Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Helsinki all year round!

I've been traveling around the world since I was just a toddler. While I love to see new places, I love even more dearly my country, Finland, and always remember to tell all the great things about it to people I meet around the world. If you've been reading my blog, you have probably noticed me mentioning Helsinki quite often. But I think I've never taken the time to give a proper introduction! So here goes.... Welcome to HEL!

Helsinki in a nutshell

As I'm more than biased, here's in stead how my travel bible, Lonely Planet, introduces Helsinki:

Helsinki is cool without - as yet - being self-consciously so. Unlike other capitals, you sense that people go to places because they enjoy them, not to be seen. Much modern décor is ironic and humorous, and achieves stylishness by daring to differ rather than trying too hard. 

While not an ancient place, much of what is loveable in Helsinki is older. The style of its glorious Art Nouveau buildings, the spacious elegance of its cafés, the careful preservation of Finnish heritage in its dozens of museums, restaurants that have changed neither menu nor furnishings since the 1930s are all part of the city's quirky charm.

It has a very different feel to the rest of Finland, partly because before the days of the hi-tech society it was the country's sole point of contact almost with the rest of the world. Like all of Finland, though, Helsinki has a dual nature. In winter you sometimes wonder where all the people are. In spring and summer they are back again, packing green spaces and outdoor tables to get a piece of blessed sun, whirring around on thousands of bicycles and kicking the city's nightlife into overdrive.

Helsinki Market Square and Cathedral - the icons of the city.

Facts: Helsinki (est. 1550) is the capital of Finland, stretching along the country's southern shore and bordering with the Baltic Sea. It is Finland's political, cultural and business center; it's where most people live, study and work, and you'll find the highest concentration of services and activities in Helsinki.

In international surveys Helsinki is continually ranked among the top ten cities to live in the world. Life is safe, clean and highly enjoyable - despite the fact that us Helsinki citizens love to complain about it. About 600.000 people live in Helsinki, altogether about 1.4 million in the metropolitan area that includes cities Espoo and Vantaa. This is the largest urban area in Finland. Though when you look at it from above, it doesn't look all that urban but in fact surrounded and scattered with green areas and water. The city center is compact and manageable by foot with public transportation available everywhere, connecting the city and its surroundings from all corners.

Helsinki city center and islands, from above.

You will find in this post:

Helsinki mapped and interesting parts of the city
  • Center
  • South
  • East
  • North
  • West
Helsinki by themes
  • Architecture, historic sights and landmarks
  • Eating in Helsinki
  • Drinking in Helsinki
  • Dancing in Helsinki
  • Culture and entertainment
  • Shopping
  • Helsinki al fresco and active
  • Helsinki tours
  • Best views of Helsinki
Practical information
  • Getting around
  • Public holidays
  • Climate




Helsinki mapped and interesting parts of the city

In general, the more south you are, the more expensive everything is in Helsinki - the best parts of the city are the southernmost, as well as the most sought after addresses to live in. But, perhaps, not all the most interesting parts lie in the south tip of the city. Below is a run-down of the most important and most interesting city parts. Areas with red highlights you'll find marked on the map.

City center ('keskusta') is where you'll find the most shops, restaurants, bars, services, hotels etc. Generally speaking the center is the area directly south from the railway station. The surrounding areas of Kamppi, Kaisaniemi and Kluuvi I also consider part of the center. The southern edge of the city center is at the Esplanade: a combined park and pedestrian hub. It takes you to the Market Square and a must-visit spot in Helsinki.

Market Square and Esplande park (also known as 'Espa').

SOUTH of city center you'll find the areas of Kaartinkaupunki and Punavuori. Punavuori is also known as the "design district", and there certainly are lots of fancy shops, cool restaurants, and yet more parks. Next to Punavuori are Ullanlinna and Eira, probably the most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods in Helsinki. You'll find many embassies residing in that area. Kaivopuisto is a just bit further south from there: there you'll find a big park, right next to the popular sea side road with a recreational harbor full of sail boats, yachts, and cafés. Suomenlinna, island and a maritime fortress lies in front of Helsinki, south of Kaivopuisto.

Summer on the islands south of Helsinki city center - on the background also Suomenlinna (see the yellow tower).

