Our trip to Helsinki, Finland was a last-minute decision – and, at first, we thought of it more as a long layover than a trip to the city. We were unsure what to do in Helsinki and our quick research told us there were only a few Helsinki attractions. Somewhat discouraged, I determinedly devised a 48-hour Helsinki itinerary that included Helsinki sights, nature walks and neighborhood exploration. During our time in the city, we discovered there is actually an abundance of interesting and fun things to do in Helsinki – so much so that we realized Helsinki is more than a layover city…it’s a destination.
Things To Do in Helsinki
Our list of Helsinki things to do will fill an entire weekend. Visitors with just one day in Helsinki could possibly fit it all in, but may have to eliminate some activities. For those staying longer than two days, we’ve added some additional places to visit in Helsinki that we look forward to checking out on our next trip to the city. More tips on what to see in Helsinki – with more or less time than we had – and a Helsinki map of sights are at the end of the post.
#1 Set Sail for Suomenlinna Fortress
The Suomenlinna Fortress is a Helsinki must-see! Dating to the 18th century, work on the fortifications was started by the Swedes, continued by the Russians and renovated by the Finnish. Built as a naval base, the complex grew in size to occupy six islands and included dry docks (for building ships), barracks (for housing military personnel), and a prison camp (obviously, for holding prisoners of war).
In the 1970s, the military abandoned the fortress and it was re-adapted for residential housing. In 1991, Suomenlinna was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, visiting the remaining structures is one of the top things to do in Helsinki, Finland. Before setting out to explore, stop at the Suomenlinna Information Office to pick up a handy pamphlet with a map and brief explanation. The 1-mile highlighted Blue Route (also conveniently marked with blue street signs) leads visitors from the Jetty Barracks to the King’s Gate – and passes several historic sights along the way.
We planned our trip to Suomenlinna Fortress in the afternoon. With the long summer days, we had plenty of time to see the highlights and veer off-course of the Blue Route to see more sights (like the Vesikko Submarine) and explore the many tunnels near King’s Gate (bring a flashlight!). Tip: Spend a little more time on the island with a coastline picnic. The convenient grocery store (located opposite the ferry dock) has everything you need.
Top Tip: For more information about the history of the fortress and Helsinki, let a guide lead the way on a half-day tour.
Suomenlinna Fortress Cost
As one of the top Helsinki places to visit, we were elated to find it was free to visit the historical remains of the fortress. However, there is a fee to visit the museums on the island.
Getting to Suomenlinna Fortress
The best way to get to Suomenlinna Fortress is by ferry boat. The Suomenlinna Ferry ticket costs €5 and is valid for 12 hours (allowing you to use the ferry as many times as you would like within the 12-hour period). The Suomenlinna Ferry is included with an all-day ticket (more on transportation in a minute!).
#2 Stroll the southern shoreline
Along the southern shoreline of the Helsinki mainland is a small seaport harbor, which is home to 1,200 boats and is one of the top things to see in Helsinki. Lining the water’s edge are two streets – Merisatamanranta and Ehrenstromintie – that stretch from Kaivopuisto to Eira. The wide promenade provides a pleasant place to enjoy the sea air and off-shore island scenery. The spacious grassy knolls offer a nice spot to sit back and relax – and at the western end of the walk, there is a little sandy beach.
During our visit to Helsinki, weekend vendors were set up in the parks and along the walkway offering tempting international fare. Thailand rice bowls, Brazilian rotisserie and coal-baked Italian pizza were a few of the dishes that caught our eye.
Top Tip: In Eira, walk up the picturesque Huvilakatu Street, one of the most beautiful places to see in Helsinki. Often referred to as ‘the most colorful street in Helsinki,’ the street is lined with pastel-painted Art Nouveau houses featuring large bay windows and towers.
