Helsinki – The Heart of Finland
The city of Helsinki invites you to encounter the friendly peculiarities of the Finns at the colorful gateway of the country and benefit from tips from locals.
To call Helsinki the heart of Finland would not do justice to the green oases, picturesque lakescapes, many small harbors and marketplaces from Saimaa to the Baltic Sea. But Helsinki is without question the place to see and experience the most in Finland, where you can feel the pulse of life.
Only one day time in Helsinki?
You can do that in 24 hours in Helsinki.
Helsinki as the capital in the east of Scandinavia combines expectations of a lively metropolis with the dreamy nature. It invites especially on the days without night – the Nightless Nights – to forget the everyday life and let the soul relax. What are the most popular destinations in and around Helsinki? What advantages do tourists enjoy with the Helsinki Card? And at what time of year is Helsinki most beautiful?
The new center introduces itself
Helsinki, in the south of Finland, is a magnet for students and many young Finns from rural areas who want to experience a different side of life in the capital. Helsinki is as colorful and lively as most metropolises, yet outside of rush hour it’s a constant reminder that Finland is home to only 5.5 million people, about half a million of them in the capital itself.
The cozy atmosphere of the capital region makes attractions of the city even more accessible and offers a first impression of what Finnish coziness is all about. Helsinki and its surroundings offer numerous possibilities for day trips, e.g. to Porvoo in the east, the Estonian capital Tallinn on the other side of the Gulf of Finland or to the modern city of Espoo Espoo, which can be reached from the center of Helsinki in less than an hour.
Helsinki offers not only newcomers to Finland an impression of the culture that can be experienced and learned about in the metropolis between Leipäjuusto, sauna sessions, humppa, tango and campfire romance. Even seasoned Finland vacationers make frequent stops in the southern city to enjoy Helsinki’s latest sights and amenities, such as the Oodi library and social gathering place, completed in 2018, or a serving of muikku by the harbor.
The complicated language should not deter you from approaching locals. Even older semesters in Finland are often very confident with English or even able to say a few words in German. With a sympathetic “Moi” (hello) or “Anteeksi” (sorry) the ears of all Finns open.
The road to the capital
Torn between Russian and Swedish occupiers, Helsingfors, as the city is called for Finnish Swedes, has recorded a unique architecture, incomparable style and development. Russian and Swedish influences can be found all over the city of Helsinki and helped to give national consciousness and pride to the Finns who knew how to defend their borders against a superior number of Russian soldiers during the Winter War (1939).
Helsinki was founded in 1550 under Swedish rule but only became the capital of the now independent Finland in 1917. Previously, Turku, 170 kilometers west of Helsinki, was the national capital. From the times of the Swedish occupation, Swedish remained as the official language.
If you want to learn about the history of Finland and Helsinki from the first settlement in 8500 BC, the epochs of the Middle Ages or the forward-looking modern era, you’ll find it in the Kansaallismuseo (National Museum) and in the free Helsingin Kaupunginmoseo detailed modern exhibitions suitable for all ages, providing insight into urban youth culture in addition to historical knowledge and idiosyncrasies.
Top 10 sights
If you want to experience Helsinki, you have many opportunities to do so in the summer. Events such as the World Village Festival, Restaurant Day, Helsinki Day or holidays such as Vappu (May 1), Juhannus (Midsummer Festival) or the two-week Helsinki Festival show the otherwise quiet Finns from the party-loving and exuberant side.
The official events page Myhelsinki provides up-to-date information, attractions and opportunities for tourists, students and anyone who would like to stay longer in the city of Helsinki.
1. Suomenlinna and surrounding islands
Number one of Helsinki’s top 10 attractions earns UNESCO World Heritage Site Suomenlinna and island hopping with nearby Vallisaari and Lonna islands. A short boat ride from the Kauppatori harbor shows how connected the capital is with nature. Suomenlinna (Finland Castle) was built in the 18th century under Swedish rule, houses the Suomenlinna Church, museums, cafes and is also a place of residence for nearly one thousand Finns.
While a ferry from Helsinki to Suomenlinna operated by the public transport provider HSL can be used with a normal ticket, the special island-hopping offer since 2016 has offered the opportunity to visit the smaller islands of Vallisaari and Lonna as well. While Vallisaari provides a lot of information with humorous information boards, small cafes and old fortifications from the times of the occupation, Lonna is relatively small and houses only a restaurant. Flora and fauna on the islands are considered unique for Finland.
2. cathedral church, Senaatintori and Kluuvi
The Kluuvi district in Helsinki represents the tourist center of the city. Here you can see the different architectural imprints of the Russians and Swedes, the Cathedral Church, the City Museum, buildings of the University of Helsinki and the Rautatientori (Central Station).
Hotels, restaurants, cafes, clubs, bars and department stores also offer Finns popular options for entertainment. Friends of nature visit the Helsinki Botanical Garden and meet locals at Kaisanniemenpuisto, find mansions with second-hand stores, cafes and a view of Lake Töölönlahti, where paddlers pass the time in summer and ice fishermen in winter.
