Even though Nordic countries and their culture are attracting more and more tourists over the last years, Finland still remain unknown for many people. I had the joy to spend 6 unforgettable months there for exchange studies, which enabled me to discover fascinating culture and people, as well as breath-taking landscapes.
Visiting Helsinki is relatively quick and a week-end might be enough for you to see the main attractions of the city before to head to the cities around and discover the beauty of Finnish mother nature. Many Airbnbs are available in Helsinki for quite affordable prices; for shorter budgets, the Erottajanpuisto hostel offers prices around 30€/night and is located in the very center of Helsinki. If you like to walk you can visit Helsinki by feet and discover the following places without any problem.
Update: after 2 years without being around, it was time for me to go back to Finland. This time, I mostly stayed in Helsinki to visit some friends, then I flew to Ivaloo, in Finnish Lapland, for two days to disconnect and get some fresh air. I was also hoping to see some northern lights that time, as we missed them during our trip to Lapland with my Erasmus friends. Guess what, sit eems I’ll have to go back a third time as I didn’t see any, one more time because of too many clouds, and in spite of the optimal period in November – yep, you got that right, it also took me 6 months to finally manage to update this guide. But at least it was a great occasion for me to discover the great and new things that Helsinki has to offer and then to talk about it here.
• Helsinki cathedral
The first monument to see in the Finnish capital is of course the Helsinki cathedral, built on the top of the stairs of the Senate place, near to the docks. If you are there at lunch hours, don’t hesitate to head toward those ones to enjoy fresh marine air but also the little market where many locals sell fried fishes of all kinds, fresh salmon or reindeer meat. It’s a bit touristic though; so don’t expect the cheapest prices.
If you want to fill your belly with quality food, then walk a few meters further to Kauppatori Salutorget – let’s make it easier: the food hall. Prices are still quite expensive – they are in Finland, so be psychologically prepared to handle to see Brie cheese pieces for 5€/100g, but you don’t care, you’re not here to eat Brie cheese – but the choice of typical Finnish food is very wide – the fish soup is very tasty and will fill you for the next hours. As long as you’re around, walk closer to the Ouspenski cathedral to have a look on its architecture – you can’t miss it, the building is catchy red and green, typically russian architecture style.
If weather is your best friend – good luck for that -, walk by the seaside toward Northwest, until you arrive to the accommodated docks in the Hernesaari area. In summer, it’s somehow the place to be in Helsinki, as many bars and restaurants are waiting for you there with some sunbathing chairs to digest peacefully your reindeer burger – come on, I needed to drop one or two clichés here! -, listening to some chill musical background. Thin sand and coconut trees are also involved in the party– yes, apparently coconut trees also have the possibility to survive to Finnish temperatures.
• Helsinki Olympic stadium
Another place to see is the Helsinki Olympic stadium, much more in the north – okay, you are allowed to take public transports for this one -, which also hosts the sport museum that mainly features Olympic games history. If you move toward the Hietaniemi area, you can see the monument of the famous Finnish composer called Sibelius. Walk down by the seaside , you will see soon cute red cottage – lost in the middle of the ice during winter – which is nothing else than café Regatta, one of the nicest in the city and about which I’ll talk below.
If however weather isn’t on your side, option number 1: suck it up, take 2 or 3 scarfs and still go on an adventure – I overmake it a bit, even by -25C, I never reached the 3 scarf limit -; option number 2: do it the intellectual way and go to visit the Design museum, which features perfectly the evolutions of this field over the last decades. For people who don’t know it, Finland is quite a big player in the design industry.
Let’s now talk about the most important topic aka. food. Helsinki doesn’t lack of great spots where to fill your belly; more and more small coffee shops and concept stores are flourishing there as well. That’s at least what I saw when I came back 1 year after my Erasmus, but most of all last Fall.
• Ravintola Oiva
If you are in Helsinki on a week-end, go to Ravintola Oiva for brunch. Their huge buffet brunch – from 10h to 16h every Sunday – costs 20€ and is perfect if you want to fill your belly properly or just treat your hangover. Fresh products and friendly atmosphere are involved, sweet and savoury tooth will both be satisfied for sure.
• Konstan Möljä
If you want to discover some traditional Finnish dishes in a Bonne franquette atmosphere, rendez-vous at Konstan Möljä restaurant – be careful, it’s open only on evenings, from Tuesday to Saturday. The all-you-can-eat buffet costs 19€/person and won’t disappoint you with a wide choice of dishes, each more delicious than the one before. If you tend to be like me aka. you don’t know what self control means when it comes to buffets – nobody’s perfect – I don’t recommend you to go there on the day before to run a half-marathon, #TestedButNotApproved.
• The Cock
To grab a quick lunch, The Cock is the trendy place to go those days; from avocado toasts to linguine alla vongole – both tried and approved -, you will find what you’re looking for for sure and the dishes are perfectly seasoned. Their roasted chicken gets itself talked about as well!
It might not catch your attention from outside, but BLINIt is a great deal for people looking for something simple yet tasty and affordable to eat. The restaurant is focused on Russian cuisine and as its name tells it, mostly blinis and russian pancakes. I went for a pancake that was stuffed with mushrooms and cheese, the whole topped with a good dollop of Smetana cream. Satisfying comfort food incoming, totally approved!
