Posted: 05/14/20 | May 14th, 2020
As I landed in Helsinki, I didn’t really know what to expect. Out of all the capital cities in the area, Helsinki gets the least “buzz.” And, while small and not as “cool” as Stockholm or Copenhagen, Helsinki is a hip, modern capital home to a vibrant art and music scene. It’s bursting with museums, cafes, and green space.
I really enjoyed my time here. It’s a very relaxed place to visit.
And, best of all, it sees a fraction of the tourists that cities in the area do too!
Helsinki is a lot cooler than you imagine it to be and it’s a wonderful place for art lovers (Finns are really into the arts). To help you make the most of your visit, here of all the best things to do and see there (at least, according to me):
1. Take a Free Walking Tour
One of the best things to do when you arrive in a new destination is to take a free walking tour. You’ll get to see the main sights, learn about the history and culture, and have a local expert available to answer all your questions. It’s the first thing I do when I arrive in a new city.
Walking Tours Helsinki offers a free 1.5-2 hour tour that acts as a solid introduction to the city. Just be sure to tip your guides!
2. Visit the Post Museum
A museum about the postal service sounds absolutely boring but I found it surprisingly interesting. The museum highlights the history of the mail service in Finland, from ships and sleds in the 1600s to the modern-day service. There are tons of relics, galleries, and short films about how they made mail delivery work in such a sparsely populated and harsh environment.
It does an excellent job taking a boring subject and making it fun, accessible, and educational.
Alaverstaanraitti 5, +358 03 5656 6966, postimuseo.fi. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-6pm. Admission is 13 EUR for adults and 6 EUR for children.
3. Relax in Sinebrychoff Park
This small city park used to be the private garden of a Russian businessman. Today, it’s a popular spot for picnics, relaxing, events, and sledding in the winter. There are lots of cafes nearby so grab a snack and come here to lounge and watch the day go by. It’s super popular with the locals in the summer.
4. Explore the National Museum of Finland
As a history buff, I always appreciate a good museum. I’ve been to more than my fair share of disappointing and under-funded museums over the years. Fortunately, this was not one of them.
Opened in 1916, the museum covers the history of Finland from the Stone Age to the present. It has a large collection of artifacts, provides lots of detail and creates a chronological narrative, and offers decent descriptions so you always know what you are looking at. For a small capital city, it’s a very, very impressive museum. Don’t miss it!
Mannerheimintie 34, +358 29 5336000, kansallismuseo.fi/en/kansallismuseo. Open daily from 11am-6pm (closed Mondays in the winter). Admission is 14 EUR.
5. Wander the Suomenlinna Fortress
Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed by Sweden in 1748 on an island just off the coast. Originally named “Sveaborg” (Castle of the Swedes), it was built as a deterrent against Russian expansionism. Eventually, it was renamed to “Suomenlinna” (Castle of Finland) in 1918 when the country gained independence. A visit here is a relaxing way to spend half a day as you can explore the fort, wander the island, or chill in one of the many parks.
There are also a lot of interesting buildings here (including six different museums) and some out-of-the-way beaches.
Admission to the fort is free, though each of the museums has its own admission fee.
6. Visit the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art
I’m not a fan of contemporary art. However, if you are, then be sure to visit. This museum opened in 1990 and is housed in a really unique modern building not far from the Post Museum. The collection consists of over 8,000 works (though I personally don’t recognize any of the names). Part of the Finnish National Gallery, Kiasma is Finnish for “chiasma” which is a term that describes the crossing of nerves or tendons.
Mannerheiminaukio 2, +358 29 450 0501, kiasma.fi/en. Open Tuesday from 10am-6pm, Wednesday-Friday from 10am-8:30pm, Saturdays from 10am-6pm, and Sundays from 10am-5pm. Admission is 15 EUR for adults and 13 EUR for students and seniors. For children under 18, admission is free. Admission is also free on the first Friday of the month.
7. See the Finnish Museum of Photography
This museum houses an awesome collection of photography from both Finnish and international artists. There are rotating exhibits as well as exhibits by new and emerging photographers. There’s always something interesting here so check the website to see what’s on display during your visit.
Tallberginkatu 1, +358 9 68663610, valokuvataiteenmuseo.fi. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 11am-6pm (8pm on Wednesdays). Admission is 10 EUR for adults and free for anyone under 18.
8. Marvel at the Helsinki Cathedral
This cathedral was built in the 19th century as a tribute to Czar Nicholas I. Located next to the Bank Museum, it towers over the city and is one of the most recognizable facets of the capital’s skyline. If you’ve visited a lot of cathedrals won’t likely walk away thinking this is one of the greatest cathedrals in Europe, but I think it’s one of the best in Scandinavia.
Unioninkatu 29, +358 9 23406120, helsinginseurakunnat.fi. Open daily from 9am-6pm. Admission is free.
