What to do in Helsinki? Well, otherwise laid-back and easy-going Finnish capital has lots to see and do from mind-boggling design and architecture to enjoying its unique café culture. Here’s our take on the best things to do in Helsinki, Finland.
Helsinki. A small big city or rather a big small city.
I mean it’s just the right size!
The Finnish capital is small and compact enough to be explored on foot and big enough to bestow you with umpteen number of options and attractions any cosmopolitan does.
Hurried for time? You can save the post on Pinterest now and read it later at leisure.
Laid-back yet invigoratingly dynamic.
Helsinki feels ultrasafe, inviting, smooth, easy and caring.
Sprawling park areas, beautiful lakes, forests, unending coastline, and lovely archipelago (330 islands) scattered off the city make sure you don’t have to go too far to get into nature.
The mini-metropolis is a design-driven city and is thus, overflowing with astonishing achievements of design and architecture.
Finnish design is clean, simple and minimalistic.
Helsinki showcases the work of the legendary architect Alvar Aalto and earned the status of World Design Capital in 2012.
We fell hard and fast for Helsinki. Two days just flew away. Couldn’t get enough of it. I wish we had added more days for Helsinki in our Nordic itinerary.
Here’s a guide to get you started in this uber-cool city.
Best Time to Visit Helsinki
Spring (May and June) and Autumn (September and October) are the best times to visit Helsinki. Summer (July and August) is good but crowded.
The plus point of traveling in summer months is the great weather and long, mild, and warm days. We visited in July and enjoyed the long summer days. I mean, summer days just don’t end here. You can explore all day long. Isn’t it amazing?
How to Get to Helsinki
The capital and the largest city of Finland, Helsinki sits in Europe’s northernmost corner squeezed between Sweden and Russia.
You can fly or sail or drive into Helsinki depending upon where you’re coming from.
Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is served by all major international airlines to and from major cities around the world.
For a classic Finnish experience, fly with Finnair. We loved flying with them.
We recommend Skyscanner for the best flight deals.
You can sail via the Baltic Sea from Sweden (Stockholm), Russia (St. Petersburg), (Tallin) Estonia, and even Germany.
The major ferry companies include Tallink Silja Line, Viking Line, Linda Line, Eckero Line, Finnliness, and St. Peter Line.
Finland has a good road network. It’s easy to rent a car and drive into Helsinki from the other cities in Finland and from Russia.
You can also plan a road trip to Finland from other Nordic countries but that’ll include a ferry.
The major routes include E18, E12, E75, and E63.
Helsinki Central Railway Station in Kluuvi has excellent train connections from all the major cities in Finland and from Moscow and St. Petersberg in Russia.
Helsinki’s Central Bus Station in Kamppi has regular bus service to and from all the large cities in Finland.
How to Get to the City Center from the Airport
I and P trains from the airport take about 30 minutes to the city center.
Alternatively, you can board Finnair City Bus or Airport Bus 615 from the airport to the city center. The night bus service (415N) is also available.
Taking a taxi is the easiest and fastest option but then it costs much higher.
How to Get Around Helsinki
Walking is the best way to explore the attractions in and around the city center. You can take a self-guided tour or a guided walking tour to explore the center.
Biking is the second-best way to get around the city. Check out the cycling routes in Helsinki.
Helsinki has a vast public transport network of bus, metro, tram, train, and ferry services.
The city has a zoned public transport system.
Choose a ticket that best fits your needs. If you’re sticking to the city center, you should buy a ticket for the main zone (AB) or for the Airport-Downtown (ABC) but if you’re planning a day-trip from Helsinki, you’d need a different ticket. Click here to know how to use a public transport system in Helsinki.
You can buy a ticket from HSL ticket machines, train stations, R-Kioski (convenience stores in Finland), or HSL Mobile Ticket app.
I’d suggest you buy a Helsinki Travel Card that allows unlimited travel for the duration (24, 48, or 72 hours) on all the modes of transportation – trams, buses, the metro, trains, and Suomenlinna ferry.
Helsinki Card is another awesome option. It not only allows free, unlimited travel on all the modes of public transportation but also gives free access to a ton of attractions and museums in Helsinki.
Trams are the best and most beautiful way to explore the center of Helsinki.
Public buses are also an efficient way to travel from one location to another in Helsinki but not helpful in the center of the city. Trams make sense there.