Directly EAST of city center you'll find the predominantly neo-classic and Art Nouveau Kruununhaka, that houses many important buildings, such as the Helsinki Cathedral at the Senate Square. East from here is Katajanokka, a beautiful neighborhood and home of one of the ports where many large passenger ships leave to other destinations on the Baltic Sea. Note that if you go to Katajanokka and wish to continue eastwards, you might have to swim... So to get further east, continue left along Pohjoisranta seaside road, before crossing the small patch of water to the red brick, gold tipped Uspenski Cathedral.

Uspenski Catheral, looking from Pohjoisranta.

Further to east, you'll find some interesting suburbs, especially on the shoreline. For a splash of luxury, make a tour around Kulosaari, especially the part south of Itäväylä (road 170) - you can even go all the way to Korkeasaari; zoo and island (which you can access by boat from the Market Square just as well during the summer). Some noteworthy outdoor areas lie when you continue east, such as Vartiosaari island and many many more islands. For countryside landscapes take a tour of Uutela. In eastern Helsinki you'll also find an abundance of beaches where the people flock as soon as the summer arrives; check out for example Aurinkolahti, Kallahdenniemi or closer to the city, Mustikkamaa.

Great recreational spots within our capital city - this is one my favourites.
Enjoy the view from Herttoniemi cliffs towards Viikki.

Just NORTH of city center lies Töölö, which is perhaps most notable in tourism sense by Töölönlahti bay (looks like a lake but is a bay connected to the sea) and the Olympic Stadium. Just a bit uphill from there you'll find also the Linnanmäki amusement park. East of Töölönlahti is Hakaniemi, come here to see where the locals shop for food at the Hakaniemi Market. Up from there is Kallio - you can see the Kallio Church dominating the view on top of the hill when you make your way from the center to Hakaniemi. Kallio district is where everything cool happens in Helsinki - the hip, urban, underground and down-to-earth artsy things, that is. And this considered to be one of the (if not the one) most interesting, yet somewhat affordable, areas to live in central Helsinki.

Töölönlahti during the winter.

Bordering Kallio, a place worth a visit is Puu-Vallila, full of old wooden houses - very different from everything else you see in the city center. For an industrial setting visit Teurastamo or Suvilahti and Hanasalmi! For outdoorsy people there's lot more to see north of the center (well, most of the entire Finland is that way!). For a run, bike ride or ski trip (depending on the season at hand, obviously) or even a horse ride head to Keskuspuisto park, or visit the Arboretum in Viikki and its beautiful neighbour, Vanhankaupunginkoski.

Puu-Vallila in autumn colors.

WEST of city center you'll find a quaint residential area as well as many outdoor activities in the shores of Lauttasaari. After Lauttasaari starts the city of Espoo, and one the first things you'll encounter traveling west are the Aalto University grounds. Lots of great recreational areas in the neighboring cities Espoo and Vantaa - in all areas around Helsinki, and all over Finland for that matter! The hikers may want to head out to, for example Nuuksio!

View from Lauttasaari - during summer you can sail here and during winter you can walk, skate or ski on the ice!

Helsinki by themes

Below an introduction for the typical - and the most interesting - things you can do in Helsinki.

Following this post, DTW will start a four-part series, "Helsinki seasons".

There you'll find more details on each of the topics below relevant to that particular season, as well as some more topics that are seasonally relevant! But now, let's take a deep breath and prepare for a good hard look on Helsinki!

Architecture, historic sights and landmarks

Helsinki is a great place for architecture spotting. Modernism, functionalism and Art Nouveau (or Jugend), Nordic minimalism as well as neoclassical, neo-renaissance, Byzantine-Russian architecture - all in one. Traditional wooden houses mixed with brownstones and contemporary glossy architecture. 

You can make interesting sightings all over the city. The railway station has been noted as one of the most interesting railway stations in the world. It also marks the ultimate "center of Helsinki". The city center, Kruunuhaka and Katajanokka give you a good idea of the Helsinki of early 1900s and the wooden houses in Puu-Vallila offer a completely other kind of perspective. For modern buildings take walk "behind" the railway station and see, for instance, Sanomatalo, Kiasma Museum of Modern Art, Musiikkitalo - and many more new high profile buildings to rise in that area in the coming years.

