We’re looking forward to having some visitors this spring and summer, and thought it would be good to share our “tourist highlights of Helsinki” list – in part for those who are going to be visiting, and in part to hear if we’ve missed anything…
So, let’s assume you’ve got two full days in Helsinki and a little cash to spend… what are the special places, unique flavours and interesting activities you can’t miss? Below is our suggested itinerary for a short-trip to the city, with some options for summer and winter visits. We’ve blogged about some of these places before, so be sure to check out the related posts by following the links marked “blogged here”. All the public transport information you need can be found at Reittiopas.fi and in this blog post, and the Tourist Information Office in Esplanadi can help you with all the maps and brochures you can carry!
Day 1: Helsinki city centre
Start the day at Hakaniemi, visiting the Hakaniemen Kauppahalli (blogged here) to see where the locals track down high-quality foodstuffs and crafts. If you’ve not had breakfast, then you can get some riisipuuro and coffee outside on the square (Hakaniemintori; blogged here). We’d then suggest a stroll down through Kruununhaka to Katajanokka (blogged here; or just catch the 1 or 7 Tram from Hakaniemi) to check out the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architecture, the sailing ships at the Halkolaituri (blogged here) and the Uspenski Cathedral. If you are a Moomin fan, then you can walk down Luotsikatu where Tove Jansson grew up (apparently the architecture of the area was an inspiration). If you are looking for lunch you could pop past the South Harbour and try some of the offerings of the market there (Cafe Engel, opposite the Tuomiokirkko is a more expensive option – we’ve not eaten there but have heard good reviews).
From Katajanokka it is a short walk to the Senaatintori and the Tuomiokirkko. Be sure to cross the street to visit the Bockin talo design and handicrafts store (on the corner of Aleksanterinkatu and Katariinankatu) which consists of a number of different vendors selling high-quality products (including some rather lovely paintings by Maarit Kontiainen). You can then stroll down Aleksanterinkatu or Esplanadi past lots of rather grand shops and interesting buildings and statues – I’d favour walking down the park in the centre of Espalandi over Aleksanterinkatu, but a quick look at the statue of the Kolme Seppä (blogged here) on the corner of Aleksanterinkatu and Mannerheimintie. Stockmann, Helsinki’s premier department store, is also located at this end of Aleksanterinkatu – if you are visiting in December be sure to check out their special Christmas window (corner of Aleksanterinkatu and Keskuskatu; blogged here). The Kluuvi centre offers some good spots to stop for coffee – be sure to check our the options on the top floor where there’s lots of space for sitting down and chilling.
If you liked the Bockin talo then you may want to pop into the Finnish Design Forum shop (only a few blocks south). If it is still early, then you may want to visit the Rautatieasema (the central railway station) and explore the surrounds. Otherwise if it is warm enough… I’d suggest popping into one of the neighbourhood’s shopping markets to buy a picnic supper – maybe some ruispalat (rye bread), silli (marinated herring), leipäjuusto (soft cheese; blogged here) and kalakukko (fish baked inside a rye crust; blogged here). Hakaniemi would actually be a good place to find supper ingredients if you don’t mind carrying them around with you. Then take a meandering walk south, passing the Johanneksen Kirkko or through the Tähtitorni park, to Kaivopuisto where you can enjoy your supper with a view of the sea (blogged here). There are many ice-cream stalls around the area, so be sure to round the evening off with an ice cream (tar-flavoured only if you are very adventurous… blogged here). Alternatively, if it is too cold for an outside picnic, then you might want to try the quirky Zetor restaurant for supper followed by ice-skating only two blocks away at the Rautatientori (skates for rent). Kahvila Suomi is another option in the Punavuori area for Finnish food – otherwise you can try the salmon teriyaki at Hoku or a burger at Lupolo (both also in the Punavuori area).
Day 1 alternatives
Many list the Suomenlinna sea fort as a Helsinki highlight (blogged here) – you can catch a ferry from the South Harbour to this UNESCO-listed site. There are some interesting buildings and lovely little shops… but we’re not rank it amongst our top places to visit. Helsinki has six “city museums” (free entry) and they are worth checking out (we suggest visiting the Kallio workers housing museum on day 2…) – their website provides details (including the Tuomarinkylä Manor Museum; blogged here).
However, what we would really recommend is to go for a swim and sauna at the Yrjönkatu uimahalli (behind the Forum centre; right in the centre of Helsinki). Because they have different days for men and women you might want to explore other sauna options though (see our sauna blog post here).
And if you only get to Hakaniemi after breakfast time, then consider grabbing a bowl of soup from the Soppakeittio (= “Soup Kitchen”, on the ground floor, near the butchers’ stalls) – it is one of our favourite places to grab lunch.