Helsinki’s metro system is the world’s northernmost and has two lines – M1 (Matinkylä–Vuosaari) and M2 (Tapiola–Mellunmäki) that serve about 25 stations.
Helsinki Commuter VR Trains form an important part of Helsinki’s public transport system.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
We stayed in this spacious 50s house with a wood-heated sauna in Lintuvaara, Espoo and loved every bit of it. Our host Marko and his family were welcoming and helpful.
It’s away from the center but the bus stop is just a few meters away from the house. We boarded a bus that dropped us at Sello mall and then a train from Leppävaara train station to the Central Railway Station to reach the center of the city.
If you want to stay near the city center, check out these best hotels right in the heart of Helsinki.
If you prefer living like a local like us, there are a ton of lovely apartment options, like this Apartment Hotel Aallonkoti in the heart of the city, this stylish studio in Ullanlinna, this artist apartment in Kallio, or this cozy, super-cute apartment in Vironkatu.
Top Things to do in Helsinki, Finland
#1 Explore the City Center on Foot
Helsinki is compact and most of the main attractions and sights are within a walking distance meaning you can easily explore it on foot.
We took a self-guided tour to cotton on to the city and its layout.
Start at Helsinki Central Station, a beautiful example of an art nouveau building designed by Eliel Saarinen. It deservingly is one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world.
Adjacent to the station is Finnish National Theater, the oldest Finnish-speaking theater in Finland.
Just across from the station is Ateneum Art Museum, the best-known art museum in Finland. It’s home to the largest collection of Finnish art.
Move a further to Kruununhaka District, Helsinki’s oldest district that showcases a blend of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture.
Settled on a hillock, shining in red and gold, Uspenski Cathedral at Kanavakatu looks impressive. It’s said to be Western Europe’s largest Orthodox Church.
Cross the Katajanokka Canal to reach the Presidential Palace of Finland, a 19th-century neoclassical building designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, a German architect who’s known as the forefather of Finnish architecture.
A little further, you can see the City Hall at Pohjoisesplanadi designed by none other than Carl Ludvig Engel.
Just across the street from the City Hall, Kauppatori (Market Square) welcomes you. It’s an open-air market full of stalls that sell local produce and handicrafts. It’s a perfect place to buy authentic Finnish souvenirs to take back home.
Also, check out the Old Market Hall at Eteläranta. It has been selling local fresh food since 1889.
At the Market Square, you’ll spot a fountain with a statue of a naked mermaid in the center accompanied by four fishes and four sea lions. Known as Havis Amanda, it’s one of the iconic statues in Helsinki.
You can walk about 250 meters on Aleksanterinkatu to reach Senate Square, the main square in Helsinki. It’s one of the masterpieces designed by Carl Ludvig Engel.
The square is purposefully surrounded by the University of Helsinki, the Government Palace, Helsinki Cathedral, and Sederholm House representing the four powers of the country viz. senate, church, university, and commerce.
The statute of Tsar Alexander II stands in the center of the square.
You can also check out the National Library of Finland at Unioninkatu about 200 meters from the Senate Square.
Walk back to Havis Amanda and walk straight on Pohjoisesplanadi to reach Esplanadi Parka (Espa), an urban downtown park surrounded by Esplanadi Boulevard. A statue of Johan Ludwig Runeberg graces the park.
Cross the Espa towards Korkeavuorenkatu to reach the Design Museum.
Walkabout 650 meters and you are in Ullanlina District, an upscale neighborhood with mansions, embassies, and luxe cafes and restaurants.
Walking through Punavuori and Kampii, you reach one of the most unique attractions in Helsinki, Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church) in Töölö. The underground church is built into solid rock, thus the name.
From here walk about 1 km to reach Mannerheimintie, the main and longest street in Helsinki. You can find many notable attractions and city’s landmarks here – the National Museum of Finland, Finlandia Hall, Helsinki Central Library Oodi, Helsinki Music Center, Finnish Parliament Building, Kiasma, Amos Rex Art Museum, and Kampi Chapel of Silence.
#2 Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument in Sibelius Seaside Park in Mechelininkatu is another worth-visiting attraction but a little away from the center. You can ride one of trams 4, 7A, or 10 from Lasipalatsi on Mannerheimintie.
#3 Island Hopping
Island hopping is a must when you’re visiting an archipelago of over 330 islands. Isn’t it?
