Helsinki is the Finnish Capital but it certainly doesn’t feel like a capital city. Helsinki is surrounded by islands and a third of the city’s space is taken up by parkland and green spaces. That makes it a haven for outdoor lovers! Do you prefer shopping? Don’t worry, Helsinki is the Design Capital too, so there’s plenty of shopping to be done; just don’t expect it to be cheap!
Helsinki has become a popular European travel destination, especially in the summer months. The days are long, the snow has melted, the sun is shining and you can spend long hours enjoying the fresh Finnish air.
We had only budgeted two nights in Helsinki but with our flight being delayed we arrived really late. It left us just 24 hours to explore the town.
It turned out that Helsinki is packed with museums, historic sights, parks, trendy neighbourhoods and its Design District is full of fabulous shops. So given that, 24 hours is really not enough time to cover it all off. But, if that’s all the time you have, you can still get a small taste of the city in just a day.
Depending on the time of the year that you visit, you will want to adjust your itinerary. We visited in spring, on what happened to be their first beautiful day of the year! It was the perfect day to walk around and the days were long. However, that’s not always the case. If you visit in winter, you will want to spend more time indoors. Read on for some ideas on what to do in winter.
If you visit in spring or summer, be sure to wake up very early. It was daylight at 4 am in May when we visited! However, having arrived at 2 am the night before, we didn’t take full advantage of this on our first morning! But we did get out there by 8.30 am and our Airbnb in the centre of town was in the perfect location, only a few minutes from the main sights.
Believe it or not but the Finnish are the biggest per capita coffee drinkers in the world! So Helsinki is packed with coffee shops. I don’t know about you but I can’t really function without my morning cup of coffee!
Free Walking Tour
If you’d like to learn more about the city and its history, take a free walking tour with Green Cap Tours. Their tour takes you around the main sights in the centre of Helsinki and teaches you some of Finland’s history with lots of interesting stories and some great jokes. They explain the different styles of architecture in Helsinki and give you recommendations for things to do while you’re in town. The tour we took started at 11 am and lasted just under two hours.
Free tours are a great way to get your bearings in a new city. While the tours are free, remember to tip the guide whatever you think the tour is worth.
Here are some of the sights we explored, both with the tour and by ourselves at our own pace.
St Johns Church
The largest stone church in Finland is St Johns Church. This Lutheran church was designed by the Swedish architect Adolf Melander in a Gothic Revival style and its two towers can be seen from many places around town.
The Esplanade Park is located in the heart of the city and is a lovely park for a stroll. It’s popular with locals who enjoy relaxing and sipping coffee at one of its coffee shops or bars. It was originally created as an esplanade where the well-to-do could strut their stuff and there’s still a bit of strutting going on!
Old Market Hall
On the southern side of the harbour, not far from the Market Square (see below) you will find the Old Market Hall. This is a good place to pick up some breakfast, coffee or some traditional products. Inside are some nice cafes and all sorts of traditional food. The smoked salmon was particularly delicious!
Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
The Uspenski Cathedral is built on top of a big rock and its golden cupolas and red-brick facade make you feel like you are in Russia. It is the largest Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe. Its interior is quite impressive too, so make sure to go in, it’s free!
Senate Square is a five-minute walk away from the Market Square. It is home to four major buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland. Engel was a very prominent architect and you can see his distinctive style all over the city.
The Helsinki Cathedral stands tall at the top of the stairs and dominates the square below. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture and one of Helsinki’s icons. Entrance to the church is free but being a Lutheran church, its interior is pretty underwhelming. However, its exterior more than makes up for it.
Senate Square is the starting point for the free walking tour if you decide to take it.
The Temppeliaukio Rock church
This church is one of the main attractions in Helsinki because of its very unusual architecture. The church is carved into the bedrock and covered with a spiral dome made from copper wire. Together with the interesting effects of the sunlight, it makes for a breathtaking sight.
Entrance fee is 3 euros.
Market Square is a great place for lunch. This market is Helsinki’s most famous market. The market stalls here sell fresh fish caught in the sea that same morning. They cook them in a traditional way with dill, or fry them and serve them with roast potatoes and veggies. Once again the salmon is a winner. They also sell game meat, hot drinks for the winter days and local handicrafts and souvenirs. I wasn’t very happy about all the reindeer products for sale though; it made me really sad. Take your time walking around the harbour and enjoying the views.
