When it comes to touring the Nordics, Finland is often overlooked by its surrounding neighbours. However, while you may be tempted to visit the likes of Stockholm in Sweden or Copenhagen in Denmark, you shouldn’t overlook the country of Finland and its capital, Helsinki. Similar like Sweden, much of the nation is covered by wilderness, with untamed forests covering close to 75% of the country’s land area. However, in the populated centres of the country, especially Helsinki, Finnish culture flourishes.
Sitting on the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki is similar to Sweden’s capital in the fact that it sits on an archipelago. Made up of 330 different islands, each of these isles offer a unique adventure and cultural slice for you to take part in. There are different tours you can sign up for to see them, such as this cruise, but before you do that, you should have a look at what the largest city in Finland has to offer. Built in the 16th century, this city has been shaped by its proximity to Sweden and Russia, and there is a lot to see in this jewel of the south Finnish coast.
Know Before You Go
There are two ways in which you are most likely to come to Helsinki. The first is by plane - to get to Helsinki, you’ll have to fly to the Helsinki Vantaa International Airport which is just north of the city and is served by European and international airlines, including Finland’s own airline, Finnair. From there, you can take the 615 or 617 bus, or the train to get to Helsinki city.
Secondly, you can get there via ferry - specifically, you can get to Helsinki from Sweden, Germany or Estonia by Stockholm, Travemunde or Talinn respectively. The distance to Tallinn and Helsinki is only about 2 hours to travel by ferry, and should you decide to do so, you could easily book a ferry ticket here and enjoy a day trip to Estonia’s capital.
Helsinki is a small city, and is easily walkable, but is also very convenient when it comes to public transport. All the public transport is under the HSL network, so as long as your ticket is valid, you can travel between the bus, train, tram and metro. You can buy tickets through the HSL app, at HSL kiosks or offices, and these range from single tickets which last 80 mins to multiple-day tickets. In the summer, there are also city bikes which you can rent to travel throughout the city.
To rent a car in Finland, as a rule of thumb, most rental companies ask you to be at least 20 years old and to have held your license for 1 year. Drivers renting a car under the age of 25 may incur a young driver surcharge. Children under 3 must be seated in the rear with a child seat or using normal seat belts if no child seat is available, and traffic goes on the right.
Helsinki has a moderate climate, with the freezing cold winters that the Nordic regions are well known for and summers which can range from mild to scorching. The warmest time to visit is between May and September, while the winters are usually snowy and last from December to March, sometimes April.
The currency of Finland is the Euro, and while both cash and card are accepted here, that are more often than not cashless exchanges. We still recommend that you carry a few notes just in case.
Day 1: Helsinki City Centre
A good place to start any adventure in a new city is at the heart of it, and Helsinki City Centre has plenty of attractions to make your first day a worthwhile adventure. Though Helsinki is small, it has several distinct districts which you can visit that are only a few minutes away. Starting at Kauppatori-Senate Square, many of Helsinki’s attractions are a stone’s throw away and this is a good starting point.
Some of the attractions are a bit further out from the city centre - the furthest one out is the amusement park Linnanmäki, which is about 40 minutes walk away from the district, but is still worth visiting in and of itself - and you might pass some stuff planned for day 2, as the Design District is right next to the city centre - but while there may be some overlap, it’s always good to familiarise yourself with the area, and it’ll only leave you more curious about the nation’s capital.
Where to Eat
For your first day, we recommend the Restaurant and Bakery Levain. There are three different ones throughout Helsinki, and each has a cosy atmosphere while serving good food.
Helsinki City Museum
For the first attraction on your adventure in Helsinki, why not learn a bit more about the history of the city itself at the Helsinki City Museum? This museum is a depository for artefacts and exhibitions related to the history of Helsinki and the experiences of its inhabitants.
While this museum in particular focuses on the city, there are other museums which are part of the Helsinki City Museum network - the Hakasalmi Villa, the Burgher’s House Museum, the Worker Housing Museum and the Tram Museum. Altogether, this museum network has collections which include approximately one million photographs and 450,000 items, all of which are dedicated to upholding the heritage of the city. To help in this mission, all venues are free to enter for visitors.
Museum of Civil Defence
As previously mentioned, Finland’s history has been shaped by its neighbours, and usually, this was done through military action. There were quite a few notable conflict events throughout history, such as the Winter War, a three-and-a-half-month conflict that took place between Finland and the Soviet Union shortly after the onset of World War II.
For this reason, Finland always had to prepare a game plan in case it was ever threatened again. The history of Helsinki’s civil defence can be followed at the Museum of Civil Defence. The museum follows the local history from the Second World War all the way to the present day, with equipment from this period used on display and even a fully reconstructed wartime bomb shelter.
