Summer in Helsinki: First Impressions from the Capital City

Though the goal of my time in Finland was to eat my way around the archipelago region and explore the outdoors, I knew I couldn’t come to the country and skip out on the capital city.

Since this was going to be Sam’s first time in Europe, we decided to arrive a few days early in order to do some sightseeing around Helsinki, meet up with a friend of mine, and even take a side trip to a neighbouring country! But until I get around to telling you about all of that, here are some of my first impressions of Helsinki:

Life is lived outdoors

On my first day out in the city I turned to Sam in wonder, “It’s Thursday, how are people not at work?” It was about 11 in the morning and it seemed like all around us locals (and a few out of towners) were going about the day as though it were a weekend.

Friends were chatting at outdoor cafes, couples were cycling around on vintage bicycles, and families were enjoying picnics at Esplanadi Park while a brass ensemble played live music. Didn’t anyone have to be at work?

Vintage bicycles on the streets of Helsinki.

After speaking to a few locals I discovered that Finns get a lot of holidays, and of course, many like to take their holidays during the height of summer when the weather is at its very best and the sun shines its longest.

Helsinki knows a thing or two about design

While in Helsinki I got to meet up with one of my Canadian friends who is currently studying in Finland, and together we went on an extensive walking tour of the design district.

Architecture in Helsinki, Finland.

I already knew about the design company Marimekko (they specializes in flower prints and graphic patterns), however, there is a whole world of Finnish design outside that household name. There were shops specializing in glass, ceramics, furniture, fabrics, all by established and upcoming Finnish designers.

If I had to sum up Finnish design, I would go with clean, edgy and fun.

You will eat like royalty at Market Square

I love browsing markets so this little spot was a pleasant surprise. Located right by the harbour, Market Square was the perfect place to get a taste of Finnish cooking, and it became my go-to restaurant for multiple meals a day, including my very first taste of reindeer meatballs. (You could have told me they were beef and fooled me.) However, it was the mouthwatering salmon dish that kept me coming back for more.

Reindeer meatballs with potatoes, vegetables, and garlic sauce.

My usual order included a hearty portion of grilled salmon cooked in lemon, butter and black pepper. This came with a generous side of marinated Parisienne potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and green beans, all covered in a creamy garlic sauce. Yum! At 9 Euros a plate, I found it to be a bargain.

If you’re going to visit Market Square for dinner, just be sure you go with enough time to order your meal and eat it too. The market closes at 6pm, but most vendors start closing up well before then.

The midnight sun really does shine

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in Lapland in the summertime when the sun never dips below the horizon. Even though Helsinki is in the southern part of the country, we still got extended daylight hours. The sun was always up by the time I woke up at 6 in the morning, and of course, it was still shining by the time I went to bed at 10 in the evening. It was a strange feeling to never see the sky go dark.

Smoked salmon and rye bread are a daily dietary staple

Whether it was for breakfast or for a mid-afternoon snack, there was always smoked salmon and rye bread around. I couldn’t have asked for a healthier of tastier treat.

Helsinki is a very tranquil capital city

Helsinki may be the calmest capital city I have ever set foot in. Coming from Southeast Asia, I knew I would be shocked by the cleanliness and orderliness of Finland, but I wasn’t quite expecting to find such a peaceful setting in a capital city. There were times when I was walking downtown and I would make a turn only to discover I had the whole street to myself.

A quiet street in Helsinki, Finland.

I was also surprised by traffic – as in there wasn’t any. While in cities like Saigon you have to throw yourself into traffic and hope that motorcycles swerve around you, in Helsinki there were hardly any vehicles, and those which we did encounter at intersections usually gave us pedestrians the right of way. Thank you!

Have you been to Helsinki?
What were your first impressions?

Join the Conversation

36 Comments

  1. says: Nicole

    We’re planning a Nordic trip (to include Ireland because I’ve been dying to go there since I was 5). And Finland is definitely on the list. 🙂 although we plan to visit in July, like you did. I love long summer days. 🙂

    1. says: Audrey

      That’s awesome! You really do get a lot out of visiting in the summer because you have so many daylight hours. Your body just keeps pushing you to stay outdoors longer. 😉

    2. Hi Nicole!

      Nice to hear that you are interested in visiting Finland. I definitely think that coming in July is a good idea. If possible, I would recommend early July for the longest possible summer nights. Hope you can make the trip soon and enjoy your stay – welcome!