You can visit Suomenlinna, Vallisaari, and Lonna on just one ticket. The ferry (JT Line) leaves from Market Square and takes you to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress with stops at Lonna and Vallisaari.
Seurasaari Island can be reached by tram 4 to Meilahdentie or bus 24 from the center of the city. You need to walk a little over a mile to reach the island. Besides nature and scenery, the island has the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum.
The island of Korkeasaari houses Helsinki Zoo. It can be reached by a ferry from the Kauppatori Market Square and Hakaniemi or bus 16 from the Central Railway Station.
JT Line’s ferry from Ruohosaari or Merisatama takes you to Pihlajasaari Island.
#4 Ride the Tram
One of the oldest electrified tram networks in the world, Helsinki’s tram system is picturesque plus super easy to navigate. Also, it’s the best mode of transport in the inner city.
Tram line 2 takes you through all the main attractions in Helsinki. If you’re short on time, riding the tram line 2 is the best way to explore top attractions in Helsinki.
Tram 4 and 6 run on the routes that offer design and architectural wonders of Helsinki.
#5 Nuuksio National Park
Take a break from the city sightseeing and bask in the Finnish nature at Nuuksio National Park. Hike or stay in a cabin, pick the wild berries, or enjoy the shimmering lakes and lush wilderness – whatever you do, fun is guaranteed.
#6 Linnanmaki Amusement Park
A short walk away from the center of the city, Finland’s beloved amusement park offers free entry and free rides for kids. You must take your kids there.
Enjoy the views over Helsinki from the rotating Panorama Tower. That’s also free!
#7 Cafe-Hopping – Check Out the Best Cafes in Helsinki
Finland is literally addicted to coffee. That’s pretty evident by the endless numbers of cafes in a pint-sized town like Porvoo. So, when in Finland you gotta sample the finest coffees in the world.
Let’s talk about the best of the cafes in Helsinki.
The most-talked about and written-about and touristy yet so adorbs and cozy, Cafe Regatta is a must go in Helsinki.
You must have been familiar with Tove Jhonson’s Moomins if you’ve been in Finland for a while. If not, meet them here. Mini-me became their huge fan. We even visited Moomin island. A perfect place for families with kids, Mumin Kaffe at Fabianinkatu is everything Moomins. Take your kids there.
#8 Visit One of Many Museums
Museums in Helsinki not only give an insight into Finnish history, culture and art but also are eye candy for design and architecture lovers.
There are over 80 museums in Helsinki, each inspires curiosity and amazement.
Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), Kiasma, Design Museum, National Museum of Finland, and Seurasaari Open-Air Museum are the best of the lot.
If traveling with kids, add Finnish Natural History Museum, Tram Museum, and Sederholm House (Helsinki City Museum) to your itinerary.
#9 Try Finnish Cuisine
Finnish cuisine is simple and delicious. Fish and meat (reindeer, beef, and pork) are the staples in Finnish food.
The country is a food haven for non-vegetarians but vegetarians like me don’t need to dishearten as there’s a lot for them too – freshly-picked berries, berry or rice pies, pastries, bread, and cheese.
Karelian pies or Karjalanpiirakka are traditional pasties that are made from thin-crust rye flour and stuffed with rice, potatoes or carrots. The best place to sample the Karelian pies in Helsinki is Konditoria Hopia.
Ruisleipä, a culinary staple or rather identity accompanied by butter or cheese spread. It’s a rye bread made from sourdough and comes in many varieties with reikäleipa (bread with a hole) being the most popular. Finns pack ruisleipä for their travels just like Gujjus in India pack theplas 😉
Korvapuusti is a Finnish version of Cinnamon Buns.
Pulla is famous cardamom flavored bread or pastry Finns eat as a snack with their tea or coffee.
If you travel to Finland in July and August, you’re in for a delicious and colorful treat. We picked wild lingonberries, cloudberries, and bilberries on a tour around the Finnish forest in Rovaniemi.
We found these Finnish berries in the local markets in Helsinki. A lot of them. Everywhere.
The berries are made into homemade pies, jams, and juices. You can find the delicacies made of berries in local markets.
Poronkäristys, sautéed reindeer meat with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam is one of the most popular and healthiest foods in Finland. Hubby and mini-me relished it wherever we go in Finland. Lappi Ravintola at Annankatu is the best place to taste traditional Lappish reindeer meat.
Summer in Europe asks for a frozen treat every now and then. How can we not taste one or two or actually a dozen of the best ice-creams in the town?
