By Jim Ferri
There are many interesting things to do in Helsinki, none of which require taking a sauna.
But to appreciate Finland, Helsinki, and the Finns themselves, you should know a little Finnish history.
First of all, Finland is a relatively young nation. Even Coca Cola is more than 30 years older.
And the country – especially its capital, Helsinki – has always been the focus of a tug-of-war. In short, it was founded by the Swedes, conquered by the Russians, and then slipped off on its own after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917.
You can see clear evidence of all this today if you stand in front of Helsinki’s Cathedral. There a statue of Russian Czar Alexander I looks across the city at Finnish ferries sailing to an 18th-century Swedish fortress. On the other hand, it’s this amalgam of cultures that makes the city so interesting.
If you’re asking yourself what to do in Helsinki, you’ll find there’s much more to the city than just this cultural mash up. It’s also a city where great design runs rampant in everything from great architecture to blazingly bold household fabrics. It’s a city that rewards you with beautiful and innovative design, practically everywhere you turn.
The bottom line: if you’re making a tour of Scandinavia don’t pass Helsinki by.
Things to Do in Helsinki
Because it’s a compact city easy to explore on foot, there are a lot of things to do in Helsinki. Many more, in fact, than most travelers suspect, including day trips from Helsinki and taking the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn in Estonia.
But first start your tour at Helsinki Cathedral, the white, neoclassical building that’s become a symbol of the city. Climb its steps that face the city’s historic Senate Square and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the area and the city beyond.
Then walk down them and through the historic 18th-century quarter in front of you, and you’ll come to Market Square on the harbor, the hub of the city’s waterfront.
The square is often filled with stands selling produce, handcrafts and food, and is a great place to have an inexpensive lunch (I had a tasty meal of reindeer meatballs, small potatoes with garlic sauce, and a beer for €11).
From the market turn west and walk up the Esplanade, Helsinki’s beautiful boulevard that’s lined with park benches amid beautiful plantings of zinnias and roses. It’s one of the very pleasant things to do in Helsink , especially on a summer afternoon when people fill the outdoor cafés along the street. I stroll along it every time I visit the city.
From here you’re not far from Helsinki’s Central Station, an architectural masterpiece designed by legendary Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. It’s a beautiful building, especially inside, although it’s most famous for the striking statutes on its exterior. Its café, Eliel, has good Finnish food and sandwiches, and also serves breakfast. It’s clean, spacious and a great place to stop.
Museums in Helsinki
There are many museums in Helsinki that befit a city known for its designs. One of them is the interesting Helsinki Design Museum that displays Finnish fashion, household objects and other objects for which Finland is best known. It’s housed in a former school in the city’s Design District, a neighborhood with beautiful old buildings. You can reach it from Central Station via the #10 tram.
If you’re at Central Station you won’t need to take a tram to visit the Ateneum Art Museum, the state-owned National Gallery, home to more than over 35,000 pieces. Housed in several buildings, its main building is across from the station and its contemporary art collection is showcased in its modern Kiasma building.
The best way to visit different areas of the city, including many museums in Helsinki, is by tram or bus and you can catch several of them in the thoroughfares near or at Central Station.
Not far away, adjacent to the Parliament House, is the National Museum of Finland, the attic of Finland. Its one of the popular museums in Helsinki and it’s numerous exhibits provide a snapshot of the country’s cultural heritage and history.
You’ll find nearly 4 million snapshots in The Finnish Museum of Photography, which come from every level of the country’s society ranging from Famous professional photographers to recent asylum seekers.
Other popular museums rife for inclusion on a list of things to do in Helsinki include the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Mannerheim Museum, the former home of the great Finnish military leader and statesman.
Two Incredible Churches
You’ll find many churches scattered all about the city, but there are two that are world-renown and well worth being on your list of things to do in Helsinki.
The first is the 150-year-old Uspenski Cathedral, a redbrick church that combines both Eastern and Western influences. Originally built as a Russian Orthodox Church, it’s the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe. With golden cupolas and an iconostasis illustrating the Last Supper and the Ascension, it is incredibly beautiful. You can reach it via the #4 Tram.
The other, which is more famous, is the Temppeliaukio Church, a unique church that was quarried out of the bedrock and sits below ground level. It’s a deservingly popular place, not only to people being married or children being baptized, but also to the 500,000 tourists who visit it every year.
A visit to both these churches, one modern the other ancient, should be on your list of things to do in Helsinki if you’re in the city any length of time.
One of the most popular things to do in Helsinki is to visit the Sibelius Monument, which honors Jean Sibelius, the most famous Finnish composer of all time. It’s a striking piece of art.
The 30-ton monument, composed of 600 stainless steel tubes welded together one by one, was originally totally abstract, but after a public outcry the artist compromised by adding the composer’s face to it. And what a difference it made.
You can get a taste of the composer’s genius at the renowned Finlandia Hall or at the adjacent Helsinki Music Center, both just a short walk from Central Station. In addition to being home to the Sibelius Academy Library, the Center also has a popular café, restaurant and shop.
Shopping in Helsinki
Walk along the Esplanade and you’ll pass some well-know shops such as Louis Vuitton, and also the store for Marimekko, the brightly colored fabrics popularized by Jackie Kennedy back in the 60s, and still popular today. Marimekko, by the way, has its annual sales in June/July and January.
Further up at the top of the Esplanade is upscale Stockman’s department store. In addition to a large variety of upscale goods, the store also has a sushi bar, a deli, and a take-out section with pre-made meals. On the lower level is a large supermarket.
On Fredrikinkatu, the street that is anchored by Temppeliaukio Church at its north end, is lined with 18th– and 19th-century buildings, which are now home to many upscale small shops. And in the area around the Design Museum, look for art and fashion merging in many little boutiques.
If you’re in search of something a bit more of a bargain, there’s a small flea market outside Kauppahalli Market, which is not a tourist market but a commercial food hall. Take tram #6 from Central Station.
Day Trips From Helsinki
When you finish doing things in the Finnish capital, there are several day trips from Helsinki that are quite easy. Although two involve ferries, one is quite close and the other requires you take the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia.
The former is the ferry from Helsinki’s main harbor to the Suomenlinna Sveaborg Fortress, which can be either a full-day or a great half-day trip. Pick up some food from the stalls on Market Square, as many people do, and enjoy a picnic when you get to the island.
Suomenlinna is a national monument, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most popular attractions in Finland. At one time the sprawling six-island fortress, built by Sweden in the 18th and 19th centuries to protect the harbor, was home to almost 900 people. The main museum of the fortress showcases its history, spanning more than 260 years.
There are many cafes and restaurants on the islands, including some for fine dining. There’s also a brewery.
Roundtrip prices for the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn are approximately $14-52 per passenger without a car for the two-hour trip, although they do fluctuate seasonally. Keep in mind that many European ferries, including the ferries from Helsinki to Tallin, are more like cruise ships than merely car and truck carriers.
If you’d rather stay in Finland, you may want to consider medieval Turku, an interesting city on Finland’s west coast. It’s only two hours away by train (a $20-30 ride) and is another interesting possibility for a day trip from Helsinki.