Head out onto the water to explore the islands
Helsinki is located right by the Gulf of Finland, so you can’t spend some time there without hopping on a boat to explore the nearby islands. On the Market Square, there are several companies selling trips around the islands. They run multiple tours a day, with timetables changing depending on the season. We used a company called Stromma and we spent a great two hours with them.
Stromma’s boat took us past many famous sights, such as the historic Suomenlinna Fortress (see below), Korkeasaari Island, Helsinki’s fleet of icebreaking ships and the Degerö Canal. Along the way they played a recorded commentary over the loudspeakers in Finnish, English, German and Russian, giving us some information and stories about the archipelago. It was a very enjoyable couple of hours.
Or Suomenlinna Fortress
Your other option for the afternoon is to hop on the direct ferry to Suomenlinna. Suomenlinna is Helsinki’s only UNESCO World Heritage site. It is an inhabited sea fortress that was built across six islands during the Swedish siege of Helsinki, to protect the city against the Russian expansionism.
Suomenlinna is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki but because of its size, you will need a few hours to make the most of it. If you only have a couple of hours, you are better off taking the two-hour boat tour which will sail past Suomenlinna, although you won’t get to hop off on the island itself. We chose the canal and island boat trip because we didn’t think we had enough time to explore Suomenlinna properly.
After all that walking and sightseeing, you will surely feel exhausted. So head to a sauna and unwind for a while before dinner. There’s no shortage of saunas in Helsinki. Saunas were actually invented by the Finns! Most hotels will have one and if not, you can visit a public sauna like Löyly Sauna, or the Allas sea pool.
Drink and dinner time!
Ready for a drink and some food? I bet you are! There are lots of options for eating in Helsinki. The Kamppi district right in the middle of downtown is a good place to go. There are loads of restaurants, offering almost every kind of cuisine. If you are looking for authentic Finnish cuisine, try Zetor, Juuri or Savotta. The Kamppi area also has no shortage of bars, so if you still have the energy for a drink, head to Kafe Moskova, Steam Hellsinki or Bar Mendocino.
What to do in Helsinki in winter?
If you visit on a winters day, don’t worry, there is as much to do in winter as in summer. Here are some of the things you can spend your time doing in the winter months:
Go Ice skating!
Every winter you can find an ice rink right next to the train station. Rent some skates and skate the day away! Well, actually, not for too long because there are other things to do!
Go museum hopping
Helsinki is home to 80 museums, so you can’t get bored in winter! Some of the best museums are the National Museum of Finland, the Finnish Museum of Photography, The Design Museum, the Museum of Finnish Architecture, the Kiasma (Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Finnish Museum of Natural History.
Enjoy the Christmas Markets
Are you visiting in December? That’s wonderful news because the city will be all lit up with Christmas lights and you will be able to enjoy the Christmas Markets. Sample some of the delicious gingerbread cookies and stock up on handcrafted Christmas items.
Where to stay in Helsinki?
Because Helsinki is quite expensive, we chose to stay in an Airbnb. However, there are many hotels and hostels in Helsinki to choose from.
Here are some of the best hotels on booking.com
Great location: Lönnrotinkatu City Center Apartment
Best rated: Hotel F6
Good value: Uniq Home Helsinki
For other accommodation options you can use hotelscombined.com to search across all the top hotel search engines using the search box below. We use it all the time.
Should you get the Helsinki card?
Helsinki is not a cheap city and if you are planning on visiting several of its attractions and museums, it might be worthwhile getting the Helsinki Card. The Helsinki Card also covers the entrance to the Suomenlinna Fortress and the canal boat tour. But if you prefer to just walk around town and only enter one or two attractions, it might not be worth your while. Just decide what you want to see and calculate how much it would cost you. The one day Helsinki Card costs 42 Euros (without free public transport) or 49 Euros (including free public transport).
There is so much more to do in Helsinki and with only 24 hours, we missed out on some of its great attractions such as the Sibelius Monument, the Suomenlinna Fortress, the Café Regatta (the cutest little cafe in Helsinki!) and its many art museums.
If we get a chance, we’d love to return and spend more time in the Finnish capital. If you can afford to, we would highly recommend that you add at least an extra day in Helsinki. Then, if you can, head across the Baltic States to visit the Estonian capital of Tallinn and maybe carry on to Riga and Vilnius.