  2. says: Julika

    Helsinki looks amazing! And rye bread and smoked salmon sound so good!
    I imagine it must be weird to arrive in Finland after such a long time in Asia — I can’t wait to hear more about your Europe impressions!

    1. says: Audrey

      It was strange arriving in Europe after living in Asia for a year and a half. I really appreciated the cooler weather and being able to wear a sweater and jeans. 😉

    1. says: Audrey

      They do look very stylish! Another things I noticed was that everyone dressed really well in the city, but I think that’s just a European thing. 😉

  3. says: memographer

    Great intro, Audrey!
    I had also noticed that the streets of European cities busier on weekdays.
    Hope Sam is enjoying Europe 😉
    Smoked salmon made me hungry 🙁
    Waiting for more pics!

  4. says: Michael Taylor

    You mentioned Marimekko – did you know that they developed the “design concept” for Finnair? Very stylish! Nothing like Scandinavian design!!!

    1. says: Audrey

      I didn’t know about that, but what a great concept! I just looked it up online and I really like the designs they painted on the exterior of the planes. Very Finnish!

  5. says: Maria

    You probably experienced something similar in Canada but I’ve always felt summer is spent in places that cold during the winter months as those are the folks who truly make the most of, and seem to cherish every second of, the summer season. 🙂

    1. says: Audrey

      There’s nothing like several feet of snow to make you really enjoy summer once it finally does arrive. I’m always baffled by Canadians who start wearing shorts and sandals in April – some of the snow has melted, but it’s definitely not summer weather yet!

  6. says: Sam

    It also must have been a little bit of a shock coming from SE Asia and then paying €9 for a plate of food, no?! Helsinki looks lovely…perhaps a little sterile?

    1. says: Audrey

      We kind of got over the initial price shock when we were still at the airport in Istanbul waiting for our connecting flight. We had a little browse in the duty-free and decided that €11 for a box set of turkish delight was a fair price…haha.

  7. says: Peter Lee

    Hey, it is really a nice destination spot to visit especially in terms of peace and cleanliness. Thanks for sharing the information. I have now included it in my bucket list.

  8. says: Zhu

    I was only in “Hell” (that’s how it was labelled on our tickets!) for a couple of days, a stopover on our way to Beijing, in 2008. I also ate at the market (awesome food, and cheap by local standards!). Even in France I can’t help noticing people never seem to work… they are always drinking or eating outside!

    1. says: Audrey

      I wish cafe culture were a bit more prevalent in North America, but I guess cities just aren’t built that way. People seem to enjoy socializing and being outdoors so much more in Europe.

  9. says: Eevi Oittinen

    Are you still here? You absolutely have to vistit Minna Parikka store if you enjoy Finnish design, she is our top 1 fashion designer and absolutely my favourite shoe brand. 🙂 Not cheap though… The store is in Aleksanterinkatu 36!

    1. says: Audrey

      I’m not in Helsinki anymore, unfortunately. That’s too bad I missed it because it looks like a really fun shoe store!!

    1. says: Audrey

      That’s an exciting move! I also HIGHLY recommend a visit to Tallinn. I took a day trip from Helsinki and I absolutely loved it there!

  10. says: TammyOnTheMove

    Scandinavian countries know a thing or two about generous holiday allowances. I am working for an American organization at the moment and get a meager 15 days annual leave per year. In most Scandinavian you get about 30 or more.

  11. says: sarah jacob

    Nice post…..Lott heard about Helsinki but never got chance to be there now after watching and reading all these stuff really wanted to go there .

  12. says: Laura

    I am glad to read your summer sojourn to Helsinki.I have heard about the blueberries at Helsinki.Are they really good ?Apart from that it sounds fun visiting i will visit it in future for sure.

  13. says: Shing

    Scandinavia is like the polar opposite of SE Asia and yet I love both places! The thing I love most about Scandinavia is the cool, fresh air… and coming from a busy, humid climate you surely must have delighted in it too when you first arrived? I haven’t been to Helsinki yet, but it’s definitely on the ‘list’ and I won’t forget to go to Market Square!

  14. says: Veera Papinoja

    Hey! I just fell in love with your fantastic blog! 🙂 How cool that you visited my city Helsinki ! I am a travel blogger too but just moving to a new website so if you will look at it it is most likely empty 😉

  15. says: Ga

    Awesome post! Any ideas for March? I’m off to hunt auroras and stopping here for a couple of days.. any winter recommendations anyone?

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