If you’re looking for a unique destination for a weekend or city trip in Europe, Helsinki is the place to go. Finland has a pretty distinct culture and history from the rest of Europe.
Helsinki is a young city, but with a great mix of old and modern architecture. Not a city I would recommend in winter as it gets pretty dark and gloomy. But when it’s sunny, it’s lovely. There’s also a lot of nature around and great place to hike, or, if you’re feeling brave, swim.
I visited Helsinki as part of my trip around the Baltic Sea. As it’s only a 2-hour ferry ride from Tallinn, it also makes for a great day trip from Estonia (or the other way around).
If you’re going to visit Finland for the rugged nature, which I hear is absolutely stunning, it’s worth spending a couple of days in Helsinki to experience Finnish city life as well. While you’re there, here are a few great things to do:
Learn about Finnish and Helsinki history
Finland is another European country that I didn’t learn a whole lot about in school. I usually like to do a Free Walking Tour when I visit a new city, as it’s a fun way to learn about the history and culture. Unfortunately, there were no tours while I was there. A good excuse to visit the National Museum of Finland instead. It’s a huge museum located in a really cool historic building. The museum is divided into sections, all dedicated to a different period. The basement covers prehistoric Finland and the top floor the monarchs and everything from the 20th century onward. They’re apparently also working on a Medieval section, but it wasn’t finished yet when I was there in November 2019. The modern part was my favorite as it was really interactive and covered interesting things like womens liberation (Finland was the first European country to grant women the vote), WWII (Finland was not on the right side of history there) and modern Finnish culture.
Another great museum to learn about Finnish culture is the Helsinki City Museum. A really cute museum about the history of the city with different interactive exhibitions and it’s free!
See some Finnish art
Helsinki doesn’t just have great history museums, it’s also big on art. The main art museum is called Atheneum, which houses the National Gallery. They exhibit Finnish art from the 19th century and have the biggest collection in the world. Absolutely a must for art lovers.
If you’re more into design, and especially Nordic design, Helsinki has you covered with the Helsinki Design Museum. It offers an interesting look into the evolution of Finnish design.
Explore downtown Helsinki
To be honest, Helsinki isn’t the prettiest city. Most of the suburbs are pretty reminiscent of Soviet style, but the city center has some lovely old buildings. To my surprise, there is a lot of Art Nouveau to be found as well, which (if you follow my blog you’d know this) is my all time favorite style of architecture. In recent years, Helsinki has gone all in on contemporary and rather experimental building styles. That has resulted in a few gems, such as the new library Oodi, and a really cool combination of styles that works surprisingly well.
I recommend strolling through the little streets of the city center and letting yourself get a little lost. Helsinki is a safe city to do so. Just walk around, look at everything around you and stop for a coffee in one of the hip cafés when you get cold. For a great (free!) view over the whole city center, you can take the elevator up to the restaurant on the top floor of Hotel Torni.
Shop at the Old Market Hall
Helsinki is a seaside town, so you can’t leave without visiting the city harbor. It’s a beautiful area, albeit a bit windy and cold. From the docks, you can see the little island of Suommenlinna, which you can reach by ferry. Suommenlinna has an old fort on it and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I guess I’ll just have to go back sometime 😉
What I did see and love is the Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall). It’s an indoor market in a beautiful historic building. It’s a bit touristic, but still really cute and worth a visit. Inside you find stalls selling typical Finnish products and little restaurants serving all kinds of food, both national and international. A great place to go for a bite!
Go to a sauna
After all that, it’s time to relax with a truly Finnish cultural experience: sauna. Now, depending on where you’re a from, a Finnish saunas might be completely different to what you’re used to. As a Dutchie, I love a good nude sauna, so this was pretty normal for me. Unlike in the Netherlands, where going to the sauna is like a fancy wellness thing, saunas are a huge part of Finnish culture. So big that most apartment buildings, houses and even offices have their own sauna! Having a sauna is a totally normal thing that people do on the regular. They even have meetings in the sauna as it’s supposed to help people come together and (literally) strip them of pretenses. Wild!
In the old days, a lot of houses and apartments didn’t have bathrooms or running water. So people would go to public saunas to bathe, similar to public bathhouses elsewhere. Nowadays, everyone has their own bathroom and sauna so the public ones have diminished in numbers. But there are still a few of them around Helsinki.
I honestly think it’s a must for anyone visiting Helsinki. You have a few different options when it comes to the style of the sauna. There’s the big Löyly sauna, which is a bit more luxurious and caters mainly to tourists. At 19 euro, this is the most expensive one in the city and offers a traditional wellness experience. The sauna is mixed, but not nude and swimsuits are required. To cool off from the sauna itself, you can take a dip in the outdoor pool, one of which is filled with seawater!
If you’re on a strict budget and not afraid of a bit of DIY, check out Sompasauna. This is probably the least comfortable, but most interesting sauna experience you can possibly have. Sompasauna is located at a building site and will only exist for as long as the municipality allows. It is completely free, but unstaffed so you have to operate the whole thing yourself. I highly recommend going to this one with a local who knows how to do it! There are no lockers, showers or amenities at all. The sauna is mixed and swimsuit is optional.
Luckily, there is also something in between these two extremes. A few of them actually. I went to a traditional public sauna called Kotiharjun. This is a nude sauna, but men and women are separated. It’s definitely a local spot and I was curiously regarded as the only foreigner. But everyone was super nice and eager to help me and explain how to “do” a Finnish sauna. The idea is as follows: you take a quick shower and get into the sauna. Bring a small towel to sit on, relax for 10-15 minutes, then take a cold shower, wrap a towel around you a cool down. The cooling down is done outside on a couple of benches in front of the sauna. As I walked up, I already saw a group of people sitting here, chatting and drinking a beer or water. Don’t forget to hydrate in between sessions! It felt a bit strange at first to sit naked (except for a towel) on the sidewalk, but it was also kind of fun. When you’re cooled down, you go back in for another session in the sauna. Repeat this for 1 to 1.5 hours or until you’ve had enough. For additional heat in the sauna, the locals lightly beat themselves and each other with branches dipped in water. This apparently allows to heat to penetrate deeper into the skin and it’s also just a nice bonding experience.
So, there you go, a few tips on the best things to do in Helsinki. Which one of these things are you most excited to do? Or do you have any favorite Helsinki activities that I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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