Why visit Helsinki? My reasons to see the Finnish capital
Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Rome has the Colosseum. But why visit Helsinki? If you’re looking for iconic attractions, the Finnish capital doesn’t have anything quite in the same league – except perhaps a Moomin.
Instead, as I discovered when we visited earlier this year, the city is somewhere which grows on you. After our stay in Tallinn where the picturesque Old Town wins you over at first sight, you need patience to understand Helsinki’s attractions.
Because there are plenty of reasons to visit Helsinki: laid-back but efficient, beautiful design but never bland, home to world-class culture and surrounded by nature and islands which beg to be explored.
How do you capture a feeling? Perhaps Helsinki doesn’t grab everyone straight away because you have to slow down and soak it up – to sit in a cafe and catch up with friends or family, to enjoy the view from the bar above the city’s open air pool after a swim, to amble by the waterfront with an ice cream.
In London, it feels like you’re always rushing from A to B, that there’s never enough time. In Helsinki, it wasn’t just the tourists strolling and making the most of their weekend – this is a country, after all, where school starts aged seven and kids spend only around four hours in lessons per day.
Perhaps it’s the knowledge of the long, cold, dark winters to come that encourages everyone to make the most of the daylight? There’s none of the frenzy you might find in the UK when the sun first shines after months of bad weather either, more an appreciation of what the summer holds.
Helsinki has style: and not only in the design district. But beyond that minimalist Scandi chic, there’s a sense of humour – and round every corner in Helsinki, we seemed to stumble across examples of it.
Electricity boxes decorated with bright street art, all vibrant colours and occasional octopus. Sculptures dot the squares and parks, most designed – it seems – to get you thinking.
There are 330 islands in the archipelago of Helsinki – and I wished we had time to take a boat trip around all of them. Some are unmissable, like the Suomenlinna sea fortress, a Unesco World Heritage site.
Others, including Pihlajasaari, have beaches and unspoiled nature to explore, while Seurasaari has an open-air museum celebrating Finland’s traditions and way of life and Korkeasaari is home to Helsinki Zoo. You can cruise the islands on a boat tour or jump on one of the ferries from the harbour.
The green space
For our Helsinki city break, summer was just starting – the beginning of the long hot weather had hit the UK, and in Finland it was low 20s, perfect for wandering around with kids. For me, May might be the best time to visit Helsinki: in midsummer, the sun barely sets (less fun if you’re trying to get young kids to go to sleep) and in midwinter, it barely rises.
With its parks and open green space, flowers blooming and little play areas dotted around, this is a city made for walking and wandering. As we explored on our first day, we weaved from park to park on our way to the main square and the harbour – not the most direct route, perhaps, but the perfect laid-back introduction.
Helsinki is known for its art nouveau architecture, so you’ll spot the elegant fin de siecle style all around the city, from the railway station where you might first arrive or as you explore Helsinki’s different districts.
But the striking buildings, often in pastel and white shades that pop against the blue sky, aren’t the only ones to watch out for. You’ll see more traditional styles on some of the islands, including those once used by the military, but also in Seurasaari’s open air museum.
Or stroll the design district, where we stayed in a stylish AirBNB* and which has now spread out to cover 25 streets, and stop inside the Temppeliaukio rock church with its glimmering copper dome and rough stone walls, creating some wonderful acoustics.
If there’s no single iconic must-see in Helsinki, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see in the city – and without the pressure to tick places off a bucket list, you can tailor your Helsinki city break without feeling you’re missing out on any big sights.
Suomenlinna would be my pick for one sight not to miss, a perfect introduction to Helsinki’s maritime history and a beautiful place to wander, not to mention home to the city’s toy museum. The National Museum of Finland is also far from the traditional image of dusty cases and tedious facts: from interactive exhibits to VR goggles, there’s plenty to make you think as well as to see.
And Allas Sea pools – two heated, one filled directly from the Baltic (filtered but as bracingly chilly as you might imagine) – overlooks the market square but feels a very long way from the usual bustle of a European capital. Add in art galleries, several impressive churches and cathedrals, tours galore from open-top bus to themed, a zoo and aquarium, markets, shops and restaurants and there’s no chance of running out of things to do in Helsinki.
It’s worth buying a Helsinki card to save money. Click here for discounts on more things to do in Helsinki.
Finnish is supposed to be one of Europe’s most complicated languages to learn – fortunately for English speakers, everyone in Helsinki seems to speak it impeccably and can’t do enough to help. From finding the right ferry to Suomenlinna to ordering in restaurants, there always seemed someone to answer questions with a smile.
Even public transport was straightforward with an app to use for buying tickets and cheap fares (rare in Helsinki!) to whisk you to the airport by train as well.
The love of the little things
Piles of shining cherries stacked high on a market stall, the taste of a cinammon bun eaten in the sun (with brightly coloured blankets dotted around for colder months), even those Moomins who pop up all over Helsinki… the little things may not always be cheap here, but that’s all the more reason to appreciate them.
And after a weekend in Helsinki, I realised that’s exactly what I’d started to do.
PIN FOR LATER: WHY VISIT HELSINKI
Disclosure: contains some affiliate links – any purchases you might make are unaffected but I may receive a few pennies in return. Sign up to AirBNB with my link and we both get a credit if you book a trip. I paid for my own trip to Helsinki and all opinions, recommendations and love of painted electricity boxes are my own.
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