Helsinki is all about the coast. It’s a sea town (city, rather) with infinite islands and coves, ports and ferries shuttling people back and forth. Unlike Stockholm or Copenhagen, Helsinki is unknowingly cool (the other two know it and strut it), which means this is one laid-back city with great charisma.
Helsinki is special because it’s almost the only point of contact that Finland has with the rest of the world. There are ferries constantly arriving and departing to head across the Gulf to Tallinn, Stockholm or St. Petersburg. A lot of the city’s charm lies in its retro-yet-so-stylish Ar Nouveau architecture. Like most of Scandinavia, it’s a city built for bikes and when the weather fares well, it’d be a crime not to rent a bike to sightsee.
What to do
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art
It’s hard to miss this building in central Helsinki, just look for the most modern building you can find. Not only does this museum have a great collection inside, but their sunny terrace is a popular lunch spot in the summer. For gifts and souvenirs, preen over the Finnish designer ceramics and colourful art cooks in the museum shop.
- Address: Mannerheiminaukio 2
- Open: Tues 10:00-17:00, Wed and Thurs 10:00-20:30, Fri 10:00-22:00, Sat and Sun 10:00-17:00.
- Admission: €10
If you’re looking for some place to eat your lunch outdoors or read for the afternoon, head to the Esplandi Boulevard in the middle of Helsinki. Often on warm days you’ll find musicians busking for their lunch, playing everything from bucket drums to violins. Even at night, when the park is alight, it’s eerily magical and can be a great place to take an evening stroll.
If you book flights to Helsinki for this fall, make sure you stop here to see the colour of the changing trees from above. Since the city itself is quite flat, you can see far and wide from the top of this hill, called Tähtitorninmäki in Finnish. Can you spot the Helsinki Cathedral, the Uspenski Cathedral, market square and Suomenlinna? If you head to the hill during late-afternoon you can see the big cruise ships leaving the harbour, chugging their way out to sea.
Where to eat
Have you ever eaten your lunch aboard a historic boat? Didn’t think so. Now you can! This boat, also acting as a lighthouse is moored in Meritullintori in the southern part of Helsinki. If the sun is out, take your lunch out on the deck, and if not, cosy up below with a blanket. It’s a bit pricey however, a glass of white wine will set you back €8.
- Open: 12:00-20:30 (depending on the crowd and weather)
Moko Market Café
First of all, you can spend a lot of time at the Moko Market and not even notice so here’s your warning: do NOT go there if you have some place to be later. They sell everything from interior design stuff for bathroom, outdoors, kitchen, textiles, furniture, books, eco-clothing… If you’re hungry, head to the back of the shop where you can mow down on a baked potato accompanied by the soup-of-the-day. It also serves up a mean breakfast buffet on Saturdays.
- Address: Perämiehenkatu 10
- Open: Mon – Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat 10:00-17:00
Feeling gourmet? Tuck into a spot here, headed up by two young and very ambition chefs. It’s bohemian, but in that “rainy Paris night” way which is more romantic than anything. The menu doesn’t offer a lot of selection, focusing on a few great dishes with excellent ingredients: 3 starters, 3 mains, 3 desserts. The menu changes daily and seasonally.
- Address: Meritullinkatu 6
- Open: Tues to Fri 18:00-22:30 and Satu 16:00-23:00
Saunas are just a part of everyday life in Finland and the capital, just part of the bathing rituals in this nordic country. In Helsinki you’ll find that most hotels in Helsinki have their own saunas. Otherwise there are plenty of historic and modern saunas around the city to enjoy. Kotiharjun Sauna Oy, which first opened in 1928 and looks as if it hasn’t changed since. There is a women’s parlour separate from the men’s and in between sauna sessions you can get a scrub-down from the attendant. There is also plenty of drinks available from gin to beer and lemonade.
Yrjönkadun Uimahalli is housed in a lovely Art-Deco building and entry into the traditional-styled wooden sauna will set you back €11 (don’t worry, it also includes a private curtained cubicle with two beds and room service). To cool off, you can jump into the ice-cold pool to swim some laps and sip on a glass of talon sima which is the Finnish version of lemonade with berries.
Helsinki is a city for all seasons. The saunas are great in winter, the parks and street life are alive in summer. Fall and spring are perfect for exploring the city’s museums and flea markets. Helsinki on a budget? No problem.
Are you brave enough to venture off the tourist path? Travel like a local wherever you go!