When you live in a place that has long winters, you really have to learn to savour those short summer months, and Finland is a perfect example of that. I recently got to spend a few days revisiting the capital, Helsinki, and one of the first things I noticed was that everyone was outdoors – the cafes were lined with people enjoying their coffees al fresco, friends were meeting for picnics in the park, the Baltic Sea was full of sailboats going out for a day on the water – it was so lively!
I too tried to make the most of my summer visit. My days started early and ended late – it sure helped that the sun was up by 5 a.m. and setting at 9:30 p.m. – but then again, who needs sleep when you have perfect weather and a city waiting to be explored?
The following post is a little city guide for summer in the Finnish capital. I’ve included some of my favourite things to do in Helsinki, as well as some tips on where to eat, where to sleep, and how to get around the city. I hope you’ll find it useful!
Things to do in Helsinki
Visit Helsinki Cathedral – First things first, you have to drop by Senate Square to have a look at the city’s best known attraction: Helsinki Cathedral. This white church with a green dome dominates the skyline, and I think it’s a cool attraction because it’s quite different from other churches you’ll encounter in Europe. While the typical European church is very elaborate and full of relics, sculptures, and paintings, Helsinki Cathedral is a blank canvas. The interior is stark white and it has a minimalist feel.
Browse the shops in the Design District – Helsinki has a thriving design district where you’ll be able to check out the latest in Scandinavian design. Iittala is a cool shop if you want to browse ceramics, glassware, and general home interior – everything in here is trendy and innovative – and then you have Marimekko, the biggest name in Finnish fashion. This brand is known for its bold colours and fun prints, so it’s worth a browse when in Finland. You seriously can’t walk more than a few blocks without spotting a Marimekko store, so just go in and have a look.
Pick up some salty liquorice from the Salmiakkikioski – Oh salmiakki…it’s one of those flavours that you either love or hate. In case you’ve never heard of salmiakki before, it’s a salty black liquorice made with ammonium chloride. To say the taste is repugnant is an understatement, but Sam loves this stuff, so we managed to track down a small kiosk that specializes in salmiakki products – 91 types of salkmiakki to be precise! Sam ordered himself a salmiakki ice cream, which he enjoyed on the little tables they have set up for customers. If you’re interested in visiting the Salmiakkikioski, it’s located on the southeast corner of Runeberginkatu and Eteläinen Hesperiankatu, which is just a short walk from the Rock Church. Keep in mind that this place is only open during the summer months, so don’t bother trekking all the way out here the rest of the year.
Go midnight kayaking – One of the highlights of my visit to Helsinki was going kayaking at midnight. I have been kayaking several times before, but this experience trumped all the former ones! We met up with the team at Natura Viva at around 9 p.m. when the sun was till up (that’s Finnish summer for you), and we set out just as the sky was starting to turn the most beautiful shades of lavender and pink. After about an hour and a half of kayaking, we reached a small island where our guides made a little fire and surprised us with a picnic of smoked salmon sandwiches, Karelian pastries, and Karl Fazer chocolates – all under the moonlight! We spent a solid hour just eating and chatting, and when it was time to go back we strapped on some headlamps and paddled back to shore. The whole experience was one of those surreal moments where you just have to pinch yourself – am I really here in Finland kayaking on the Baltic Sea at midnight?!
Go in search of Moomins – How do I describe a Moomin to you? Let’s see…they are characters from a Finnish fairy tale that was created by Tove Jansson. They are very plump and white, and in a way they kind of resemble hippopotamuses. Oh, and they are virtually everywhere in Finland. I happened to be in Helsinki while the Moomin exhibition was taking place at the Ateneum Art Museum to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the Moomins’ creator, and the Moomins were plastered all over posters, coffee mugs, and postcards.
Visit the Kamppi Chapel of Silence – Situated in the heart of Helsinki’s commercial district, the Kamppi Chapel of Silence is meant to provide a quiet retreat in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. It’s a very cool building, and the rounded wooden exterior will immediately catch your eye. The interior of the chapel is very earthy and in a way it makes you feel connected with nature. The walls are made out of wood, and there’s a cluster of pillows on one side of the room which resemble smooth pebbles. While no services are currently held in the chapel, they do have clergy and social workers on site in case anyone needs to chat about life or get some guidance.
