You might know (or think you know) some things about the Nordic countries. You might think of them as expensive, and know about the long, dark winters that people experience here. But did you know that people who live in the Nordics are consistently rated as some of the happiest in the entire world?
If you haven't visited a Scandinavian or Nordic country, this might be perplexing. But once you visit a city like Stockholm or see the landscapes in a country like Norway, it all starts to make sense.
I had visited all the Scandinavian capitals in the past (that would be Oslo, Norway; Stockholm, Sweden; and Copenhagen, Denmark), but had not yet added on their Nordic neighbor Helsinki in Finland. I remedied that recently, and was delighted to find everything I love in the Nordics all rolled into one extremely livable city.
In fact, I think Helsinki just rocketed to the top of my list of favorite cities in the Nordic region!
A note on Scandinavia vs. the Nordics. This is sort of a “Great Britain vs. the UK” situation. Scandinavia includes the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, while the Nordics include Scandinavia plus also Finland, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Åland. In case you were curious.
Helsinki has so many things that I love in a city: lots of green spaces, ample coffee shops, and interesting architecture, just to name a few. Helsinki is also big enough to have good public transportation, but small enough to still be walkable. And it's extremely safe, which was important to me since I was visiting solo.
I spent 4 nights in Helsinki on my first visit, which is probably more time than most people would recommend spending there. But it allowed me to not only see all the Helsinki highlights, but also take my time to explore a bit beyond the city center.
Top things to do in Helsinki on your first visit
If you're planning your first trip to Helsinki, here are all the things I would consider to be must-dos there!
1. Take a walking tour
Helsinki has a long and interesting history; even its more “modern” history spans hundreds of years, as the city was founded in 1550 by Swedish King King Gustav I, back when Finland was part of the Swedish empire. The city (and all of present-day Finland) was then conquered by the Russian empire in 1808, and remained under Russian rule until Finland gained its independence in 1917.
Taking a walking tour of the city center is a great way to get some context of the city's history, while at the same time seeing some of the most iconic spots in Helsinki like Senate Square, both cathedrals, and the south harbor/Market Square.
I recommend doing this early in your visit so you can get yourself oriented.
I did a free walking tour with Free Tour Helsinki (i.e. Red Umbrella Tours), and we visited so many places in just two hours, including some spots I may not have found on my own. And while the tour is free (you're just expected to tip your guide after), they do recommend booking a space online in advance.
There are also paid walking tours, as well as a hop-on, hop-off bus tour you could take instead, but I personally love free walking tours!
2. Visit a cathedral
Helsinki has not one, but two grand cathedrals that you can visit.
The first and most recognizable one is Helsinki Cathedral, which sits on Senate Square in the city center. This is the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral, and it's known for its grand green dome and massive granite staircase leading up to it. The cathedral was built between 1830 and 1852 as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia (who was ruling Finland at the time), and has become a symbol of Helsinki.
And while the Helsinki Cathedral looks like a grand Catholic cathedral on the outside with its Neoclassical design and statues of the Twelve Apostles, on the inside you'll find a more humble Lutheran design. Visiting the cathedral is free.
The other great cathedral is the Uspenski Cathedral near the south harbor. This ornate red brick cathedral is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe, and is even more lavish on the inside. This cathedral dates back to 1868, and is also free to visit.
Bonus: See the round church
Another church in Helsinki worth visiting is the Temppeliaukion Church in the Töölö neighborhood of Helsinki. This round church is very unique, with rough stone walls and a shiny copper dome. This is still a working church, but also a popular concert venue thanks to its excellent acoustics.
Visiting the church costs €5 per adult, and you can purchase a ticket in the church lobby.
3. Hang out in a library
Here's a fun fact for you: the Finns love libraries. There are more than 700 of them throughout the country of just 5.5 million, and roughly 65% of Finnish people use a public library at least once per week.
Helsinki has some of the most incredible libraries, and you're free to visit them as a tourist, too.
The first one worth visiting is the National Library of Finland, located right across the street from the Helsinki Cathedral. This beautiful library shows off Helsinki's symmetrical Neoclassical architecture both inside and out. The rotunda especially is worth seeing.
The other can't-miss library in Helsinki is the famous Helsinki Central Library Oodi, which is a new design-forward library that opened in late 2018. Located in next to Helsinki Music Centre and Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, this library oozes sleek design and is open to the public.
