attention. I generally note down the name of one or two stops before my intended stop, so that I can anticipate when I need to press the “stop” button. (I was daydreaming once only to realise that we had passed my stop because  I had forgotten to push the button. I got off a the next stop and caught the tram back up the road- B).

7. The state-owned VR group runs local and regional railway operations in Finland. Helsinki has a fairly extensive local commuter rail system for travelling north-south in the city (apparently there are 14 stations within Helsinki – see vr.fi and Wikipedia for more details). The main station in the city centre is the Rautatieasema (which includes a lounge exclusively for the use of the president and her official guests), with Pasila being the next station north (due to space limitations in the city centre, Pasila is slowly replacing Rautatieasema as Helsinki’s main railway station). Beyond Pasila the tracks split into four distinct lines – three heading northwards and one westwards through Espoo and Kirkonummi. Once we’ve used the train, I’ll post an update…

Helsinki commuter rail routes (and the Metro; original available from Wikipedia’s VR commuter rail page).

 

8. And, if like me you’d rather not wait long for buses and trams, but board the first one heading in the right direction and then figure things out as you go… it is a really good idea to have decent map with you! I’ve found that it often ends up taking a bit longer, but I’ve seen some interesting parts of the city… (I am not like Pete in this regard, I prefer to wait for the specific bus that will take to to the correct destination – B). If you are really serious about not waiting for public transport, you can track the movement of individual trams and buses on the HSL live site – it updates every second, showing the position of all the active vehicles and their estimated arrival times at their next few stops.

9. And a note about Reittiopas – it seems to favour public transport over walking, and buses over trams and the train, so by checking the route maps you might be able to figure out a more optimal route. The algorithm also assumes that you walk slowly (fair assumption when the streets are icy) and that you prefer walking on roads (although it will sometimes directly you along a path) and that buses are always exactly on time. It is not a perfect system, but it is the best around. (A Finn told me that in winter, buses are usually not on time due to icy weather conditions so it is best to try and plan your route to minimise the use of buses. You don’t want to have to wait an extra 10 minutes in -20 °C! – B)

10. The Helsinki public transport system also includes a ferry to Suomenlinna island (which everyone seems to say is one of the top spots to visit around here) – I’ll update this page once we’ve travelled there with the ferry.

11. And a note for Kay – animals (service animals and pets) are welcomed on the transport system.

A bad photo of a good resource. Every bus and tram stop has a schedule guide (the three pages in the centre of the board – indicating times during the week, and on Saturdays and Sundays). The tram route map is pretty easy to read (top left), although for a bus map it is only really possible (for me at least) to identify the end destination (and then I have to guess whether it will pass by my destination en route). Some stops now have little logos that cells phone cameras can interpret – your phone can then retrieve all the schedule information for that stop off the web (usually in the bottom-right corner).

 

And finally…

  • The 3T and 3B tram(s) are a good tram line for tourists, as it travels through much of the city centre and past many of the city’s landmarks – you can download HSL’s tourist guide for the 3T-3B tram here. The #3 tram line runs in a figure-of-eight shape, and the tram changes from a 3T to a 3B at one apex of the “8” and back to the 3T again at the other apex. I have to admit that I’m still a bit confused by the #3 tram, and always have to check carefully which one I’m looking for (although, luckily, if you choose the wrong one you will still eventually get to your stop and will also see some beautiful city sights).
  • Buses are often early – so if you have to be somewhere on time, you’ll probably want to be at your bus stop a few minutes ahead of schedule. And if you are going to be catching a bus at a very busy stop, you might want to check out the “Terminals and Departure Platforms” maps on the HSL website.
  • Keep an eye on the balance (or validity period) of your travel card. If you forget your card at home, I’d suggest that you go back  fetch it or just pay cash for your trip, since the 80€ fine is heavy and we’ve seen a lot of guards checking tickets. The guards who check tickets on the trams wear blue uniforms and are “affectionately” (according to one of the newspapers) known as the Smurfs.
  • It costs about 5€ to search for lost property (HSL has outsourced the lost-and-found services to a private company).
  • There are also private buses (e.g. free Ikea buses, Finnair bus to airport) and taxis . And a private tram that is a pub – we need to see how we can get on to that one! – B

So, time to get out and about in Helsinki!

It’s easy to visit the Tuomiokirkko if you catch the #1 tram.

 

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