Finland is one of the beacons of human civilization, often leading the world along with the other Scandinavian nations in indexes for quality of life, development and happiness. Helsinki is the capital of this sauna-loving state, and has its fair share of awards to boot.
Ranked as the 9th most liveable city in the world in 2017 by the Economist, Helsinki is the glittering gem of this nation of 5.5 million.
Fun fact: Did you know that Nokia, Angry Birds and Clash of Clans all originated from this city? You’d not believe that Helsinki has played such a pivotal role in the mobile telephone and gaming industries!
Helsinki has further set itself apart by encompassing world-class design. In 2014, it was conferred the UNESCO City of Design Award, given the concentration and consistency of good design used in city development.
With a wide range of museums, tons of saunas and an impressive way of life, there is certainly something in Helsinki that captivated me. Here, we have rounded up some of the best Helsinki attractions so you know what to see and what to do in Helsinki, Finland.
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- Things to do in Helsinki, Finland
- 1. Take a walking tour around the city centre
- 2. Chill out at a public sauna
- 3. Escape from the city with a day trip to Seurasaari
- 4. Experience forest-living at Nuuksio National Park
- 5. Take a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia
- 6. Escape into the fortress of Suomenlinna
- 7. Uncover hipster Kallio neighbourhood
- 8. Check out the multitude of museums
- 9. Spend a day in the Design District
- 10. Take a ride at the Rautatientori Railway Station
- 11. Cuddle up with animals at the Korkesaari Zoo
- 12. Inspire working and learning at Think Corner
- 13. Explore the parks on bicycle
- 14. Spike up your adrenaline at Linnanmaki amusement park
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Things to do in Helsinki, Finland
1. Take a walking tour around the city centre
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to experience the city is to go on a walking tour around the city centre. It allows you to see the most things in the shortest period of time, often framed through the commentary of an experienced guide, or even better, a local!
Senate Square is one of the most prominent landmarks, and offers really great photo opportunities.
Here are some city tours that might interest you:
Who knows if you’ll be lucky enough to spot the Sibelius Monument, which might have sparked a ton of controversy when first erected in 1967 as a tribute to the world-famous composer Jean Sibelius, but is now a tourist hotspot?
Make sure to get your guide to drop by the Old Market Hall or the Market Square, both of which are some of the largest food halls and markets in the city that regularly offer the greatest diversity of traditional treats, drinks and fresh produce. In particular, the Old Market Hall is more geared towards food offerings, while the Market Square is where peddlers offer a range of handicraft and souvenirs.
TIP: If you like to DIY, get a Helsinki card which includes a free city tour, free public transport, entry to the city’s main sights and museums and discounts on dining and shopping!
Another popular spot to hit up would be Temppeliaukio Church (also known as Church of the Rock or Rock Church), a Lutheran church in the Töölö neighborhood of Helsinki – located near the Sibelius Monument! The church was designed by architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969, and is built directly into solid rock to create an architectural masterpiece unlike any other in the world.
2. Chill out at a public sauna
Finland might hold the world record for the country with the most number of saunas – with an impressive 3.4 million! It gets even more unbelievable when you realize that there are only 5.5 million inhabitants here – meaning there is a sauna for every other person in the country!
Therefore, there is no lack of public saunas in the capital Helsinki. There are 3 in Helsinki that are open to the public – namely Allas Sea Pool, Sauna Hermanni and Uusi Sauna – though you can easily find private commercial ones throughout the city.
Allas Sea Pool and Löyly are the 2 saunas we went to.
Allas Sea Pool sits in a very prime position in downtown Helsinki, right in the heart of the city. Located just beside the Market Square, you’ll find groups of people of every imaginable age here to wind down the day.
I sweated it out at one of the 2 warm saunas in my swimsuit, and then got out, half-naked, into the 13-degree air.
Soaking in the warm swimming pool which overlooks the rest of the city and the ferris wheel, I was slightly disappointed that the outdoor pool wasn’t as warm as the sauna. That said, the view it offered at sunset was one I couldn’t bask enough in. I took it all in – the cool air, the bright city lights and the warm water.