The Helsinki Shopping Park, as Kauppatori literally translates, is also centrally located. Here you will find numerous stalls during the day advertising Finnish delicacies such as licorice, the special Leipäjuusto, deep-fried muikku (small vendace), souvenirs such as key rings made of antlers and freshly caught fish. A short stroll leads along the Esplanadi, an avenue with park character, where the Restaurant Day is also held.
4. vanha kauppahalli and hakaniemen kauppahalli
The oldest shopping and market hall Vanha Kauppatori is located just a few meters south of the Kauppatori. In addition to Finnish specialties such as fish bread Kalakukko (rye bread filled with fish), fresh salmon or the traditional salmon soup Lohikeitto with rye bread or smoked venison, international delicacies also find grateful buyers. The Helsinki Market Hall was completely renovated in 1999.
Hakaniemen Kauppahalli, in the Hakaniemi district, is the second well-known market hall in the city and rounds off the impression to the old Finnish consumer culture.
5. vanha kaupunginkoski
The place where Helsinki was founded is translated as old city stream. The Vantaanjoki River empties into the Baltic Sea here and provides a popular focal point for visitors to the small technical museum, walkers and is especially popular with anglers.
Here in the center of the city, it becomes clear what central importance water and everything it brings to people has for the Finns. Wanderlusting tourists can look for lambs on the nearby island of Lammassaari and enjoy an overview from bird-watching platforms along the way.
6. Amos Rex, Ateneum, Kiasma and National Museum
Probably the most famous artists in Finland are Tove Jansson, who created paintings and novels in addition to the Mummins, and the modern artist and icon of the scene Tom of Finland, whose paintings and designs mainly depict well-endowed men.
The Finnish museums Amos Rex, Ateneum, Kiasma and the National Museum in Helsinki are full of opportunities to find entertainment during a rainy day or the cold months of the year. In addition to permanent exhibitions on Finnish art, modern design and history, changing exhibitions attract regular visitors.
7. temppeliaukion kirkko
If a construction project is pending in Helsinki, it involves blasting large rock masses to be able to build the foundation. The Evangelical Lutheran Temppeliaukion kirkko was built in the middle of a rocky massif. The structure carved into the rock is thus not recognizable as a church from the outside. Inside, the stone serves as a decorative element and integrates into the design of the church.
The island in northwest Helsinki can be reached via a wooden bridge. Visitors will find an open-air museum at Seurasaari, which features traditional Finnish huts, rowboats that can hold an entire village, and other evidence of traditional life.
The exhibits were brought to Seurasaari from different parts of Finland. Locals use the island as a recreation area, pick mushrooms or relax in nature. Visitors can compare their jumping strength with that of former President Urho Kekkonen at an old staircase.
9. the capital by water
A sightseeing tour by water or a tour of Helsinki’s canals offer a different perspective on the city. Many Helsinki residents have a boat at one of the city’s countless harbors. If you’d like to explore the waterways privately, rent a canoe, rowboat or SUP board for a few hours.
10. saunas and baths
A large and popular outdoor pool with two large pools and sauna is Allas Sea Pool right by Kauppatori. With long opening hours, café, bar and restaurant, the outdoor pool offers a day in the water in an upscale setting during the summer months. Löyly is another way to enjoy the Finns’ favorite hobby, sauna, extravagantly with bar and restaurant. The sauna is the place where Finns also warm up verbally.
Tip: If you like the sauna experience to be a bit more rustic, visit the Sompasauna in Helsinki. In the free sauna you meet Finns who take care of the sauna themselves and have different stories to tell than the visitors of the upscale bathing areas. In the mixed Sompasauna the entrance is free and you get to know Finnish-ness in naked pure form. Who likes, may also sauna in swimsuit and Co. Finns like to drink a beer in the sauna. Finnish vodka “Koskenkorva Viina” or a peppermint and licorice schnapps should be avoided before the sauna.
Fittingly, our contribution:
The 7 best saunas in Helsinki
Hop-on/hop-off buses – Informative key for tourists
As in any other major city, hop-on, hop-off providers are also part of Helsinki’s tourist offer.
The buses offer a good insight into the culture and history of the city in different languages. Whether for an overview or as a way to travel through the center, the buses are very popular, especially with newcomers, and complement each other perfectly with a sightseeing tour by water.
Tip: If you book one of the tours on the first days, you can decide afterwards which destinations in Helsinki seemed particularly interesting and want to be visited again separately.
The Helsinki Card – advantages at a glance
In addition to freebies like the Sompasauna or the City Museum, the Helsinki Card is also a tip for those looking to save money. The purchase of the card opens the gates to many exhibitions in various museums, saving the extra entrance fee. Especially families and adventurous visitors can save a lot on admission to the popular attractions in Helsinki.
