Not fully Scandinavian, but not Eastern either, Helsinki has its own unique vibe. And, what’s more, visitors can easily sample the city over the course of a weekend.
Perched on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Helsinki has everything you could want from a city; A rich history, fascinating architecture, a thriving design scene and plenty of culture.
However, being so diverse and – well – so happening, it can be quite hard to know quite where to delve in. So, I selflessly went to sample the scene there, in the hopes you might find some inspiration if visiting the Finnish capital ever takes your fancy.
What to Do
If you’re hoping to sample the Finnish way of life, there’s only one place to start and that’s in the sauna. Saunas are a way of life here and most people have one at home. In fact, before the advent of public healthcare, Finnish women gave birth in saunas. So, the bathing tradition’s place in the country’s heritage cannot be understated.
So, while there are plenty of places to sweat it out in Helsinki, I would recommend a trip to Löyly. Completed in 2016, this architectural gem sits on a quiet bay by the Baltic. Cloaked in wood, the sauna feels private while still allowing idyllic views of the sea beyond.
Inside, visitors will find one steam sauna, a bar and a chill-out space complete with floor-to-ceiling windows and a roaring fire. Outside, there’s an additional smoke sauna and plenty of decking space where guests can cool off.
Additionally, for the brave, there’s a swimming jetty straight into the Baltic and I would recommend taking the plunge. Switching between the intense heat of the sauna to the biting cold of the sea was one of my favourite experiences of the whole weekend. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it actually feels good!
Spårakoff Pub Tram
If, like me, the sight of trams in the street gets you all excited, then Spårakoff may be of interest. Not only can you ride this cute little red tram all around Helsinki, it’s actually a bar, so you can get your drink on too.
Tickets cost €11 and drinks are a further €7 per pint, so it’s not cheap. However, it’s a unique experience. The tram leaves from the central train station before taking a loop around the city, including a rather pretty view of Senate Square. So, it’s a nice way to see the sights, made even better with a drink in hand.
Take the ferry to Suomenlinna
Visiting Suomenlinna is a must-do in Helsinki, especially if you’re in the city during summer. This Unesco World Heritage Site was once an island fortress used to defend both Sweden and Russia when each of the countries ruled Finland. When the country got its independence in 1917 the Finns used it as a military base until 1973.
Today the cluster of islands is one of Helsinki’s most popular tourist attractions and is frequented by locals and visitors alike. Resembling a nature reserve rather than a fortress, Suomenlinna is the ideal place for a quiet Sunday stroll or a picnic. There’s also handful of restaurants and a brewery on the island as well as a number of museums, for those craving their cultural fill.
What to See
Possibly the city’s most iconic piece of architecture, Helsinki Cathedral – or Tuomiokirkko – stands out thanks to its tall, green domes. The church cuts a dominating figure on the city skyline and was once a beacon to sailors who knew they were nearing Helsinki if they spotted the gleaming white cathedral. Situated at the helm of Senate Square, the building is surrounded by a number of other important buildings including the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the Finnish National Library.
Hesinki’s second cathedral – Uspenski Cathedral – is no less impressive. The same size as Tuomiokirkko, this church is of Eastern Orthodox denomination and is the biggest orthodox church in Western Europe. Once again, the building is easy to spot thanks to its green spires and golden onion domes. And, the inside is no less picturesque. Unlike Finland’s many Lutheran churches, Uspenski Cathedral is rich in decour and features many religious icons and intricate paintings.
Central Train Station
As I mentioned in my Antwerp blog, I’m a bit obsessed with train stations. So, thankfully, Helsinki’s did not disappoint. In fact, the BBC named the building as one of the world’s most beautiful train stations in 2013, so who am I to argue? Made from Finnish granite, the building’s distinguishing features include its unique clock tower and iconic masculine statues that each hold spherical lamps. With around 200,000 passengers passing through the terminus each day, the station is Finland’s most visited building.
Old Market Hall
Every city has their beloved market hall. Valencia, for example, prides itself on the size and scale of its Mercado Central. However, not many places can claim to have a market hall as quaint as this one. First opened in 1889, the trading place features two adjacent rows of cute wooden booths selling all manner of products and refreshments. Located on the shores of the Baltic, right next to Helsinki’s market square, the historic building is the ideal place to grab a coffee and warm up away from the sea breeze – (Yes, despite visiting in July, we still needed refuge from the cold.)
Another of Helsinki’s major tourist attractions, we encountered the biggest crowds of the weekend on our visit to Temppeliaukio Church. And, although the hordes of people proved infuriating to deal with, I must say the church is quite unmissable.
Temppeliaukio Church – or the Church in the Rock – opened in 1969 but remains futuristic to this day. As its name suggests, architects literally dug the church into a pile of rock in Helsinki’s Töölö neighbourhood. Given that the interior is mostly bare stone, the church boasts excellent acoustics, while a round skylight ensures the setting is bathed in the most magical light.
Where to Drink
If you’re wanting a decent drink in Helsinki, you’ve probably bypassed the city centre and headed straight to Kallio. Like most hipster-villes, this neighbourhood was once a working-class area of the city. And, it retains a kind of rough-around-the-edges atmosphere today. The area caters to a mix of people and drinks are still relatively cheap – so, it’s not out-and-out poser territory just yet.
Lots of the bars in Kallio are situated around Helsinginkatu and Vaasankatu, so that’s a good place to start. Alternatively, here’s a few places that stood out in my opinion.
This cosy locals bar was recommended to us by a friend who’d visited Helsinki a couple of months back. I’m not sure how he found it because it doesn’t give much away from the outside. However, on the inside visitors will find a tiny, traditional boozer consisting of just a few tables.
In the corner, there’s a bar covered in trinkets and a duke box packed full of old Finnish music and the odd Beatles or Frank Sinatra tune. At €5 a pint it’s hardly cheap. However, Pub Sirdie is a nice place to come and mix with the locals and enjoy a quiet drink.
This place was the first bar we visited in Kallio and kind of sums up the neighbourhood’s atmosphere. It had a laid-back vibe, with a punky playlist and eclectic décor. Heinähattu caters to a cool mix of people – from bearded rockers to trendy kids and everything in between.
I’ll make no bones about it – this place is strange. It looks like someone’s thrown together a bar from furniture from a thrift store, however, for some reason, the hipsters have invaded. I’m not sure why, but it’s probably got something to do with the fact a strong pint of lager costs €3.90!
One of Kallio’s more trendy offerings, Solmu is the place to come if you prefer a more stylish setting. Inside guests can peruse an extensive craft beer menu and soak up the relaxed vibe.
Taking us even further into hipster territory is Riviera. When we arrived, all we could see were the throngs of young people chilling outside. At that time, we had no idea it was actually a movie theatre. Nevertheless, the establishment boasts a thriving bar with a chic cocktail menu and a DJ set on weekends.
Helsinki has a pretty modern and reliable public transport system that makes getting around the city a doodle. We bought a HSL travel card for three days – which covered our weekend perfectly. The ticket costs €18 and includes all travel on the metro, buses and trams within Helsinki as well as some commuter trains to the outlining suburbs and the ferry to Suomenlinna.
If you’re planning on using public transport around Helsinki, I would also recommend downloading the free Moovel app. Just enter your starting point and your desired location and the app will work out the best way to get there while also providing a map, estimated journey time and the cost!