There are many different parks to be enjoyed throughout Helsinki, but Esplanade Park - also known as Espa by the locals - is arguably Helsinki’s most famous and popular one. Originally planned out by the principal architect of Helsinki, Carl Ludvig Engel, the park was first opened up to the public in 1818.
This park is frequented by locals and tourists alike, and there is a lot to enjoy here. In the centre of the park is the first monument to be erected in Helsinki - the statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland's national poet and author of the Finnish national anthem, which was sculpted by his son. There is also one of the most historic restaurants in the city, Kappeli, at one end, while Espa stage hosts concerts and live performances all throughout the summer. You can also visit the nearby Helsinki Market Square and Old Market Hall for souvenirs.
National Museum of Finland
While the Helsinki City Museum network may be dedicated to keeping the history of the city alive, the National Museum of Finland is dedicated to documenting the heritage of the whole nation. Opened to the public in 1916, this museum has exhibitions about the full history of this Nordic country, from the stone age to the present day.
Even from the outside, this building is a visual marvel, architecturally designed to mimic the style of the nation’s castles. There are quite a few permanent exhibitions split across this building on the inside as well, ranging from coins and weaponry from the middle ages to items related to Finnish folk culture and what the country was like before the introduction of industrialization.
National Library of Finland
The National Library of Finland is the foremost research library in all of Finland, and much like the other museums, houses vast amounts of knowledge relating to the heritage of Finland. The main building was designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel in 1836 and construction was concluded in 1845, with the additional annex known as the Rotunda being built in 1906 by architect Gustaf Nyström.
This library is not just a deposit of books but is also a fantastic example of architecture that was prevalent during the time Finland was a part of the Russian empire. It also houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of books that chronicle the Russian Empire in the world.
While we’ll save the rest of the art-oriented establishments found throughout Helsinki for day 2 of this itinerary, the Ateneum will give you a taste of what to expect as it is still within Helsinki city centre. Ateneum is one of three galleries that make up the Finnish National Gallery network, and it houses the largest collection of classical artworks throughout the country of Finland.
The museum is closed on Mondays, but otherwise, you’ll get access to one of the most unique collections of artwork in the Nordics. If you are interested in what this museum has behind its doors, but you can’t afford a trip yet, the Finnish National Gallery website has you covered on that end as well, and you can see what works there are here.
Bank of Finland Museum
There are all sorts of museums in Helsinki, dedicated to different facets of society and culture. Museums dedicated to history, museums dedicated to art, a museum dedicated to… banks? Yeah, you read that right. Helsinki has a museum for banks - more specifically the Bank of Finland Museum.
Ok, off the bat, it might not sound as appealing compared to the other museums in the city, but this establishment is still worth visiting if you find yourself with a loose end. This museum seeks to break down the history and complexities of money and modern economy systems with the goal of helping the general public become more financially literate.
Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden
If you are a fan of nature, then you should consider visiting the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden. Also known as the University of Helsinki Botanical Garden, these gardens are a research and learning facility with many live plants on display, including the world’s largest plant seed. The surrounding Kaisaniemi Park and gardens themselves are a popular attraction to visit throughout the year.
There are many different sections to the botanic garden which make it a memorable visit, from the open ponds and flowers in the summer to the glasshouses which house tropical and rainforest plants throughout the whole year. Definitely, one for nature lovers to visit.
Another interesting piece of Empire-era architecture built by Carl Ludvig Engel is the Helsinki Cathedral. Sitting on the north end of Senate Square, this cathedral is both a point for national and academic festive services as well as a popular tourist sight - you can see the church as you are coming into Helsinki by sea.
Originally called the St. Nicholas Church and Great Cathedral, the current cathedral that you see now was completed in 1852. It is a very distinct part of the Helsinki skyline, with the dome towering above the surrounding buildings with sculptures of the twelve apostles on the roof of the church.
Compared to Helsinki Cathedral, the Temppeliaukio Church might seem unassuming at first glance. When you first approach it from the outside, it looks like a shallow copper dome in the middle of a pedestrian area. But what makes this building much more interesting is what is on the inside.
Built-in the 1960s by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, what makes Temppeliaukio stand out from other churches is that the church has been carved into solid rock. This fact and its unique interior makes the church one of the most visited attractions in Helsinki and arguably one of the most uniquely designed places of worship in the world.
There are many different amusement parks in the world, and each of them has its own unique selling points that make them a worthwhile visit. However, few can say they are run by charities to help support children. Well, Linnanmäki is an amusement park which can boast this. Opened in 1950, this amusement park is owned and run by the non-profit organization Children's Day Foundation.