Spend an afternoon in Suomenlinna – Suomenlinna is a sea fortress that was built across 6 islands, which are part of Helsinki’s archipelago. This is a very popular spot during the summer months, especially on weekends when locals like to escape to the islands for picnics or a bite of food at the many cafes and restaurants. There are guided tours of Suomenlinna June through August.
Grab a bite at Lonna Island – And now let me introduce you to yet another island. Lonna Island is a pretty cool destination because it just opened to the public this summer! The former military island was used by the Russian Navy to store mines in the 1880s, and then in the 1920s it was used as a base for clearing mines. Starting this summer, however, ferry lines have started ushering visitors to the little island, where they can enjoy a picnic or join friends for a delicious meal at a restaurant set in the old storage buildings. There is a great terrace outdoors where lights have been strung across bright pink and red chairs, and it’s the perfect setting for long summer days. Plus the food here is seriously amazing! I enjoyed some grilled fish with a tapioca pudding and a side of potatoes with dill, and I’m still thinking about that meal today. Getting to Lonna Island is pretty easy. The JT cruise lines ferries leave from Market Square and stop at the Lonna quay on their way to Suomenlinna. It costs 7 Euros for a return ticket.
Get sweaty in the sauna – I can officially say I have tried Finnish sauna; though I’ll admit it wasn’t your traditional naked sauna since we were sharing with men and women! But still, I went in there, sat in the room, watched the temperature climb to an intolerable 90 Celsius…and then I ran out gasping for air. Phewww, the heat does take some getting used. Fun fact: there are an estimated 2 million saunas in a country with a population of 5.3 million Finns!
Take a guided bike tour of Helsinki – My first day in the city, I joined Bike Tours Helsinki for a guided tour. I’ve taken a lot of bike tours in different cities around the world, and they tend to stick to one neighbourhood, however, our guide Karri tried to give us a little taste of everything. We started out in the centre of Helsinki where we got to see a bit of the downtown, and then we slowly made our way outside of town, riding along the waterfront, taking detours through embassy-laden neighbourhoods, stopping at the beach, and continuing on through the forest. I got to see a side of Helsinki that I wouldn’t have found on my own, and it was also cool to see how accessible nature is from the city centre.
Visit the carpet-washing docks – Helsinki has a tradition of carpet-washing by the sea, so every summer, people haul their dirty carpets down to these specially built wooden docks, where they scrub away a year’s worth of filth. The carpets are then left to dry overnight, and the next morning they roll them up and bring them back home. This is one of those cultural things that I haven’t come across anywhere else in the world. As you can see from the photo above, these docks are also popular hangout spots with swimmers and sunbathers.
Go inside the Rock Church – Temppeliaukion, better known as the Rock Church, is one of those attractions that you can’t quite picture in your head until you actually get there. Basically, the entire building was carved out of solid rock (creating great acoustics, might I add), and the whole concept was considered quite radical when it was first built. Despite being carved into the rock, however, the building actually feels quite bright. The ceiling consists of a copper dome surrounded by a skylight, so a lot of natural light filters down into the auditorium. Bonus: you can even drop by for a service on a Sunday, but you’ll actually have to sit through the whole thing because the church isn’t technically open to visitors who just want to run in and snap a picture.
Watch performers at Esplanade Park – Esplanade Park seems to be where everyone comes to hang out. I really liked strolling through here in the afternoons because there was always so much going on – friends enjoying picnics, live musical performances taking place on stage, quirky street performers doing their thing…
And that’s a little taste of how I spent a few days in Helsinki. If you’re still curious about the city, here’s a little city guide that Sam and I shot over the course of our stay. Hopefully it’ll give you a better feel of the place, and help showcase some of the sights and attractions. (You can find more Finland videos on our YouTube channel.)
Where to eat in Helsinki
Market Square – When it comes to eating in Helsinki, my go-to place is always Market Square. The market is lined with food stalls and you can get all sorts of traditional Finnish food. My favourite is the grilled salmon with potatoes and vegetables. At 10 Euros a plate, it’s a very affordable option, plus the portions are large enough to share between 2 people. Market Square is also a great place to pick up fresh berries for a nice afternoon snack.
