Doubtless, there are plenty of things to do in Helsinki. But what if you had just a couple of days? What are the unmissable-s and what are the ‘Maybe next time’ out of all?
And, more importantly, how do you do Helsinki without breaking the bank or breaking your legs from all the walking around? Read on to find out!
Some History (Because It’s Always Good To Be Cultured Like That)
Finland’s capital is actually not as ancient as you might thing. Granted, all of Scandinavia is full of Viking history, but Helsinki, as you see it today, took shape in the early 19th century.
Up until that point, the town was tiny and plagued by poverty, wars, and disease. Swedes constructed a fortress here, meant to keep the Russians at bay.
Although the Russians ended up winning the war, the Suomenlinna still remains and is one of the capital’s most important sights.
Russian Emperor Alexander I of Russia annexed Finland as an autonomous territory. He also moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to reduce Swedish and to increase Russian influence.
It is no coincidence that Helsinki is so close to St Petersburg. The whole city was, in fact, constructed to look like it’s Russian neighbor. The plan belonged to German-born C. L. Engel and emulated St Petersburg neoclassical style as closely as possible.
Finally, there is the landmark event of the 1952 Olympic Games. Helsinki was actually supposed to host the 1940 Summer Olympics but then World War II broke out – and nobody was in the mood for sports.
There is a commemorative coin that was minted in 2002 – the first Finnish euro commemorative coin that you can still see today.
Suomenlinna – That Infamous Swedish Fortress
Spread across seven islands, the Suomenlinna is a sight to behold.
Almost nothing has changed since it was erected and there are still around 10K people that live inside the city walls. You need to get a ferry to reach the Suomenlinna – it is just a couple of minutes away from Kauppatori.
Definitely budget enough time for the Suomenlinna, you need at least an afternoon to enjoy it without a rush. Pack some snacks and make a picnic day out of it, if you have the time.
Esplanadi – Speaking of Picnics
The Esplanadi or simply Espa is what the tiny park in the middle of the city is known by.
Although the place is small and not exactly calm, it is still worth noting it in your things to do in Helsinki. It is the place to have your picnic at, not to mention the awesome month-long jazz festival that happens at summer.
Jazz-Espa is here throughout the entire month of July, coincidentally one of the best months to visit Helsinki in the first place.
Linnanmäki – For Kids And Adults Alike
With over 65 years of history, this amusement park is a staple in your Helsinki programme.
If you are here with kids then you have no excuse whatsoever not to come. If you are a huge sucker for fun rides and a kid at heart like me, even less.
Some of the rides here have been around since the 1950s and are still in perfect working condition. Not to mention that the country’s highest and fastest rides are also at the Linnanmäki.
Uspenski Cathedral – The Russian Trace
There is over a century of Russian influence in Finland and nowhere is it more visible than in the Uspenski cathedral of the Finnish capital.
Overlooking the Katajanokka upmarket area, this is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe.
The Russian influence is unmistakable – from the red brick to the gold-covered domes, everything screams Russia. And the best thing about cathedrals?
They are spectacular, historical, and absolutely free. Which cannot be said about all things to do in Helsinki.
Temppeliaukio Church – Modern Architecture At It’s Best
The Uspenski Cathedral is stunning but maybe you are craving something a little bit more contemporary?
Not to worry, the Temppeliaukio church is one of the most impressive modern churches you will ever see. It looks like more of a spaceship than a cathedral, to be honest.
Temppeliaukio was built after a post-war design competition that the Suomalainen Brothers won. Their original vision changed very little and by the end of 1969, the cathedral was ready to welcome locals.
It is in part underground, cleverly incorporated into the rock (or should we say the rock is incorporated in the church?) The cathedral is spacious and richly illuminated by sunlight.
The architects designed every last detail inside the cathedral to look and feel as organic as possible. The result is a place of worship like no other in the world.
Jump On The Vintage Tram
Forget the sightseeing buses, the best way to see all the important landmarks in Helsinki is to take a tram. But not any tram, the century-old tiny retro masterpiece that leaves from the Havis Amanda Fountain at Market Square.
Granted, it is only an option in summer but if that is when you are going, you absolutely should not miss it. Sadly, it doesn’t come with a guide but you get a leaflet with plenty of info and you can always bring your guidebook and/ or phone to make the ride a little more educational.
The Sauna – Lazy Things To Do In Helsinki 101
Here is a confession. I am a lazy, lazy traveler.
Every couple of blocks I need a coffee break and long hours at the museum give me leg cramps like no marathon can.
Which is why I always welcome any lazy tourism opportunities. Thankfully, the Finns are huge fans of spending time at the sauna.
Chilling in a warm room counts as exploring the culture in this particular case, right?
There are plenty of public saunas in Helsinki to choose from.
Why not head over to the brand-new Löyly complex at the southern end of Helsinki peninsula? Most saunas are towel-friendly, though, but that is not the Finnish way of doing things. Drop that towel and sweat in peace!
Seurasaari Island – An Open-Air Museum Like No Other
The Seurasaari Island is your chance to see what typical Finnish used to look like. Granted, the country is super well-developed today but that was not the case a hundred years ago.
To make this open-air museum, Finns lifted typical buildings from around the country and brought them to the island. You can see farms, workshops that artisans used for hundreds of years, manor houses, cottages, huts etc.
There is a network of trails connecting the houses and friendly tour guides to tell you everything about life in rural Finland.
You can find the Seurasaari island a couple of kilometres away from the city centre but it is well worth the drive. Double check if it will be open during the time of your stay, though. It can only be visited during the warmer half of the year.
Kamppi Chapel of Silence
There is not too much to this chapel but it’s still worth popping into for a visit. The chapel of silence is exactly what it says it is. Simple in design, silent and serene, the Kamppi chapel is like a tiny piece of heaven in the middle of the busy city.
The location is amazing, which is why some people of Helsinki have questioned the existence of the whole place.
Yes, it’s supposed to provide some much-needed sense of peace in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. But isn’t it a waste of space? Love it or hate it, you have to check it out before you judge.
Who knows, it might inspire some truly genius ideas that were fermenting in your unconscious.
Helsinki Budgeting Tips And Other Delights
Scandinavia is an amazing place but it’s not cheap. If you don’t want to cry about your overdraft on the flight back:
- Stick to AirBnB’s and split the price among your friends. Not even hostels can accommodate you for that cheap.
- For nightlife, go to the Kallio district. Although not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, it is a student-favorite and hence a little more affordable.
- Rather than a restaurant, go to the Old Market Hall for dinner (or even lunch). The building is a landmark you should not miss anyway and the warm soup will make you forget the freezing cold outside.
- For shopping, avoid the touristy destinations and head to Kallio once again. There are some amazing bargains you can find here and your souvenirs will definitely not be cliché.
- Double check the entrance fee for any museums you’d like to visit. Many have free days and a discounted price for young people, European citizens, families with kids, students, etc.. Don’t miss out on those!
What are your favorite things to do in Helsinki? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in the comment section below.