Day 2: Töölö, Kallio and beyond
For your second day of exploring Helsinki we’d suggest starting by visiting the very striking Temppeliaukion kirkko (the Rock Church) in the heart of Töölö. While in the area you might also be interested to visit the Chapel of Silence outside Kamppi (both blogged here). From there you can walk past the Kiasma, the Musiikkitalo, the Hakaslmin huvila (one of the city museums – since it is free entry why not just pop in and see what the current exhibit is?), the parliament buildings, the National Museum and the Finlandia Opera hall. It is then worthwhile taking a stroll through the Töölö bay park (also called Hesperianpuisto and Hakasalmenpuisto; note the lovely wooden houses on the opposite side of the bay) past the Helsinki Opera hall and the Olympic stadium (blogged here). If it has been a particularly cold winter you may even want to have a walk across the bay (blogged here)? But please only do this if there are lots of other people on the ice and be sure to follow only tracks made that day!
Now the itinerary diverges here for summer and winter…
- If it is cold and snowy we’d suggest catching a bus to Paloheinä (the 65 an 66 buses will get you there) and going for some cross-country skiing (blogged here; ski’s and snowshoes available for rent). You can end your snow-exploration with a mug of hot currant juice and a doughnut or bun at the ski centre. Alternatively, if you don’t have the energy for skiing we’d recommend visiting the winter gardens (blogged here) and the National History Museum (blogged here; and a maybe even a quick pop into Musiikkitalo; even if just to stare at the amazing sculpture hanging over the interior).
- However, if the weather is a bit better (or if there’s no snow), we suggest moving next to the Kallio Worker’s housing museum (open May to September only; blogged here). Then how about a leisurely walk around Paloheinä (particularly the old growth Haltiala section and the Pitkäkoski rapids; blogged here) – if that’s too far them Kivinokka (blogged here) or even Mustikamaa are closer alternatives easily accessible by Metro (and they both have small swimming beaches too).
Irrespective of your afternoon itinerary, our suggestion for supper would be to head to our favourite local restaurant; Pelmenit (be sure to serve a table; blogged here). Alternatively there are a real diversity of more expensive places will be happy to feed you… check out Eat.fi for a list and reviews. I can recommend Aito (Töölö) and we’ve also only heard good things about Seahorse (Eira area)
And after a good supper? In good summer weather you might want to head off to watching the sunset at Hietaniemi beach (blogged here) or take a walk through Helsinki’s oldest amusement park (Linnamäki – their Panoramaa observation tower ride will cost you nothing, but is only open during summer). Alternatively, how about visiting the Torni bar, the highest building in central Helsinki… with the bathroom with the best view (you’ll find it mentioned in guidebooks and online!).
If you have a third (or fourth, or fifth…) day in Helsinki, we’ve a diversity of suggestions for how you could enjoy yourself:
- for nature-lovers – two of Finland’s national parks are easily accessible by public transport from Helsinki. Nuuksio National Park is to the north-west of the city centre and the newly proclaimed Sipoonkorpi is to the east (blogged here and here, respectively). Nuuksio is more popular and has a better system of trails than Sipoonkorpi, so that would be my first recommendation. The Viiki nature reserve is much closer to the city centre (accessible by the 6 or 8 Tram) and has a good network of paths, observation towers and bird hides – it is definitely worth a visit for bird-watchers (blogged here, here and here).
- for sun and sand – we’ve heard that Pihlajasaari had a great beach. This island is accessible from the Kaivopuisto harbour by ferry (5.50€ per person; ferry details here).
- for art-lovers and architecture buffs – the Atenium and the Kiasma are Helsinki’s flagship art museums, and there are many smaller galleries and museums too some (listed here). And if you’re interested in Alvar Aalto and his contribution to modern architecture, then you can visit his home and his studio (both now preserved as museums; blogged here). The neighbourhood of Arabia is also interesting for walking around as all the new buildings built there had to allocate a portion of their budget to art… so there are all sorts of interesting sculptures there (blogged here).
- for those interested in all the above – the Seurasaari open air museum comprises old buildings from all over Finland and is located on a lovely little island. And just across the road is the Urho Kekkonen museum (recently restored to its 1970’s state; blogged here)
- for those who want to sweat – there is a smoke sauna at Kuusijärvi (about 30 minutes north of the city centre by bus; but check that it is open on – at present the smoke sauna is only running on week days).
- for those who want to shop – you can find lots of Finnish design at the Arabia mall (accessible by Tram 6 or 8) and the Marimekko factory shop (located at Kirvesmiehenkatu 7, accessible from the Herttoniemi Metro station).
And if your first days in Helsinki have left you feeling a little tired… then how about hopping on the “tourist tram” (the 3B or 3T: being renamed the 2 and 3 trams this summer). This tram goes past many of the city’s important and interesting spots.
Special “seasonal” events you should check out
If you are lucky enough to be in Helsinki during the right time of the year, you should not miss the following events…
- August – Night of the Arts (the culmination of the Helsinki Festival; blogged here)
- September – Open House Helsinki (blogged here and here)
- February, May, August, November – Ravintolapäivä (or Restaurant Day; where ordinary people open pop-up restaurants for half a day across the city; blogged here)
- Otherwise check out Stadissa.fi (and use Google Translate if they still don’t have an English option) to see what’s happening in Helsinki.
Hope you have a great time in this lovely city! And for those who know Helsinki… please let us know if we’ve missed anything that you think should be on the list! You can (as always) leave comments below.