The “Daughter of the Baltic Sea”, or Helsinki, was founded in 1550 and has been the Finnish capital since 1812. The city, which can be compared to a kind of miniature St. Petersburg, since the Second World War has been the backdrop of many films about the Cold War. Nowadays, it is a big city that knows how to hide its size.
In Helsinki, you can visit the most important museums in Finland, including the National Museum. The museums are not the only thing worth a visit; take a boat trip to Fort Island Suomenlinna or take a look at the Grand Place. In the Inari open-air museum, you can admire Lapp culture.
Highlights of Helsinki
The highlight on almost all postcards of Helsinki is the white cathedral. Other famous sights are the Temppeliaukio Church, the Uespenski Cathedral and the fortress Suomenlinna. Helsinki is also known as a nightlife city with numerous restaurants, clubs and cafés. Here are just a few of the many highlights.
The many islands
The centre of Helsinki is surrounded by many islands. In the winter you walk over the frozen sea ice to it. In the summer you take a boat. Most boats depart from the western corner of the market square.
Suomenlinna, the “Gibraltar of the North”, was once the largest sea resort in the Baltic Sea. It was built in the middle of the 18th century by the Swedes. Time has stood still since then on the island. You will find old buildings, few cars, old fortifications, catacombs and cast-iron cannons. But it is not just a museum! On the vast complex you will also find restaurants, cafés, theatres and museums. On a beautiful summer day, it is also a very popular place for a picnic. The island has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1991.
Seurasaari is a nice, small island just north of the centre. In the open-air museum you will find many hiking trails and authentic Finnish houses from all over the country. In the summer there are guided tours in traditional costume by guides.
Next to Suomenlinna lies the island of Vallisaari where you will find some fortifications. It has been a nature reserve since 2008 and is a popular tourist destination. The boat takes 20-30 minutes from the market square.
Helsinki has many churches. The churches and cathedrals you should definitely see are the red Uspenski cathedral, the white Lutheran cathedral and the Temppeliaukio church, also called the ‘church in the rock’.
Located near the market square, the Uespenski Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in Western and Northern Europe. Five domes are covered with 22-carat gold. The church attracts around half a million visitors a year, making it an important tourist destination.
The iconic, white Lutheran cathedral is the unofficial symbol of the city, located on the central Senate Square. The cathedral with the symmetrical plan of a Greek cross was completed in 1852, and has recently been renovated. In the middle of the church, there is a round tower with a more than 60-metre-high dome surrounded by four smaller dome towers. Above the entrances are statues of all twelve apostles.
Temppeliaukio Rock Church
The church was built in 1969 on a rocky hill. The top of the opening is covered with a glass dome and lots of copper. The walls of the church consist of unfinished rocks. From above, the house of prayer resembles a crashed UFO. Thanks to its excellent acoustics, the church is also often used for concerts. It is one of Helsinki’s most popular attractions.
Helsinki has a lot of parks where you can stay in summer and sometimes in winter.
This beautiful city park, located northwest of the central station, is partly still in natural state! Besides walkers and runners, you will find the Finlandia Concertgebouw and the National Opera.
This small but stately park is located in the heart of the city between the market square and the two Esplanadi boulevards. In the summer it is particularly cosy thanks to the many people chilling out on the grass. Free concerts are also often held during this time of year.
The Central Park is a huge park of more than 1000 hectares, north of the Olympic Stadium. The park is still largely in its natural state. There are many hiking trails, cycle paths and other sports facilities including a golf course.
This beautiful park by the sea is located in the southernmost part of the city. In summer you can enjoy the view of sailing boats and the people at the promenade. There are several cafés where you can get a delicious cup of coffee. The park is located in an expensive district of Helsinki. Most embassies are also here.
Many of Helsinki’s museums are interesting both inside and outside. Architecture lovers will find what they are looking for too in Helsinki’s neoclassical centre around Senate Square. In addition to the aforementioned open-air museums on the islands of Suomenlinna and Seurasaari, the following museums are definitely worth a visit.
Ateneum Art Museum
The Ateneum is perhaps the most important art museum in the country with the largest collection of paintings and sculptures in all of Finland. The collection of works by great Finnish artists is particularly striking.
Finland’s National Museum
This museum is located in a beautiful classical building that has recently been renovated. The National Museum illustrates the Finnish history from prehistory to the present day and contains large archaeological finds. The unique exhibitions cover a period of more than 10,000 years.
Finnish submarine Vesikko
The Vesikko was one of the five submarines of the Finnish Navy during the war years 1939-1944. It is also the only remaining German Type II submarine in the world. The submarine is located on the Fort Island of Suomenlinna.
This stadium was built for the 1940 Olympic Games, which were eventually cancelled due to the Second World War. The stadium was later renovated for the 2005 World Athletics Championships. The sports museum is also in the stadium building. The stadium has a 72-metre-high tower of 14 floors as well. This Olympic tower offers a great view over the city.
Winter World Helsinki
What’s more, in Helsinki you can enjoy the beautiful winter of Lapland. In a large hall you will find various snow attractions and activities such as igloos, ice sculptures, tandem skiing, etc. The big advantage is that the weather conditions are always constant. More information.
Your visit to Helsinki is not complete without a visit to a sauna! Founded in 1953 and recently renovated, the Hermanni sauna is a particularly pleasant, public sauna. In the sauna, there is an electric heater in a massive cage with no less than 300 kilos of rocks to pour water over. Tram 6 or 8 brings you right to the door of this very relaxed sauna.
Where to stay in Helsinki
Accommodation is generally quite pricey but of a high standard. Sometimes there are real “pearls” to be found! For example, we stayed at Glo Hotel Art, a trendy design hotel in a beautiful, historic building with the best hotel beds in Northern Europe. The best rates are usually available at the weekends. You often get great offers on booking sites like booking.com! If you want to combine your city trip with a visit to Estonian Tallinn, book the night boat for only €20 per person!
Travelling within the city
The centre of Helsinki is quite compact and can be explored on foot. If you don’t have a lot of time to see the main sights, then a combination of walking and public transport is your best option. A day ticket costs €9 to travel within city limits (not to or from the airport). If you want to visit several museums too, consider the Helsinki Card. This card allows you to use public transport including the sightseeing bus and canal boat for €66 for three days. Admission to museums and some other attractions is included.
Best time to visit Helsinki
According to many, summer is the best time to visit the Finnish capital. Temperatures are pleasant and there is not much rain. In addition, the city is pleasant thanks to the many well-attended terraces where the Finns also enjoy the sun. We have been there several times in the winter and found that exploring the city on foot is also good in that season. Keep in mind that the days, especially late December and January, are very short. Also that in February, with a temperature of -10 degrees Celsius it can be pretty cold during the day.