Helsinki Tram
Europe Nordic

3 Perfect Days in Helsinki

December 24, 2018

When people travel to the Nordic countries, the Scandinavian countries — Sweden, Norway, and Denmark — typically rank highest in the bucket list. However, it would be a shame to completely miss out on a country like Finland. It has a long and interesting history of Swedish and Russian influence and a fascinating language that’s unlike what’s spoken by its Scandinavian neighbors. The capital Helsinki is fairly small and easy to navigate, but I’d recommend staying for at least 3 days to maximize your stay.

How to get to Helsinki

You can take the train or fly into Helsinki Airport. I highly recommend purchasing the Helsinki Card so that you can save on public transportation and the major attractions mentioned here. The price of the card depends on how many days you plan to use it. If you plan to travel to or from the airport, upgrade the Helsinki Card with the REGION option.

Where to Stay

My friend and I ended up staying at Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorppa mainly because my friend had enough points for a free stay. While the hotel was nice, it took about 30-40 minutes each day to travel to the city center. As Helsinki is generally a safe city, you can’t go wrong with a Airbnb or hostel closer to the city center. You check out a few neighborhood recommendations here.

What to Do

Day 1

Start your visit to Helsinki at Senate Square. Wander around and take in the sights — especially the cute green trams! Stop by the Helsinki City Museum where you can learn how Helsinki was formed and changed over time. Nearby is also the Helsinki Cathedral, which is built in neoclassical style and probably Finland’s most photographed building.

For a contrast in style, walk about 10-13 minutes to the Uspenski Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral built with bricks and intricate arches. This church is now the largest Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe and a clear symbol of the Russian impact on Finnish history. 

Walk back towards Senate Square, but alongside the harbor so that you can enjoy the views. If time allows, stop by the Old Market Hall, which usually closes around 6pm. Here you can sample and buy some traditional Finnish food, ranging from fresh salmon to reindeer jerky. I personally recommend trying some fish soup!

After the market, wander through the picturesque Esplanade Park. Loved by both tourists and locals alike, it’s the perfect place to sit back, relax, and people watch.

Day 2

Start the day with some delicious breakfast and coffee at Cafetoria Cafe & Shop. Afterward, walk over to Temppeliaukio Church, or the “Rock Church.” Notice the modern architecture, the copper dome, and the exposed solid rock.

Head to the National Museum of Finland, which is about a 10-minute walk east. It shows Finnish history from prehistoric times to the 19th century, and includes a few cultural icons. In particular, you’ll learn more about the beloved Moomins (shown below), which can be seen in gift shops all over Helsinki.

Interested in economics and monetary systems? Check out the Bank of Finland Museum, where you can learn about the history of money and Finland’s banking system. The museum is located close to Senate Square, near the Helsinki Cathedral. More interested in the arts? Visit the Finnish Museum of Photography, located in the western side of town. Given the distance, there probably isn’t enough time to visit both museums, unless you’re feeling super ambitious. If you check out the photography museum, relax by the Ruoholahti Canal afterward (shown below).

Day 3

Visit the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO heritage site that features centuries-old artillery and defensive walls. It’s been used by the Kingdom of Sweden, the Russian Empire and most recently, the Republic of Finland. The Helsinki Card covers the ferry service to and from Suomenlinna Island, admission to the museums, and a guided tour (times listed here).

A trip to Finland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Finnish sauna. It’s a relaxing experience and an integral part of Finnish culture. In fact, there are over three million saunas in Finland! Traditional saunas are heated by wood, burned either in a stove with a chimney, or by a stove with no chimney. Throwing water on hot stones produces wet steam, which in turn increases the temperature. After a hot sauna session, you’d take a cold plunge, then alternate between the two a few more times.

I really wanted to go to a traditional Finnish sauna to get a more authentic experience, but we ended up going to Löyly, which is located in the southern part of the city and has a more contemporary feel. However, my friend and I ended up really liking the experience. We met a good number of local Finns inside the sauna. And, the cold dip was actually outside in the Baltic Sea! The water is really cold, but trust me — it’s worth the plunge (literally).

Summary

I hope I’ve convinced you that Helsinki is rich in history and tradition that’s worth experiencing in person. If you have more time in Helsinki, you can check out more of its museums, take a day trip to the idyllic old town of Porvoo, or take a boat to Medieval Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.

Have you been to Helsinki before? Did you enjoy it? Leave me a comment below!

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