A Quick Guide to Helsinki

I get lots of emails from people visiting Helsinki, asking what to do while they are here. So here’s a list of ideas to get you started, which I will add to and update. You can also check out my City Guide to Helsinki, which I wrote for Design*Sponge.


Many museums in Helsinki have one day a month where entry is free. Many places also have different opening hours during summer and winter, so always visit the relevant website before you head out.

City walks

Katajanokka – a suburb of beautiful architecture and great coffee

Töölönlahti – frozen in winter and beautiful in summer, this bay has coffee shops dotted around it’s edge. More photos here.

Uunisaari – an island connected by bridge during winter

Lauttasaari – lovely coastal walk and summer cabins

Baana – a converted freight line is now a cycle and walking path

Five things to do on Fredrikinkatu

Five things to do on Korkeavuorenkatu

Places to visit – outdoors

Linnanmäki – amusement park, free entry, open during summer

Korkeasaari – Helsinki’s island zoo, ferry runs only in summer, bus access otherwise

Seurasaari – outdoor museum on an island, bus access

Pihlajasaari – summer island for swimming

Suomenlinna – fortress island and UNESCO World Heritage Site

Places to visit – indoors

Sea Life – great option for a rainy or cold day in Helsinki

Annantalo – arts centre with exhibitions for children with family friendly book cafe

Yrjönkatu Uimahalli – swimming hall with sauna, men & women separate, only open during winter

Natural History Museum – displays of Nordic and other animals over a few floors

Botanical Gardens – beautiful gardens in glasshouses, good option for a rainy day


The Rock Church

Chapel of Silence

Lokal – art gallery & cafe

Kiasma – Museum of Contemporary Art

Alvar Aalto House


Hietalahti Market Square – summer time flea market & antiques

Old Market Hall – Vanhakauppahalli is a great place for lunch

Christmas Markets

Market Square

Day Trips

Tallinn, Estonia

Porvoo, Finland

Tips for Visiting in Winter & Getting Around

How to walk on ice without dying

How to walk under ice without dying

How to dress a child for Finnish winter

Using Helsinki’s Metro

Cultural Events

Saint Lucia – December

Christmas Path – December

Vappu – May

Samba Carnival – June

Baltic Herring Festival – October

All Saint’s Day – November

Cleaning Day – a giant yard sale throughout the city, held various times a year

Restaurant Day – a street food carnival where anyone can open a restaurant for the day, held four times a year

Places to eat & drink

Cafe Regatta – traditional Finnish cafe by the water, for coffee and cinnamon buns

Mockbar – Soviet style bar specialising in vodka and bad service

Moko Market & Kaffa Roastery – cafe and homewares, great for buying gifts and very family friendly.

Freese – owned by Finnish barista champion Kalle Freese, check Facebook for opening times as can be closed if busy elsewhere

Good Life Coffee – great coffee and delicious almond croissants

Skiffer – pizza bar on an island, only open during summer months. City venue during winter

Fafa’s – good falafel and vegetarian takeaway

A Visit to Alvar’s House

IMG_3392Alvar Aalto is one of Finland’s best known designers and architects. Born in 1898, his works include buildings, furniture, glassware and lamps from a career that spanned decades until his death in 1976.


Alvar once said, “It is easier to build a grand opera or a city center than to build a personal house,” and you can visit his house in Munkkiniemi, 4km north-west of Helsinki city centre.


With his wife Aino, Alvar acquired the land and built the house in 1936. It was designed and used as a home and studio. The day we arrived to visit there was already a small group gathered on the footpath and taking photos of the garden.


Inside, Alvar’s work desk is still laid out as though he might arrive at any moment to start drawing up plans under the large windows that take maximum advantage of the natural light.


Alvar and Aino were involved in every part of the creation of their home – they designed not only the house but the furniture and fixtures that went inside. Aina also designed fabrics, some of which feature in the house and can still be bought.


Touring the house is fascinating as you realise that between them they designed the sofas, the lamps, the tables, the chairs, the glassware….even the bathroom basins! Alvar and Aino’s two children grew up in the house and their bedrooms are preserved as closely as possible to how they would have appeared during their childhoods.



The house has a lovely warm, calm feeling and features Japanese sliding doors and wall coverings. Aino passed away in 1949 and Alvar was remarried three years later to architect Elsa Mäkiniemi. She lived in the house until she died in 1994.

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The house was later purchased by the Alvar Aalto Society and they now keep it as a museum with a small shop.


Guided tours are given of the house and unless you are in a big group you can just turn up at the allocated times on the website. As with most things in Finland, opening hours are adjusted during the winter months so check before you come.

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The garden was just beautiful when we visited, the house draped in curtains of red and gold leaves. I saw pictures of the house in winter and the warm space that Alvar and Aino created looks absolutely beautiful covered in snow.



The great thing about their work is that the house will appeal to lovers of architecture, furniture, and interior design alike. If you’re not already a fan I would suggest you might just find something you like when you visit Aalto House.

Alvar Aalto Museum

The Dandelion Fountain

On a recent trip to Helsinki’s amusement park Linnanmaki, we came across a fountain that Ilona mentioned was somehow connected to the fountain in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Having lived in Sydney for eleven years my interest was piqued – how did such a famous monument in the Southern Hemisphere come to be replicated here, at a fun park, more than 9000 miles away?


The fountain at Linnanmaki

Like all good investigative reporters I headed straight to Wikipedia (ha!) where I was happy to read but misinformed that the man who designed the Kings Cross fountain was born in New Zealand. Turns out Bob Woodward was actually born in Sydney in 1923 and his career designing fountains that resemble dandelion thistles had a strong link to Finland.


El Alamein Fountain, Kings Cross

During World War II, Woodward worked mostly as an armourer where he honed his skills working with wood and metal. After the war he studied architecture and travelled to Finland to study with one of the country’s most famous artists, Alvar Aalto. Woodward was impressed by Aalto’s commitment to bringing the organic world into design. During an interview in 1996 he said “Aalto’s principles are that essentially everything in architecture is related to biology. If you take a leaf from a tree, for example, you can see design principles which should apply to architecture itself.”


Aalto’s iconic vase – at times attributed to the flow of a Sami woman’s dress or the lakes of Finland

In 1955 Woodward returned to Australia where he won a competition to design the El Alamein Memorial Fountain to commemorate the Australian soldiers who fought in Egypt in 1942. The fountain became an icon for Australian tourism and is now a common meeting place for people in Kings Cross.

Woodward's legacy spread like dandelion spores across the globe

Woodward’s legacy spread like dandelion spores across the globe

Woodward went on to win international recognition for his design and had a long career designing fountains around the world. His works can now be found in countries as diverse as USA, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Turkey, Sweden, Romania, Ukraine, China and yes! New Zealand. In 1972 the Ferrier family commissioned replica fountains to mark the opening of the Christchurch Town Hall in New Zealand.

Ferrier Fountains - Photo Credit: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1021-1516

Ferrier Fountains in Christchurch – Photo Credit: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1021-1516

El Alamein Memorial Fountain

Bob Woodward Obituary