Helsinki is often regarded as Finland’s sole metropolis, and it is well-known for its innovative art, culture, and love of all things sauna-related, as well as being the world’s happiest city, according to the World Happiness Report 2020!
From a personal point of view, I’ve always loved Scandinavian countries. The people are so welcoming; the streets appear extremely clean and surrounded by natural beauty and there is always lots to do.
Having been to the capitals of the other Scandinavian countries, Helsinki was high on my to-do list and there were many factors that were drawing me in.
One aspect is the country’s rich history. In 1550, Swedish King Gustav I established Helsinki as the town of Helsingfors. Gustav intended for the town to serve the purpose of consolidating trade in the southern part of Finland and providing a competitor to Revall, known today as the Estonian capital city Tallinn.
Helsinki also has many Art nouveau-influenced buildings from the Kansallisromantiikka trend, which was popular in the early twentieth century and heavily influenced by the Kalevala, which was a popular theme at the time.
Another draw, aside from their remarkable history and culture, is that Finland – or ‘Suomi’ as the locals refer to themselves and their country – is also home to some of the most stunning natural landscapes and breathtaking vistas.
And that’s not to forget their love of all things sauna related!
But, for first-time visitors to Helsinki, where should they go and what activities should they try to fit in?
Lovely and modern city
Helsinki is a lovely and modern city. Its built-up city centre sits on the southern edge of the Gulf of Finland and is within easy commuting distance of some picturesque scenery.
So a first stop – and one of the city’s main focal points – should be near the centre of the city at the Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko).
The cathedral, located above the spacious Senate Square in the Kruununhaka neighbourhood, is a distinctive landmark in the Helsinki cityscape, with its tall, green dome surrounded by four smaller domes in the neoclassical style.
Aside from acting as a superb meeting point for local people – and being within a minute’s walk from the popular water-front market square (a must-visit where you can sample some of the wonderful local food on offer) – it’s a shining example of the classical architecture present in the city.
The church, also known as St Nicholas’ Church, was built in 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.
Although still in use for services and other special events, the cathedral is one of Helsinki’s most popular tourist attractions and regularly welcomes around half a million visitors through its doors.
The cathedral is free to enter and, once inside, showcases its beautifully curved walls and simple design; creating an airy and spacious and tranquil room for worship-goers to use. It won’t take too long to explore the cathedral inside.
Outside, the cathedral sits atop a series of stairs on several of its sides. These stairs not only provide a superb view of the surrounding square, but they also serve as a great place to grab a pew (or a stair) and plan your next activity.
Join a free walking tour to learn about the city’s history and layout
The Helsinki Free Walking Tour is intended to provide a sense of the city by telling stories about the city’s history and daily life. And despite being the happiest country in the world, Finland – and indeed Helsinki – has had its fair share of controversies for visitors to indulge their imaginations in.
A two-hour tour will introduce you to some of Helsinki’s oddities and local customs. Tours frequently take guests past the University of Helsinki, the Presidential Palace, Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, and the Sauna Centre. It’s a great way to get your bearings in the city in a whistle-stop manner.
The Sauna Löyly Helsinki is a public sauna and restaurant complex in the Hernesaari district on the southern tip of Helsinki. The complex includes a traditional Finnish smoke sauna and two other wood-heated saunas, a year-round terrace and a restaurant.
All year long, guests can take a refreshing dip in the sea from the saunas’ direct access to the outdoor lounging area. Although there are separate showers and changing areas for men and women, since the saunas and other public areas are mixed, guests are kindly requested to wear swimming costumes at all times (though this isn’t always the case, it should be noted).
The restaurant, favouring ecological and locally produced ingredients, offers lunch, dinner and brunch on Saturdays while also serving an array of splendid drinks to enjoy while sitting on the roof terrace.
Approaching the sauna, I was impressed by the elegance of its stylish wooden structure. ts sharp, pyramid-style points jut out from all angles while a neat staircase welcomes guests to its roof terrace seating area. Overlooking the Gulf of Finland, Sauna Löyly is an extremely modern-looking structure in an otherwise practical street setting.
