Of all the mainland Nordic capitals Helsinki is the definitely most underrated one. It has many quirky attractions and a distinct vibe making it a great city to explore in its own right. Having lived in Finland for a decade, we probably spent more than just one weekend in Helsinki. This guide includes our recommendations for the best things to do in Helsinki. Whether you have 2 days in Helsinki or 3 days in Helsinki, let us help you make the most of it!
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Table of Contents
Why You Should Spend a Weekend in Helsinki
With its elegant Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) architecture, green spaces, easy-going attitude, burgeoning food scene, and cutting-edge design Helsinki has a lot to offer. Helsinki is more a city of experiences rather than things you have to see. It’s a compact but cultured city geared towards exploration on foot. The city isn’t as touristy as most other capitals in Europe which makes it all the more idyllic for sightseeing.
Helsinki lies on the north coast of the Gulf of Finland and there are more than 300 picturesque islands within the city. One of the things you’ll notice about Helsinki is that the architectural landscape is very dissimilar to the other Nordic capitals and reflects its history with a mix of Swedish and Russian styles. Today, with over 600,000 inhabitants, Helsinki is the country’s hub for business, research, education, culture, and government.
Your 3 Days in Helsinki Itinerary
For this three-day itinerary to Helsinki, we have decided to give you a good mix of popular sights and off-beat corners. Most sights in central Helsinki can be easily navigated on foot. You will most likely need to make use of public transport for some of the outer lying attractions. To plan your journey and to know more about ticket prices visit hsl.fi. Alternatively, you could also consider getting the Helsinki Card which includes free travel on public transport and free entry to most attractions in the city.
If you are in Helsinki between April-October, a great way to get around is on a bicycle. Helsinki is a bike-friendly city and renting a bike is quite easy and cheap. You can find more information about bike rental here.
Avoid using taxis unless it is absolutely necessary as they are very pricey, and you will run a large tab. However, if you wish to travel by taxi you can check out Taksi Helsinki.
If you are visiting in the winter, you’ll probably want to spend more time indoors in museums while during the summer the weather should be pleasant enough to explore the city’s green spaces. Depending on your preferences you can put an emphasis on one part or another of this itinerary.
For your convenience, this post includes a free map of the top sights in Helsinki. You can find addresses of the attractions by clicking on the icons in the map. We understand that everyone travels at a different pace so feel free to choose the destinations according to your own pace. Below we have compiled a list of the best things to see (or eat) in Helsinki over the course of 3 days:
Day 1 in Helsinki
On your first day in Helsinki, you will explore some of the city’s most popular sights as well as the beatnik district of Kallio. You will be walking for most of the day, although you will probably need to use public transport to go to Kallio.
Kick off your 3 days in Helsinki by treating yourself to breakfast at one of the city’s most popular cafes, the Karl Fazer Cafe. Fazer is a renowned brand in Finland and their chocolate is the most popular Finnish chocolate. At this cafe, you can try one of their famous chocolate bars along with other sweets, cakes, bakery products, and wash it down with some hot coffee or tea.
2. Helsinki Central Station
The Helsinki Central Station is one of the major landmarks in Helsinki and is one of the most beautiful stations in the world due to its beautiful exterior. It was designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1909, and construction was completed in 1919. The station is regarded as a tour de force of Art Nouveau architecture in Helsinki, with a blend of Art Deco/Modernist features. 400,000 people pass through the Helsinki Central Station daily making it Finland’s busiest building.
The Central Station’s facade is clad in pink Finnish granite and is noteworthy for its green copper details. Its hallmark features are its clock tower and the two pairs of huge statues holding the spherical lamps, which are lit at night-time, on either side of the main entrance.
The two pairs of giant stone men statues that flank both sides of the entrance are so iconic that they have even been used as animated mascots in railroad ads!
3. Senate Square and National Library of Finland
Helsinki’s imposing Senate square basks in all its neoclassical glory and 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. The square was rebuilt by the Russians when they took control of Finland after the original square burned down in 1808. This lavish square was the brainchild of the acclaimed 19th-century architect Carl Ludvig Engel. Senate Square is also the location of the Sederholm House, which is the city’s oldest stone building.
The National Library of Finland lies just off of the Senate Square. It is responsible for storing books on Finnish culture and heritage. Even if you’re not a bibliophile you should quickly pop into the library to admire the magnificently frescoed and marble-columned hall and also seemingly endless shelves of tomes. It’s free to enter, you can check opening hours here.
