Helsinki has never featured too highly on my spectrum of must-see cities, but given the opportunity to dip my virgin toes into Nordic waters and spend a few delightfully summery nights pounding its pavements, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. I’ve put together a city guide detailing my ‘best of’ this underrated city.
It’s worth noting before we proceed that I visited Helsinki in August- the balmy height of Scandinavian summer with temperatures in the mid-twenties and sunshine til 11pm. Visiting in winter would be an entirely different experience (but one I’m keen to try out).
Also fondly referred to as ‘the big white church’, or Tuomiokirkko if you’re after a mouthful. If you google Helsinki, the 19th century Lutheran cathedral pops up frequently amongst cityscapes and guide books, standing pariah over the city. Externally, it is just a visually stunning piece of architecture to behold – shining white, with green, star-studded cupolas.
The church is free to enter from 9am to 6pm (and til midnight during the summer months).
✧ Unioninkatu 29, 00170
Another one (I know). I’m not always the biggest fan of churches (they all sort of blur into one after a while), but there a few memorable stand-outs, and Uspenski Cathedral falls into that category. This is the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in Western Europe, and I fell in love with its unique architecture. Climbing up to admire the glinting gold spires gives you an excellent view of the central market place and the harbour.
The church is free to enter from 9.30am to 4pm, but is closed on Mondays in winter.
✧ Kanavakatu 1, 00160
This quirky construction pays homage to one of Finland’s greatest composers, Jean Sibelius and depicts an abstract wave of stylised steel pipes. The sculpture (the competition winning yet controversial design) sparked a lively national art debate between the schools of conformist figurativism and modernist abstractionism. My 2 cents on it: The textured pipes, supposedly meant to replicate the shape of the Northern lights or a birch forest are a unique way to represent and tie together the much beloved Scandinavian nature that inspired Sibelius’ expressive musical style and largely thematic compositions.
Whatever your opinion, you cannot deny that it’s fascinating to look at from every angle.
✧ Mechelininkatu, 00250
Take a Sight-Seeing Cruise
A relaxing way to check out the various islands dotted throughout the archipelago canals and learn a little bit of Finnish history along the way. If you’re considering a trip out to one of the islands (such as Suomenlinna) – this is a great way to check out what’s around, and enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the water.
We just hopped on one of the various boats moored at the waterfront around Market Square and went for it – there are plenty to choose from, but if you want to pre-book something, here is a good place to check-out what’s available. In general, the cruises last around 1-1 ½ hours and range in price from 13 EUR (the cheapest we saw) to around 30 EUR.
✧ Market Square, Eteläranta, 00170
Explore the Waterfront
The area around and including Market Square boasts a large variety of Finnish souvenirs, local snacks, design stores, quirky eateries and activities for visitors. Particularly bustling in the summer months, the area is also worth checking out to get a good view of the old city and look out to the Baltic Sea
✧ Market Square, Eteläranta, 00170
The Museum of Contemporary Art is potentially my favourite thing that we did in our short time in Helsinki. Boasting a large number of pieces from artists around Scandinavia and the Baltic states, this museum was well curated with interesting and unusual pieces encompassing a variety of mediums (including film). My favourite piece from their current collection was a boat made of empty Estonian beer cans, collected from Finns who purchase the cheap booze from their neighbour, which the artist physically sailed back to Tallinn to highlight the monetary and trade relationship between the two countries.
They also currently have a great collection of tapestries and pottery from British artist Grayson Perry, who centres his art within a sharp juxtaposition of whimsical and serious thematic matter concerning the personal influence of modern British identity and pop culture. I actually chuckled out loud at some of his pieces, and found the collection highly enjoyable.
In addition to this they have a great museum book and gift store, which I would recommend checking out even as a standalone.
- 14 EUR (Adult), 12 EUR (Concession), Free for Under 18’s and on the first Friday of every month.
- Open Tues-Sun from 10am
- Grayson Perry Exhibition until 02.09.2018
✧ Mannerheiminaukio 2, 00100
Storyville Jazz Club
Open all year round with live jazz every evening, this local haunt is particularly pleasant in summer as they open their outdoor park terrace. You can sit under the trees with your Aperol spritz and a snack, and enjoy listening to the crooner du jour.
- Open: Tues-Sat, 6pm til late
- Summer Terrace: 4pm til 11pm (June to August)
✧ Museokatu 8, 0100
Our dates actually lined up with that of Flow Festival (headlined this year by the Arctic Monkeys), a celebration of music, food and art. If you are in town during the festival I would highly recommend it, even just for one day. There is truly something for everyone, and we had a great time exploring the grounds (to name a few things, they had several interactive art installations, a microbrewery and a pop up cinema on site) and listening to music – we discovered a lot of new Scandinavian based favourites, and generally just had a good time. Review incoming!
✧ Suvilahtu, 00101
A Finnish staple, Marimekko is a haven of unique, colourful yet simplistic prints you can find splashed across various textiles, accessories and home-wear. Their products are well made, and the prints quite unique.
There are a few store locations throughout Helsinki, but the one I visited was at the Kamppi Centre.
✧ Urho Kekkosen Katu 1, 0100
Makia is a clothing brand actively seeks to be ethically and ecologically sustainable at fair prices. They sell simple yet incredibly well-cut clothing which embodies the contemporary Scandinavian fashion ethic. Not the place to go for a unique, bold statement piece, but rather an investment item you will get a lot of wear out of.
✧ Kanavaranta 7C, 00160
For beautiful, Nordic, handmade wooden jewellery and homeware, look no further than Aarikka. The pieces are timeless, stylish and something a little different.