Originally, these were six organizations that teamed together to form one larger group, and the money that comes from running this park actually directly goes towards raising funds for Finnish child welfare work. So while you’re having a fun day out with your family, you can feel good in the knowledge that your money is going towards helping other children.
Another park worth seeing for its unique monument is Sibelius Park. While this seaside park may make for a lovely stroll and nature break from the urban city, there are several sculptures and monuments worth keeping an eye out for when visiting this park - particularly the one this park is named after.
This monument is an abstract piece of art called Passio Musicae and was created by artist Eila Hiltunen in memory of Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. This piece is a series of 600 steel tubes that act like a pipe organ in the wind. It triggered a debate about abstract art when it was revealed in 1967, and to appease the critics, a bust of Sibelius was added alongside the memorial.
Finnish Museum of Natural History
And last stop for the day is the Finnish Museum of Natural History. Like the botanic gardens, this museum is part of the University of Helsinki and is an independent facility dedicated to the education and research of natural history.
The Finnish Museum of Natural History holds different collections relating to plants, fungi and zoology, as well as different geological and paleontological discoveries, consisting of pieces both from Finland and from around the whole world. It also ties into other surrounding attractions, as while this museum houses the main natural history exhibitions, there are also smaller exhibitions in the Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden and the Kumpula Botanical Garden, a smaller botanic garden that sits at the Kumpula Mansion.
Where to Stay
Budget - Moi Aikatalo Hostel Helsinki
There are few options for budget accommodation in Helsinki, and while this establishment is at the very edge of what we would consider budget, this family-run hostel is one of the best places to get good value for your money.
Mid range - The Yard Hostel
This hostel offers both private and dorm rooms for your stay and is a short walk away from many of Helsinki’s different attractions.
Luxury - Hotel Kämp
Finally, while visiting the capital of Finland, why not visit Finland’s grand hotel? This establishment combines historical elegance with modern convenience.
Day 2: Helsinki Art and Design District
While you are likely to pass here during your visit to Helsinki city centre, this day is completely dedicated to the Helsinki Art and Design district. As the name suggests, here you’ll find more museums dedicated to art and culture. This area is also full of restaurants and fashion stores, which may make for a fun day out, depending on your budget.
However, you don’t need to go splashing the cash on designer labels and expensive eateries to truly appreciate what this area has to offer. Whether it’s walking through the parks or perusing the artistic works throughout the district here, there’s enough to see here that’ll make for a nice second day in Finland’s capital.
Where to Eat
If want you to go somewhere really special for a meal, then hop onto the nearby island of Sirpalesaari and grab a bite to eat at Restaurant Saari, where you can enjoy some traditional cooking while enjoying views of the Gulf of Finland.
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art
First up for the day, check out the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. As part of the Finnish National Gallery network, this establishment is particularly focused on displaying more modern art pieces. Originally, these pieces were housed in Ateneum until the 90s, where they were moved around until the opening of the Kiasma building in 1998.
Currently, Kiasma has around 8500 different works, and much like the other establishments under the Finnish National Gallery, it is dedicated to preserving the cultural and artistic heritage of Finland.
Finnish Museum of Photography
Next up is the Finnish Museum of Photography. As you might have assumed by the name, this establishment is dedicated to the medium of photography. It was founded thanks to different Finnish photography organizations, and is the oldest photography museum in the whole of Europe, opening its doors in 1969.
Though the museum is supported by Finnish organizations, the collections inside are both from native and international photographers (though with a particular emphasis on Finnish photographers). The museum itself holds 2.5 million pictures, a wide range of documents and recordings such as films and posters, and an object collection made up of 3500 different items.
Sinebrychoff Art Museum
The last of the museums under the Finnish National Gallery network is the Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Housed in the manor that used to belong to the Sinebrychoff family, this museum has a particular focus on historical pieces, acting as both an art and a history museum. It is also sat in Sinebrychoff Park, another popular destination for locals and tourists alike.
A lot of the pieces within actually used to belong to the Sinebrychoff family, but all are dedicated to artists who are “Old Masters”, a term given to European painters predating the 1800s. The museum itself houses 4000 different prints and drawings, as well as antiquated items of interest like silverware and cloaks.
The last park to visit in Helsinki is its oldest, Kaivopuisto Park. In the 19th century, plans were set in motion to develop this waterfront piece of land into a spa. Nowadays, it is a lovely place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
There are many things to visit in this waterside park, such as the bar-club Kaivohuone, which was the original spa dating back to 1839, and the Ursa observatory, which dates back to 1926. Whether you want to experience a small aspect of Helsinki history or just go for a nice stroll, a visit to Kaivopuisto is a great way to finish your last day in this district.