4. Helsinki Cathedral
The Helsinki Cathedral is the most recognizable building in the whole of Finland. This classy pearl-white cathedral looms over the Senate 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.
The interior is large and airy but simply decorated, consistent with typical Lutheran architecture. There are sculptures of key Lutheran personalities inside the church. Sculptures of the twelve apostles guard the city from the roof of the church. The cathedral is open daily, from 09:00 – 18:00 (September – May) and 09:00 – 24:00 (June – August). Entrance is free.
Should you be arriving in the city by boat, make sure to hit the sundeck upon arrival for a stunning view of this beauty! It shines like a beacon and is an absolute must-see!
5. Aleksanterinkatu & Mannerheimintie
Aleksanterinkatu is Helsinki’s chief commercial street that runs from the Presidential Palace to Mannerheimintie. It is the city’s oldest street and is home to several significant buildings, squares, and statues. You can do your Helsinki shopping fix here as it is home to numerous fashion stores including the flagship Stockmann department store, the largest such store in the Nordics.
When you’re walking on Aleksanterinkatu, make sure to check out the Pohjola Insurance Building. This impressive building’s facade is adorned with statues of gargoyles and monsters inspired by Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala.
At 5.5 km in length, Mannerheimintie is both the longest street in the city as well as Helsinki’s primary street. It is named in honor of the former president, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. It is spread across various neighborhoods and is home to several notable buildings and cultural venues such as the Finnish Parliament Building, the Helsinki Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, and Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall.
6. Uspenski Cathedral
Just a stone’s throw away from the market square, situated on a rock cliff is the exquisite Uspenski Cathedral. The standout feature of the cathedral is its radiant gold onion-shaped domes. The red brick cathedral was built in 1868 in the Byzantine-Slavonic style and is rumored to be the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe. The bricks used for building the church come from the Bomarsund Fortress in the Åland Islands that was destroyed in the Crimean War! The interior has colorful murals and an intricately gilded and decorated iconostasis making it an architectural antithesis of the Helsinki. Simply amazing!
It is free to enter the cathedral. The cathedral is closed during ceremonies and on Mondays. Opening hours are Tue – Fri: 09:30 – 16:00, Sat: 10:00 – 15:00, Sun: 12:00 – 15:00.
7. Kauppatori & Lunch at the Old Market Hall
The main Market Square (Kauppatori) is situated adjacent to the harbor at the start of Esplanadi Park 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 Old Market Hall which has similar products on offer.
The Old Market Hall has been around since 1889 and many locals do their shopping here. It is a great lunch and snack option. It’s the perfect place to have lunch and try some Finnish favorites like Karelian pie (karjalanpiirakka), breadcheese (leipäjuusto), rye bread (ruisleipä) and vendace (muikku). You can also find some interesting products here like canned bear, moose, reindeer jerky and herring that are great souvenirs. The Old Market Hall is open Mon-Sat from 08:00 – 18:00.
8. Havis Amanda
Just beside the Market Square lies the ‘Havis Amanda’, a statue of an adorable nude mermaid who stands on seaweed as she rises from the water, with four fish spouting water at her feet and surrounded by four sea lions. It was sculpted by the famous Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren and is one of his Art Nouveau works. According to Vallgren, the sculpture symbolizes the rebirth of Helsinki. The statue is affectionately known as ‘Manta’ and is typically regarded as an emblem of Helsinki. Every year during Vappu (May Day) celebrations, students from all over Helsinki flock here to celebrate the coming of spring.
Helsinki is a bilingual city with Finnish and Swedish as its two official languages. The Swedish name for the city is ‘Helsingfors’. Helsinki natives generally refer to the city as ‘stadi’, which itself is derived from Swedish word ‘stad’ meaning city.
9. Kamppi Chapel of Silence
The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is an unusual and intriguing wooden building located in one of the city’s busiest squares. The shiny copper exterior and beehive-shaped design make it stand out. The double-hull structure keeps the outside noise to a minimum. Even if religion isn’t your thing, take a look inside and get a sense of peace from the bustling city.
It’s free to enter and the opening hours are Mon-Fri: 8:00 – 20:00, Sat-Sun: 10:00 – 18:00.
10. Rock Church
The Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Kirkko) is arguably Finland’s most popular architectural sight. It was designed by two brothers (Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen) in the late 1960s. The architecture of the church is characteristic of Finnish architecture and design. It lies underground and was carved out of a large block of granite. Piles of boulders hold up a ceiling made of 22 kilometers of copper stripping. When the sun shines from above through the sunlight windows the rugged, cavernous walls of interior light up along with the pews and the altar. The church also hosts many concerts on account of its brilliant acoustics.
