Helsinki is one of the coolest capitals in Europe and probably one of the most underrated ones. It is a city that absolutely blew my mind and while we were a bit unhappy looking at the forecast, I honestly didn’t feel like it was an issue. The city is laid out so perfectly and functions so well, we almost forgot the snow outside. The people and food made it even better. A man could not be happier turning 30 in this country honestly!
Read my country guide about Finland to find answers to all your questions for a comfortable trip.
I visited Helsinki last week at the beginning of March 2017 and while it was just to spend a day before we head off to Rovaniemi (Santa’s homeland), Helsinki provided me with a perfect 1-day city trip.
Fun Fact: Helsinki has around 330 islands.
Fun Fact: Helsinki is very close to St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Stockholm and has influence over and from these three cities.
All Things Helsinki
It is very difficult to describe the coolness of Helsinki even in pictures. Everything is cute, well-thought-of and easy on eyes. You can see the most amazing combinations of Finnish native side merged with high tech and design side of it.
Fun Fact: Helsinki is a majority woman city with 53% population comprised of women. Take note my lesbian and straight guy friends, please!
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To and from Airport
The Helsinki-Vantaa airport is located in Vantaa some 17km from the central station of Helsinki. It is a very modern, chic and modern airport with a minimalist side to it which I have not seen elsewhere. It is absolutely ginormous. It took us ages to walk from the arrival gate to passport controls and then down through the longest escalator to the train station. There are a lot of good food options although nothing is cheap here.
The modern and most spacious trains in Europe took us to the city centre is 20-25 minutes. The ticket was €5 one way and the journey comfortable. The trains are also quite frequent and run till 2am.
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The public transport system in Helsinki is amazing. We walked around a lot throughout the day and used the metro or tram only 2 or 3 times because the city centre is close. We bought the Day Travel Card which was valid for 24 hours and cost €9.50. The good news is that it includes the ferry rides as well. The tram service is also quite frequent and the whole public transport system runs till quite late. It is cheap by no means but considering the level of service, I didn’t think it was overkill besides there is no such thing as a cheap lunch in Finland 😉
Fun Fact: You are required to keep your car lights on at all times in Finland, be it day or night, summer or winter, south or north.
The ferry service to islands runs every 20 – 30 minutes and happens to be quite an amazing ride with ice crushing adventure on a public transport.
There is no uber in Helsinki and taxis are eye wateringly expensive with a 2 km ride costing around €24 (It does include some waiting time though).
Fun Fact: Helsinki Metro is made of only 2 lines; M1 & M2 and only 6 out of 17 stations are underground.
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The city centre area is quite expensive for accommodation and since it was 6 of us, we decided to get an apartment at the edge of the city centre in Kallio. The area wasn’t the prettiest, to be honest with very chunky Soviet-style blocks but the apartment was really comfortable and beautiful with everything we could possibly need. The metro station Hakanimen was 2 minutes away.
Tip: Book your accommodation as quickly as possible because even with 2 months to go pretty much all options in the city centre were either gone or were very expensive.
The quality of housing in Helsinki is staggeringly high. Every place we set foot in was beautifully done and there was a sense of closure and design, which is very fitting considering Helsinki is one of the top design cities in the world.
Fun Fact: Helsinki resembles a lot to St. Petersburg which is why a lot of Hollywood movies requiring that look come and shoot in Helsinki.
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Helsinki and Finland, in general, is food heaven especially for people with intolerances or allergies. My bestie is lactose intolerant and she was ever so happy to eat cheesecakes and cheese again that was lactose-free without compromise on the taste. If you are one of those unfortunate ones, you definitely need to head to Finland. This also applies to a lot of normal food, confectionery and desserts.
We stayed 5 days in Finland and every single meal we’ve had was absolutely delicious even the easy meals from the station were better than most of the food we get in London.
I love cinnamon buns and the first day we ate loads of those along with cardamom and pistachio buns. Grab a couple of buns or quiches and a cup of warm soothing coffee; Best breakfast ever!
Finland has some absolutely delicious salmon and we found so many varieties and flavours of smoked salmon here in almost every restaurant and shop.
For lunch, we headed to the Old Market Hall which is at the harbour near Kauppatori and is quite an interesting building. It is perfect for a relaxed lunch. We arrived all cold and frosty and it felt like mother’s womb and we just jumped on food like hungry hippos, nom nom nom!
My favourite was a Soup kitchen and their delicious soups. Grab smoked salmon bread from a stall around and add it to the mix and it will knock your knickers off! The bread that comes with the soup is also amazing, especially with the basil-infused oil…
Since it was my birthday we decided to go for a nice birthday and a local angel recommended Finnjavel.
