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Helsinki is an easy city to like, especially when you arrive on a sunny May evening like we did with bright blue skies and locals enjoying beers on terraces. It’s a compact, walkable city that feels close to nature—there are plenty of parks, and it’s surrounded on three sides by the sea with over 300 islands just a short ferry hop away. It’s a low pressure destination—there aren’t any “must-see” sights but there’s plenty to occupy your time including unusual churches, vibrant market halls, and an island fortress. Our favourite thing to do (surprise, surprise) was explore Helsinki’s surprisingly excellent food and cafe scene.
Free Things to Do in Helsinki
1) Start at the Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square
Helsinki is very walkable and a good place to start your exploration is Senate Square in the heart of the city. It’s surrounded by Neoclassical buildings including the Lutheran Cathedral which was completed in 1852 and for many people is the symbol of the city.
2) Stroll Along Esplanade Park & Market Square
Just south of Senate Square the Esplanade Park is a popular place to stroll, people watch, and relax. It continues into Market Square at Helsinki’s harbour where you can shop for souvenirs, buy Finnish snacks, and catch a ferry out to the islands.
3) Visit the Uspenski Cathedral
The Uspenski Cathedral is a short walk from Market Square and is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. The red brickwork and golden cupolas show the influence of Russia on Finnish history. We recommend combining a visit with the lovely Johan & Nystrom cafe around the corner.
4) Marvel at the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Kirkko)
The Rock Church was definitely the most unusual church we visited in Helsinki. It was excavated out of solid rock and the interior is a beautiful mix of rugged stone, copper dome, and glass and steel.
5) Escape to the Kamppi Chapel of Silence
Another unusual church, the chapel of silence is a simple curved wooden structure near the busy Kamppi shopping center. It’s soundproof and windowless, designed so anyone can drop in for a moment of silence, an oasis of calm in the centre of the city.
6) Explore the Kallio Neighbourhood
Kallio is Helsinki’s hipster neighbourhood. It’s still grungy and is the place to come for cheap beer, but it has a growing number of trendy cafes, bars, and vintage shops. Some of our favourite stops include Good Life Coffee and Silvoplee vegetarian restaurant. If you are in Helsinki during one of the four yearly Restaurant Days head to Bear Park for an array of food stalls run by locals—when we were there everything from Thai to Tibetan was on offer.
7) Walk to the Sibelius Monument
You could take the bus but we chose to walk to the Sibelius Monument via Töölö Bay. This sculpture of organ pipes commemorates the legendary Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It gets mixed reviews but we rather liked it and it’s a good trip to combine with Cafe Regatta (see below).
8) Run Around Töölö Bay (Töölönlahti)
Well, you could walk but as our hotel the Scandic Paasi was only a few minutes away this park was perfect for a quick morning run. You’ll join locals out running, cycling and Nordic walking (walking with poles) and see iconic Helsinki buildings like the Finlandia Hall reflected in the water.
9) Watch 3D Printing at the Urban Workshop
Helsinki’s libraries go beyond just books. At Urban Workshop you’ll find a free co-working space, a craft making area, and a 3D printer for anyone to use. It’s the first time we’ve seen one and we felt like the future had arrived!
Foodie Things to Do in Helsinki
10) Munch Your Way Around Hakaniemi Market Hall
Hakaniemi is Helsinki’s biggest market and is full of stalls selling vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, cheese, olives, nuts, and pastries. We browsed an organic vegetable stall and sampled Karelian pastries.
11) Seek Out the Best AeroPress Coffee
There are so many fantastic cafes in Helsinki and most serve AeroPress filter coffee—Simon was in heaven! Do what we did and take a self-guided cafe tour to find your favourite—these are our top picks.
12) Gorge on Guilt-Free Raw Cakes
While you are AeroPressing your way around Helsinki enjoy raw vegan cakes along the way—they are everywhere, a little expensive but delicious and healthy (right?). Our favourites were at Cafe Kokko and Hymy Raw Food Cafe.
13) Eat Cinnamon Buns at Quirky Cafe Regatta
Cafe Regatta may not have the best coffee in Helsinki but the cinnamon buns, quirky interior, and sea views make it worth the trip.