The Rock Church resembles a half-buried spaceship from the outside with its copper dome. To me, it seems as it would be the perfect hideout of a superhero. The Rock Church is Jacky’s absolute favorite sight in the whole of Helsinki and she has dragged numerous visitors of ours to the seemingly unimposing house of worship. Being brought up in and out of opulent Catholic churches in Austria, the simple elegance of the church dazzles her over and over again.
Admission to the church is 3 EUR. It is open on all days but opening hours vary, so check the website before you visit.
11. Sibelius Monument
Situated in Sibelius Park lies the Sibelius Monument, a unique structure composed of 600 pipes of various sizes welded together to somewhat resemble an organ. It was built in 1967 by the Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen as a tribute to Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. It was initially poorly received since Sibelius never composed music for organs. To placate the critics, a bust of the composer was added.
12. Olympic Stadium
The Olympic Stadium was completed in 1938 to host the summer Olympics in 1940 which never happened due to WWII. It ultimately played host to the summer Olympics of 1952 and is the largest stadium in the nation, today hosting large concerts and sporting events. While the stadium is nothing special, its 72-meter tall tower offers a great vantage point for panoramic views over Helsinki.
Please NoteThe Olympic Stadium and tower are undergoing modernization and will open sometime in 2019.
13. Kallio District
Cap off your day by heading to the Kallio district, Helsinki’s nightlife hub. Kallio is a former working-class district which has become a magnet for artists, musicians, and students. The lively Kallio district was once dominated by sex shops and dive bars, but the onset of gentrification brought a flurry of vintage boutiques, trendy bars, countless coffee shops and some of the city’s most exciting restaurants.
The district is also home to Kallio Church, a massive 94-meter high edifice adorned with lovely Art Nouveau murals.
Solmu and Bar Loosister would be two bars I would recommend here. Both have a pretty good selection on tap. At Bar Loosister you can also get some hearty burgers. Foodwise, the two options I would recommend in Kallio are BLINIt, a simple but very good Russian eatery, and Onda, a good multi-cuisine option.
Day 2 in Helsinki
On day two of your weekend in Helsinki, you’re going to take it a little slow. You’ll get to see Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, explore some of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture, and enjoy a fun activity of your choice. If you only have two days, you may want to substitute Helsinki Zoo and/or Linnanmäki Amusement Park for a shopping spree in the Design District (see Day 3). Finally, you finish your day with a traditional Finnish sauna.
1. Hearty Finnish Breakfast
Start your second day in Helsinki by grabbing breakfast at the historic Cafe Engel. This elegant cafe is located smack in the center of the city and is one of our favorite cafes in Helsinki. You can get traditional Finnish favorites like cinnamon buns and blueberry pies.
2. Suomenlinna Fortress
I am a history enthusiast who loves historic forts and naturally, Suomenlinna is one of my favorites. It is one of the biggest sea fortresses in the world and is the most significant monument in Finland. Although Suomenlinna is a very popular tourist attraction, it is actually home to around 900 people who reside in the renovated ramparts and barracks.
Built in 1748 with the help of the army, this seemingly impregnable fortress was commonly referred to as the ‘Gibraltar of the North’. It had to surrender to the Russians after a siege in 1808, after which Finland was absorbed by the Russian Empire. 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 (2.50 EUR one-way, 3.60 EUR round-trip) 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! The fortress is open all year round and is free to visit but the various museums there charge for entrance.
3. Take a Stroll Around the Various Art Nouveau Districts
Helsinki has the second largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe after Riga. I love Art Nouveau architecture and it is the facet I love most about Helsinki. Katajanokka, Kruununhaka, Eira, and Ullanlinna are four places full of classical buildings showcasing Art Nouveau architecture.
The Art Nouveau architecture in these districts neighborhoods is a stark contrast to the mundane architecture you mostly encounter in the city. These are Helsinki’s most charming areas which often go unnoticed by tourists. I make it a point to take a stroll through these districts each time I’m in Helsinki. Streets like Huvilakatu, Luotsikatu, Kauppiaankatu, Rauhankatu, and Meritullinkatu are full of amazing Jugendstil buildings.
Speaking of drab architecture, Helsinki was often used as a body double for Moscow and St. Petersburg in American and British films during the Cold War era, including Doctor Zhivago, Gorky Park and Reds.
5. Have Fun at Helsinki Zoo & Linnanmäki Amusement Park
These two destinations are best suited 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 favorites are the brown bear and the forest reindeer, both native to Finland. For opening hours and prices check the official website.
