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.

IMG_9962

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

Cultural

The Rock Church

Chapel of Silence

Lokal – art gallery & cafe

Kiasma – Museum of Contemporary Art

Alvar Aalto House

Markets

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

Where the Wild Things Are

I’ve mentioned before the wild abandon with which Finns let nature explode in the warmer months. The changes in our natural surroundings are incredible as trees and plants accustomed to the harsh climate come to life with just the smallest amount of encouragement. Hedges and edges are left untrimmed and greenery grows out of cracks in walls and pavements. Nowhere was this more evident than on our recent trip to the island fortress of Suomenlinna.

IMG_0622

Suomenlinna (Suomen: Finnish, linna: castle) is not actually a castle but a sea fortress built on a series of islands 15 minutes by ferry from Helsinki’s Market Square. It is quite unique as it has played a part as a defence base for three different states: Sweden, Russia and Finland.

IMG_0638

Construction began in 1748 when Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden. King Frederick I named the fortress Sveaborg and visited four years later to see how the construction was going. King’s Gate was built on the site where his ship anchored and is now considered the most emblematic site of interest on Suomenlinna.

King's Gate

King’s Gate

In 1788 the fortress served as a naval base during the Russo-Swedish War. Twenty years later the fortress surrendered during the Finnish War and became a Russian naval base for the next 110 years.

IMG_0607

A Russian Orthodox church was built on the island in 1854. During the early days of Finnish independence the church was converted to an Evangelical-Lutheran church and all signs of Russian decoration, including the onion domes, were removed. A lighthouse still operates within the church steeple.

IMG_0637

Moss graffiti!

During the Crimean War of 1855 the fortress was damaged during bombing by the Anglo-French fleet. At the time of the Finnish Civi War in 1918, a prison camp was set up on the islands and the fortress was renamed Suomenlinna.

IMG_0672

The fortress went on to play an important role as a base during the start of the Second World War. As well as cannons and guns still in place there is a submarine you can pay a small entry fee to explore. In 1991 Suomenlinna was added to UNESCO’s list of unique monuments of military architecture and became a protected World Heritage Site.

IMG_0678

Skimming stones

The islands are also home to tunnels you can explore if you bring your own torch. It reminded me of Kirrin Island in the Enid Blyton books I read when I was younger and I wonder if there’s a Smuggler’s Cove.

IMG_0658

If you look close enough you may spot the man sunbathing on this beach

More than 800 residents now call Suomenlinna home and there are art galleries, museums, shops, cafes and wonderful lookouts. We briefly considered living here when an apartment became available but we wondered about accessibility during the winter months.

IMG_0661

The beauty of the wild flowers was my favourite thing about Suomenlinna as we stopped for ice cream and later for a beer in the late afternoon sun. But I know it will be worth another visit during winter when the landscape will be transformed by ice and snow into a surreal frozen scene. And lying underneath will be the the seeds of the wild flowers and grasses, resting until the warmer months.

IMG_0668

Suomenlinna

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

With thanks to the Suomenlinna Tourist Guide.