What are the best things to do in Helsinki?
Do you know that Helsinki is the second Northernmost capital in the world (the first being Reykjavik of Iceland)? Design, architecture, culture, nature, local cuisine, seasonal events – all packed into this beautiful seaside city. It’s hard to exactly define this city’s rhythm – it could be laid-back and quiet, yet vibrant and active at the same time.
One thing for sure: You won’t be bored as there is always something going on in Helsinki throughout the year.
There are myriads of reasons why you should visit Helsinki, and trust us when we say you will fall in love. Let’s tell you what make Helsinki such an awesome destination:
1. There is this thing called Finnish Humor
Tell us, have you seen any welcome board this badass somewhere else in the world?
Kudos to Finland for such a brilliant tourism tactic!
Finns are well-known for their self-deprecating and dry humor, which is reflected not only in everyday conversation but also in Finnish movies and comics. The more you stay in Finland, the more you will (learn to) appreciate it.
– Yesterday marked 21 years since I arrived in Finland.
– Did you celebrate with a beer and a sausage?
– No. I’ve become Finnish. I told no one. I sat in the dark in silence and thought about herrings.
– That’s the spirit.
2. You are always surrounded by nature.
Living in a city is equal to the absence of nature?
In Finland, you can’t escape nature no matter where you go, and Helsinki is no exception. This city is blessed with hundreds of kilometers of coastline, over 300 islands, numerous green parks, and even forests!
Four distinct seasons allows Helsinki to dress in different clothing and offer its people various activities to experience. You can enjoy a morning run along the shoreline or berry-picking in Keskuspuisto (Central Park) in the summer. When winter comes, why not an ice skating session with friends or a sauna night with dipping into the freezing sea?
3. Urban feel: a balanced mixture of vibrancy and tranquility
You want to party all night long like there is no tomorrow?
You want some peace and silence?
You can have both in Helsinki, even in the same neighborhood. If you don’t believe us, take a night out in Kallio!
In this city, even in her most exciting days, you will always be able to seek solitude.
4. It’s all about the people!
We probably can’t tell when and how it started, but for years foreigners are often told that Finns are a bunch of cold, quiet and distant people.
We cannot disagree more!
Finns are very friendly, hospitable and obliging. And trust this: they can be really, really talkative, especially after a few beers! Moreover, you can totally appreciate Finns for their honesty and straightforwardness. When conversing with a Finn, there is no need for beating around the bush, and if he/she gives you a compliment, believe it!
What is more? Finns make it really easy for foreigners: almost everyone speaks very good English, even the salesgirl at the store who just told you she only knew a little bit of English.
5. It’s more about experience
People tend to visit a new city with a checklist of must-see places and get their trip fulfilled by crossing out those names.
Is it the same for Helsinki?
No, really no!
Helsinki is more about experience. Of course there are plenty of great things to see here. However, if you want unique and unforgettable memories, compose a checklist of Helsinki’s must-have experiences. Believe us, in time you may forget how beautiful a place look, but it is hard not to remember how much fun and satisfaction a certain experience brought about.
That being said, let’s dig deep into what to do in Helsinki of unique and incredible experiences:
10 BEST THINGS TO DO IN HELSINKI
What should you do, if you have only one day in Helsinki? We have to tell you straight away though, to truly get to know Helsinki, one day is never enough.
1. Experience Finnish sauna
There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna.”
Sauna culture is the ultimate must-experience thing when one visits Finland.
But, how to have the most authentic sauna experience? A Finn would tell you that it includes a lakeside wood-heated sauna, a ‘vihta’ (Finnish word for birch bath broom), a few beers, probably some foil-wrapped sausages and lots of skinny-dipping into the water.
What if you don’t have some Finn friends with a cabin in the woods?