Snacks & Coffee shops
One of the specialities that you must not miss in Helsinki or wherever in Finland is Pulla – harshly called Korvapuusti in Finnish. It’s not rare that this “little” cinnamon or cardamom roll is leg-sized when it’s authentically made. One of the best I could find in Helsinki so far is at café Regatta, an atypical café located in the cutest red cottage above the water. The place is as heart-warming as the people managing it and you’ll instantly feel at home, with delightful smells of warm Korvapuusti and Glögi – the local mulled wine with spices – in the air.
• Café Ekberg
To stay on the “sweet tooth” topic, you would miss something if you don’t take a break at Café Ekberg to drink a tea with one of their delightful pastries. It’s also the oldest pastry shop of Helsinki, as it was established in 1852.
Another speciality that you must try in Finland is Karelian pies aka. karjalanpiirakka. Karelian pies are made of a thin rye crust stuffed with either a rice or a mashed potato filling – for the most common version – and topped with egg butter. Hopia is an institution when it comes to karelian pies and serves the best of the city, using the same original recipe since 1949 – Korvapuustis and desserts are also quite loved by locals. No chi-chi there, you’ll find locals reading newspapers while not disturbing the vital space of the neighbour.
This eatery-bakery is quite new and rather popular for breakfast and thanks to all the delicious baked goodies that are served there. I’ve heard that the sourdough bread is good, but the cardamom & blueberry roll that I tried was for sure amazing, which quickly made me forget the sadness of not trying a korvapuusti.
• Johan & Nyström
Two steps away from Helsinki cathedral and by the waterside, Johan & Nyström is a solid reference when it comes to great coffee in Helsinki. The coffee selection is picky, the place itself – as well as the staff – is welcoming and quite work-friendly if you want to stay 1 or 2h to work in peace.
• Andante coffee shop
For all the bobo souls out there, Café Andante is still as cozy as for my last time there two years ago. Take a coffee among their great selection or a matcha latte. Half flower shop and half coffee shop, the atmosphere there is peaceful and the decoration very pleasant. Not mentioning all their cakes that look more than appealing.
• Good Life Coffee
This great spot is very popular in Helsinki but also all over Finland for its damn good coffee. Located in Kallio, Good Life Coffee remind you a cozy living-room, super friendly staff included. And their breakfast offer is totally worth!
The number 1 destination for a shopping tour in Helsinki is without any doubt Stockmann. Nothing very transcendent when you know Galeries Lafayettes or Kadéwé in Berlin for instance: famous brands are sold there and prices are quite expensive, but if you’re looking for local food specialties, you will find what you’re looking for in the Delikatessen shop that is downstairs.
Not far from Stockmann, you will find the Marimekko shop, one of the most famous Finnish brands. You’re gonna find colourful clothes, design tableware covered with 70s big flowers or some pretty homeware there.
• Regarding good spots to decorate and arrange your home, I recommend you to take a look at Moko market or Granit. Styles are different, but the item selection is picky and trendy. People always looking for new objects for their interior will find a good fit for sure. The small shop called Pino offers a nice tableware selection and many small objects for home and daily life. Still in the same area, Papershop offers a wide choice of paper items as notebooks, cards, or paper decorations that will break the heart of young and older ones alike.
• Frida Marina
A nice second-hand shop to convince vintage addicts. A few accessories and deco items from small brands are also sold. For second-hand items, search a bit, and if you’re lucky you might fid pretty nice pieces for fair prices – like a pair of stylish Nike sneakers for 10€!
Suomenlinna is well-known as a fortress when Finnish people were fighting for their independence, it is ranked in the UNESCO World Heritage nowadays. Only at 15 minutes by ferry boat from the Finnish capital, this is a haven of peace and the ideal place to take a bowl of fresh air or spend a sunny day. The island has a few museums and some small cafes-restaurants that are perfect to rest for a while. Don’t forget neither your camera nor your scarf, because even during July the wind is freezing.
The numerous industrial buildings in bricks make the charm of this city, which is located at 2h by car and 3h by train from Helsinki. Inside the Vapriikin Museokeskus that assemble many small museums, the Hockey museum is worth the detour if you are a sport addict; some others as the shoes museum are a bit more bizarre thought. If you want to eat for a correct price, take a walk to the small cottages of Tammelantori, which is not far. You can have some fresh salmon or traditional Finnish pastries there. Markets and open-air sales are also regularly organized.
If you want to enjoy a nice panoramic view, take some distance from the city-center by taking the bus, and climb to the Pyynikki observation tower. You can climb to the top of the tower for only 2€ and enjoy an amazing view on the city and the big lakes around. While walking down from the tower, tqke a break at the café and taste one of their delicious doughnuts – after this walking it’s well-deserved-.
This city – which is also industrial – has to be visited as well. More peaceful than Tampere and much closer to Helsinki (around 45 minutes by car), this is also the second oldest city of Finland, which won’t disappoint you with its colorful houses. The good weather wasn’t with us when I was there, but the city and the little shops are still very pretty. Stop by Café Fanny for teatime and eat some delicious Runebergintorttuun; it’s in Porvoo that those famous desserts had been created. Those little cakes made from cardamom, almond powder and filled with some raspberry jam are a must in Finloand to celebrate the National Runeberg’s day, this famous Finnish poet.
Now you what to do in Helsinki and its neighborhood, don’t hesitate to share your personal favorite spots in the comments, and don’t forget your scarf!