Along with normal library-type offerings, you can also find two cafes, an outdoor terrace, and spaces you can rent for everything from recording music to cooking a meal (yes, there's a kitchen space in this library!).
I could have easily spent hours inside Oodi.
4. Cozy up in a coffee shop
Another fun thing about Finns: they love their coffee, too. But not espressos or fancy lattes; Finnish people love light-roasted filter coffee, and on average will drink several cups per day. In fact, Finnish people drink more coffee per capita than people in any other country in the world!
At the very least in Helsinki, be sure to start your day with a cup of filter coffee.
Some coffee shops to check out in Helsinki include the Kaffa Roastery, Andante Speciality Coffee, ONE DAY Coffee & Wine, and Rams Roasters. Additionally, Robert's Coffee is the most popular local coffee shop chain – it's far more wide-spread and popular than Starbucks here.
5. Embrace Finnish sauna culture
Libraries, coffee… and saunas! Another staple in Finnish culture are saunas (pronounced SOW-nuhs). Finland invented sauna culture, and it's very common for apartments and family homes to have their own private ones. Your hotel or apartment in Helsinki might even provide a sauna for you to use.
But if not, there are still some fun ways to embrace Finland's sauna culture in Helsinki.
One of the most popular public saunas in Helsinki is Löyly, which is located at the end of Heliga Birgittas Park (Pyhän Birgitan puisto) on the waterfront south of the city center. This complex includes multiple sauna rooms with ladder access into the Gulf of Finland (for the all-important cold plunge), plus a large outdoor terrace and a glass-fronted restaurant with multiple bars.
Entrance to the Löyly sauna is €23 per person, which includes 2 hours of sauna time, a towel, shampoo, and a seat cover. You do need to book a timed reservation online in advance.
Another unique sauna experience you can book in Helsinki is the SkySauna, which is a tiny sauna pod on the SkyWheel Ferris wheel in Helsinki's harbor. Booking a time slot here gets you access to a large hot tub on the ground (that can fit up to 10 people) and a SkySauna gondola car that can hold 4-5 people. This is definitely a unique was to enjoy a sauna in Helsinki!
The SkySauna experience starts at €240 per hour (for 1-4 people), which also includes drinks.
Or, if you want to try something a little cheaper for your first sauna experience, head to the Allas Sea Pool near the SkyWheel. Here you'll find three saunas and three outdoor swimming pools of varying temperatures, including the sea pool that's filled up by the Baltic Sea.
Entry to the Allas Sea Pool and use of all its amenities starts at €18.
A note for my American readers: Most public sauna facilities in Finland will have gender-specific sauna options alongside mixed sauna rooms. In the gender-specific saunas (and in the gender-specific locker rooms), it's very common for Finnish people to be entirely naked. I know it's not the norm in the US, but it's completely normal in Finland, so don't be surprised.
6. Take a boat out to Suomenlinna
Helsinki is located on an archipelago made up of roughly 330 islands. And one of the top things to do in Helsinki is to take a ferry out to a collection of those islands called Suomenlinna.
These islands are not just islands – they're actually a massive fortress. Back in the 1740s, Sweden (remember, Finland used to be a part of the Swedish Empire) decided to build a great sea fortress to help protect against the growing power of the Russian Empire. The fortress, called Sveaborg, consisted of 8 separate small islands, of which six were fortified with defensive walls.
Interestingly, the Russians did eventually take this fortress in 1808, but no battles were ever actually fought here; the Swedes simply surrendered. Russia retained the fortress until Finnish independence in 1917 – and Finland changed the name from Sveaborg (Castle of the Swedes) to Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) in 1918.
Today, Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a popular half-day trip from Helsinki.
You can take a ferry from Market Square and arrive in under half an hour, and then spend a few hours exploring. Even though it's an historic site, Suomenlinna is also home to about 800 permanent residents and there's a lot to see here.
A guided walking tour is offered each day if you want to learn more about the history of the fortress (sign up at the visitor center), but you can also explore on your own. There are several cafes and restaurants to enjoy, too; I recommend coming over in the morning and having lunch either at Adlerfelt or Cafe Bar Valimo.
I booked this combo ticket to visit Suomenlinna, which included my ferry ride and guided walking tour on the island. But you can also hop on a ferry at Market Square (Kauppatori) any time of day. If you take the ferry I did (the FRS one), you can simply buy a ticket onboard.