Dinner in the Sky – On my first day in Helsinki, I was walking from the train station when I noticed a giant crane with a table hanging from it. I had to do a double take – were those people having lunch in the sky?! Yes, they were. Over the past few summers Helsinki has been hosting a unique dining experience where foodies can snag a seat at a 22 seater table and enjoy dinner 40 meters above the city. Dinner in the Sky invites world-renowned chefs to cook for a daredevil audience. Because this one-of-a-kind event only lasts a few days, tickets are highly coveted, and while I didn’t get to experience this for myself, it’s something I’d love to try in the future!
Fafa’s – This was a really great spot for falafel and kebabs. I tried the Fafa’s Kebab special with fried eggplant, tabouleh and tzatziki, and it was delicious. At under 10 Euros it was a bargain.
Cafe Bar 9 – This place is a bit of a hipster hangout and it has a very casual feel. The waiters won’t come to you; you’ll have to go up to the bar and order your drink/meal, and then they’ll bring it to you when it’s ready. They make nice pasta dishes and it’s also a very budget-friendly spot.
Karl Fazer Cafe – Karl Fazer is the biggest name in Finnish chocolate and they even have their own cafe. (Karl was born to a Swiss father, and we all know the Swiss make good chocolates!) If you’re in the mood for a cup of coffee and a chocolatey dessert, this is the place for you. It’s one of the best things to do in Helsinki if you have a sweet tooth!
Where to Stay in Helsinki
Hotel Katajanokka – If you’re looking for a quirky hotel with a bit of a dark history, then look no further than Hotel Katajanokka. This building was once a jail, and while it has been completely renovated, it still retains that prison-like feel. The windows were built high up in order to prevent inmates from climbing out, and the entire property is walled in. They also have a little restaurant called the Jailbird Cafe where they serve the most spectacular buffet breakfasts. The dishware consists of tin cups and metal plates keeping true to the hotel’s history. (You can read a review of my stay in the jail hotel here.)
Radisson Blue Royal Hotel – The Radisson Blu is one of the nicest properties I stayed in during my previous visit to Helsinki. The hotel is located right across from the main train station, so it’s a very easy location for those who want to be in the heart of the city. I also liked that the rooms are bold in colour with fun pops of fuchsia, teal, and purple. This is one of those ultra-modern properties where the TV greets you when you walk into the room, and the bathroom mirror has another TV so you can watch the news as you get ready. (You can read a review of my stay at the Radisson Blu here.)
Rivoli Hotel Jardin – The Rivoli Hotel has more of a boutique feel. The rooms are bright with a nice touch of Scandinavian design, and the property is located by Esplanade Park. They also have a beautiful, bright conservatory where you can enjoy breakfast every morning.
Eurohostel – If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, then Euro Hostel is one of the highest rated properties in the city. They offer dormitory beds, single rooms, twin rooms and triple rooms. The hostel has 2 different room categories budget class “backpacker rooms” and modernized “Eurohostel rooms”, so if you want a bit more comfort then you can upgrade to the second option.
Getting around Helsinki
From the airport – Getting into the city from the airport is super easy. You can either hop aboard the Finnair City Bus which will get you there in 30 minutes for 6,30 Euros, or alternatively, you can take bus # 615 which will get you there in 40 minutes for 5 Euros. Both buses will drop you off in front of the main train station right in the centre of Helsinki.
Bike – Helsinki is very bike-friendly and most streets have separate lanes for bikers. Some hotels offer bikes that you can either borrow or hire for the day, or if you’re looking for something a bit more comprehensive then you can join a guided tour of the city.
Walk – It’s free! Helsinki is quite small for a capital city and it’s really easy to get around on foot. You can pick up a free map of the city at the Visitors Centre, and then head out on your own self-made tour.
Bus / tram / train – Public transportation around the city is quite efficient. You can either get a single ticket (rates vary so check here), or if you’re planning to cover a lot of ground in one day, you can pick up a 1-day pass for 8 Euros.
Have you been to Helsinki?
Are there any other things to do in Helsinki you’d add to this list?