For the churches, the most important one is Helsinki Cathedral at the Senate Square. Near that lies also the red brick, gold tipped Uspenski Cathedral. In Töölö you can visit Temppeliaukion kirkko, Rock Church, not 'rock' as in 'rock and roll' but a church built inside a rock! In terms of landmarks, the most famous one is perhaps the Sibelius monument in the Sibelius park.

Seurasaari, Puu-Vallila and Suomenlinna are the best places to see historic Helsinki with beautiful wooden houses. Kulosaari and the Ullanlinna / Eira / Kaivopuisto triangle have perhaps the most opulent residential areas. More photogenic Helsinki spots later in this post under "Best views of Helsinki".

Eating in Helsinki

Helsinki is a delicious place to visit! The food is expensive, as are most things in Finland comparing to the rest of the world, but the local ingredients are quite special. Have you tried reindeer? Finnish forest berries like cloudberry? Freshwater fish and crayfish? Yum!

One of the extraordinary events a foodie should not miss is the Restaurant Day. Helsinki is also the founding place of this event and during the summer it's quite, well let me just say, extreme. Restaurant day is "a food carnival when anyone can open a restaurant for a day". It happens about four times a year and Helsinki goes nuts about it! If it's good or even decent weather there are tens of thousands of people roaming around the city, visiting the roughly 400 one-day-only restaurants (and the number is growing all the time!) that pop up in street corners, parks, beaches and at people's homes. Try all the cuisines of the world in one day? That's the time to do it! The next Restaurant day is on August 17th, save the date!

As for the Helsinki restaurant scene... There are simply too many good places to list all of them, generally I recommend you just walk around the city and have a look. But there are some that I just need to mention...

My favourite places to eat, you ask? I do hang out a lot in the city center and in Töölö, Hakaniemi, Kallio, Sörnäinen and Valilla districts, so my restaurant map leans heavily towards those areas. And they also have the majority of the best and most interesting restaurants in the city. Most places offer a very affordable lunch menu on weekdays (usually includes a salad buffet, breads, coffee and tea, some event dessert) and I do take advantage of this often. Some restaurant are in fact only open for lunch, such as Trocadero (Frech-Mediterranean) and Soppakeittiö (soups in the quaint and hectic market hall). If you want to keep it light, a salad in Teatteri or Four Seasons Salads are great options. Cantina West is the best bang for buck option for lunch with a buffet that will leave no one hungry.

I love sitting in cafés. I think I could do that for a living. Some of my favourite cafés are Kappeli (stunning interior) Ekberg (classic), Succès (another classic), Esplanad (huge cinnamon buns) and Villi Puutarha (uniquely quirky). On the seaside try Piritta, Mattolaituri, Carousel or Regatta.

Outside the city center you'll find more quirky and cheaper places. Brunch is my favorite thing. In Kallio and its surrounding neighborhoods I can recommend Pacifico, Oiva, Talo, Moko and Sandro to name a few. In Töölö try e.g. Korjaamo, Sogno or Tin Tin Tango. In the city center breakfast at Fazer and Cafe Engel are classics, Lasipalatsi is also good and right in the middle of all the action. Almost every restaurant has a weekend brunch! For dinner I love to treat myself with a burger in Roslund (in fact many nice restaurants in Teurastamo area), or, IMO, the tastiest Japanese in town Hoshito and the tastiest Mexican, Patrona.

Fine dining in Helsinki is characterized both by international kitchens as well as, luckily, by local flavors. We have a few Michelin starred restaurants too. 2014 they are Ask, Chef & Sommelier, Demo, Postres, Luomo and Olo. For fresh fish people you could to go to Fishmarket.  Some of the fine dining restaurants (there are many more) offer a lunch menu where you get to try their delicious meals for less money, worth to check!

For great Finnish food try G.W. Sundmans, (with great views) PalaceSipuli, Kosmos, Sea Horse or Manala. Or perhaps visit a restaurant in some of the islands? Try BoathouseSaari, Saaristo or Skiffer - the boat trips typically cost a couple euros extra and these are on the "deluxe" side of the budget but can be a nice experience.