#3 Kick back in one of the (many!) city parks
Helsinki is a natural wonderland: sea, islands, lakes and an astounding number of city parks. The green spaces are found throughout the city – and it’s said that from anywhere in the city, a park is only a 10-minute walk away. We walked through many parks during our visit and recommend these parks as Helsinki top sights:
At the southern tip of Helsinki mainland is Kaivopuisto Park – and climbing the Kaivopuisto Park hill is one of the best things to do in Helsinki. Although only a small hill, following one of the many trails that leads to the Kaivopuisto Observatory treats visitors to spectacular vistas of the city’s southern shoreline and over the island-dotted sea.
The simple rectangular Esplanadi Park in the heart of the city is one of the Helsinki top attractions. Often the site of city events (like the food festival taking place when we were in town), the park is an ideal place to take a rest when sightseeing Helsinki.
A haven for birds, Toolonlahti Bay lies just north of the Helsinki city center. Dirt paths line the shore and crisscross through the urban park.
Dating to 1893, the Winter Garden is a must-do in Helsinki. The lovely greenhouse features more than 200 plants – and, in the summer, the grounds are covered with lush colorful flora.
Top Tip: The Helsinki Central Park (Keskuspuisto) is a favorite park of locals, as it is a huge park just north of the city center, but sadly we did not see this park.
Helsinki Fun Facts: Green spaces and city parks comprise 1/3 of the land in the city of Helsinki. There are 40 National Parks in Finland.
#4 Check out the churches
There are an impressive number of churches in Helsinki – and there are four churches that make our list of Helsinki points of interest: White, Red, Wood and Rock (formally known as Helsinki Cathedral, Uspenski Cathedral, Kamppi Chapel and Temppeliaukion Church).
Helsinki Cathedral (White)
The imposing, white Helsinki Cathedral is one of the Helsinki places to visit that can’t be missed…quite literally. Sitting on a platform high above Senate Square, the green dome of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral can be seen from afar. As a top Helsinki, Finland tourist attraction, the Helsinki Cathedral is visited by 350,000 people annually.
Helsinki Cathedral Opening Hours: Daily 9am to 6pm; from June to August the cathedral stays open until midnight.
Helsinki Cathedral Entrance Fee: Free! The entrance is on the left side of the building.
Uspenski Cathedral (Red)
Not as dominating, but definitely more lavishly decorated, is the magnificent Uspenski Cathedral. The brick Eastern Orthodox cathedral was built on a hill in the mid-1800s (shortly after the Helsinki Cathedral) and is the largest orthodox church is Western Europe.
Uspenski Cathedral Opening Hours: Tuesday-Friday 9:30am to 4pm; Saturday 10am to 3pm; Sunday 12pm to 3pm.
Uspenski Cathedral Entrance Fee: Free! Climb the staircase on Kanavakatu Street to the main entrance.
Kamppi Chapel (Wood)
Built in 2012, Kamppi Chapel is made of curved wood (and looks like a large salad bowl, in my opinion). Located in the center of busy Narinkka Square, the non-denominational church is known as the ‘Chapel of Silence’ where visitors can escape the noise of the city.
Kamppi Chapel Opening Hours: Monday-Friday 8am to 8pm; Saturday-Sunday 10am to 6pm.
Kamppi Chappel Entrance Fee: Free! Be observant of the purpose of the chapel and visit in silence.
Temppeliaukio Church (Rock)
Often referred to as the Rock Church, Temppeliaukio Church was built in the 1960s…directly into solid rock. Through skylights between the rock walls and the dome ceiling, natural light fills the circular space. Due to the quality acoustics, many concerts are held at the church.
Temppeliaukio Church Opening Hours: Year-round on Sundays 12pm to 5pm; Monday-Saturday times vary by month: January-March and November-December 10am to 5pm; April and October 10am to 6pm; May and September 9:30am to 7pm; June to August 9:30am to 8pm.
Temppeliaukio Church Entrance Fee: €3 (However, for a reason unknown to us, there was no fee at the time we visited.)