As beautiful as this place was, it made me feel so special and blessed to be celebrating it with amazing friends in a cosy comfy restaurant in Helsinki watching the snowfall with a 7 course absolutely delicious meal. It reminded me of my birthday last year in Iceland and the food there. I would highly recommend giving it a try. The set menu eliminates the need for choosing and wasting food.
It is a bit on the pricey side with €85 without wine pairings but it felt absolutely right with each course from black pudding to the braised neck of reindeer. (Yes that delicious animal reindeer!). I would recommend getting a reservation.
Helsinki is the gay capital of north with a thriving gay scene. The general partying scene here is so chilled out most of the places are now mixed without much distinction between gay and straight places and that’s according to two locals. We didn’t go to any bar although we did contemplate going to the karaoke bar in the evening but, we were too tired to sing and we decided to leave it.
There is a Karaoke Gay be in the city centre called Ravintola Manns Street. Other bars are Boulevard Room, Navy Jerrys, Cavalier, Kulmakahivio, Bear Park Cafe, Terassi Bar and Fenix. For clubs, there is Hercules, dtm and g-Lounge. (Thank you for all this amazing info Tommi – Check out his cool shop www.uniikkihelsinki.com for some amazing tote bags).
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Design and Cafes
The cafe and coffee culture is strong in Helsinki and you HAVE to try a few of them. We went into Johann & Nystrom near Uspenski Cathedral to enjoy the view of Helsinki from the other side and to enjoy their amazing blends of teas. My favourite was Orange and Saffron. The interior was very cosy and after a few minutes we felt like we were sitting at home enjoying a nice family cuppa, so British of us!
Fun Fact: Helsinki was founded by Swedish King in 1550 and its name was Helsingfors from Swedish but the language is actually close to Hungarian than to Swedish.
Finland was under the Swedish and then under the Soviet empire for most of its life and finally, in December 1917, it became an independent state and this year it is turning 100.
The architecture of the city is quite influenced by the Soviet-style and there are loads of chunky apartment blocks that remind you of Eastern Europe but the Finns have an amazing talent of adding small touches that give the city its very own identity and feel especially the city centre.
Finland was the design capital of the world in 2012 and we came back home without seeing one disorganized, shabby or substandard place. Well done Helsinki!
For people planning to go inside museums and spending time, you can buy Helsinki Card which gives you access to unlimited public transport usage and entrance to museums and galleries. It is quite pricey at €46 and we decided to skip it. You can buy it here.
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Helsinki in Winter
For a lot of very seasoned Northern European cities, winter can be gruelling and can bring life to a standstill but Helsinki seemed really well equipped. There was easy access to internal spaces everywhere to avoid being in cold for too long and it made us have a very balanced Helsinki experience.
Fun Fact: Helsinki is the north most capital in the world and also one of the coldest as well with 169 days on average with below zero Celsius temperature.
Free Walking Tour
Free Walking Tour was the biggest disappointment about Helsinki; It only runs on the weekends sadly and we were there during the week. It has a lot of good reviews and you can book them here.
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How to Helsinki in a Day
You can spend a few days in Helsinki easily especially in summer, there’s still a lot you can do in Winter without feeling trapped indoors. We just had one day and made the most of it. We were happy tired at the end with a delicious 7-course meal and if you want to Helsinki in a day follow the route below and fall in love with Helsinki in a day.
Fun Fact: Helsinki has some good beaches in summer and they are popular with the locals and tourists in summer, the most famous being Hietaniemi beach.
Kampin Metro – Rock Church (Temppeliaukion Kirkko) – Kampii Chapel of Silence – Central Station – Senate Square – Helsinki Cathedral – Old Market Hall – Uspenski Cathedral – Suomenlinna Island – Torni Rooftop Bar
Rock Church (Temppeliaukion Kirkko)
We started the day going to Kampin Metro station and a swift 10-minute walk with a bit of chit chat, coffee and cinnamon buns later we arrived at the Rock Church. This beautiful church is carved out of a rock (DUH!). The outside looks like a rock in the middle of a square but enter this chic building and you will see the most amazing amalgamation of nature with design and architecture. We spent a few minutes listening to the pianist who was luckily there and after tons of photos later, we headed to our next equally amazing chapel.
Kampii Chapel of Silence
Heading back to the Kampii metro station, we arrived at this little chapel standing on the side with its own shape and wooden exterior. We were not sure what to make of it until we got inside and sat down in the chapel. It is made of special materials to absorb sound. Pictures and videos done, we sat down to actually admire the sound side of things. For the first minute, it was a confusing nothingness and then it started growing on me. I could almost hear silence at the rims of the bowl where the curvature of walls meets the flat ceiling, unbelievable!