If I may dare you, dip your toes into the icy cold sea water pool beside. That is the epitome of a true Finnish local.
Löyly’s location, while rather hard to reach, is definitely worth the experience. It is more modern and cleaner than Allas Sea Pool in my opinion, and less populated. The complex includes a traditional Finnish smoke sauna and 2 other wood-heated saunas.
The first time I experienced a traditional sauna was in Green Window, where I stayed in Nuuksio National Park, and I had the whole sauna to myself. I definitely enjoyed the smoke sauna the most, given how unbearably hot it got sitting inside almost pitch darkness. The best part is jumping into the freezing cold sea water when it got too hot, especially during winter!
Löyly also has a terrace and a restaurant where you can enjoy your meal after soaking in a sauna.
Definitely make it a point to drop by one at some point to unwind and loosen your muscles from your long travels. Speaking from experience, it’s definitely one unique local experience unlike any other saunas you’ve ever experienced anywhere else in the world!
3. Escape from the city with a day trip to Seurasaari
Seurasaari is a tranquil, beautiful green island only a few kilometres from the humdrum of Helsinki, and is home to the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum. As idyllic oases should be, Seurasaari will teleport you to a rural setting almost within the urban landscape of Finland’s capital.
It’s perfect for a day trip and is most suited for families with elderly or young children, or couples looking for a romantic stroll. Given its proximity to the main capital, take an informative guided tour to learn more about the museum’s manors and farmsteads or check out our guide to Seurasaari to help plan your trip there!
4. Experience forest-living at Nuuksio National Park
There’s just something about nature that just calms the soul. The stillness of the air, the tranquility of the crystal-clear lakes that reflect the clear skies just soothes the heart. Perhaps in the midst of a hectic trip rushing between museums and other Helsinki Finland points of interest, it would be good to unwind with a trip to Nuuksio National Park.
I paid a visit during autumn, which is a season that I believe only heightens the beauty of nature. The seamless gradients of green, yellow, orange and reds turn the forest into a fiery landscape that is simply unforgettable. You’ll want to check out some of the pictures I took there for a sneak peek into what you’ll get to experience for yourself!
Even better, why not experience traditional forest-living with a stay at Green Window, located within Nuuksio National Park itself and run by a man who has been living in the forest for over 30 years? With a change of pace, who knows what you’ll discover about yourself.
5. Take a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia
Did you know how convenient it is to cross to neighbouring country, Estonia? You might easily brush Estonia off, but please don’t! We went on a day trip via a boat transfer from Helsinki to Tallinn and was pleasantly surprised by what a cute little town it is, complete with elves and potions, vintage shops and colourful streets.
You can even take a full day guided Tallinn tour from Helsinki – easy peasy!
It’s almost as cute as the town of Colmar in France, which I vote as the cutest town in Europe!
6. Escape into the fortress of Suomenlinna
Situated on a group of islands off Helsinki, Suomenlinna is an 18th-century maritime sea fortress and nature area with centuries-old artillery and defensive walls, spread across 6 linked islands. Built during the Swedish era as a maritime fortress and a base for the Archipelago Fleet, the fortress is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage List for being a unique monument of military architecture.
Accessible by a quick 15 minute ferry, entrance to Suomenlinna is free.
Stroll along the cobblestoned path, getting lost in manicured gardens and tunnels. Whenever you tire, there are ample picnic spots for you to rest and take in the scenery while enjoying your food. That being said, there are also several cafés and restaurants on Suomenlinna.
7. Uncover hipster Kallio neighbourhood
Kallio is a suburb that is once home to Helsinki’s factory workers. Today it is home to artisans and workshops, thrift stores and bars – a trendy district for artists and students to hang out in its bars and cafes.
Mid-rise container buildings fill the compact streets, giving it an industrial, no-frills attitude to it. The quarter struck me as idle at first impression, a slightly grungier little brother to Helsinki’s glamorous city centre.
It is here where you’ll find Helsinki’s grungy hipster gems and local hang outs.