Where to Stay
Luxury - Bob W Koti Ullanlinna - If you are staying in the Design District, expect a luxurious stay. We highly recommend this aparthotel, for its beauty and its location.
Day 3: Outside Helsinki
Now that you have had a couple of days in Helsinki, it is time to see what is beyond the city limits - and there is something for most people to enjoy. You can choose to explore some of the more naturally beautiful areas in the surrounding countryside, or you can continue with your historical tour and visit some unique pieces of Helsinki’s past.
In terms of nature, there are national parks, and the many different islands surrounding Helsinki, where some tour companies allow you to visit. There are many locations outside Helsinki - both nearby and far - which will make this last day a wonderful memory.
Where to Eat
One of the attractions we are recommending for today is Löyly Helsinki, which on top of being a seaside spa, also has a stylish restaurant with a sun deck that is especially lovely in the summer evenings.
While this attraction isn’t too far from Helsinki itself, it makes for a good start to your adventures on your last day. The fortress of Suomenlinna is an 18th-century sea fortress, one of the largest in the world. While it was originally constructed to protect the city from naval attack, it is now a popular tourist destination, with nature areas that have plenty of trails alongside old artillery pieces and defensive walls spread across smaller islands.
There is a lot here for history fans, such as the King’s Gate drawbridge, the Suomenlinna Museum, and even a restored 1930s submarine called the Vesikko. Even if history isn’t your thing, there is still plenty to do on the island, which houses a brewery as well as waterside restaurants. You can purchase a ferry ticket here.
While there are loads for you to do on the last day, maybe you can’t be bothered with that. Maybe you just want to chill before you travel back home. Well, in that case, the Nordics are well known for their saunas, and you should maybe pay a visit to Löyly Helsinki.
Considered by Time Magazine to be among one of the top 100 world’s greatest places, this modern sauna opened up in 2016 as part of a development project in this part of Helsinki and is possibly the most popular location in the city if you want to just relax. Especially in the winter, this place is a great spot to get your sweat on.
Sipoonkorpi National Park
There are a few national parks in the Finnish countryside, but the one we would recommend you see for yourself is it's 36th (yes, there are that many in Finland) is Sipoonkorpi National Park.
Established in 2011 and just about a half hour's drive from Helsinki, this area is full of stuff to visit, from wandering among the thick spruce forests that make up much of Finland to the rolling fields and picturesque villages. You can have a look at what hiking trails the area has here.
If you want to take a dive into what Finland’s medieval history may have been like, then visit the city of Porvoo. Located about 35 kilometres east of Helsinki, Porvoo was one of Finland's six medieval towns, and you can still see some of that old-fashioned history in the Old Town.
From award-winning restaurants to quaint B&B’s, and surrounded by a national park, Porvoo is ideal if you want to do some tourism, but at a relaxed pace. You can easily reach Porvoo from Helsinki by bus or by boat in the summer, and as one of the most photographed landscapes in Finland, it isn’t worth missing.
Seurasaari Open-Air Museum
On one of the smaller islands surrounding Helsinki - Seurasaari - is a seasonal open-air museum which has more of Finnish history on display. The Seurasaari Open-Air Museum comprises of historical buildings relocated to the island from various places in Finland, and each of these buildings are from different centuries, so you can see history progress before your eyes.
Access to the island is free, and there is an outdoor public park which visitors can enjoy free of charge, but access to the museum itself requires a ticket. As this is a seasonal establishment, it is only open between the 15th of May and the 15th of September during the tourist season.
Didrichsen Art Museum
Finally is one of the more interesting of Helsinki’s art museums because of its venue. The Didrichsen Art Museum was built in 1965 on the nearby island of Kuusisaari and is an art/ sculpture museum, but it is housed in a reconverted villa. The name of the museum comes from the founders Marie-Louise and Gunnar Didrichsen, who have since passed away and are buried on the compound.
The museum holds three exhibitions each year, with the museum’s collection consisting of around one thousand items. Most of this is made up of Finnish and international twentieth-century art. As well as the villa itself, the museum is surrounded by a public sculpture park, which is always open.
Where to Stay
Budget - Spacious 1bdrm apartment near metro
This private apartment on the eastern edge of Helsinki provides free parking and is ideal for solo travellers who are driving around Helsinki’s outskirts.
Mid range - Spot Apartments Tikkurila
A short way from Helsinki airport, these premium apartments allow anyone who comes in a very comfortable stay.
Luxury - Backbyn Kartano
A 20 minute drive from Helsinki, this final accommodation provides luxury and comfort with spa treatments available.