During a visit, be sure to try both kinds of saunas. There is typically enough to find a seat for a session because both the smoke sauna and the wood-fired sauna can accommodate about 20 bathers at once.
The best method to cool off after a nice steam is to go outdoors and jump into the calming sea. I won’t lie, jumping in is a shock to the system – so prepare for it to feel pretty chilly (and colder still if the weather is bad) – but, be brave and take the step, as afterwards your body will feel revitalised.
Around 330 islands make up Helsinki’s archipelago, which serves as a perfect entry point to the country’s verdant woods, white sand beaches, and coastline scenery that can make you think you’ve travelled further afield. But unlike the outer archipelago, the Helsinki islands mix all the best amenities of a city – cafes, bars, restaurants – with the feeling of being in the archipelago.
Suomenlinna is a group of islands that should not be ignored. Eight islands make up Suomenlinna, six of which have been fortified. It sits around 4km southeast of the Helsinki city centre and is popular with tourists and locals who enjoy it as a picturesque picnic site.
There is a great deal of history in this beautiful district. Swedish architects began construction on the first fortress in the middle of the eighteenth century. Ehrensvärd’s plan for Sveaborg (the original name for Suomenlinna) included two primary components: a network of autonomous fortifications spread across numerous connected islands, and a navy dockyard at the centre of the complex.
Along with the island fort itself, seaward fortifications on the mainland would prevent an opponent from gaining a beachhead from which to launch assaults on the sea fort. The plan was also to stock munitions for the whole Finnish contingent of the Swedish Army and Royal Swedish Navy there.
The fortification was turned over to the Russians in the 1800s and remained in their hands for more than a century until May 1918, when it was given the name Suomenlinna (‘Castle of Finland’) in honour of Finland’s independence and annexed by the state of Finland. Soon, the fortress housed various Defence Forces units and Suomenlinna became a Finnish garrison.
Moving forward to the present day, the fortress became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and is home to around 900 permanent inhabitants with around 350 people working there all year round.
Exploring the islands
Interestingly, there is also a working minimum-security penal labour colony on Suomenlinna. The colony’s inmates assist with the upkeep and renovation of the fortifications. Interestingly, there is also a working minimum-security penal labour colony on Suomenlinna. The colony’s inmates assist with the upkeep and renovation of the fortifications.
The trip to Suomenlinna takes about 15-20 minutes and provides breathtaking views of Helsinki and its surroundings from the sea. During the chilly winter months, the trip through the ice-covered waters is a unique experience.
There are a couple of options open to ways of exploring the islands. The first is to join up with a paid-for guided tour – which starts at the Suomenlinna Museum – and the second is to walk around the islands yourself.
As a minimum, you’d want to spend around two to three hours exploring the islands, but I’d urge you to stay longer and really see it all. Allow at least a half-day to walk the many paths and see all the spectacular views and sights that this charming network of islands has to offer.
Back on the mainland, if you’re looking for some light-hearted entertainment for an evening, what better place to go than at Linnanmäki theme park? Opened in May 1950, Linnanmäki is the oldest and one of the most popular amusement parks in the whole of Finland.
Linnanmäki currently has 43 rides, along with many other non-ride-based attractions. The park’s most notable ride is Vuoristorata, a wooden roller coaster that first opened in 1951. It is the most recognisable symbol of the park and was one of the first permanent rides to be built at the park. The park has eight roller coasters in total. Linnanmäki is a fantastic place to spend time in Helsinki for escapism. It allows your inner child to come to the fore and scream with delight as you are thrown from side to side and upside down.
It would be criminal to come to Helsinki and not get out into the natural world. A great way to see some of the beautiful scenery in the surrounding area is to venture a little outside of the city centre and hire a kayak to use on one of the many waterways.
The Vuosaari Paddling Centre, a 30-minute metro ride east of the city, is a good place to start exploring. As soon as you depart the centre on your hired kayak, the beautiful surroundings make for an extremely peaceful experience. The openness of the water contrasts sharply with the busy city streets, and the surrounding area is extremely quiet and serene.
It’s the ideal way to end a brief trip to Finland and get a taste of life in Helsinki.