7. Have lunch at Vanha Kauppahalli
If you go out to Suomenlinna, you'll take a ferry from near Market Square. And the market the square refers to is Vanha Kauppahalli, a traditional indoor market from the 1800s where you can find all kinds of Finnish food.
Grab a stuffed baked potato from Kumpi Peruna (try it with reindeer meat!), some traditional fish soup from SOUP+MORE, and licorice gelato at La Gelateria. There are also stalls selling everything from caviar to fresh salmon, and a few bakeries, too (try a tippaleipä, which is the Finnish version of a funnel cake!).
8. Visit a museum or two
If you think this list already includes an awful lot to do in Helsinki, get ready – because I haven't even talked about any of Helsinki's great museums yet!
I can't possibly list every single Helsinki museum here, but a few that are worth a look include:
- National Museum of Finland – Covers Finnish history from prehistoric times through the 19th century, and is a great introduction to Finland's interesting history. It's large, though, so allow a couple of hours.
- Helsinki City Museum – This small (and free!) museum at the corner of the Senate Square covers the history and local life of Helsinki.
- Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma – Part of the Finnish National Gallery, Kiasma focuses mostly on Finnish contemporary art.
- Amos Rex – An art museum showcasing modern and contemporary art in a very cool space, with an outdoor space (Lasipalatsi square) that's fun to visit.
- Design Museum – You might not think an entire museum could be built around Finnish design, but it exists! And it's pretty cool. (Then again, Helsinki has been designated a UNESCO City of Design, so maybe it's not that surprising after all.)
There's also the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum outside of the city, the Finnish Museum of Natural History, several more art museums, and smaller museums dedicated to subjects as varied as architecture and trams.
You could easily spend a week just museum-hopping in Helsinki!
9. Take a stroll through a park
Helsinki is an extremely green city, with lots of parks and green spaces to enjoy. In fact, Helsinki is one of the greenest cities in Europe, with about 40% of the total city being green spaces.
A few parks worth visiting include:
- Esplanadi – A narrow avenue of a park in central Helsinki that's a popular spot for picnics. It features a live music stage, and lots of restaurants nearby.
- Kaivopuisto – Located on the south end of Helsinki, this waterfront park has lots of walking paths and sea views, along with cafes and ice cream stands. On a summer evening, this is a great place to be.
- Kaisaniemi Park – Located next to Helsinki's main train station, this park is where you can find the Kaisaniemi botanic garden.
- Sibelius Park – Found to the north of the city center, this forested park is a lovely place for a stroll, and is also home to one of the most charming cafes in Helsinki, Cafe Regatta (you MUST try the cinnamon rolls here!).
10. See the Sibelius Monument
Speaking of parks, Sibelius Park is worth a visit to see the Sibelius Monument, a monument dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The monument, designed by Eila Hiltunen, comprises 600+ steel pipes that form a shape meant to represent the melody of music.
It's a cool monument inside a lovely park.
And, again, it's very close to Cafe Regatta, a small waterfront cafe where you can stop for a coffee and warm cinnamon roll (the Nordics are known for their cinnamon rolls, and the ones here are very good). They also rent out kayaks and SUPs here, if you'd like the chance to get out on the water.
11. Shop in the Design District
Helsinki is designated as a UNESCO City of Design and even has its own appointed “Chief Design Officer.” And while you can appreciate Finnish design all over the capital (and inside the Design Museum if you visit), there's a designated “Design District,” too.
The district encompasses 25 streets around Helsinki in the Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, Kamppi and Ullanlinna neighborhoods, though a lot of notable shops can be found in Kaartinkaupunki, especially along both Pohjoisesplanadi and Aleksanterinkatu just north of the Esplanadi.
You can find a good list of shops and showrooms to check out here.
12. Walk down Huvilakatu Street
This one is a quick stop, but still worth mentioning. Huvilakatu Street is a short, 2-block street in Helsinki's Ullanlinna neighborhood that's known for its pastel houses.
The name of this street translates to “Villa Street” in English, and it's frequently listed as the most beautiful street in Helsinki. Pretty easy to see why.
13. Go on a sightseeing cruise
If you make the trip over to Suomenlinna, then I'm not sure you really need to do another sightseeing cruise. But, in case you do want to see some more of the islands in the Helsinki archipelago, there are a few different sightseeing cruise options:
- Helsinki: Evening Archipelago Cruise
- Helsinki: Sightseeing Canal Cruise with Audio Commentary
- Helsinki: City Highlights 1.5-Hour Archipelago Cruise
14. Take a day trip
If you're spending an extended amount of time in Helsinki, you can potentially take a day trip from the city. There are lots of unique day trip options, whether you want to simply get further out in nature, or even visit an entirely different country!