#5 Drink a beer in Kallio
Of all the neighborhoods in Helsinki, the Kallio district intrigued us the most. With origins as a densely populated working-class neighborhood, the area attracts younger residents (due to the smaller apartments and lower rents) and boasts numerous bars. Although we heard the district is in the process of gentrification, we certainly felt a bohemian vibe – evidenced by the thrift stores and record shops.
For a glimpse into local life in Helsinki, we recommend wandering through Kallio (be sure to pass by the Art Nouveau Kallio Church and Library, both of which date to 1912) and popping into a few bars.
Recommended Kallio Bars in Helsinki:
We were lured to Ravintola Roskapankki for the promise of cheap beer…and we stayed to mingle with the locals. Patrons of all ages (most of whom were covered in tattoos and wore long hair) bellied up to the bar and squished into booths to guzzle mugs of Finnish lager. This is definitely a bar to feel the pulse of the Kallio neighborhood.
Moored just west of the Pitkasilta Bridge that connects Kallio to the Helsinki city center is the Flying Dutch. The boat-turned-floating-bar has seating at the stern of the ship, as well as on the shore. The no-frills restaurant is an excellent place to kick back and enjoy a cold one on the water in the late afternoon.
Airplane-themed Pulmu is a bar designed for airplane geeks (ahem, that would be Kris). Featuring model planes, a turbine fan, a baggage carousel counter and a logo modeled after Pan Am we thought the kitsch bar would appeal mostly to travelers. However, the small interior was accommodating regulars and the friendly bar staff treated us like it was our regular spot, too.
Top Tip: After having a few beers in Kallio, get some classic Helsinki post-drinking grub at Karhupuiston Grilli in Bear Park. The small food stand serves up sausages and potatoes in a variety of ways with an astounding choice of toppings. The traditional Finnish feast is Makkaraperunat, which is really just a plate of French fries with slices of hot dog and all the toppings. Chock-a-bloc with calories, it’s oh-so incredibly delicious.
#6 Catch a ride on a Tram
Using public transportation is a great way to get around any city – not only to give your feet a rest, but also for the local experience. Getting around Helsinki is easy with an extensive network of buses, trams and trains. The fleet of trams in the city range from classic older tram cars that rattle down the tracks to new sleek trams that breeze through the city.
While city sightseeing Helsinki can be done on foot (the city is not that big and mostly flat), Trams 2 and 3 are an ideal option for when the weather is foul…or just for the experience! Tram lines 2 and 3 intersect, creating a figure-eight, and pass by (or near) all of the top Helsinki things to see. In fact, the route is so convenient for tourists that the transportation company created a Helsinki sightseeing map based on riding Trams 2 and 3.
Top Tip: Tickets are required for public transportation…and buying them can be a bit tricky, as there are several options. However, if you plan to take more than three rides – or more than two rides and the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress – then an unlimited Day Pass is the ticket you want. For €9, the Day Pass alleviates the worry and hassle of per-ride tickets and eliminates tapping on/off each ride. Read more about which ticket you will need and where you can purchase tickets.
#7 Make a trip to the markets
Spending time at the city markets is one of the fantastic, fun things to do in Helsinki! Fresh caught fish on ice, sweet treats straight from the oven, made-in-Finland gifts and international cuisine can all be found at the Helsinki market halls. Seeing the hundred-year-old classic brick market buildings alone is worth the trip! In addition to the fruit, fare and wares inside, in the summertime, the markets spill out into the squares where vendors are set up in food stalls and flea markets.
Old Market Hall
Built in 1888, the Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli) was the city’s first indoor market. The striking building sits on South Harbor near Market Square and is still used as a market hall today.
Hietalahti Market Hall
Opened in 1903 as a food market, Hietalahti Market Hall has been used in recent years as an all-organic market and antique market, but is currently (again) a food market, as it was intended – and also houses several locally-owned restaurants. In the summer, a large flea market takes place in the square.
Hakaniemi Market Hall
The Hakaniemi Market Hall opened in 1914 in the Kallio district. The market, which is known for selling seafood, caters to a more local crowd, rather than tourists.