Every few steps along the streets of Kallio, I met vintage finds of every type, from electronics to photography, leather to furniture.
Frida Marina and Fargo Vintage are popular thrift stores in the area, while elsewhere, you can find a gay-friendly cafe at Bear Park Cafe.
8. Check out the multitude of museums
Immerse yourself in the culture of Helsinki by dropping by the multitudes of museums that the city has to offer.
Many travel blogs tell you about the National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo), which is good to see if you want to learn about Finnish history and traditions. However, one of the most famous museums might be the Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM – that looks after an art collection that belongs to the people of Helsinki.
With over 9000 works of art, there is no shortage of art to appreciate! As an added bonus, the museum is co-located with a movie theatre so you can catch a film if you need a change of pace.
For something unusual, you could drop by the Theatre Museum. It has all sorts of costumes, puppets and props – ranging from simple to over-the-top, pompous designs that originate from all over the world. Some of the masks can look quite eerie, and with the low lighting, one might mistake the museum as the scene for a horror film.
The one museum you cannot miss is Amos Rex.
At Amos Rex, new exhibitions are open 3 times a year. It often includes technically advanced contemporary art, 20th century modernism and ancient cultures. It’s a great way to witness how the same themes and phenomena are present in our lives throughout the ages.
In Amos Rex, the Lasipalatsi (“Glass Palace”) building (Est. 1936) and the Bio Rex cinema converge with the new underground exhibition spaces to form a venue that offers unique experiences and unexpected encounters.
We were in time for the teamLab exhibition, a Tokyo-based art collective, when we went. Digital technology liberates from the physical and has allowed us to approach art in different ways.
Titled Massless, the inaugural show comprises 5 works that form an immersive and interactive art experience. Through digitally rendered representations of natural phenomena – flowing water, crashing waves, crows chasing crows, a single ecosystem — viewers can ponder nature and engage with it in a compressed form.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the massive Vortex of Light Particles. In the artwork, water pours upside-down from the floor to the ceiling, creating a huge vortex in the curved ceiling.
You can fully immerse yourself in the grand yet ephemeral scenes from the natural world by entering this exhibition.
Kaapelitehdas Cable Factory is another interesting location you shouldn’t miss. Once an industrial arena producing cables from 1943 to 1987, it is now a mecca for cultural immersion, playing host to various concerts, exhibitions, festivals and fairs yearly.
The largest cultural centre in Finland, it boasts 3 museums, 10 galleries, dance theatres and art schools within their brick complex. The 3 museums are the Finnish Museum of Photography, the Hotel and Restaurant Museum and the Theatre Museum.
At the Hotel and Restaurant Museum, you can find out all about the Finnish food and drink culture, make a trip to the history of travelling in Finland and enter the world of restaurant and hotel staff. Find out what the first appearances on the Finnish dining table are and enter a world of spices and herbs by testing your sense of smell in the Scent bar.
At the time of my visit, I come across a second-hand garage sale, complete with age-old furniture, lamps, clocks, glassware, stools, brooches, knives and almost every other accessory you can think of. Mostly owned by the late generation of hoarders, each of the stall owners sit idly as I go about browsing and wondering aloud how old each of their collection is.
If you’re vintage collector you’ll be in heaven here.
Some other interesting places you might want to put on your itinerary would be the Ateneum Art Museum – Finland’s best known art museum and the home of Finnish art, and Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art – with its focus on Finnish contemporary art.
TIP: Get discounts on these museums and more with a Helsinki card!
9. Spend a day in the Design District
Helsinki won the UNESCO City of Design Award for a good reason. Find out why by exploring Helsinki design in the Design District – you can either go on your own or join a guided tour.
It’s chock-full of over 200 buildings, and encompasses a few existing neighbourhoods in the city. There is an especially high concentration of boutique stores selling jewellery, art, clothes, antiques and other goods designed by local artists, as well as architecture and design-related museums, galleries and studios.