Now we had the option to take the metro from Kampii station to Central station but we walked instead to see Helsinki a bit more and the central station is just a few steps away. It is an old-style building and the square around is quite vibrant with a lot of traffic and activity happening. There are some good restaurants around as well and the main shopping street is also close by. The clock tower of the station is especially beautiful.
We walked from the station to Keskuskatu and then on to Aleksanterkatu which is the Oxford street equivalent of Helsinki.
Neatly lined on both sides were shops but the most notable feature was its width. It was very spacious and the Stockmann Mall on the side made it look even grand. Helsinki does impress you thoroughly.
Tip: There is the Kiasma Museum (Contemporary Art Museum), Ateneum (Art Museum) and National Theatre around the Central Station, all important in their fields and must-visits based on your interests.
Towards the end of Aleksanterkatu, a little unsuspectingly we arrived at Senate Square. This is the central square in Helsinki with a monument in the middle and Helsinki Cathedral at the back. I think because it was a workday the square was empty with a few tourists about and you know what that means; Perfect photo opportunities!!! After some 100 pictures in all possible poses and combinations, we headed to the cathedral.
The stairs up are quite interesting because with each step you start seeing the square slightly differently and the cathedral starts growing. They are also quite steep and finally, when we reached the top, the square just expands. The entrance to the cathedral is on the side and you can enjoy a good view of this seemingly uninteresting square ut it gradually grows on you.
The cathedral inside is simple, elegant and probably the only building I saw without a touch of Scandinavian design. Sit in and enjoy the view from those beautiful chandeliers to the organ at the back…
Old Market Hall
We were hungry! And that meant going to the Old Market Hall which is situated at the harbour and has the most amazing salmon ever. Try the Soup Kitchen I absolutely loved it. The place was quiet and amazing and we ate our lunch like we were getting food after ages..
All freshened up we walked to the biggest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe. This red church with its green dome has a certain charm from far away that you just cannot resist and the views of the harbour on the way are also stunning.
Tip: There is a seaside pool for summer if you happen to go during the summers.
The church is hoisted on top of the mountain and the entrance and interior are both slightly medieval. It doesn’t feel like a Helsinki church at all but it is beautiful and makes you wonder what else you are missing by not spending more time in this city? Reminiscent of a century of Russian rule, the church is a must-visit. I loved the interior, the exterior and that slight feeling of being out of place…
Don’t forget to check out the cafes at the back of the cathedral especially Johann & Nystrom.
Tip: The area behind the Uspenski cathedral is Katanajokka Quarter and it is famous for the beautiful Jugendstil buildings. These Art Nouveau buildings with their stone facades are a reminder of the fast pace with which Helsinki and Finland grew at the beginning of the 20th century.
Want to learn how to take perfect photos while travelling solo? Read this guide.
We headed back to the ferry port after some coffee and tea and completely ignore the Sky Wheel which I was told to avoid.
Tip: Try the roof of Torni Hotel for a much better view of the city. The view is supposed to be better and to make things sweeter, FREE!
The ferry runs every 20 to 40 minutes and takes 20 minutes to get to the other side. The island was quite wet but we decided to go to the end to see this UNESCO World Heritage sea fortress.
The ride from #Helsinki to #Suomenlinna is magical with frozen waters and beautiful landscape, the city looks like a magic land… #MyHelsinki #Finland #Scandanavia #FerryRide #TimeLapse #Hyperlapse #frozenwaters #HelsinkiinWinter #WinterTravels #globetrotter #wanderer #explorer #travelblog #GayTravelblog #TravelBlogger #GayTravelBlogger #BrownBoyTravels
From the bridge (Susisaaren Siita) we walked from the ferry port to the edge of the island and finally all wet we reached Kuninkaanportii.
One look and I forgot all about being wet and cold. The view of Helsinki, the blocks of floating ice in the sea and the grassy hills with cannons and the falling snow…
We played around a bit, took loads of photos and then headed back to the ferry to head back to Helsinki and got lost.
Luckily I have had internet and a water-resistant phone so a long way around the island we finally arrived back and after our little evening adventure, we arrived at Finnjavel to forget about being wet and enjoy our 7-course dinner and head to bed in anticipation of Santa Village and Lapland.
Helsinki is probably one of the biggest eye-openers and a good reminder to go to places which are not very popular with mainstream travellers. The city has style, convenience, great food and most important of all extremely friendly and beautiful people. I can’t wait to go back already <3
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