#8 Sip coffee at a classic café
Finland is the most coffee-buzzed country in the world; reports estimate each Finnish resident consumes an astounding 12kg of coffee per year. What began as a method of warmth and a jolt for dark, cold winter days evolved into an important aspect of socializing. Today, coffee consumption is transforming again as a new emphasis is placed on the quality of the product. However, a few old school cafes remain – and visiting one for a coffee and a sweet cinnamon bun is one of the top things to do in Helsinki.
The top choices for classic cafes include Ekberg (the oldest café in the city, dating to 1852) and the popular Karl Fazer Café (opened in 1891). However, we preferred the simplicity and ambiance of Café Regatta the most. Although only a café since the 1950s (and only Café Regatta since 2002), the building dates to 1887 and the charming seaside location is irresistible. (So much so that it has become one of the popular Helsinki, Finland tourist attractions. We watched an entire group of tourists on one of the Helsinki sightseeing tours come to the cafe, take pictures and leave…without having a cup of coffee!) On sunny days, expect a long line to snake out the door of the small red cottage as both locals and tourists wait for either light or dark coffee (those are the only choices!) and a warm cinnamon bun or piece of blueberry cake. As a bonus: at Café Regatta, the cups of coffee are small for the price (€2.50), but refills of light coffee are not only free, but they refund you 5₵ for every refill!
Top Tip: If you go to Cafe Regatta, make sure you detour into the park to see the nearby Sibelius Monument – one of the many places to visit in Helsinki that honors Finnish composer and violinist, Jean Sibelius.
#9 Admire the architecture
Helsinki has an incredible array of architectural styles that can be seen throughout the city. From classic wooden structures to modern glass buildings to the decorative Art Nouveau homes, fans of architecture will love wandering the city streets in anticipation of what might be waiting around the next corner.
Top Tip: Join one of the city architecture walks led by a professional guide to get a proper introduction to the city’s best buildings and the stories behind them.
Watch our video of Helsinki attractions:
Helsinki Attractions Map
You can also pick up a Helsinki city center tourist map from the Tourist Information Office at the airport or in the city.
More Helsinki Tourist Attractions
Although we completely filled our time in the city with the above mentioned activities, here are a few more places to visit in Helsinki, Finland that we didn’t get to…this time around!
Swimming Pool Helsinki
Helsinki may be surrounded by water, but going to swimming pool is one of the more local Helsinki, Finland things to do. The sea water is usually too cool to swim in, so indoor pools, which also have saunas, provide a place to splash around in warmer water. The swimming and sauna culture in Helsinki, however, differs from other parts of the world. Swimming times are separated by gender, because traditionally, people swim nude (this goes for the saunas, too) – but times are changing and suits are now allowed…just check the pool rules and times before going.
Yrjonkadun Swimming Hall
Opened in 1928, Yrjonkatu Swimming Hall is the oldest in the country…and still abides by traditionally male/female separate swim hours. Swimmers can choose, however, to go sans suit or not.
Allas Sea Pool
The ultra-modern Allas Sea Pool sits right on the harbor and has three outdoor pools where you can swim with a view (including a pool filled with sea water).
Top Tip: The terraces at the Allas Sea Pool are one of the top places to go in Helsinki for a view of the harbor and city…and it’s completely free! Just walk up the stairs.
Best Museums in Helsinki
Classic art, photography, open air, interactive…take your pick, because there are about 80 Helsinki museums to choose from! Check out reviews for the best museums in Helsinki on TripAdvisor.
However, if you are on a budget, there are not many free Helsinki museums. That being said, some of the top museums offer free days. Check the website of these Helsinki museums for free entry dates (usually one Friday a month): Luomus Natural History Museum, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Finnish Architecture and National Museum of Finland.
Top Tip: While there may not be many free museums in Helsinki, the Helsinki Card offers entry into most of the city museums, as well as numerous other benefits (such as an audio guide, free public transportation and area discounts).
