This guest post is by Alisa Goz:
As someone who loves traveling, I was excited to check out Helsinki – and it didn’t disappoint! There are so many things to do in this city, from exploring the historical sites to checking out the amazing parks and city life.
If you’re looking to explore Finland beyond Lapland, Helsinki is definitely worth a visit.
With its mix of old-world charm and modern vibes, Helsinki is a city that will captivate you from beginning to end.
I could have easily spent weeks here and still not seen everything. But, if you’re like me and your time is limited, here are the 14 best things to do in Helsinki:
1. Explore the city’s many neighborhoods
Helsinki is a city with many neighborhoods, each with its unique charm. The best way to get a feel for the city is through a local’s eye. In Helsinki, there are plenty of walking tours with locals who will show you their personal favorite spots:
If you’re looking to explore independently, I recommend checking out the Design District, Kallio, and Kamppi. These are central areas with a lot to offer in terms of shopping, dining, and nightlife and a great place to get to know the city.
2. Visit Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square
The Helsinki Cathedral, located on Senate Square, with its soaring white walls and imposing green domes, is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Helsinki.
You’ll also see a few other examples of neoclassical architecture on the square: the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki, and the National Library of Finland.
Senate Square is well worth a visit for anyone interested in learning more about Finnish history and culture. Helsinki Cathedral, in particular, is a beautiful example of neo-classical architecture, and its interior is decorated with stunning works of art.
The entrance fee to visit is 5 Euros and is open to visitors on weekdays, 9:00 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. On Saturday, the Cathedral is open 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m and 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.
Whether you’re interested in history, architecture, or simply want to enjoy some of the most iconic views in Helsinki, be sure to add Senate Square to your itinerary!
3. Enjoy a walk through Esplanade Park
After exploring Senate Square, take a stroll through Esplanade Park, one of the most popular parks in Helsinki.
The park is a great place to relax or people watch, and it’s also home to several important monuments, including a statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, one of Finland’s national poets (He also wrote the Finnish national anthem!).
Esplanade Park is the perfect place to take a break from walking around and soak up the atmosphere of Helsinki.
On the weekends, you’ll hear musicians playing in the park, and in the summer months, you can enjoy a refreshing drink or ice cream from one of the food stands or pop into Robert’s Coffee Jugend for a cup of coffee.
4. See the Presidential Palace
Located just a short walk from Senate Square and Esplanade Park is the Presidential Palace.
The neoclassical palace, designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel, was completed in 1845. Today, the palace is the official residence of the President of Finland.
The Presidential Palace is not open to the public, but from the outside, you’ll see guards in traditional Finnish uniforms standing at the entrance, and you can take a photo in front of the impressive building.
5. Take a ferry ride to Suomenlinna Fortress (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Have you ever wanted to step into Narnia through the magical wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ stories? For me taking a ferry ride to Suomenlinna Fortress had a similar effect. You are completely transported into another world. The fortress received its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 to be preserved as an example of 18th century fortress architecture in Europe.
Suomenlinna Fortress is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Finland, and it’s easy to see why.
The fortress is located on a group of islands just off the coast of Helsinki, and it offers stunning views of the cityscape and surrounding sea. Visitors can explore the fortress walls and towers, visit museums and exhibitions, and even take a ferry ride out to one of the nearby islands.
The best way to see the island is by going on a guided tour of the fortress. The one hour excursion costs €11 for adults and €4 for children. The Suomenlinna museum is open daily 11 a.m – 4 p.m.
When visiting Helsinki, this is an unmissable stop.
6. Try local cuisine at the many restaurants and cafes throughout Helsinki
Helsinki is a city with a rich culinary culture, and one of the best ways to experience it is by sampling the local cuisine.
Restaurants and cafes throughout the city offer a variety of traditional Finnish dishes, as well as international favorites with a Finnish twist.
One of the most popular Finnish dishes is karjalanpiirakka, which are small pies made with rice or potato filling. These pies are typically served with egg butter or sour cream. Delicious!
And if you’re looking for something sweet, try Finnish cinnamon buns! These buns are made with a generous amount of cinnamon and are often served with coffee or tea.
Start your day with a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll from Kanniston Leipomo, a historic bakery founded in 1914 in the very heart of Helsinki.
For lunch or dinner, there are plenty of options to choose from, including hearty stews, fresh seafood, and even reindeer! Check out Kannas or Kappeli for a great selection of traditional Finish cuisine.
If you’re interested in trying some Finnish cuisine, there are many delicious traditional dishes to choose from.
Finnish salmon soup is probably the most popular dish. This hearty soup is made with smoked salmon, potatoes, carrots, and dill. It’s the perfect meal to warm you up on a cold day.
7. Shop for souvenirs in markets like Hakaniemi and Kauppatori
Helsinki is a great place to shop for souvenirs, and two of the best places to find them are Hakaniemi Market and Kauppatori Market. Both markets offer a wide variety of Finnish goods, including handmade crafts, jewelry, food, and more.
Kauppatori Market is located right on the waterfront, so it’s the perfect place to pick up a souvenir while enjoying the views of the sea.
Hakaniemi Market is a bit more off the beaten path, but it’s worth seeking out for its unique selection of goods. This market is more commonly frequented by locals than tourists, so if you’re looking for a look at what local life is like, this market is worth a visit.
The Hakaniemi Market has around 70 shops divided between two floors. On the first floor you’ll find primarily food items. And on the second floor, you can discover many specialty shops, like second-hand bookstores, textile handicrafts stores, and more.
In addition to the stores, there are several cafeterias that serve all kinds of cuisine from traditional Finnish lunch to more international dishes. The market is open Monday – Saturday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Some souvenirs you’ll want to keep an eye out for are Finnish woodcrafts, wool sweaters, socks and mittens, and, of course, reindeer-themed items!
