It’s been a long time coming but now I’ve finally gotten around to writing about Helsinki. It’s a place which has grown on Jacky and me over the years and due to the cheap bus tickets (as low as 1€ if booked early enough) on offer from Turku we go there quite often.
Founded in the 16th century as a strategic Baltic port by the Swedes, Helsinki got off to a tardy start but history played its part and when the Russians took over in 1809 they made it Finland’s capital. They modelled the city after St Petersburg, which was Russia’s capital at the time. One of the things you’ll notice about Helsinki is that the architectural landscape is very dissimilar to the other Nordic capitals and speaks to its history with a mix of Swedish and Russian styles. An interesting fact for all trivia buffs out there is that Helsinki is the only European capital without a medieval past. Today, with over half a million inhabitants, Helsinki is the country’s hub for business, research, education, culture, and government.
Helsinki lies on the north coast of the Gulf of Finland and there are more than 300 picturesque islands within the city. These attributes make Helsinki a summertime retreat and the ideal place for a weekend getaway. Here are our must-see destinations and must-do activities in this terribly underrated gem.
1. Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki’s imposing Senate square in all it’s neoclassical glory plays host to a number of tourist attractions among which are the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace and the chief building of the University of Helsinki. Helsinki Cathedral is the most recognisable building in the whole of Finland. It looms over the square and is reminiscent of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. It is certainly not as grand as other cathedrals in Europe but one of the best ones in the Nordics. Should you be arriving to the city by boat, make sure to hit the sundeck upon arrival for a stunning view of this beauty! It’s an absolute must-see!
2. Tempeliaukkio Kirkko (Rock Church)
This unique architectural behemoth designed by two brothers (kudos to them) in the late 1960s is arguably the nation’s most popular architectural sight. It lies underground and was carved out of a large block of block of granite. This is Jacky’s absolute favourite sight in the whole of Helsinki and she has dragged numerous visitors of ours to the seemingly unimposing house of worship. Only recently she has made me understand that being brought up in and out of opulent catholic churches in Austria, the simple elegance of the church dazzles her over and over again.
3. Suomenlinna Fortress
I am a history enthusiast who loves historic forts and naturally Suomenlinna is one of my favourites. It’s simply awesome and we strongly recommend it. Suomenlinna is one of the biggest sea fortresses in the world and is the most significant monument in Finland. The fort’s history is closely associated with the history of the Baltic Sea and Finland. It is on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites and its architecture, museums, parks, and cafes offer unforgettable experiences. It is just a 20 minute ferry ride from the Helsinki Market Square. If you are in Helsinki during the summer and are not short on time, bring your bathing suit – the island has a popular bathing beach!
4. Kauppatori (Market Square)
Situated adjacent to the harbour at the start of Esplanadi Park is the main market square in central Helsinki. It is an open-air market full of kiosks selling Finnish foods, flowers, souvenirs, and crafts. All year round, but especially during the winter months, you can escape the weather by checking out the nearby Market Hall which has similar products on offer.
5. Uspenski Cathedral
Just a stone’s throw away from the market square and situated on a hillock is the impressive Uspenski Cathedral. The red facade of this Eastern Orthodox cathedral is beautiful with its crosses and hulking domes. It is even more attractive from inside with icons of saints and ornate figurines. Simply amazing!
6. Take a stroll around the various city districts
I love taking a stroll around the various lovely districts near the centre. Katajanokka and Eira are two places which are full of classical buildings showcasing Art Nouveau architecture. Kamppi, Kallio and Punavuori are upscale trendy areas popular with artists, and hipsters (if we may say so). They sort of remind me of Södermalm in Stockholm and Nørrebro in Copenhagen and are home to an array of boutiques, cafes, bars and restaurants. There are also some lovely green spaces here such as Punavuori Park. Bulevardi and Fredrikinkatu are two of the most charming streets in the district of Punavuori.
7. Explore the city’s green spaces
Finns are dedicated nature lovers and this shows as a third of Helsinki is comprised of green spaces. There are several great parks in the city such as Kaivopuisto Park, Esplanadi Park, Kaisaniemi Park and Sibelius Park. Take advantage of this and relax, enjoy the atmosphere or just watch the locals go by. One attraction certainly worth seeing in the Sibelius Park is the Sibelius Monument which is a unique structure reminiscent of organ pipes and is a beautiful tribute to Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most celebrated composer. Should you be travelling to Helsinki in late April or early May, we recommend that you make the trip to the city’s Kirsikkapuisto (Cherry Tree Park) in the district of Roihuvuori. It’s almost as though you have been transportet to Japan 😉
8. Have fun at Helsinki Zoo & Linnanmäki Amusement Park
These two destinations are best for children as well as the young-at-heart. Helsinki Zoo lies on the island of Korkeasaari which can easily be reached by ferry from the market square. It was established as early as 1889, which makes it one of the oldest zoos in the world, and today features about 150 different animal species. Although the variety is great and exotic, my favourites are the brown bear and the forest reindeer, both native to Finland. Linnanmäki on the other hand is a great place for thrill seekers. Opened in 1950, this park now has 40 different rides to get your adrenaline going. It also features the Panorama Tower which provides great views over the city.
9. Explore the city’s many musuems
Helsinki is home to over 80 different museums so there is plenty to choose from. Whether you are interested in art, design or history, you are sure to find something that piques your interest. One of the most popular museums is the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, but the Ateneum Art Museum is also worth a visit. If you come on a Friday, you might just catch a free entry to one of the museums such as the Natural History Museums. One of our favourites, however, is the Amos Anderson Museum and in particular the current temporary exhibition Helsinki Noir.
10. Check out the Design District
Helsinki has gained a reputation lately as a centre of design and creativity and much of the credit goes to the Design district . The district is located in central Helsinki and is home to a motley of fashion stores, antique shops, museums and art galleries. You can just do some window-shopping here if you don’t want a big hole in your wallet. Jacky is a big fan of Marimekko and along with Arabia and Iittala it is one the leading names of Finnish design. Also, these things make better souvenirs than your average snowglobe!
11. Chapel of Silence
The Chapel of Silence is an unusual and intriguing wooden building located in one of the city’s busiest squares. Its lustrous copper exterior and oval shaped design makes it difficult to overlook. Take a peek inside even if religion isn’t your thing and you’ll notice that the chapel offers an oasis of calm from the bustling city.
Our final verdict: Helsinki is best enjoyed in 3-4 days!
Now, what do you think? Is there anything we have missed? Do you have tips on what else to see or do in Helsinki? What was your favourite sight? Share your thoughts and pictures with us. Let’s stay in touch!