For a nation which is yet to celebrate its centenary of independence (this falls in December 2017), Finland is amazingly well-developed, self-assured and progressive. This tiny Northern European nation, with a population of just under five and a half million, continues to lead the continent in education, innovation, science and art. And accounting for more than 20% of the nation’s population, much of this is based in and around Helsinki, the beautiful, cultural capital.
World-leading education and a thriving art scene have invigorated this charming capital. Some of Europe’s most innovative and creative minds have congregated in Helsinki to build a truly unique and utterly enchanting capital. The wonderful art-nouveau buildings merge with the surrounding waters, and house delightful boutiques, cafes and restaurants, captivating locals and visitors alike.
The Helsinki locals almost seem bemused that all this has been built for and around them, and are suitably keen to share it with all those who venture to the little Finnish capital. Herein is one of the city’s most charming features, the welcoming reception provided by the Helsinki natives, who are wonderfully proud of the city’s achievements and advancements, and want it to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
And despite this, tourism to Helsinki is still wonderfully understated. Even the most famous landmarks in the city can be approached in absolute peace and tranquillity, giving visitors the chance to enjoy these sites to their fullest.
So, we have produced this city guide for the Finnish capital, helping you decide what to see, do and eat during a visit to Helsinki.
Getting Around Helsinki
You won’t be surprised to learn that the innovative Helsinki natives have managed to create and support one of the most efficient and useful public transport systems in the whole of Europe. Routinely voted in the top 10 public transport systems in the world, Helsinki’s tram and metro lines make exploring the city far and wide super easy.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind clocking up a few miles during a port stop, Helsinki can also be effectively explored on foot. As a relatively compact city, it’s possible to take in all the highlights on foot without working up blisters. Furthermore, as the design capital of the world, the Helsinki streets are absolutely awash with clever flourishes you’d miss if you just went whizzing by.
What to See and What to Do
Like something from Game of Thrones, the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built across six different islands just off the Helsinki mainland. Practically a town in its own right, roughly 900 people currently live on the fortress and another 350 work on the island. Popular with mainlanders and tourists alike, Suomenlinna is a well-loved picnic site, and is absolutely ripe for exploration. Ferries from mainland Helsinki make the course to Suomenlinna all year round, where guests can enjoy the island’s sights, museum and art school.
Built directly into solid rock, Temppeliaukio Church is one of the world’s most unique and unforgettable places of worship. Creating a rather incredible ambience, the wooden church, built into hollowed-out rock, is lit by the thin slats in the domed roof. Located in the centre of Helsinki, the Temppeliaukio Church (sometimes called Rock Church, especially by those who struggle with the Finnish pronunciation) is an absolute must-visit.
At the very heart of the oldest part of Helsinki, Senate Square and its surroundings are the city’s link to the past. Stretched out in front of the University of Helsinki, the Government Palace, and Helsinki Cathedral; Senate Square is seen as the centre of politics, religion, science and commerce of the city, and Finland as a whole. In the middle of all this is an impressive statue of Emperor Alexander II, the man who inspired Finland’s autonomy from Russia – truly a forefather of the nation.
Another unique place of worship in Finland, the Kamppi Chapel is actually positioned in one of the most bustling parts of the city. Intended to offer shoppers in the Kamppi shopping centre a chance to enjoy a little peace and quiet (a state of being absolutely revered by the Helsinki locals), the church is striking for its off-centre, rounded design. Celebrated the world over, Kamppi Chapel scooped the International Architecture Award 2010, and was a key part of the campaign which saw Helsinki named the World Design Capital.
Shopping in the Design District is the perfect opportunity to take a little bit of Helsinki home with you. If, like so many before, you have been utterly charmed by the city and the Finnish way of life, the Design District is the ideal place to pick up a little keepsake of your time in the city. The Design District consists of 25 different streets and countless outlets selling jewellery, antiques, art and cutting edge fashion. With a host of jewellery makers, museums and galleries pitched between the shops, the Design District is similarly suitable for those looking to indulge in a little window shopping instead.
Finnish Modesty Hiding a Thriving Culinary Scene
Every established epicure and aspiring foodie seems hellbent on taking a culinary tour of Copenhagen and Stockholm. With Michelin stars being handed out almost street-by-street in these two cities, they cast a long shadow over neighbouring capitals, including Helsinki. But whilst the Finnish capital may not be the focus of endless Buzzfeed food articles or the object of food-driven wanderlust, there’s something decidedly delicious bubbling under the surface.
A new generation of chefs have empowered the Helsinki food scene, so ravaged in the past by rationing and prohibition, and the 1,000+ restaurants of the capital are starting to capture the attention of foodies, journalists and tourists. Just don’t ask the chefs to advertise themselves, the famous Finnish modesty seldom allows for shameless self-promotion.
Helsinki’s current upward trend is stimulated by a city-wide movement to help every citizen explore their culinary skills and enjoy new tastes and flavours. At the very heart of this movement is Old Market Hall, a former slaughterhouse which now hosts a large cooking school, an ice cream factory and a fantastic barbeque restaurant. If you’ve got even a passing interest in the foodie scene, this massive eatery is an absolute must visit.
If you’re looking for Michelin star quality during a stay in Helsinki, head to Chef & Sommelier, a charming restaurant serving up minimalism and fine dining. The chef in question will forage for ingredients to turn into simple sounding but wildly ambitious dishes. Popular dessert, blueberry and pine may sound like a simple dish, but what arrives is completely different – an extravagant journey through the flavours of the two listed ingredients.
Or for something decidedly low-key, head to Bar Latva. Set in a stylish basement of an old apartment block, this hip little bar pairs a top menu full of quality micro-brews and wines with a great Finnish tapas selection. If you’ve got a night in Helsinki planned and fancy mixing with the locals, this is the place to go.
As touched on above, the Finnish are a charmingly modest nation. You’ll find that many Finns are quite quiet and introverted, and this should not be mistaken for rude or aloof behaviour. Don’t be hesitant to ask the locals any questions, their answers will almost always be friendly, personable and well considered, just don’t expect the Helsinki natives to come up to you to strike up a conversation.
We’d recommend simply enjoying the city’s peaceful atmosphere. Embracing the slow, quiet life of Helsinki allows you to really immerse yourself in the culture and the surroundings. This reserved nature has helped nurture the nation’s noted eye for detail, and we believe that adopting this model allows you to fully appreciate every inch of beautiful Helsinki.
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