No worries! In Helsinki, there are plenty of urban saunas that guarantee you hip atmosphere and fun time. Here are a few options you can consider:
Allas Sea Pool:
Nestled in the center of Helsinki, Allas Sea Pool boasts its modern architecture style with a large pool area and amazing view to Helsinki vibrant coastline. Apart from saunas, you can also enjoy food & drinks and other wellness activities. It is worth booking in advance on their website and save your money by getting a ticket bundle if you plan to revisit.
Do you know that ‘löyly’ is the Finnish word for the evaporating hot steam that rises from the stove after water has been thrown on top of them? You will always hear Finn asking others: “Oliko hyvää löylyä?” (Was the löyly any good? Good löyly = good sauna visit)
Located further away from the city center, stretching itself on Helsinki waterfront, Löyly has been a popular destination for both locals and tourists. In our opinion, we prefer Löyly to Allas Sea Pool as it feels less overwhelming and hustling. Similar to Allas, Löyly was designed in modern architecture style, and no need for swimming pool as the deep blue sea is just meters away. Again, you should book the sauna in advance.
Löyly also offers a variety of food and drinks at good quality and pricing. It is really worth spending some summer time on the terrace sipping beer and enjoying the sea breeze.
If any yogi is reading this, watch out for their next morning yoga session, it could be fun to join!
What is special about this place? It is the last genuine wood-heated public sauna in Helsinki and it has welcomed sauna-goers since 1928! Located in the vibrant district of Kallio, this sauna is extremely easy to access by public transport. In case you want a private sauna sessions, it is totally possible here at a slightly higher cost.
Though located in Keilaniemi, Espoo, Laguuni is so close to Helsinki and so easy to access that we have to include it in this list. Laguuni is a place for water-sports lovers with extra bucks to spare.
You can try out different water-sports such as wakeboard, flyboard and SUP (stand-up paddling) and of course, enjoy their wood-heated sauna. Don’t come here just for the sauna, come for the water sports and have sauna as an add-on.
Totally a well-kept secret of Helsinki, Sompasauna is a wood-heated self-service public sauna maintained by a group of volunteers. The best part of all, it is free to use by everyone. However, since there is no staff or lifeguards on site, you use the sauna and swim at your own risk, so beware!
2. Try out traditional Finnish baked goods
Finns eat breads and other baked delicacies at anytime of the day. If you are a fan of baked goods, Helsinki is your paradise! Apart from a crazy good selection of breads, Finland has also a great lot of mouth-watering pastries that would blow you away. Let’s go through some traditional Finnish pastries you must try:
- Karelian pastries (Karjalanpiirakka): Everyone loves them! These pastries are oval-shaped with a rye crust and different fillings such as potatoes and carrots, but we promise you the rice-filled ones (riisipiirakka) are the most delicious. You can just eat them as they are though one would argue the perfect way to enjoy it is to spread egg butter (munavoi) on top of these warm pastries. Since this type of pastry is a huge part of everyday life, you can get it from anywhere in Finland.
- Cinnamon Buns (Korvapuusti): These sweet, sumptuous buns are the perfect pair with coffee according to many Finns. Many tourists claim the best place to grab a cinnamon bun is Cafe Regatta, but we always root for Kanniston Leipomo – a local bakery chain since 1914.
- Runeberg Tortes (Runebergintorttu): Every year, on February 5th, Finns will buy these palatable tortes to share with their loved ones. This pastry was named after Runeberg, a Finnish poet, and according to legend, Runeberg’s wife created this dessert for him. Runeberg torte is a pastry flavored with rum, arrack, almond and topped with raspberry jam in an icing ring. And trust us, even the ones you get from supermarkets are more than delicious.
- Joulutorttu: Don’t trust any translation they give you. It’s joulutorttu, a Finnish Christmas specialty that everyone loves. It is a puff pastry shaped as a star or pinwheel, filled with prune or apricot jam and dusted with icing sugar. The best way to enjoy these festive treats is to make it at home. You can get ready-made puff pastry, jams and icing sugar from any local supermarket, and you will have a fun time make joulutorttu in any creative shapes you can think of.