Some popular day trips you can take include:
- Nuuksio National Park: Half-Day Trip from Helsinki
- Hike and Sauna in Sipoonkorpi National Park
- Porvoo tour from Helsinki
- Helsinki to Tallinn Guided Tour with Return Cruise Tickets
When to visit Helsinki
Helsinki can be a year-round destination depending on what kind of trip you want, but if you want to fully soak in the city's green spaces and sauna culture, I recommend visiting during the long days of summer.
June-August will have the best weather and most daylight hours, though May and September are also excellent options if you want even fewer crowds (though Helsinki did not feel crowded at all to me in early June!).
Where to stay in Helsinki
On my own first trip to Helsinki, I opted to rent an apartment because I needed a space to get some work (and laundry) done. I booked an apartment at Bob W Koti Ullanlinna, which is in the Design District.
The Bob W chain of apartments does a great job of putting you in a safe, quiet neighborhood that's still close to all the main attractions. (Mine was right next to the Design Museum and a tram line.) Everything is contactless, and you enter using a code on a keypad – though there is a concierge desk available during business hours.
This was a great option in Helsinki, and I liked the extra details in the apartment like a bag of local coffee and a provided shopping bag for going to the local grocery store.
If a hotel is more your speed, though, these Helsinki hotels would be my picks:
- Hotel F6 – A boutique hotel in a great location, this is the top-rated hotel in Helsinki.
- Hotel Kamp – Top luxury hotel in Helsinki.
- Hotel Fabian – Another good boutique hotel option, this one close to Vanha Kauppahalli.
- Marski by Scandic – Good value for money, and the Scandic brand of hotels is always a solid choice in the Nordics.
Here are a few more things you might be curious about when it comes to planning a trip to Helsinki:
Yes, Helsinki is definitely worth visiting! It's one of my favorite cities in the Nordic region; it feels like a lived-in city (and a very livable one) rather than a city made for tourists. It's also got a lot of cool things to do and see.
You can fly to Helsinki from tons of cities throughout Europe (and abroad) through Helsinki Airport. Finnair (the national airline of Finland) operates the most flights in/out of HEL, but other airlines with many weekly flights include British Airlines and American Airlines.
You can also reach Helsinki via boat (ferry) from nearby cities like Stockholm, Sweden (on an overnight ferry) and Tallinn, Estonia (2 hour ferry ride).
Helsinki is a very walkable city, so the easiest and cheapest way to get around is via your own two feet! After that, the public transportation system of trams, buses, the metro, and local trains is robust, and you can get single ride and day tickets through HSL. There are also city bikes and taxis.
I mostly got around by walking and using the trams (you can even take a tram from the ferry port to the city center, and from there take the train all the way to the airport).
You can see most of the highlights in Helsinki in 2 days, but ideally 3 days in Helsinki is even better. With 3 days in Helsinki, you can see all the main sights without rushing. (Though of course you could easily spend more time here!)
Like I mentioned earlier in this post, the best months to visit Helsinki are May-September, with June-August generally having the best weather (plus those long daylight hours).
Helsinki has a fairly moderate climate. Winters are cold (but not frigid) and dark, while summers are warm (but not hot). From June-August, you can expect high temperatures in the mid-60s to low 70s (F).
Helsinki is the capital of Finland, and Finland is a member of the European Union. This means that they use the euro as currency in Helsinki. But note that Finland is largely a cashless society these days, so you won't find much need for cash (if any).
Be prepared to use tap-to-pay in most places in Helsinki. Be sure to travel with a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, and opt to be charged in euros instead of USD (or your home currency) if you're ever asked. (This will get you the best exchange rates.) Or have your Apple Pay/Google Pay set up to use contactless..
The Nordics are a notoriously expensive place to travel, but Helsinki is actually the most affordable Nordic capital city to visit in my experience (perhaps partially because it's using the Euro). In fact, while Helsinki is by no means a cheap destination, you can find hotels and things to do here for cheaper than in Paris or London.
Yes, Helsinki is generally a very safe city for all types of travelers. Probably part of the reason why Finland has been ranked as the happiest country in the world for six years straight!
Who's ready to plan a trip to Helsinki now?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!