If you want to cook for yourself or get a delicious snack for an island pic nic, the freshest ingredients and the finest selection of food items you'll find at Stockmann department store (basement floor) and the market halls and the market squares next to them; Old Market Hall next to the Market Square, Hakaniemen Kauppahalli in Hakaniemi, next to Hakaniemen tori and Hietalahden Kauppahalli.

All the restaurants in Helsinki (with their opening hours, site links and reviews) you'll find through an interactive map at Eat.fi. More about the nightlife below.

Drinking & nightlife in Helsinki

If you like bars you will enjoy the nightlife in Helsinki. In this land of heavy metal music you'll find plenty of seedy rock bars and clubs in particular. Though the city center is full of bars you should really head to Kallio district for the ultimate bar crawl. Why not start from the legendary Roskapankki. Trends (and the trendiest places) come and go but places like this, and many other just like it in Kallio, places never change!

Of the trendier end I like some of the small cool bars such as Siltanen and Bar Llamas. For a rowdier night out try Aussie Bar or Rymy-Eetu, for instance. For a large selection beers head to Bruuveri, Bryggeri or Teerenpeli (with their own locally brewed beers and whiskeys). The best known gay bar in the city (also hetero friendly) is DTM.

You'll also find lots of nice places with live music. Perhaps the biggest and best known venue for rock music events is Tavastia where you'll find many famous live bands (and less famous too). Other cool hangouts with live bands are Kuudes linja and Äänivalli - for bigger club events go to Circus.

Nightlife in Helsinki - something for everyone?

Perhaps the most classiest evening hangouts are, from year after year, Teatteri and Kaivohuone. In the main stream, the biggest option is perhaps Apollo, that host many events with live music and shows. People typically have pre-parties at home (as the alcohol is expensive and the trend is to get as drunk as you can) and go to club around 11 pm - midnight. The clubs close between 2 and 4 am.

Dancing in Helsinki

After all, this is a dance blog so I must bring up dancing! In Helsinki you'll find classes and venues for all kinds of dance styles, quite literally. The most Finnish thing you can do, however, is try lavatanssit and the only place to do that in Helsinki is Pavi! For a more complete list on latin social dancing in Helsinki see my post Social dancing in Helsinki - where to dance salsa, bachata, zouk and kizomba?. For the latest Brazilian zouk events in Helsinki, see my this list. One of the popular dances in Finland is tango and many international visitors come to Helsinki for Frostbite Tango Festival.

Culture and entertainment

Museums, expos, shows, theater, ballet, concerts, bars, clubs... Helsinki is here to entertain you! There's really far too many options to list here :) A good listing of events you find via Visit Helsinki (Helsinki Tourist Info) and City of Helsinki Cultural Office. The annual calendars are packed with events so make your pick! I will present some of them in the seasonal posts that are coming up!

Main annual cultural events take place during the summer in Helsinki. These include, e.g. Tuska, Flow Festival, Helsinki Festival (Helsingin Juhlaviikot) and Night of the Arts, Helsinki Design Week and Helsinki International Film Festival (Love & Anarchy).

For the kids (and like-minded) there are plenty events and activities too. You can easily spend the day in one the many many parks, playgrounds, forests, beaches, etc in Helsinki - they are open and full of things to do all year round. In good weather it's also nice to visit the Linnanmäki amusement park and Korkeasaari zoo - in bad weather I can recommend for example Heureka science center in (Vantaa) or the Natural History Museum.

The epitome of Finnish culture is the sauna. You should visit one too! There are public saunas in Helsinki in the all the swimming halls but try some of these; KotiharjuSauna Arla, Sauna HermanniKulttuurisauna or Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall. If it's summer, head out to some of the lakeside or seaside saunas, such as Saunasaari or Kuusijärvi (Vantaa).

Sauna Hermanni in Vallila (top) and Kulttuurisauna in Hakaniemi (bottom; the small white house central in the image).


Finland is known around the world for design - quality over quantity is what you can find. Typical Finnish souvenirs are pottery, glass, kitchenware, hand crafted items, designer clothes, accessories and furniture. The most well know Finnish brands include Aarikka, Arabia, Artek, Fiskars, Iittala, Kalevala, Marimekko, Muumi, Minna Parikka.... to name a few. These and many other design products and crafts you'll find in the city center - most have their shops in the block around Esplanade. In the "Helsinki tours" section below are also links to design district walk in the city! For some more quirky finds you can also try some of the tens (if not hundreds) flea markets ('kirpputori') all around the city.