If you’re getting tired of the constant Scandi aesthetic, and are after something a bit funkier and more affordable, check out Indiska. The store is full of colourful clothes with bold prints, and home-ware leaning to a bohemian style.
There a few locations throughout Helsinki, but (again) the one I visited was at the Kamppi Centre.
✧ Urho Kekkosen Katu 1, 0100
There are an abundance of Finnish design stores throughout the city, but I quite enjoyed Kauniste for their book selection (in English), and their quality home-wear, textiles and jewellery. In addition to this, you can head next door into Martinni, where they have a large range of high quality handmade knives, which range from the aesthetic and traditional, to the useful (filleting, hunting, chef knives etc.), which makes for a unique souveneir.
✧ Aleksanterinkatu 28, 00170
I was pleasantly surprised with the Helsinki food scene, with plenty of modern and traditional fare on offer. Watch out for my upcoming food guide (where I will delve into a lot more detail), but for now I would recommend Stone’s or Sori Tap Room for burgers and beers, Café Regatta for the cutest vibes and the best cinnamon rolls in town, the Old Market Hall for bite-sized local delicacies, Roasberg for great coffee, and Bryggeri for a good all-rounder option.
Locally abundant in the summer, all the berries and cherries here are extra sweet and delicious. You will find them featuring as the star throughout most dishes, both sweet and savoury. Make sure to try the Bilberries – essentially tiny, slightly sticky blueberries that are sort of a combination taste-wise of a blueberry and a blackberry.
Finnish cinnamon rolls – these are buttery, flaky, melt in your mouth and packed with gloriously sticky cinnamon sugar omggg. Not to be confused with Karjalanpiirakat (essentially cold, flavourless potato in rye bread – learnt that the hard way).
I didn’t eat more than a forkful of this myself (which I had to steal from my dining companion), but I found it quite tasty – similar to venison, but a little more sour and less gamey. I did try the dried version as well where the flavour was a lot more intense.
I know what you’re probably thinking – where the hell is Suomenlinna? The UNESCO world heritage sea fortress and top of every must-do list? Quite simply, we were limited with time (it’s at least a half day trip to get there and back), and as my travel companions had been there before, they didn’t have a huge desire to go again. However, from what I have read, this is worth checking out – particularly for the history buffs – and if I find myself back in Helsinki, I will make this a priority.
I also didn’t include Temppeliaukio Church in this list (the one excavated out of ancient bed rock with supposedly great acoustics) – we considered entering, but it was absolutely chock full with tourists (like sardines in a tin) and had an entry fee. With so many people packed into the space, there is no way you could really marvel at or even hear the acoustics. However, if there had been a concert or a choral service here during my stay, I would have definitely got tickets to check it out.
We also *gasp* didn’t go to a public Sauna – the most holy height of the Finnish experience. The reason for this is also simple – we actually had our own sauna in our apartment. Next time I would love to check out Löyly or the Allas Sea Pools, both of which I walked past, captivated.
Aside from this, on my ‘next-time list’ (they’re an important type of list to have!), I would love to head out to the more traditional near-by Porvoo for the day, check out the more student-friendly, lively neighbourhood of Kallio, and eat at Savotta for some truly local fare.
We based ourselves in the neighbourhood of Kamppi, and found it quite easy to reach everywhere we wanted to go on foot (including Flow Festival and the Ferry terminal). Helsinki is fairly compact which works in its favour, and walking affords you the chance to meander in and out of its various quirky design stores and cafés.
However, Helsinki has an extensive public transport network of buses, trams and the metro which aren’t difficult to use (a single ticket valid for an hour costs 3.20 EUR, and for the tram, just 2.50 EUR). You can also use CityBike if you prefer to cycle around the city – you pay a small fee for a pass (daily, weekly or for a season), then you get unlimited 30 minute bike rides.
To get to and from the airport, we used the FinnAir Bus, which took about half an hour to get from the airport to the Central Train Station, had free wifi and costs 6.20 EUR (you can buy the ticket from the driver with cash or card). There is also a slightly cheaper public bus (number 615) for 5.50 EUR which took about 45 minutes and also ended up near the Central Station.
Useful to Know
Language: Finland actually has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish (you may also find Saami up in Lapland). Most signs actually have both the Finnish and the Swedish name displayed, and it’s worth noting that these aren’t always similar. This can be quite confusing, particularly in concerns to navigation (for instance, the old capital is called Turku in Finnish, and Åbo in Swedish). However, English is also widely (and excellently) spoken.
Money: The local currency is the Euro, and payment with by card is the norm over cash. Tipping is not generally required (there is a good minimum wage in Finland), but of course if you feel the service was excellent, feel free. You are not obliged to tip in taxis, but it is common practice to round up.
Population: Helsinki is home to about 630, 000 of Finland’s 5.5 million inhabitants
- Helsinki is expensive (as is the rest of Scandinavia), it’s not really the place to go to for a cheap holiday. A beer costs between 8-10 EUR, and for accommodation you’re looking at around 70 EUR a night for a hostel, upwards of 150 EUR a night for a hotel in summer.
- Alcohol supply is strictly government controlled. Wine and spirits can only be purchased at licensed Alko branches (closed on Sundays). Consequently you may want to consider bringing in something from duty free, or if you’re taking the ferry over to Tallinn for the day, stock up there or on the ferry before you head back.
- You will notice the Finns are not huge (sober) talkers, and as a result the city is quite quiet. However, we did find the locals friendly and informative.
- Helsinki isn’t a traditional ‘sight-seeing’ city with big tourist draws, which may put some people off (but it shouldn’t). To make the most of your trip be content wandering, and just taking in the experience of the quirky vibe of the city.