Founded in 1550 and home to almost 650,000 Fins, Helsinki offers travellers a diverse range of experiences and an intricate history to explore — much of it entwined with neighbouring Russia (Helsinki was a centre of international espionage during the Cold War). Barry Johnson checks in with suggestions for ten top things to do in the Finnish capital...
For a northern European escape, there’s nowhere quite like Helsinki.
Finland’s charming coastal capital continues to rank as one of the world’s most liveable urban centres, as it straddles many worlds and effortlessly blends a complex history, contemporary creativity, bohemian galleries and energetic nightclubs.
Here are ten top things to do in Helsinki.
1. Explore Suomenlinna Fortress
UNESCO World Heritage-listed Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s monument to military architecture, was built over 250 years of Swedish, Russian and Finnish toil. Sail from Market Square over the icy waters of the South Harbour to the sea fort and follow the 1.5km Blue Route, which is lined with landmarks from the fortress’ history. They include the garrison church — one of the few in the world which doubles as a lighthouse. There are no less than six separate military museums, including a restored WWll submarine. A combined ticket is available during the summer season.
For a VIP culinary experience, feast on crayfish at Walhalla, the island’s prestigious dining hall, which has welcomed guests since it opened for the 1952 Summer Olympic Games.
2. Visit the Rock Church
Temppeliaukio, also known as the Rock Church, is quite literally carved out of solid rock. While WWll stalled construction, locals finally packed the church for its dedication in 1969, bathed in sunlight streaming in beneath the 24 metre copper domed roof.
Despite its popularity as one of the top things to do in Helsinki, you can still find respite from hectic holidaying on the birchwood pews during services, as local choirs are accompanied by a grand pipe organ. Due to its amazing acoustics, concerts at Temppeliaukio are very popular.
3. Kick off your shoes in the Espa
Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, New York’s Central Park, London’s Hyde Park; a modern city is often defined by its green spaces. And it will come as no surprise that Helsinki offers access to numerous city parks and gardens. Esplanadi in the city centre draws a fascinating mix of locals and tourists. It’s all smiles and plenty of people-watching opportunities as you relax on the sun drenched lawns. Enjoy striking statues and busking musicians while nibbling on Mustikkapiirakka (Finnish blueberry pie).
4. Shop at the Old Market Hall
For one of the tastiest top things to do in Helsinki, head for the Old Market Hall. It’s full of Finnish delicacies, sold from 19th century wooden stalls. The market has been in operation since 1889. At the time it opened, a covered market was considered quite revolutionary. While modern supermarkets now prevail, the city’s three historic market halls are still an important part of city life and at the Old Market Hall you’ll find a plethora of treats for the sweet-tooth, including salmiakki (salty liquorice), Fazer Blue chocolate and the continent’s best Korvapuusti (cinnamon buns).
In the city’s north, Hakaniemi Market sizzles with street food, including grillimakkara (grilled sausage with mustard), herring pies or savoury Karelian pasties.
5. Sample top-notch Scandi cuisine
If time is short and you want to taste test the very best of fine Finnish cuisine, Michelin-starred Olo is a superb education in Scandinavian dining, paired with your sommelier’s custom wine choices. Begin with the cauliflower and scallop roe, before tucking into pike perch, smoked salmon, Finnish lamb, king crab and Arctic char. Finish with Peltola blue cheese, and elderflower and juniper desserts.
6. Take a break in the Chapel of Silence
In a centuries-old city like Helsinki, you’re usually surrounded by historic stone buildings that reflect the finest classical architectural styles. For a modern twist, check out Kamppi — a towering chapel of molded wood, shaped into almost impossible curves. Kamppi provides a meditative escape for stressed locals and weary travellers seeking a few moments of solace from the busy city outside.
7. Ride high at Linnanmaki
One of the best things about a visit to Linnanmaki amusement park in Helsinki’s north is you can quite often almost have the entire place to yourself (no ride queues!). There are more than 40 rides to enjoy. Warm up on the slightly staid carousel, ferris wheel and monorail, before hitting the park’s thrilling roller coasters. They include Linnunrata eXtra — a VR-augmented space adventure, and Vuoristorata — a classic wooden coaster that has been in operation since 1951.
8. Bust out at aMazed
Travellers typically seek a figurative escape; at aMazed Games Room Escape, it’s literal. The Escape Room craze may well have originated in Japan, but this version is all Finland. Use your nous to escape themed rooms offering fictional scenarios, including a bank robbery gone wrong and a tale of Cold War espionage.
9. Explore the coast by kayak
Outside Helsinki proper there are thousands of small islands dotted along the coastline. With Natura Viva you’ll spend an enjoyable afternoon kayaking the calm waters and exploring nooks and crannies of the coast where roads can’t reach. Pick up from central Helsinki is provided and there’s a maximum of eight guests, so book well in advance.
For those seeking more prolonged northern exposure to Norway’s great outdoors, Natura Viva also provides kayak rental, tents, maps and plenty of encouragement to get you to head out on your own. Keep a lookout for sea-buckthorn berries — the basis of a popular local brew featured on many super-food shortlists.
10. Enjoy a long night on the town
In northern Europe the nocturnal benefit from longer hours of darkness during winter, which basically means more time to party. Start your evening with spectacular views of Helsinki’s twinkling skyline at the Ateljee Bar atop Hotel Torni, before freestyling with jazz ensembles at atmospheric Storyville. Feeling boisterous? Sing up a storm at the Karaokebar Pataassa.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Helsinki? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Photodune/Bigstock
About the writer
Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the Californian forest a week after the Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.