14) Indulge in a Landscape-Themed, Cocktail-Paired Tasting Menu at A21
We had one of the best meals of our lives at A21—five beautiful courses were inspired by a Finnish landscape painting and paired with unusual cocktails. It sounds bizarre but it really works—definitely worth the splurge!
15) Discover the City’s Vegetarian Restaurants
We were surprised by how vegetarian-friendly Helsinki is and had loads of meat-free restaurants to choose from—read our favourites here.
16) Learn about Helsinki’s Organic Food Scene on a Food Tour
Taking a food tour is a great way to learn more about a city and spend the day eating. We learnt about Helsinki’s organic food scene with Happy Guide Helsinki while exploring markets, chocolate shops, and vegetarian restaurants.
17) Love or Hate Salmiakki (Salty Liquorice)
The Finns love salmiakki or salty liquorice. You may not be quite so enamoured but you’ve got to give it a try. The bulk food stores that are all over the city are a good place to sample a few varieties without committing to a whole packet.
18) Eat all the Chocolate
Who knew the Finns made such good chocolate? Fazer is the most popular brand and can be found at every corner store—the milk chocolate is delicious. You can also seek out excellent independent chocolate shops like Petris Chocolate Room in the Töölö neighbourhood.
Other Fun Things to Do in Helsinki
All the activities below are included in the Helsinki City Card so if you are planning to visit a lot of museums and other sights it could save you money.
19) Gaze at the City from the SkyWheel
The Finnair SkyWheel is a great way to see the city from above with views over Market Square, Uspenski and Helsinki Cathedrals, and the harbour. The blue tinged windows aren’t ideal for photography though.
20) Take the Ferry to Suomenlinna Island
The Suomenlinna sea fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—it was founded in 1748 and has been ruled by Sweden, Russia, and Finland. Even if you’re not a history buff it’s worth the 15 minute ferry ride out here for a wander along the cute cobbled streets, scenic trails, and fortress walls. There are six museums and a number of cafes so you could spend all day here. It’s best visited on a calm sunny day as the wind can make it very chilly.
21) Enjoy the City’s Museums
We saw Finnish masters at the Ateneum Art Museum and avant garde design at the Design Museum, but there are many more museums to choose from, many included in the Helsinki Card.
22) Hop the Trams
Although Helsinki is very walkable the trams are a good way to save your legs, and an unlimited transport pass is included with the Helsinki Card so you can hop on and off as you like. Visit Helsinki has some suggestions of the best routes to take including Tram 2 for sightseeing, Tram 4 for an architectural tour, and Tram 6 for a design and culinary tour.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
Scandic Paasi Hotel
We stayed near the Hakaniemi market at the lovely Scandic Paasi. It’s built on the site of an old circus so has a fun circus theme, including the best wallpaper ever. Our room was bright and comfortable and we loved the colourful lounge/bar, breakfast buffet, and ideal location between the city centre and hipster Kallio neighbourhood. It has so much character that it doesn’t feel like a chain hotel at all.
Glo Hotel Airport
We arrived in Finland late and had an early flight out the next day to Lapland, so we spent the night at the Glo Hotel in the airport. It was wonderfully convenient to arrive in a new country and be able to crash without even leaving the airport. Our room was small and windowless but stylish and spotless. You can even elevate the bed with a remote to an angle that suits you! A decent breakfast buffet was included and it was so easy to catch our flight the next day.
How to Get Around Helsinki
Helsinki Airport is 17 km from the city centre which can be reached by train, bus or taxi. We took bus 615 from stop 21 outside the terminal to Hakaniemi. The journey cost €5 and took 30 minutes. A train has recently opened (July 2015) and is probably the most convenient way to travel into the city.
The city is very walkable but you can also take the tram, metro or bus. The Helsinki Card includes free transport which makes it very convenient to hop on and off. We used Google Maps to plan our routes and found it accurate.
Map of Things to Do in Helsinki
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Many thanks to Visit Finland who sponsored our trip.