The Helsinki Card includes access to the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses and thus also offers the possibility to travel inexpensively through the center of Helsinki. The Helsinki Card is not a ticket for public transport.
Stopover Helsinki – day trips and onward journey
Although residents of the city of Helsinki consider themselves Finnish elite, much of what we think of as typically Finnish takes place in the villages in the north. Helsinki combines typical Finnish characters with international charm.
Even if it does not go to Rovaniemi or Tampere, some day trips and trips with optional overnight stay offer a multifaceted insight into the conditions between Russia and Sweden. Especially visitors who are not seeing Helsinki for the first time will find variety and a chance to fall in love with the country all over again in the excursions around Helsinki.
The former Finnish capital offers a lot of charm of a small town with picturesque-romantic city center. After a few days in Helsinki, the student city in western Finland seems almost sleepy. With the provider Onnibus the trip takes about two hours.
In the city on the border with Russia and the southern end of the Saimaa Lake District, you will find the marketplace with its delicacies, well-known and popular among Finns. Freshly caught muikku and lovingly stuffed lihapiirakka taste especially good in the southeastern city.
Typical for the region are Karelian pirogi (karjalanpirakka), which are traditionally spread with a mixture of boiled eggs and butter. Attentive travelers will notice that the Swedish lettering gives way to Russian: St. Petersburg is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, inviting them to continue their journey to Russia.
Just an hour’s drive from Helsinki is the small town of Porvoo. Visitors will find Finnish coziness here by the Porvoonjoki River. Porvoo was the adopted home of the Finnish national poet and writer Johan Ludvig Runeberg, after whom a national holiday and a cake are named. The small wooden houses along the river and the historic squares give an idea of what Finland’s villages and towns looked like a few hundred years ago.
NuuksioNational Park in Espoo is visited on weekends by Finns from the region, who round off walks and hikes in nature with grilling sausage (makkara) on a stick over an open fire. The well-maintained park trails lead through Finnish nature to campsites with fireplaces. If you want, you can rent a tent or a cabin and spend a night in Nuuksio, one of 39 national parks. The journey from Helsinki is by train and bus.
Residents of the capital region take advantage of Tallinn’s short distance and lower alcohol prices on short day trips. If you return the same day, you save on the ticket. The historic old town of Talinn is very popular not only among German tour groups.
A day trip to Talinn? Our tips:
Day trip from Helsinki to Tallinn
If you want to travel to Helsinki by car, you can also drive to Tallinn via Germany’s eastern neighbors and take a ferry to Helsinki. Tallinn is worth a trip and on the tour operator’s ship you will experience Finns who, buzzed, realize themselves doing karaoke.
Arrival, accommodation and infrastructure
Travel to Helsinki is by plane to Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport, from where a half-hour train ride takes you directly to the city center. Due to the dense population of the metropolitan area around Helsinki, the decision was made to locate the airport outside the city. In Vantaa itself there are attractions such as Haltiala farm with the rapids of Vantaanjoki.
It is also possible to travel to Helsinki by car. Via Denmark and Sweden or Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia ferries offer the possibility to plan car and caravan for the onward journey to the far north.
Finnish highways are a bit slower than in Germany and most routes are more like wide country roads. On the other hand, the routes are rarely congested due to the relaxed driving style.
Within Helsinki, a manageable metro line provides transportation from Vuosaari in the east to Espoo in the west. Streetcars, buses and trains round out transportation in the metropolitan region and provide substitutes for the Metro at night. If you want to travel to approaching cities, the train is the fastest way, but you can save money with alternative providers such as Onnibus. Tickets for the Helsinki region can be purchased via MobileApp at www.hsl.fi or at ticket machines in metro stations.
Accommodation in Helsinki is available in many ways. Hotels outside Helsinki’s city center are significantly cheaper, and in the city center, hostels like Diana Park or campgrounds like the one in Rastila, in eastern Helsinki, offer a cheap alternative for those on a tight budget.
12 months – Always something on offer
If you want to experience something in Finland, choose the summer months to travel to Helsinki. The Vappu festival on the first of May heralds a special time in the city of Helsinki, which is dominated by small flea markets, district festivals and official events. There are a lot of metal bands in Finland, but the events are all very cozy and family-friendly. If you’re looking for a rockier crowd and ambiance, you’ll find it in the trendy Kallio district.
Helsinki appears more peaceful in the winter months: To relax in the city’s saunas, enjoy the snow-covered landscapes in the surrounding area or prove yourself at one of Helsinki’s countless ice bathing spots, the cold months are the best time. However, the city can then look like it has been emptied due to the biting cold in the north.
By the way, during the Midsummer Festival it still gets dark for a short time in Helsinki and other cities in the south. It’s then as if the sunset goes directly into the sunrise. If you want to admire the golden midnight sky of Helsinki in summer, travel further north, for example to Tampere, Rovaniemi, to the jazz festival in Pori or to the annual film festival in the small town of Sodankylä.