Helsinki, Finland: What to See, Do, and Eat

by  Michelle Gross | Feb 18, 2020
Helskini / Olezzo/iStock

Helsinki is a city of sharp contrasts. In the winter months — when temperatures drop down to single digits — this bustling city by the sea becomes the ideal place to soak in the sauna and seek out sustainably sourced seafood. In the (slightly) warmer summer months, music and art festivals reign supreme. No matter what time of the year you plan on visiting, it's easy to see why Helsinki is recognized as one of the happiest and most progressive cities in the world.

Regardless of your budget, the city offers something for every kind of traveler. One thing to consider investing in is the Helsinki Card, which includes access to over 25 of the city’s most popular attractions including Suomenlinna Fortress and Temppeliaukio Church. The card is available in one-, two-, and three-day durations and includes public transportation in and around the city via boat, trolley, and bus. A three-day card costs 74 euro (about $80).  

What to See and Do in Helsinki

Explore Local History 

Suomenlinna Fortress / scanrail/iStock

One of the best ways to learn about Helsinki’s past is to pay a visit to Suomenlinna, a stunning, centuries-old sea fortress. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to the 18th century, and is a 10-minute ferry ride from Market Square. Another place worth exploring is Vallisaari Island, which is also accessible from Market Square. It's the perfect place to enjoy a picnic, especially in the warmer months (May through October). Also on a warmer day, enjoy the island's scenic hiking and walking trails, or visit one of the hygge-inspired restaurants or breweries. 

Helsinki is best explored on foot or by bike — which is especially convenient, since  many of the main tourist attractions are centrally located. Your first stop should be Helsinki Central Library Oodi, which is hailed as one of the city's most beautiful sites. Just a stone’s throw away is Finnish design museum Amos Rex, which reopened in August 2019. (Note: Most museums are closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly.)

No visit to Helsinki is complete without a visit to Temppeliaukio Church, which translates to "Rock Church" in English: a fitting name, considering the church was built directly into solid rock back in 1969. It truly is a remarkable site — and, on select afternoons, you might even be treated to a free concert (check the church's event schedule to learn more). 

Go Shopping 

Shops in Helsinki / bruev/iStock

Finns are fiercely proud of their unique design scene. And, with around 200 boutiques, collections, and galleries, there’s certainly no shortage of places for trendsetting travelers. Design Museum features a permanent exhibition of Finnish design along with a new exhibition called "Collectors and Collections," which is on display until March 15. Afterwards, stop by Suvilahti, which has been dubbed as the new art and cultural center of Helsinki; come here on a Sunday to check out the lively flea market.

Secondhand shopping is also popular here. Start with the nonprofit UFF Thrift Store, which has several locations around the city. Relove is another excellent option and sells slightly more upscale vintage clothing. It's also home to a cute café where you can enjoy a cup of Finnish coffee. 

Hit the Sauna 

Saunas are extremely popular in Finland. One of our favorites is Löyly, which is located right on the Baltic Sea; it's a stunning site. Just be sure to arrive early to avoid the crowds. Also, don't miss the chance to take the polar plunge for one of the most invigorating few seconds of your life. $20 for two hours. 

Related: 3 Reasons Why You Should Sauna in Finland

Where to Stay and What to Eat in Helsinki 

Smoked salmon with rye bread and butter / ValerijaP/iStock

New Nordic cuisine is having a moment right now, and Helsinki is home to several fine dining establishments that fetch a pretty penny. However, eating well doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. If you’re looking to sample some delicious local fare, check out Market Square, where you'll find everything from reindeer sausage and Lappish cheese served on rye bread with butter (under $10), to forest-grown mushrooms and warm mugs of glögi (mulled wine) for five euro ($5.50) per glass. Also nearby is Vanha Kauppahalli, a historic indoor market where you'll find locally-made delicacies like cheese and freshly sliced salmon plus creamy salmon soup. If you’re looking to cozy up over some coffee and breakfast bites, head straight to Restaurant Story (in the heart of the market), where you can enjoy a plate of traditional Baltic herring for under $16.

Hotel Indigo Helsinki - Boulevard is located in the heart of the city and offers comfortable, clean, and value-packed accommodations (rates from $172 per night, depending on the season). Don’t miss a chance to sit at the sleek lobby bar and try Finnish Long Drink on tap. Ekberg 1852 is directly across the street and is one of the city’s oldest (and most beautiful) cafés. They serve a killer breakfast and brunch buffet — that includes homemade pastries, cold cuts, omelettes, desserts, coffee, and juice — for under $16. 

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