8 Unique Things to Do in Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki, capital city of Finland, is sprawled across the hills of a many-fingered peninsula, overlooking the easternmost fringes of the Baltic Sea. Located on the southern coast of the country, the city is close to neighboring capitals, Tallinn, Riga and Stockholm — making it easy for travellers to reach Helsinki by ferry from these destinations.

Helsinki blends the culture of an medieval European city with modern Scandinavian design; a balanced mix that conveys the history of the location, while remaining earnestly contemporary. In Helsinki, you will find friendly locals, minimalist architecture, orderly neighborhoods, and convenient public transit — basically everything you would expect to see in Scandinavia.

Yet what makes Helsinki unique is the city’s artsy, bohemian vibe. Many of the sites that I recommend in this blog are notable because it feels like they could only exist in Helsinki. The city is filled with a profusion of local markets, stylish coffee shops, and restaurants perfect for foodies — basically, a hipster’s paradise.

Yet despite these charms, Helsinki’s northerly locale means that it experiences very cold, snowy winters with temperatures well below zero. So unless you have an unreasonable love for winter (or you’re planning a ski trip), I’d recommend summer as the best time to visit Helsinki. Despite excellent transit, the city best lends itself to exploration on foot or bicycle.

Here are my top 8 things to do in Helsinki — if you want to experience the wonderful uniqueness of Finland’s hipster capital.

1. Wander Around Kauppatori Market Square

Helsinki’s colourful Market Square dominates the south harbour of the city, where bright tents sell to tourists and locals alike. Choose from among the following (or just enjoy browsing):

  • Fresh seafood, cooked on the spot
  • Wild mushrooms of many varieties
  • Local produce — try the strawberries
  • Finnish-style pastries (Korvapuusti)
  • And much more!

2. Explore Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Suomenlinna and its neighboring islands encircle the Helsinki harbour. Built in the late 18th century to protect the city from invasion by sea, this medieval fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.

A visit to Suomenlinna is a great way to spend an afternoon or even a full day in Helsinki. Simply walking from one end of the island to the other takes several hours. En route, you can explore the overgrown battlements of the fortress: rusted cannons, ancient cellars, and stone passageways, which cover most of the island. Or you can sit on a grassy embankment and just enjoy the beautiful views of the Baltic!

One of the most interesting things about Suomenlinna is how the Finnish government has decided to develop the island. In addition to the typical museums, restaurants and gift shops, a small community of 900 permanent residents has been built amongst the ruins of the fortress. While exploring, you’ll see cottages sitting side-by-side with ancient fortifications, making Suomenlinna feel like a truly “living community” — quite unusual for a historic site of this type.

You can catch ferries to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress from Helsinki harbour throughout the day, available on the piers right next to Market Square. The ferries will stop at the other islands in Helsinki harbour. Try some island-hopping if you’ve got an entire day to fill!

3. Snap a Picture at the Iconic Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral is located a short walk inland from Market Square and the harbourfront. This neoclassical church is an iconic landmark of the city. The building is visible against Helsinki’s skyline from almost anywhere, due to its height, prominent dome, and stark whiteness.

You won’t be able to stop yourself from joining the crowds of tourists posing on the steps for a picture — at least, I wasn’t able to!

4. Visit Temppeliaukio Rock Church

There is something quintessentially Finnish about Temppeliaukio — from its foundation of natural bedrock to the austere design of the interior. The name means “church in the rock”, and the building was constructed by literally drilling into solid granite.

Situated in the Helsinki neighborhood of Töölö, the Rock Church tends to draw big crowds, so try to visit during off-peak hours. The interior is beautifully lit with natural light streaming down from above. It doesn’t require a long visit, but I enjoyed spending a few minutes sitting and soaking in the feel of this unique spot!

5. Take a Moment at the Kamppi Chapel of Silence

Located just outside a major shopping complex in downtown core of Helsinki, the Kamppi Chapel of Silence is not large. From the outside, the chapel looks like a strange ovular cylinder of smooth wood, roughly 20 feet square and constantly surrounded by a noisy stream of passing pedestrians.

Inside it is a perfectly silent, sound-proofed room, with rows of wooden benches, foam seating blocks, and a tiny altar. Natural light enters through the roof of the cylindrical space and suffuses the whole space with a wonderful glow. I was nervous about even taking photos here — due to the noise of my camera shutter!

I imagine it would be a perfect place for busy Finns to come and meditate for 10-15 minutes during their day. Less popular than the Rock Church, you can usually get inside without a long wait. I found the energy of the place to be incredibly rejuvenating. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had more urban spaces like this?

Kamppi Chapel of Silence Exterior - Things to Do in Helsinki, Finland
Kamppi Chapel of Silence Interior - Things to Do in Helsinki, Finland

6. Get Sweaty at a Traditional Finnish Sauna

A sauna at the end of the day is a long-standing tradition for Finns and you can find these establishments dotted across Helsinki. Choose your spot carefully. Many saunas will be co-ed, so if you’re visiting with a partner then you may get separated — I speak from experience!

Once inside, a sauna is a great place to chat with locals, who are happy to open up and practice their English under these conditions. It is common to drink while sauna-ing and you will often see a small crowd sitting out front, enjoying a beer between soaks.

You may also encounter a strange practice during a sauna session: Finns whacking themselves with bundles of wet birch leaves. This is supposed to exfoliate the skin and cool the body, also releasing a lovely, natural smell. If you’re keen to try, then ask to borrow someone’s bundle! Most Finns are happy to share.

7. Bike Along the Waterfront of the City

Helsinki is home to many lovely bike trails, in frequent use by residents. The city also offers a rent-a-bike service — similar to what you’ll find in other major European centres. I found this was a great way to get around while exploring!

My girlfriend and I spent one lovely afternoon cycling from the promenade at Munkkisaari/Eira all the way back to our apartment in Kallio. The entire route was along the waterfront, passing through parks and promenades. The perfect way to spend a sunny, summer day!

8. Discover Some of Helsinki’s Different Neighborhoods

When I visited Helsinki, I stayed at an AirBnB in the neighborhood of Kallio, which turned out to be a great choice. However, my girlfriend and I had immense difficulty deciding on a neighborhood beforehand because they all looked amazing — so here’s a quick summary of our top picks:

  • Eira — If you have a big budget, then the wealthy neighborhood of Eira is your most upscale option. Located on Helsinki’s southern waterfront, Eira is also the perfect destination for a day’s bike trip!
  • Kallio — A former working-class neighborhood, Kallio has gentrified in recent years to become a hipster paradise of coffee shops, art galleries and restaurants. We loved it!
  • Kamppi — The city’s bustling central district, Kamppi is the closest to most tourist spots and convenient for a family trip. The majority of the city’s hotels are located in the Kamppi district.
  • Töölö — Our second choice, Töölö had the reputation of being a great spot for nature lovers, with a number of beautiful parks in the area. Also very hipster!

Wherever you choose to stay, you can’t go too wrong when visiting Helsinki. This unique city and its friendly locals are sure to charm you. If you’d like to learn more about other cities in Eastern Europe, stay tuned for my blogs on the Baltic trio of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius — coming soon!

Have a favourite spot in Helsinki that I’ve missed? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

Showing 2 comments
  • Paula Morgan
    Reply

    We had a 12-hour layover in Helsinki and managed to visit the Cathedral, the Chapel and have lunch at the market. It certainly looked like I place I wanted to spend another day.

    • Alex
      Reply

      Definitely the kind of place where you could spend a couple of days! You’ll just have to go back, I suppose. Hope my suggestions help when you do!

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