3. Spend time at a local cafe
There are many great cafes in Helsinki with authentic atmosphere, where you can enjoy local cuisines among Finns. Here is the list of 6 cafes you should visit in Helsinki.
- Cafe Regatta: Regatta is the most touristic yet cutest cafe in Helsinki. This tiny red building is always among the top places to see in Helsinki, where people actually bother queuing up. There are only a few seats indoors, but it is much nicer to sit on the terrace soaking up the sun and sea breeze. Among their baked goods, we totally love their blueberry pies served with vanilla sauce.
- Cafe Ekberg: Founded in 1852, this is the oldest bakery in Helsinki, offering a variety of baked goods and warm foods. It comes as no surprise that Ekberg is famous among both locals and tourists. Customers can enjoy breakfast buffet, lunch buffet, brunch on weekends or simply just order a slice of delicious cake with tea/coffee.
- Cafe Ursula: Opened in 1952, this cafe is popular among Helsinki locals and expats. Ursula boasts to always serve it customers with high quality local foods with fresh ingredients. If you are in Helsinki during Midsummer (Juhannus) and clueless of what to do, consider coming here to enjoy food, wine and bonfire.
- Moomin Cafe: Moomin is Finnish ‘national treasure’. Every Finnish child grows up watching Moomin animated series. Many Finnish adults spend years collecting Moomin items. For families with young children, visiting a Moomin Cafe will be a great treat to your kids.
- Levain Bakery Eatery: Many of our Finnish friends adore Levain, which have two shops in Punavuori and Töölö. As far as we know, Levain is tourist-free so you can enjoy an authentic ambiance among the locals. Apart from bake delicacies, this bakery has a nice selection of warm foods throughout the day.
- Bus Gelato: What? Why here? Because everyone loves ice cream and theirs is divine! This is strictly a hidden gem in Helsinki, a secret so well kept that we are lucky to be told about by some Finnish foodie friends. Apart from their incredible ice creams, Bus Gelato also offer breads, soups and salads.
4. Lunch at a market halls
If you are usually a budget traveler, you would find Helsinki a bit too pricey. However, lunch time in Helsinki has a lot of great offers that are totally worth your money. One-of-a-kind experience would be having lunch at a vibrant market hall (known as ‘kauppahalli’ in Finnish). We wholeheartedly recommend these 3 places:
Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli):
This market hall offers a variety of fresh vegetables and meat, Finnish specialties, seasonal products and above all, local warm dishes to fill your stomach. However, due to its location, you may find it pretty touristic and actually prefer heading more down-to-earth place.
Stepping away from the tourist attractions, let’s head to:
Hietalahti Market Hall (Hietalahden Kauppahalli):
This is a two in one package deal for you as Hietalahti consists of a market hall and a big square in front. During the summer, this square hosts the largest outdoor flea market in Helsinki.
On a lucky day, you would be able to find antiques, kitchenware or clothing items in good condition for a few euros. If you are not here for the secondhand stuff, let’s proceed inside the market hall where they offer cuisines from different countries for you to choose from.
Hakaniemi Market Hall (Hakaniemen Kauppahalli):
As of September 2019, the old market hall is still under renovation and businesses go on as usual in the new building next door.
It is absolutely our favorite market hall as it has a strong sense of authenticity and lesser crowd of tourists. You can get here by bus, tram, metro or even on foot from the city center. In the summer, it is even more animated as there are more shops opening outdoor on the square. This place will haunt you with the vibrant colors of seasonal ingredients or the irresistible smell of freshly-brewed coffee and freshly-baked pastries.
5. Enjoy a picnic by the coast
Finns like staying as much and as long outdoor every time it’s sunny and warm to make up for all those dark, freezing winter months. And what is more interesting than a picnic by the coast on a lovely summer day?
There are tons of places in Helsinki where you can have a picnic and enjoy the beautiful nature. So what are you waiting for?