Linnanmäki Amusement Park, 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. Linnanmäki is only open from May-October, so check the opening hours on their website before you go.
6. Go For a Refreshing Sauna Visit
No visit to Helsinki would be complete without visiting a sauna, an essential Finnish experience. There are a couple of places to go for a sauna experience in Helsinki but the standout one is definitely Löyly. It featured in Time Magazine’s list of World’s Greatest Places in 2018. The sauna is located in the former industrial area of Hernesaari and is housed in a spectacular unique shaped building. It was inaugurated in 2016 and consists of a public sauna section and a restaurant, joined by a large wooden terrace that faces the Baltic Sea.
Sauna is the only Finnish word to make it into everyday English. Saunas are such an integral part of Finnish culture that there are approximately 3.3 million saunas in the country, a staggering number considering Finland only has 5.5 million people. There’s even a sauna in all Finnish diplomatic and consular missions around the world!
In spite of its modern design, Löyly still incorporates enough traditional fare with wood and smoke burning saunas. In Finnish, the word ‘Löyly’ literally translates to the steam that emanates from the stones when water is thrown on them. There are 3 different saunas at Löyly but unlike other saunas in Finland, you need to wear a swimsuit in the sauna. Löyly is a trifle more expensive than other public saunas but it has much more to offer. Read all about prices and opening hours on their website.
7. Traditional Finnish Dinner
When you’re spending a weekend in Helsinki, you definitely ought to try some authentic Finnish cuisine. Finnish cuisine gets a bit of a bad rap and although its variety is limited, it includes some excellent game dishes. Lappi in central Helsinki is one of the best places for local cuisine and here you can check out Finnish classics like reindeer meat, elk, and smoked salmon soup. Vegetarian options are also available.
While we’re on the topic of Finnish food, I dare you to go ahead and try the infamous salty licorice (salmiakki) candies and pastilles. Ammonium chloride is added to salmiakki giving it its distinctive saltiness. All Finns are so salmiakki obsessed that you can get everything from salmiakki chocolates to ice-cream and doughnuts to even salmiakki prophylactics! If you’re able to eat salmiakki without grimacing or spitting it out outright, you deserve a medal.
Day 3 in Helsinki
On this third day of your weekend in Helsinki, you may go as fast or slow as you want. You can spend a whole day in the open-air museum or skip it altogether and stay warm in some of Finland’s best art and history museums. Budget travelers should check out the city’s newest major cultural venue Oodi and explore the city’s green spaces, particularly in spring!
Start your day by having breakfast at the lovely Cafe Ekberg, a popular breakfast and brunch place, that has been in operation since 1852.
2. Seurasaari Open Air Museum
The Seurasaari Open Air Museum was built in 1909 as a means to conserve rural Finnish architecture. Situated on a small island northwest of the city center, it is home to old farmsteads and barns that were brought from all over Finland. Many of these are log buildings dating back to the 17th century. You’ll also see a manor house, church boats, cabins, farms, storehouses, and an old church. The staff working here dress in traditional attire and can inform you about life in rural Finland a couple of centuries ago. It offers an intriguing perspective into the customs of a bygone era.
The island is full of forest trails that makes it the ideal place for tranquil walks. Seurasaari is home to small beaches and plenty of immaculate green patches that are perfect for picnics. However, the museum is only open in summer however so check the website for opening hours.
3. Check out the Design District
Helsinki has gained a reputation lately as a center of design and creativity and much of the credit goes to the Design District. The district is located in central Helsinki and consists of 25 streets stretching from Mannerheimintie to the harborside antique hall and flea market at Hietalahti. It is home to a motley of fashion stores, antique shops, museums, design hotels, design studios, and art galleries. The district serves as the perfect place to get acquainted with Finnish design, which is characterized by clean lines and functional objects made simply but with style. Helsinki basked in the international spotlight in 2012 when it was named ‘World Design Capital’.
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 that focuses on bright colors and engaging patterns. You can have a look at Arabia and Iittala, two legendary brands that have held a lofty reputation in Finnish society for over a century. Their ceramics and glassware are exquisite and these items definitely make better souvenirs than your average snow globe! Check out Arela for high-quality cashmere knits, Minna Parikka for whimsical shoes, Lokal for amazing homewares and inspiring designs, Samuji House for muted colors and top-notch fabrics, and Taiga Colors for trendy home products and handbags. The list just goes on and on!