8. Attend a concert or performance at one of Helsinki’s theaters or concert halls
If you’re a fan of the arts, then you’ll want to make time to see a performance or concert during your stay in Helsinki. The city is home to many theaters and concert halls, including the Finnish National Opera, the Helsinki Music Centre, and the Finlandia Hall.
There’s sure to be a performance going on during your visit, so be sure to check the schedules in advance and snag a ticket.
9. Wander through forests and parks on the outskirts of town
If you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Helsinki is the perfect place to do it. Just a short walk from the city center will take you to one of the many forests and parks that line the outskirts of town.
One of our favorites is Lapinniemi, where you can wander through tranquil woods and along serene shores. You’re sure to find a moment of peace here, away from the busyness of everyday life.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can rent a kayak or paddle board for a fun water sport outing! For even more excursions in nature, check out these half-day trips from Helsinki:
10. Relax in one of Helsinki’s many saunas
If you’re looking for a way to relax and rejuvenate while in Helsinki, one of the best things to do is to visit one of the city’s many saunas.
There are saunas of all different setups, from traditional wood-burning saunas to more modern electric saunas. Regardless of your preference, spending some time in a sauna is a great way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing or exploring.
The Finish sauna is used for relaxation and detoxification, and many people believe that it has health benefits such as reducing stress, improving circulation, and helping to ease muscle pain.
There are two main types of saunas: dry saunas and wet saunas. Dry saunas are the most common type, and they use dry heat, typically from a wood-burning stove. Wet saunas, on the other hand, use steam to create the desired effect.
There is usually a bench in the sauna where you can sit or lie down, and you can pour water on the hot rocks to create steam. When using a sauna, it is important to drink plenty of water before and after to avoid dehydration, and to limit your time inside to 15-20 minutes.
Saunas are typically shared with other people. Some people come here as a social activity with friends or family members. They can be unisex and may require you to wear a bathing suit, but if it’s separated by gender you can usually just wear a towel.
If you want an authentic Finish experience, the Kotiharjun Sauna is a great option. This historic sauna has been in operation since 1928 and is the only remaining public wood-burning sauna in the city.
Whether you’re looking to relax or simply want to experience a unique Finnish tradition, spending some time in a sauna is a great thing to add to your Helsinki to-do list.
11. Take a day trip to nearby attractions like Porvoo, Tampere, or even Tallinn, Estonia
If you have some extra time while in Helsinki, consider taking a day trip to one of the many nearby attractions.
Porvoo is a charming seaside town that’s just a short drive from Helsinki. You can also take a tour if you don’t feel like driving. This tour requires you to take a bus from Helsinki, which runs regularly and will get you to Porvoo in about an hour. Here, you can stroll through cobbled streets, explore quaint shops and cafes, and even take a cruise down the river.
Tampere is another great option for a day trip. This lively city is known for its many museums, including the Moomin Museum, as well as its scenic views from Pyynikki Park.
And if you’re looking to cross another country off your list, Tallinn, Estonia (pictured above) is just a short two-hour ferry ride away. This historic city is full of beautiful architecture, charming cafes, and much more.
These trips will make for full days but are a great idea if you’re looking to explore beyond Helsinki during your stay.
12. Spend an evening strolling along the waterfront promenade in Kaivopuisto Park
One of the best things to do in Helsinki is to simply take a walk and enjoy all that the city has to offer, and there’s no better place to do that than along the waterfront promenade in Kaivopuisto Park.
This park is located just a short walk from the city center and offers stunning views of the sea. It’s the perfect place to take a stroll, have a picnic, or simply relax and take in the view.
If you’re visiting in the summer, be sure to stick around for the sunset. Watching the sun dip below the horizon is an unforgettable experience.
13. Experience Finnish culture firsthand through ice fishing or reindeer sledding
If you’re looking for a memorable adventure, consider participating in one of Finland’s many outdoor activities.
Ice fishing is a popular pastime in Finland and something that curious visitors can try their hand at. I don’t recommend going alone, because it can be quite dangerous. But there are local guides who can help you arrange a fishing trip if you are interested! I love checking on Airbnb experience for some local experts.
Reindeer sledding is another great way to experience Finnish culture. This activity is only available in the winter, but it’s a great way to see the country’s beautiful winter scenery.
There are many other activities that you can try, like downhill or cross-country skiing. Finns are very active people, so there are plenty of options to choose from!
14. Indulge in some relaxation time at one of Helsinki’s many spas or wellness centers
Helsinki is home to many different spas and wellness centers, so if you’re looking for a way to relax, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
In recent years, Finland has undergone a spa treatment renaissance of sorts.
These modern Finnish establishments are essentially hotels with specialized equipment and facilities for spa treatments.
Many also have wellness classes and sports classes, ranging from yoga to badminton. But don’t worry about packing your own towels, yoga mat or rackets– this will be provided in most places.
You can find everything from traditional saunas to more unique experiences like salt saunas and more.
Helsinki is a city full of surprises. Although it may seem small at first glance. But whether you’re traveling solo, with a partner, or friends, there is plenty to see and do in this Finnish capital.
From exploring its many neighborhoods and visiting iconic landmarks to enjoying nature and indulging in some relaxation. Helsinki has something for everyone. So whether you’re visiting for a few days or a few weeks, you’re sure to find plenty of activities to keep you busy.
Have you ever been to Helsinki? What are your favorite things to do in the city? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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About the author: Alisa Goz is a digital nomad, travel blogger, and passionate life-long learner. Join Alisa at AlisaGoz.com for the best tips for stress-free travel. Before starting her blog, Alisa worked as a non-profit fundraiser at top New York cultural institutions. She carries her passion for building community through everything she does.