I spent a couple days in Helsinki on a trip with friends several years ago. While it was a brief visit, I really enjoyed Finland’s relaxed, pedestrian-friendly capital city and its surrounding islands.
We stayed at an aparthotel in town, which had a keypad entry code and vending machines for breakfast. Our room was small, but clean– and featured some interesting artwork:
Downtown Helsinki is very pleasant and easy to navigate, with plenty of parks that blend in well with the city. The fresh sea air added to the sense of relaxation –and got me hungry for seafood!
Our first stop was the Esplanadi park downtown, which is a central gathering spot and often features live music. The surrounding area has plenty of great restaurants. (I don’t think “Naughty BRGR” was open when we were there, but it’s on my list for next time!) The Savoy Restaurant has a balcony and offers great views over the city.
A note on coffee: As Finland often leads the charts in global per-capita coffee consumption, cafes are everywhere, the coffee is strong, and the baristas know what they’re doing!
The Presidential Palace and City Hall are situated on the waterfront just east of the Esplanadi. The Market Square also sits on the harbor, which includes both souvenir vendors, as well as food and more practical items. A few people pulled their boats into the docks and were selling produce from the harbor-side, as well. Adjacent to the market square is a large indoor deli, with more produce, meats, and sweets.
North of the harbor is the Helsinki Cathedral with its large white columns and tall green dome — a distinguishing feature of the city’s skyline. Just east of there (on Katajanokka island) is the ornate, Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, which is beautifully decorated on the inside.
A note on Saunas: There are plenty of saunas in Helsinki and this is something I definitely recommend to try while in town! They provide lockers for your clothes (the sauna is typically done in the nude but nobody will scoff if you want to wear something). You can pay extra to get a bundle of birch sticks (“vasta”), which is supposed to use to hit yourself on the back (it’s easier if someone does it for you). I’ve heard it helps with circulation and makes your skin smooth. It’s important to drink plenty of water and take breaks if you’re staying in the sauna for a while. Ours was quite large and located in a quasi-residential part of town. It had an outdoor stoop along the main road where we sat (wearing towels!) and had a beer during break time.
We also took a half-day trip to the island of Suomenlinna, which was only about a 25-minute ferry ride from Helsinki. It’s a pleasant island with green rolling hills that feels like a large park. It was originally built up as an 18th century fortress back when Finland was still part of Sweden. It’s best explored on foot, to discover the various fortifications, tunnels, ramparts, canon, and military-themed museums throughout the island. It is mostly unfenced and visitors are free to roam about wherever they please. The Dry Dock, which dates back to about 1750, is still operational and is famous for being the oldest in Finland. The island also has its own brewery! More information on Suomenlinna can be found here.
The food was great, but a bit pricey (it is Scandinavia, after all). Reindeer steak is somewhat common (and very lean), and there’s plenty of awesome seafood. One restaurant that stood out was Salutorget, a traditional / modern restaurant that offered delicious fish, often accompanied by fancy foam on the side.
For nightlife, we visited an ice bar, which was a bit gimmicky but still fun. We got to wear heavy capes to keep warm, and were served shots of a local liquor, “Mintu” (which comes in a variety of flavors in case you don’t want the classic mint). We then made our way to a nightclub (The Tiger), which is now closed, but I’m sure others have taken its place!
Something for Next Time: I really want to visit the Lapland region during the winter and go reindeer sledding through the forest. I’d also like to stay in one of the Ice Hotels, such as those at Snow Village in the Kittila region.