Helsinki is a city with a distinct and charming atmosphere and a particular finesse, making it like no other place else on Earth. The architecture stands out with a mixture of Scandinavian, art-nouveau, and modernist styles, and remains at once industrial, utilitarian, and cool. Then there’s the city’s palette of seasonal colours; fluctuating between vivid summer greens, intense Baltic blues, and the crystalline white of Nordic winter. Through it all there are some fantastic things to see and do. Here are just some of the best.
Probably the first place that travellers will see when arriving in the old town of Helsinki will see – if you’re not too busy savouring a delightful cup of famous Finnish coffee – is the harbour and Market Square. This port area is one of the epicentres of life and commerce in town, and a veritable landmark of Helsinki as a whole. It’s here that locals gather to sell their best products, presenting fresh fish and Finnish specialties like reindeer horns, handmade jewellery, wooden mugs, and reindeer hides. The Baltic Herring Market at the beginning of October is the best time of year to visit the square, and the nearby Market Hall is open all year round for local flavours and unique souvenirs.
Exterior of Kamppi Chapel of Silence | Exterior of Kamppi Chapel of Silence
Kamppi Chapel of Silence is a sanctuary of quietude in the midst of Helsinki’s lively city centre. The chapel is tiny yet warm and calm, and the thick wooden walls, made of Nordic spruce, work to enhance the depth of the silence inside. Stepping into the main room reveals wooden benches and a fascinating altar holding a thin, metal cross and a bowl. What’s more, the building is constructed in an amazing circular shape that represents the height of architectural innovation in true Scandinavian style.
Bar at Juttutupa, Helsinki | Bar at Juttutupa, Helsinki
A swell pub and a delicious restaurant with an atmosphere set to bold combinations of rock fusion and contemporary jazz music, Juttutupa’s history goes all the way back to 1884, giving it the distinction of being one of the oldest joints in town. It was once even the host of revolutionary socialist meetings led by Vladimir Lenin, while today it entertains crowds of local patrons and travellers alike, who enjoy dishes such as juicy burgers and pizza at the long, communal dining tables.
There is arguably no better place to understand how exactly the city of Helsinki became what it is today than the City Museum, which won Finland’s Museum of the Year award in 2017. In five separate buildings on the Cathedral Square, a complexity of exhibitions range from traditional Finnish costumes to displays of 19th-century home décor, complete with early prototypes of refrigerators and irons. The centre also takes a look at the cultural life of the city and the incredible female presence in the political and economic environment of the last century. Virtual reality technology combined with old photographs also allow visitors to feel as if they have literally stepped back in time to Helsinki’s past.
Revealing a year-long explosion of colourful plants from right across the globe, the Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden is an exuberant oasis of life right in the middle of the city. Its history is worth mentioning, as it is the oldest scientific garden in all of Finland, inaugurated by the botanist Peter Kalm in Turku in the year 1678, finally being transferred to the care of Helsinki University in 1829 as a result of a major fire. The garden is home to a whopping 800 species of plants in total, and is the perfect place for an afternoon stroll or to escape the Finnish winter.
Suomenlinna, the ‘Fortress of Finland’, is located on a series of small islands just 20 minutes away from Helsinki’s south harbour by ferry. It is a fine example of a fortified military structure, hailed by UNESCO for its cultural magnitude. Initially named Sveaborg when Finland was a part of the Swedish empire, it represented a major strategic point that was important for control of the city and defense of Southern Finland. Don’t miss the impressive dry dock, a real technological feat of engineering, and don’t leave without exploring the island’s greener parts or the impressive museums.
With a profound accumulation of boutiques, workshops, antique shops, galleries, and restaurants, there are plenty of opportunities to discover the unmistakable simplicity of minimalistic Finnish design in this district in southern Helsinki. In short, the Design District unravels the subtle power of Scandinavian design and décor though awe-inspiring collections of handmade products, simple-cut clothing shops, and functional architecture alike.
Café Ekberg, widely regarded as the oldest and classiest café in Helsinki, and indeed all of Finland, dates back to 1852 and boasts a large, 90-seat guest room for the pleasure and delight of its patrons. Don’t leave without sampling the on-site patisserie’s Napoleon cake, which can either be sided with a strong coffee or a delicious hot chocolate with a wisp of creamy foam. It’s a great place to enjoy an early start, or a late wind-down, with abundant breakfast options, oodles of handmade pastries, biscuits, and cookies.
The perfect place to re-awaken that childhood spirit is at one of Helsinki’s five Moomin Cafés, the latest emerging trend in Finland. Based on the characters of the book series written and illustrated by Tove Jansson, Finland’s national treasure, the Moomins are distinctive hippopotamus-like characters who had life-long exciting adventures. The cafés serve Moomin-themed drinks and snacks, with Moomin artwork on the walls, small shops selling merchandise, and play areas with copies of the Moomin books for children. The tasty treats and cuteness of the characters are sure to strike any visitor!
For the Finns, the sauna represents a place of meditative refreshment; a divine delight dating back to the Viking period. Besides the obvious stress relief, there is a multitude of health benefits on offer: it improves cardiovascular performance, helps weight loss, soothes muscle and joint pain, and helps with insomnia. Kotiharjun Sauna is one of only three traditional public saunas left in Helsinki, and is an excellent spot to experience Finland’s sauna culture, where locals and visitors alike sweat it out side by side.