Some shops are open every day, some close for Sunday. Most shops open at 8-10 am and close at 6-9 pm on weekdays, and close at 4-6 pm on Saturdays. Sundays, if the particular shop is open, the typical hours are from noon to 4-6 pm. Some small grocery stores are open daily 7 am - 11 pm, some are open every day of the year (even on public holidays), 24 hours a day.

Shopping at North Esplanade; Iittala and Aarikka

Helsinki al fresco & active

Helsinki is much more than the urban city. There's plenty of parks everywhere and people tend to make use the daylight hours by going outdoors - in the summer there's more of those hours than during the winter.

Finns love their outdoor sports. The summer is the time to run, swim, paddle, cycle, golf, inline skate, kite board, surfboard, sail.... In the winter we dig out our skates and skis and go populate the numerous tracks in & out of the city. And we head indoors to the gyms, halls, arenas... During spring it's again time get ready for summer and the ski tracks turn gradually back to running tracks, and the skating tracks to sailing routes.  Check out here all the outdoor and indoor sports facilities run by the city.

For spectator sports, Helsinki has numerous popular sports clubs in ice-hockey, football (soccer and American), basketball, floorball, track and field.... If there is a sport, it's quite likely there is a club for it in Helsinki. The biggest outdoor sports arena is the Olympic Stadium and indoor the Hartwall Arena. Helsinki also hosts a marathon in August every year with thousands of participants!

If you want to see another perspective of Helsinki - and enjoy plenty of fresh air - take a trip to one of Helsinki's over 300 islands. Pretty much all around the year you can make your island trip, though summer is the best time for that. Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress makes for the easiest visit and is certainly open for visits all year round as it has several hundred permanent residents. It's popular also because of its interesting history. You can take a boat from the dock at Market Square (if you have a Helsinki public transport card you're trip can be paid with that). Without a boat you can also visit the historic Seurasaari and the zoo island Korkeasaari! Below also a list of Helsinki tours with walking tours, boat tours and bus tours.

Suomenlinna (top left), Korkeasaari (bottom left) and Seurasaari (right)

Helsinki tours

If you want to take an organised tour of the city there are plenty of options. Bus tours (e.g. the typical red hop on - hop off buses) from all over the city. Check the tourist info for the latest schedules and prices.

A walking tour is easy enough to organize on your own. Stroll around the city, enjoy the nature at Töölönlahti (short walk north from the main railway station), get a dose of fresh sea air & fancy buildings around Kaivopuisto (south of Esplanade park). Industrially cool Helsinki you can find westwards at Salmisaari or north-eastwards at Suvilahti. See this detailed guide by Helsinki tourist information for 5 different DIY routes! For shopping, see also the Punavuori design district routes.

Boat trips around the Helsinki sea side and to the islands depart from the Market Square and various other smaller ports. Many islands have regular boat service - check here for more island info and boat schedules. There are also some ready-made boat tours available for you to enjoy the narrated sightseeing of Helsinki at the sea. A typical tour is around 20€, takes 1,5 hours and you can choose to include accompany the tour with lunch or dinner. Most tours depart from the Market Square - try, for example, IHA-LinesRoyal Line or Strömma boats. Summer is the best time to do this.

Best views of Helsinki 

I know from experience that pretty much anywhere in Helsinki you'll find plenty of photogenic spots. The typical Helsinki postcard would have the white Helsinki Cathedral, or Uspenski Cathedral, Church of the Rock or Sibelius monument. The most iconic image of Helsinki is the view of the market square, Presidential palace and Helsinki Cathedral from the sea (see the first image of this post). To see this take a boat ride off the market square e.g. to Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress or Korkeasaari zoo.

View from Kulosaari

The Helsinki sea side is very picturesque in its entirety, the water and nature is clean and the different seasons bring their own charm to the environment. Take a stroll on the shoreline and find your favourite spot or take a boat out of the city or peer from the cliffs at Kaivopuisto. Also the various bays and inlets such as Töölönlahti, Eläintarhanlahti, Seurasaarenselkä and Vanhankaupunginselkä has superb views all round.