Our Helsinki Itinerary
When we decided to visit Helsinki, I planned a succinct itinerary that allowed us to make the most of our time in the city. We stayed for two nights – arriving on Friday afternoon and departing on Sunday afternoon – which was the perfect amount of time to enjoy the top things to see in Helsinki, Finland.
Day 1 in Helsinki (Google Map of Route): Temppeliaukion Church, Toolonlahti Bay, Helsinki Winter Garden, Flying Dutch, Hakaniemen Market, Kallio Church, Kallio Library, Roskapankki Bar, Pulmu Bar, Bear Park, Karhupuiston Grilli
Day 2 in Helsinki (Google Map of Route not including Suomenlinna): Kamppi Chapel, Hietalahti Market Hall, Huvilakata Street, Kaivopuisto Park, Esplanadi Park, Tori Quarters, Helsinki Cathedral, Uspenski Cathedral, Allas Sea Pool Terrace, Market Square, Suomenlinna Fortress
Day 3 in Helsinki (Google Map of Route): Cafe Regatta, Sibelius Monument
More Tips for your Helsinki Trip
Tips on tours, day trips, where to stay and more for your trip to Helsinki.
There are a plethora of tours in Helsinki designed to get you acquainted with the city.
Hop On Hop Off Helsinki
Most travelers are familiar with the red ‘HOHO’ bus – and the popular Hop On Hop Off Helsinki bus tour makes stops at all the top spots. You can book the Helsinki sightseeing bus in advance on Viator.
Helsinki Walking Tour
There are numerous Helsinki guided tours of the city – from private guides to walking tours – and even free walking tours provided by Free Tour Helsinki tip-based tours. All of these tours visit the must-see places in Helsinki, enhanced with information from a local guide. Book online in advance of your trip!
Helsinki Boat Tour
Helsinki Bike Tour
Free Things To Do in Helsinki
It’s no secret that Helsinki is an expensive city, which can deter budget-conscious travelers (like ourselves!) from visiting the city. However, we found that some of the best places in Helsinki didn’t cost a dime. Helsinki main attractions – like Suomenlinna Fortress, Helsinki Cathedral and the city parks – are all absolutely free of charge. If you do a little searching, you will find plenty of things to see in Helsinki, Finland for free!
Day Trips from Helsinki
Check out these to places to visit near Helsinki:
Located 50km east of Helsinki is the historic and charming town of Porvoo. The 800 year-old-city is named for the river that runs through it – and along the banks of the river are the iconic red shore houses that were once used to store goods from afar. Book your tour to Porvoo in advance!
Travel to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, on a full day trip from Helsinki via ferry. The medieval city features cobblestone lanes, picturesque squares, soaring church spires and a fascinating history. Explore the Old Town sights and then discover the more modern city outside the city walls.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
During our visit to Helsinki, we stayed in an Airbnb Apartment. (Not already a member of Airbnb? Use this link to create an account and save money on your first stay!) We have found that staying in apartments is often less expensive than hotel rooms – with the added benefit of a kitchen and, usually, more space.
However, for those who prefer staying in traditional accommodations, there are many Helsinki hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center. Check out these top-rated hotels (based on guest reviews!): Hotel Kamp, Hotel Katajanokka or Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel. Or start your own search on Booking.com, like we do when we book hotels!
Getting to Helsinki
Helsinki can be reached by plane or boat. Our preferred method of getting anywhere is by flying (we are JetSetting Fools, after all!). When we need to purchase plane tickets, we start our search for the best deals on airline tickets on Skyscanner.
Before You Go
- Helsinki is a walkable city…but only if you have the right shoes! Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes for your trip. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia, Skechers and Reef. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos (that can later be beautifully compiled into a travel photo book). We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- It’s easy to get lost in any foreign city! Make sure to have a good city map and/or guidebook before arriving.
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
We want to know: What are your favorite things to do in Helsinki? What Helsinki attractions would you add to our list? Give us your best tips and advice in the comments!
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