9. Stroll Around the Central Market
For souvenir shopping, tasty local food, fresh produce (including lots of berries in the summer), and great people-watching be sure to head to the Central Market. It’s located near the harbor, which sits on the coast of the Baltic Sea. In October, the herring market begins which is a huge local event. The market has heated tents when it gets cold and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes around making it a fun place to visit any time of the year. While it is often swarming with tourists, I heard enough Finnish to know it isn’t a complete tourist trap.
Open daily from 8am-5pm. Admission is free.
10. Explore the Sinebrychoff Art Museum
This is the only museum in the city that focuses on older European paintings and portraits (from the 14th-19th centuries). Housed in a building built in 1842, there are around 4,000 items in the collection. Not only are there some incredible and historic works here but part of the museum is composed of the Sinebrychoff residence itself. You can walk through the old Sinebrychoff estate and see what life was like for the affluent in Helsinki in the 19th century.
Bulevardi 40, +358 29 4500460, sinebrychoffintaidemuseo.fi. Open Tuesday-Friday from 11am-6pm (8pm on Wednesdays) and 10am-5pm on weekends. Admission is 15 EUR and free for kids under 18.
11. Visit the Bank of Finland Museum
Admittedly, a bank museum sounds even more boring than a post museum but this museum was one of the coolest museums I’ve seen in a long time. First and foremost, it paints a clear and insightful picture of the history of money in Finland. They also host rotating exhibitions on all sorts of related topics (such as counterfeit money). But what I found the museum really did well was to explain the history of modern finance. It makes the topic so clear and concise that I really learned a lot during my visit.
Snellmaninkatu 2, +358 9 1832981, rahamuseo.fi/en.Open Tuesday-Friday from 11am-5pm (12pm-5pm on Wednesdays) and 11am-4pm on the weekend. Admission is free.
12. Relax in Esplanade Park
This park, known as Espa to the locals, is a popular place to spend an afternoon when the weather is nice. In the warmer summer months, there are street musicians and performers around as well as lots of green space and benches for anyone looking to lounge with a book or a picnic. Opened in 1818, the park also has some walking and jogging trails too. It’s just a nice place to relax and soak in the city.
13. See Uspenski Cathedral
This large red cathedral is hard to miss. It’s an Eastern Orthodox church with large domes and gold crosses and definitely has a very Russian feel to it. Consecrated in 1868, it’s actually the largest Eastern Orthodox church in all of Western Europe. The interior is lavishly decorated too, with a large vaulted ceiling and lots of Eastern Orthodox icons (though some of the most famous icons have actually been stolen in recent years).
Kanavakatu 1, +358 9 85646100. Open Tuesday-Friday from 9:30am-7pm, Saturday from 10am-3pm, and Sunday from 12pm-3pm. Closed during ceremonies. Admission is free.
14. Take a Food Tour
If you’re a foodie like me, you have to take a food tour. They’re the best way to sample the local delicacies. From fresh fish to craft beer to Finnish porridge, you’ll be able to sample many traditional foods. Heather’s Helsinki offers a tasty tour of the city that lasts 4-5 hours and includes 9 different stops around the city for just 85 EUR per person.
15. Visit the Helsinki City Museum
Opened in 1911, this is an excellent city museum with plenty of descriptions and top-notch exhibits and photos. It’s actually the third-best city museum I’ve come across in Europe (after the Amsterdam and Barcelona museums). Do not miss it. You’ll learn a lot about the city and learn about how it has changed and evolved over the centuries.
Aleksanterinkatu 16, +358 9 31036630, helsinginkaupunginmuseo.fi. Open weekdays from 11am-5pm and weekends from 11am-5pm. Admission is free.
16. Chill out in Kaivopuisto Park
This huge park is tucked away in the southeast corner of Helsinki. During the winter, tobogganing is popular here. Lots of events held here as well, such as Vappu Day (May 1st) celebrations. The park overflows with thousands of locals who come to picnic, listen to music, and drink away the day. Since it’s so out of the way, you hardly ever see tourists here.
17. Hit the Sauna
You can’t visit Finland without going to a sauna. The word itself is Finnish and there are over 3 million in the country (which is a lot since there are only 5.5 million people in Finland). There are plenty of public saunas in Helsinki, most of which ost around 10 EUR and have separate sections for men and women. You can usually rent towels as well, and while going nude is the traditional method there’s no shame in wearing a towel either.
Some of the best saunas in the city are:
18. Explore Seurasaari Island
This island just north of the city is home to an open-air museum featuring traditional style Finnish buildings. Guided tours are offered daily in the summer and will take you around the buildings and shed light on how Finns lived from the 17th-19th centuries. The museum, which opened in 1909, collected the buildings from all around the country so you aren’t seeing replicas here.
Meilahti, +358 295 33 6912, kansallismuseo.fi/en/seurasaarenulkomuseo. Open from May-September. Check website for specific hours. Admission 8 EUR in May and October and 10 EUR from June-August.
Helsinki is a city that deserves more praise than it gets. Fortunately for you, since it often overlooked, you’ll be able to visit without dealing with the crowds that so many other European capitals are plagued with.
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