The Design Museum is also located here. It’s a small museum and showcases the best of Finnish design from everyday items, industrial items, electronics, jewelry, furniture to textile and glassworks. You can learn how Finnish design nous emerged from 19th-century farmhouse crafts. The permanent collection features more than 75,000 objects and 125,000 photographs. The building itself is a wonderful example of Neo-Gothic architecture. Entrance costs 12 EUR, you check opening hours here.
While you’re in the Design District, make sure to check out the impressive St. John’s Church (Johanneskirkko). It is a Lutheran Church that was built in the 19th century in Gothic Revival style, making it the largest stone church in Finland.
4. Explore Helsinki’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. Their verdant lawns offer many opportunities to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
Should you be traveling 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 transported to Japan 😉
Sushi is a popular choice amongst Finns and there’s no shortage of sushi joints in Helsinki. Kin Sushi is a great and affordable place which Jacky and I often frequented on our visits to Helsinki. They offer an all you can eat lunch option.
6. Ateneum Art Museum
If you want to get a taste of the best of traditional Finnish art, head to the Ateneum Art Museum. In this grand Neoclassical building lies a fine collection of classic and modern Finnish art. I particularly liked the Kalevala collection, a series of paintings inspired by stories and characters from ancient Finnish folk poems. There are numerous works of contemporary Finnish artists on display. A small but classy collection of European art from the likes of Picasso, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh is on display here as well. The Ateneum isn’t a stunning museum but it’s the best museum of its kind in Finland. Entrance is 17 EUR, you can check opening hours here.
7. National Museum of Finland
Head to the National Museum of Finland to uncover Finnish history from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum is housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building. It makes good use of interactive technology to augment historical treasures.
The permanent exhibitions of the National Museum are divided into six parts. There are many artifacts including religious relics, cultural exhibitions, ethnographic and other significant archaeological finds housed at this museum. Another interesting aspect is the frescoes on the ceiling arches that illustrate scenes from the Finnish national epic Kalevala, a master creation by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Besides permanent exhibitions, the museum has alternating exhibitions throughout the year. The museum makes for a perfect getaway in case of inclement weather.
The National Museum is open Thu – Tue: 11:00 – 18:00 and Wed: 11:00 – 20:00. Free entrance every Friday from 16:00 – 18:00.
8. Central Library Oodi
If you don’t have a great affinity for museums or just want to see something else, why not go and check out the Oodi Central Library, the fascinating new addition to the urban fabric of Helsinki. Opened in 2018, it is Finland’s largest and most sumptuous library and lies just a stone’s throw from the Central Station. Even though its technically a library, it’s much more than just a place for borrowing books. Oodi is meant to be a place for socializing and allows visitors to participate in activities like readings, workshops, and special events.
In addition to the 100,000 odd books in its collection, the sleek interiors also feature 3D printers, recording studios, gaming rooms, a small cinema and other leisure facilities that are all free for the public to use. There’s also a cafe and restaurant in the building in case you are feeling peckish. I really liked the third floor of the building which showcases a large public balcony where people can meet and have access to views across the city. As much as was impressed with the interior, I really liked the arching wooden volume in front building’s facade that creates an entrance canopy.
I strongly recommend you visit this gem that’s already redefining the role of a public library. Opening hours are Mon-Fri: 08:00 – 22:00 and Sat-Sun: 10:00 – 20:00.
9. Dinner & Drinks
Cap off your weekend in Helsinki by having dinner at the wonderful restaurant Kannas. If you’re in the mood for something casual, I’d strongly recommend Naughty BRGR, one of the best burger joints I’ve been to. Helsinki has a couple of great craft beer pubs like Bier-Bier and Tommyknocker if you fancy some chilled suds. The run-of-the-mill beers you normally come across in Finland are very mediocre so check out these places if you want some of the good stuff!
If you’re planning on purchasing hard liquor in Helsinki, you’ll have to go to one of the Alko stores. Finland has a monopolized market where only the state-run retail Alko stores are permitted to sell hard liquor. Light beers and ciders below 5.5 percent alcohol can be purchased in supermarkets.
Extending Your Stay
Although a weekend in Helsinki is a good amount of time to spend in the city, you may want to stay a little longer to explore more of the country. Helsinki is a great base for exploring some of Finland’s biggest cities, such as Turku and Tampere. It’s also the perfect springboard to discover Finland’s beautiful nature. After all, Nuuksio National Park is less than an hour away. And while we’re on the topic of staying, check out our recommendations for the best hostels & hotels in Helsinki.
Now, what do you think? How would you spend a weekend in Helsinki? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!