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Compact and easily walkable, the Finnish capital, on the banks of the Baltic Sea is ideal for travellers looking for a short city break. For a 48-hour whirlwind tour, these are the best things to see and do in Helsinki.
Morning: sample street food at the Old Market Hall
Start your weekend in the city centre with a stroll through Esplanade Park, where you’ll find tree-lined boulevards, sculptures by the Finnish artist Viktor Jansson and playful street performers.
From there, head to the elegant Helsinki institution Strindberg, in the Kämp Galleria shopping centre, to people-watch over coffee and pastries. Skip the high-street brands and head up to Kämp Garden on the second floor to browse the latest selection of Finnish fashion.
The Market Square, a five-minute walk away near South Harbour and the tourist office, is a great place to take in views of the Old Town and the ornate Eastern Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral. Ready for lunch? You can graze on street food at the Old Market Hall next door.
“Get a creamy salmon soup or a rye bread sandwich with salmon gravlax and lots of dill,” advises student Jaana Woll, a city local. “Or try a korvapuusti bun, which translates as a ‘slap on the ear’, It’s a traditional pastry made of yeast dough with cardamom and cinnamon.”
Afternoon: soak up history and sea views
For a bird’s-eye view of the city and the Baltic Sea beyond, take a ride on the SkyWheel. Soak up some history in the Senate Square where you can marvel at the neoclassical Government Palace, the photogenic Helsinki Cathedral and the statue of the Russian tsar Alexander II.
Next, hire a city bike to explore the coastline towards the south of the city. Follow the excellent cycle paths to the city’s oldest park, Kaivopuisto, which overlooks the harbour and the sea. “Just keep in mind that as a coastal destination, we always have wind,” warns Woll. “Pack something windproof to keep you comfortable.”
Evening: an island escape at Lonna
Cycle back to the Market Square to catch the short JT-Line ferry to Lonna, a former military island now open to the public. Just 150m (492ft) long, it takes less than 10 minutes to walk around the whole island, but it feels like a mini-holiday from the city. It is also the ideal place to watch the sunset over downtown Helsinki.
In summer, book a table for dinner at Restaurant Lonna where you can enjoy organic Finnish cuisine, then stick around for the regular open-air jazz events and barbecues. There’s also a cosy waffle cafe under the restaurant if you have room for dessert.
Night: cocktails and city views at Clarion Sky Island
A 15-minute walk from the harbour back on the mainland, Liberty or Death is a tiny cocktail bar with Prohibition-themed decor, friendly service and a wildly inventive and ever-changing cocktail menu. It’s very easy to miss, so look for the dark curtains opposite Yes Yes Yes, a top vegetarian restaurant worth visiting for the halloumi fries and tandoori flatbread alone.
For night owls, take bus 14 or the M2K Metro to the Löyly sauna, on the southern tip of Helsinki. “It has a huge terrace area with a DJ on weekend nights,” says Woll. “It’s a great place to hang out with friends and enjoy a cool drink with the waves splashing against the shore next to you.”
Morning: try the best brunch in Helsinki at Kiila
The astonishing Temppeliaukio, known as the Rock Church, is a must-see Helsinki landmark, and the result of a post-war design competition. Carved underground out of solid rock, it is best seen in the morning, especially when sunlight floods the space and shines directly on the altar. “Just check whether there are any cruise ships in town on the day you intend to visit, as on those days it tends to be extremely crowded,” says Woll. From here, walk south to the airy breakfast spot, Kiila, where you can enjoy a buffet brunch loaded with pastries, fruit and smoked salmon. With huge floor-to-ceiling windows, the restaurant looks out over Three Smiths Square, home to a bronze statue of three naked smiths heaving anvils.
Next, squeeze in a stroll through Helsinki’s stylish Design District, crammed with more than 200 shops, galleries, museums and hip restaurants. If you want to linger, visit the Design Museum, which documents 150 years of Finnish architecture and design, or book a guided walking tour of the area.
Afternoon: explore a Unesco World Heritage site
Walk to Market Square and catch the 10-minute ferry to the Unesco-listed sea fortress at Suomenlinna. Spread across eight islands, it was built 18th century when Finland was still part of Sweden. Visitors can explore the walking trails, visit six museums, including one focusing on toys and another on militaria, or you can call into the island brewery. Stop for kakkukahvi (coffee and cake) at the charming Café Silo, located in a wooden house near the ferry pier. “Stay until the late afternoon if you can,” says Woll, “as the traffic on the island calms down and you can enjoy the view over the sea and archipelago from the walls of the fortification.”
Back on the mainland, jump on tram 3. Tickets can be bought from the driver and the line passes most of Helsinki’s main tourist sights, including the Opera House and the Olympic Stadium. “It does a nice loop of the city to the Kallio area,” says local Tea Lindberg, co-owner of Sauna Arla.
Evening: pamper yourself with a sauna
You can’t visit Helsinki without indulging in the ultimate Finnish pastime: haging out in the sauna. There are several throughout the city, but Sauna Arla, in the trendy Kallio district, is one of only a few originals, founded in 1929.
“Most people here would take a sauna at least once a week. It’s a good chance to put down your phone and relax in a peaceful atmosphere,” says Lindberg. “You can wear a swimsuit or towel or be naked – that’s mostly what people do.”
Night: bar-hop in Helsinki’s hippest area
Stay in the Kallio area for the best night out in Helsinki. Once a run-down, working-class neighbourhood, Kallio has been transformed in recent years and now attracts artists and students to its independent shops, bars and restaurants. Start with drinks at one of the area’s original bars, Pub Sirdie, which was founded in 1966. “It reminds me of the days when Kallio was a workers’ district and far from trendy,” says Woll. “The thing to order here is a Kolmostuoppi – a jar of very basic Finnish lager.”
End the night dancing at the starkly minimal nightclub Post Bar, run by four local DJs, or Kaiku, a club in a converted bread factory that’s open until 5am on Friday and Saturday and popular with big-name DJs.
Helsinki is a dream to explore in any season, but there’s something extra special about it in summer. Plan your own Finnish adventure at visitfinland.com/helsinki.
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