One of which is the Design Museum, a must-see if you want to learn about Helsinki design. The exhibition presents the integral role of design in the evolution of the Finnish welfare state, and highlights major Finnish contributions to the gaming industry with heavyweights like Nokia, Angry Birds and Clash of Clans.
It also shares a lot about Alvar Aalto, who is a legend for his future-facing perspectives on modernism. A Finnish architect and designer, his portfolio spans architecture, furniture, textiles and glassware, as well as sculptures and paintings.
Many of Helsinki’s buildings you see today are his works of art, embodying Alvar Aalto’s vision down to the smallest detail. This includes Finlandia Hall, Studio Aalto, The Aalto House and the interior of restaurant Savoy.
10. Take a ride at the Rautatientori Railway Station
Rautatientori, otherwise known as the Railway Station, represents some of the finest architectural achievements of the era where it was built. With it’s iconic clock tower, this place is one of the treasured symbols of Helsinki.
If you’re interested in architecture and design, definitely make this station a pit stop on your journey. Since the station is still in active service, you can kill two birds with one stone and schedule your train such that it stops by this place of interest.
Spend a moment taking in the monumental, sculptured facades and the torchbearers (which are especially dear to the Finnish people), as well as the airy halls resplendent with vaulted ceilings that help set this building’s character apart from most other places.
11. Cuddle up with animals at the Korkesaari Zoo
Korkeasaari Zoo is home to over 150 animal species and almost 1000 plant species that showcase nature’s diversity. Korkeasaari Zoo is one of the few zoos located on an island, and is the perfect place to visit due to its natural environment, animals and history.
Established in 1889, the zoo is one of the oldest in the world. You can reach the zoo by bus or car year-round, and take a ferry from the mainland between the months of May and September.
A definite favourite family-friendly activity, take your family out to see creatures from biomes all over the world, from the northern tundra to the tropical rainforest. Stand in awe at the big cats, macaques and brown bears, amongst many other animals!
12. Inspire working and learning at Think Corner
Situated at the heart of the University of Helsinki city center campus, it is an open arena of top-notch science and deisgn. Think Corner inspires with its cosy learning and lively co-working environment. With shared working spaces spanning across 3 floors, you’ll first pass through the cafe and the open-concept facilities. Different levels offer different co-working spaces, including collaborative table spaces and secluded cubby holes.
Large windows on the street level allow plenty of natural light in so that you can work in a relaxed environment. They also give passers-by an insight to the everyday life at the university.
There is even the roof terrace on the 6th floor and a gym on the basement!
I was most fascinated by the stairs, seemingly made of wooden planks stacked on top of one another. It is non-geometrically created yet mysteriously creates such a beautiful, functioning masterpiece of an artwork.
13. Explore the parks on bicycle
We came in the thick of autumn and were able to enjoy the beautiful fall colours of Helsinki. There is no better way to explore the parks than with a bicycle!
The best parks are around Finlandia Hall, cycle across the train lines to Strutsipatsas for a panoramic view of the river and it is around Töölö bay where you’ll find the prettiest colours in autumn!
14. Spike up your adrenaline at Linnanmaki amusement park
This was a theme park we completely chanced upon on the way back to town. I got seriously excited by how colourful they made all the rides and stalls!
While I usually get disappointed by how easy most theme park rides are, the rides are are actually seriously thrilling!
There are also easier rides for little ones like the Ferris Wheel.
You can either pay per ride or buy a full day unlimited ride pass. Entrance to the theme park is free so you’re free to have a wander even if you don’t play any ride!
There is just so much to do in Finland’s capital! Hopefully this Helsinki travel guide is able to shed some light on what to do in Helsinki and inspire you to discover more beyond the city centre. You’ll likely be on too tight of a schedule to experience every item on our list, but try as much as you can to prioritize what interests you, as a trip to Helsinki is one of a lifetime!
Perhaps one of the reasons why I enjoyed Helsinki so much was because of the season I was there at – in the thick of autumn. The beauty of the autumn colours was nothing like I’d ever experienced. Couple that with the cool weather, I never wanted to return from visiting and revisiting Helsinki’s points of interest!