Where can you find the drool-worthy ice-creams in Helsinki?
Jädelino, Helsingin Jäätelötehdas(Helsinki Ice Cream Factory), Vanhan Porvoon Jäätelötehdas (Old Porvoo Ice Cream Factory), and Robert’s Coffee Gelato Factory are some recommendations for the best ice cream in Helsinki.
#10 Dine at the Best Restaurants in Helsinki
Foodie or not, trying new cuisines and places to eat is a huge part of travel.
Right across the Helsinki Cathedral, Restaurant Savotta serves traditional food in a traditional style. The typical laid-back Finnish atmosphere adds to the experience.
Juuri at Korkeavuorenkatu is where creativity meets tradition. They use local and organic fresh ingredients. Their menu features a variety of sapas (mini-dishes) akin to tapas.
Near Erottaja Square, Savoy is a good but expensive restaurant. If not for food, go for design – yes, it’s interiors are designed by Alvar Aalto.
Restaurant Yes Yes Yes at Iso Roobertinkatu easily became my favorite for it serves tasty vegetarian and vegan dishes. I liked the contemporary and playful interiors.
#11 Experience the Finnish Sauna
You can’t leave Finland before you soak in the Finnish Sauna culture. Sauna culture is huge here. They even celebrate Sauna Day in March.
Fins’ obsession with sauna can be seen at Skywheel Sauna, a Ferris wheel with a wooden sauna cabin. Weird?
We experienced Finnish Sauna in Rovaniemi and also had a Finnish Sauna in our Airbnb in Helsinki.
I’m quite certain that you’ll find a sauna (because we did everywhere we stayed) in your hotel or apartment in Helsinki. I read that even Burger King in Helsinki has a sauna 🙂
If you want a chic and contemporary sauna experience, Löyly is the one for you. For an authentic and traditional sauna experience, Kotiharjun is perfect.
#12 Stroll the Charming Streets of Helsinki
How do we explore a new city? Well, aimlessly wandering its streets is our way of getting familiar with the city.
We walk wherever we can get on foot and discover something new at every turn.
Would you like to discover Helsinki, one street at a time?
The major streets that we walked in Helsinki are Merisatamanranta, Huvilakatu, Korkeavuorenkatu, Mannerheimintie, Pohjoisesplanadi, Aleksanterinkatu, Fredrikinkatu, Espa, Korkeavuorenkatu, and Iso Roobertinkatu.
Huvilakatu in Ullanlinna district is a charming and vibrant street. It’s a perfect photo spot in Helsinki for Instagram lovers.
Right in the heart of the city, Aleksanterinkatu (Aleksi) is one of the most famous streets in Helsinki. Esplanade Park, Senate Square, Helsinki Cathedral, the University of Helsinki, Market Square and Helsinki Central Railway Station are the attractions on or near the street.
Aleksanterinkatu transforms into a Christmas Street in November.
Starting at Esplanadi and Bulevardi near Erottaja Square, Mannerheimintie (Mansku) is the main street in Helsinki. The Finnish Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Hufvudstadsbladet, Eduskunta Palace (Parliament), the National Museum of Finland, Finlandia House are some of the attractions along the street.
#13 Check Out the Impressive Design and Architecture
The moment you arrive at the city of design, you’re welcomed by impressive design and architecture every which way.
From the Central Train Station, the Kampi Chapel of Silence, Design Museum, the Oodi Library, to the Museum of Finnish Architecture, the National Library of Finland and Alvar Alto’s Finlandia Hall – Helsinki reflects the fine taste when comes to design.
Helsinki deserves to be on top of your bucket list if you appreciate art, culture, and design.
To feel the pulse of Finnish design, head to the Design District Helsinki. The district stretches over the downtown neighborhoods of Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, Kruunuhaka, Kamppi, and Ullanlinna.
The Design District showcases an irresistible range of galleries, museums, studios, boutiques, cafes, and international designer labels.
A little away from the center, Oil Silo 468 in Kruunuvuorenranta (former oil harbor) is another architectural masterpiece. Designed by Tapio Rosenius, silo’s steel shell with more than 2000 perforations make it gleam beautifully.
The silo is open to the public during autumn for limited dates only. Check the schedule here before you plan.
Hope our guide to Helsinki helps you plan an awesome trip to the Finnish capital. If it does, please share with us in the comments section and with the world so others can also benefit 🙂
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