For the a superior panorama of Helsinki, visit some of these high points: Ateljee bar at Torni, Linnamäki ferris wheel or roller coaster, Loiste restaurant or tower at the Olympic stadium. To get the ultimate view you can also go on a hot air balloon ride!

View from the Linnanmäki ferris wheel Rinkeli

Practical information

While I hope you found this post interesting and helpful, I can warmly recommend to find out more information on current events and anything interesting happening right now in Helsinki via the Helsinki Tourist Information: on the web | on Facebook. They obviously can also help you find accommodation, tours, tickets etc and are a very active, helpful organisation - and I'm a big fan of them. Their Facebook page is even useful for a local like myself! The official city website hel.fi is quite useful also to find the city's convenient and cheap (and free!) public services.

Getting around

Helsinki continues seamlessly onwards to west, north and east, merging to cities Espoo and Vantaa (and further on as Kauniainen, Kerava, Sipoo...). Public transport conveniently cross city lines and is timely, easy, clean, safe and frequent.

In the city & the metropolitan area use Reittiopas/Journey Planner to find public transport routes and schedules. They also offer routes for pedestrians and cyclist. Very handy, very accurate! You'll also find there the best connections to and from the airport (type in Helsinki-Vantaa or airport) and from the harbors (make sure to check the port name, e.g. Olympiaterminaali, Makasiiniterminaali, Katajanokan terminaali, Länsiterminaali, Hansaterminaali; check them here).

Get a day or a multiday pass! Note that the ticket prices are different within each city and crossing cities. Most tourists probably only need a ticket within Helsinki, for which you pay currently 3€, from the driver for one journey (you can change buses/trams/metro/trains within one hour) or 2,5€, from the ticket machine. One day ticket is 8€ - you can get a day pass for up to seven days (the more the days, the cheaper the daily price).

The transport system is at your service throughout the seasons - here are trams in Aleksi during winter and summer

Taxis are run by one single company (just pick any one with the yellow TAKSI sign on roof) and are on the expensive side - but again; extremely safe, clean and comfortable.

When traveling out of the city and out of the metropolitan area you can go by train or bus. If you're heading to Lapland, it's easiest to fly or take a sleeper train.

Public holidays 

Fixed dates

1 Jan   New Year's Day
6 Jan   Epiphany
1 May   Vappu
6 Dec   Independence Day
24 Dec   Christmas Eve
25 Dec   Christmas Day
26 Dec   St. Stephen's Day

Movable holidays

March-April:    Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday.
April-June:    Ascension Day (Thu), 39 days after Easter Sunday and Pentecost (Sun), 49 days after Easter Sunday.
June:    Midsummer Eve (Fri), and Midsummer day (Sat), between 19-5 Jun.
November:    All Saints' Day (Sat), between 31 Oct - 6 Nov.


Finland, and Helsinki is truly the home of four seasons. Lying on 60th northern parallel it is one of the northernmost capital cities in the world - but it is not as cold here as you'd think. Finland is situated in the so called boreal zone. This means we have warm summers and freezing winters. We also happen to be just close enough to Gulf Stream to enjoy its moderating effects, making our climate more temperate than compared to, let's say Siberia.

During the summers (Jun-Aug) we typically enjoy temperatures around +25 in Helsinki and the country is covered with green nature. During the winter (Dec-Feb) there is snow even in the southern tip of Finland for one to even five months in the extreme case. What is just as extreme is the changes in the amount of daylight, from around 6 (winter) to around 20 (summer) hours a day. Going further north, Finland stretches also long past the Arctic Circle, where you can experience a never-ending day for a haul of 73 days during summer and a never-ending night for 51 days during winter.

Extreme highs & lows in Helsinki and in Finland (source)

In Helsinki on 18 Jul 1945 +31,2 C  --  In Joensuu on 29 Jul 2010 +37,2 C
In Helsinki on 10 Jan 1987 -34,3 C  --  In Kittilä on 28 Jan 1999 -51,5 C

Coming up

More about all the exciting things we do in Helsinki around the year coming up in the blog during the next 12 months: Stay tuned for the four-part series: "Helsinki seasons"!

There you'll find more details on each of the topics above relevant to that particular season, as well as some more topics that are seasonally relevant!


No comments:

Post a Comment