Let’s grab a bottle of wine from Alko, Finnish berries from a street.ide kios, some bread and cheese from the supermarket, and we are ready to roll. You won’t regret spend an afternoon at one of these places:
- Kaivopuisto: Located in South-Western Helsinki, this park is very easy to access and very suitable for families with kids. The top of the hill is a perfect picnic spot with amazing views to the sea.
- Hietaranta Beach: Picnic on beach on a summer day, isn’t it just more than perfect? This is by far the only sandy beach Helsinki. The locals rush here for swimming and sunbathing every summer, so it could be pretty crowded. Nevertheless, as the saying goes: the more, the merrier.
- Central Park (Keskuspuisto): This forest within Helsinki city has a lot to offer to visitors. On a good summer day, this is the place to bike, hike, pick berries and mushrooms and enjoy a picnic with friends and families in the solitude of nature.
- Lammassaari: ‘Sheep island’ is not very well-known among the tourists, making it an ideal spot for you to be among locals and nature. Finns enjoy coming here for a short walks, bird-watching and picnic on the rock somewhere facing the waterfront. And yes, there are sheeps on the island, and yes, kids adore them!
6. Visit at least one of many interesting museums in Helsinki
Helsinki has many, many great museums and it would be a huge nuisance if you leave Helsinki without visiting any.
If you plan to roam as many museums as possible during your stay in Helsinki, it is worth getting a Helsinki Card for some of the best places to visit in Helsinki. This card also gives you unlimited rides on Hop On Hop Off bus and other public transports.
Here are our top favorite museums in Helsinki:
- Kiasma – Museum of Contemporary Arts: Designed by Steven Holl with ‘the celebration of light’ concept, this admirable landmark host many interesting exhibitions annually.
- Amos Rex Art Museum: Newly opened in August 2018, Amos Rex has the most unique architecture among all museums in Helsinki and no doubt one of the most Instagrammable places.
- Ateneum Art Museum: This is the most well-known art museum in Finland and home to Finnish Art. The collection of artwork here is ridiculously good.
- Seurasaari Open-Air Museum: Seurasaari is a must-see place for all architecture-lovers. Give it at least half a day because it is more than just a museum.
7. Shop “Design in Finland” items
In 2012, Helsinki was the world capital of design. Finns are proud of their designs so much that when you enter a Finnish home, it is hard not to spot items of local brands: Marimekko, Iitala, Artek, Finlayson, Fiskars, etc.
If you love design, you should really take a stroll around Helsinki Design District where there are also many smaller local brands.
Whenever you ask a Finn, what good gifts from Finland to get for your friends/families back home, it’s likely that they suggest you get a Finnish design item.
8. Crawfish parties!
Crawfish parties, or ‘rapujuhlat’ in Finnish, is an exciting event of every Finnish summer. If you ask any Finn, they will tell you that ‘rapujuhlat’ is more of a Swedish thing, but everyone has to try it.
So what do you do exactly at a crawfish party?
Well, the name gives half away: you eat a lot of crawfish and you drink a lot of alcohol. Venues for these parties usually vary, you can have it outdoors, at someone’s cabin, in restaurants or on Baltic cruises.
9. Let’s go island hopping
Helsinki has hundreds of islands in its archipelago, thus, island hopping comes as no surprise to be one of the best things to do in Helsinki. This is by far the most popular and easiest route to consider: Lonna-Vallisaari-Suomenlinna with departure from Market Square (Kauppatori).
During the trip, you can trek among nature, savor seasonal local food, soak up the summer sun and learn some Finnish history. For a complete guide to this awesome island hopping trip, check out HERE.
10. Take a (half-)day trip to nearby places
There is a joke among our Finnish friends about the ‘must-see’ place when in Helsinki, with ‘Tallinn’ as an answer. It actually makes a lot of sense as Tallinn is just two hours away so you can hop on a boat to go there anytime.
Moreover, there are many great destinations that make a perfect day and half-day trips from Helsinki. Here are some of our inspirations:
BEST DAY TRIP FROM HELSINKI: