Friday, December 19, 2014

Helsinki seasons: Winter!

Perhaps you read my earlier post Helsinki all year round and Helsinki: Autumn? Now it's time to look into one of my favourite seasons in Helsinki, and Finland: WINTER!!

Winter in Helsinki!

Finland, the land of four seasons. If you're an inhabitant of Helsinki, you'll probably have a love-hate relationship with winter. You look forward to the snow that lights up the city during the dark months. And you dread the days when it's pouring rain, sleet or snow horizontally onto your face, temperature suddenly drops -25C and for the fifteenth time dig your way out of your house/to your car/to the tram. I have to admit though: I love winter!

Some of the best of Helsinki during winter: Scenes (left:) Töölönlahti, Kruununhaka, Esplanade, (right:) Meilahti, Töölönlahti, Hakaniemi from Eläintarhanlahti and harbour towards Suomenlinna.

Winter basically starts when the daily average temperature goes below zero Celsius. You can expect the winter weathers to arrive sometime between end of October and start of January, and end sometime between the start of March and end of April. You'll most likely see the picture postcard type of snow frosted sceneries in Helsinki in January - February. But as the the climate change is affecting Finland as well the weather can be quite fickle. From December to mid March you can expect anything from +10 and rain, to -25 and 1+ meter of snow. So check for forecasts before arriving to Helsinki!

Despite the extreme weather  conditions public traffic is quite reliable in Helsinki (though the locals complain even about 1-2 minutes' delays) and the roads remain open. Just be careful driving & walking out on the roads when it's dark and slippery!

While the end of autumn and early winter (Oct - early Dec) can be quite gloomy with short daylight hours, the mid and end of winter (End of Dec - Feb) are typically much more pleasant, even truly terrific times to visit Helsinki! When the snow covers the city and the daylight hours quite rapidly start to increase after the winter solstice (22nd Dec), you can experience the magical winter wonderland, right in the capital city with all its activities and services! The weeks before Christmas certainly are a great time to experience the city with its holiday lights and Christmas markets. If you want to try out winter sports, you can do all of that in Helsinki as well! Check below for more details.

If you're interested to make a Lapland visit on your winter trip to Finland, then read more on my post Fun winter week in Lapland!


Below more about what to see and do in Helsinki during winter:
  • Eating and drinking
  • Culture and entertainment
  • Outdoors and active
  • Shopping

If you're looking for more info see the jam-packed introduction post Helsinki all year round for more about Architecture, historic sights and landmarks, Helsinki tours and Best views of Helsinki!

Eating and drinking

If you'll love sturdy meat dishes, hot soups, buttery blinis or creamy bun and generally getting yourself stuffed - well you'll love the winter foods in Helsinki! In December the restaurants and homes gear up for the holiday season. The Christmas meal in Finland traditionally features roasted ham, casseroles of various root vegetables and rosolli picked beet root salad. Many enjoy fish dishes in various forms; smoked, cold smoked, salted and preserved in various sauces - you can try also the rather exotic lutefisk. If you don't get an invitation for a traditional home cooked meal then try my favorite Christmas restaurant meals; both in terms of food, service and atmosphere I've enjoyed the most the Christmas buffets at Restaurant Sipuli and Töölönranta, and for friends of fish the Fishmarket is a must. Many of the city's Christmas markets also serve local delicacies (though can be a bit touristic), see the markets in the Shopping section below!

On the left: typical Christmas plate (though usually the plate is overflowing with food!). On the top right: Blinis with usual toppings. On the top bottom: Home made laskiaiaspulla - Shrove bun.

On the sweeter side of the Christmas menu you'll find gingerbread cookies, spicy fruit cakes and the Christmas puff pastry with plum jam. For supreme desserts and a truly festive mood head to Kappeli, Café Engel and Karl Fazer Café, for example. Wash your cookies down with hot glögi, mulled wine. Warm and cold Christmas drinks you'll find in any restaurant and bar of the city!

In January it's the season for burbot and blinis. You'll find burbot in tasty soups and burbot roe is popular as well. Blinis are definitely one of my favourite meals, served with fish roe, finely diced onion and sour cream - though you can serve them with almost anything! February is the best time for your sweet tooth: on Feb 5th try the rum & raspberry jam laced Runeberg tarts. Then on Shrove Tuesday (Feb 17th, 2015) you need to go for a toboggan ride and finish it with a tasty bowl of pea soup and laskiaispulla, buns filled jam or marzipan and whipped cream! For more tasty treats wonder the city on Restaurant Day; the next one is on Feb 15th, 2015!

Eating out during winter is not half bad - enjoy the winter mood e.g. at Kappeli (left) or some the restaurant boats (right: at Market Square)

Click back to Helsinki all year round for more, including DTW's favourite restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs!

Culture and entertainment

Even when Helsinki is frosted with snow, the city is full of life! You did know Santa Claus lives in Korvaturturi, in Finland? The couple weeks before Christmas the city is full of cheerful holiday activities. The center of many of the festivities is the Senate Square, where you'll find the Christmas Market (see more in the Shopping section!), see choirs performing and on Lucia's day (Dec 13th) you'll see Lucia maiden, wearing her crown of candles.... and perhaps even the Santa Claus will stop by!

Churches and music halls host various Christmas concerts and holiday themed events. Most spectacular churches to visit are Helsinki Cathedral at the Senate Square, the closeby gold tipped Uspenski Cathedral and in Töölö Temppeliaukion kirkko, 'church inside the rock'.

Helsinki Catherdal at the Senate Square
On the dark winter months I love to go to the movies: check Finnkino for best seats in the latest blockbusters, 3D movies and the likes, or the smaller & quirkier alternative Kino Engel. Why not go to the National Opera (also houses the National Ballet) or National Theatre? Helsinki is home to a wide array of museums - in the city center you'll find the most famous ones: National Museum, Ateneum art museum, Kiasma modern art museum, Design Museum and Natural History Museum, just to name a few.

The pubs and bars will be populated - almost literally full to the roof of pikkujoulu pre-Christmas party revelers starting from November all the way 'til Christmas. Expect waiting in line to get in to clubs or to get a taxi at 4am. On Dec 6th Finns celebrate the Independence Day: as usual, bars fill up and people at home watch a fabulous(ly boring) gala broadcast from the Presidential Palace. After the New Year celerbrations on 31st Dec, in January things quiet down a bit while many vow for a healthier lifestyle after a month of binge eating and drinking.

Some of the culture & entertainment calendar in Helsinki this winter:

6-7 Dec  Koira 2014 international dog show
14 Dec  Seurasaari Christmas path
13 Dec  Lucia Parade at the Senate Square
24-26 Dec  Christmas holidays - shops are closed on Dec 25th
25 Dec  Cantores Minores choir's traditional Christmas concert in the Cathedral
31 Dec  New Year's celebrations at the Senate Square
4-8 Jan  LUX Helsinki
15-18 Jan  Matka 2015 travel exhibition
27 Jan - 1 Feb  DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival
30 Jan - 1 Feb  MP 15 motor cycle exhibition
12 Feb  Student graduation parades at Esplanade
6-15 Feb  Vene 2015 boat exhibition
20-21 Feb  Winter Wonderland Festival

More about Helsinki nightlife and culture in Helsinki all year round.

Outdoors and active

Winter is perhaps the coolest time to visit Helsinki (pun intended :D)! If you've never tried skiing or skating for example, this is a fantastic place to do it. Not only is the city full of man-made winter sports facilities accommodating both locals and tourists, but you can also make your walk, ski and skating trips in the vast natural spaces in and around the city! 

One my favorite ways to spend a beautiful sunny winter day is cross-country skiing. When the snow conditions are good, there are about 200 kilometres of skiing trails in Helsinki. Yes, within Helsinki! I usually head to the sea-side in western Helsinki, at Munkkiniemi or Lauttasaari, by the small inlets in Arabia and Herttoniemi or to the foresty paths in Keskuspuisto (Central park) and Pirkkola. In northern Helsinki you'll find Paloheinä with more great tracks and they rents skis as well! Many skiers head for just about any nice patch of ice by the Helsinki shoreline. And there's plenty more tracks in the neighboring cities and municipalities. Terrain is not too challenging even for the novice skiers (but also some interesting tracks are around for the more ski-hungry travelers)! Ski season tends to start, well, whenever there's about 10+cm of snow.  If there happens to be no snow, head to Kivikko ski hall, the ~1km long and 6-8m wide indoor ski track opens already in mid September. Follow up on the ski conditions at mski map service!

Sunny winter days skiing in Helsinki - life couldn't be better!
And you wonder why the colors in the Finnish flag are blue and white?

Slalom or downhill skiing and snowboarding is also possible just a short ride from Helsinki - and is highly popular in Finland. There are a couple dozen hills in Southern Finlad - within one hour's drive from Helsinki you'll find e.g. Vihti and Messilä. A bit further, Himos is among the biggest resorts in Central Finland. The best hills and cross-country ski tracks though you will find in Northern Finland! Read more on my post Fun winter week in Lapland!

If you'd like to try your chances in skating then you're in luck - skating rinks are everywhere in the city. Right when you arrive to the city you might notice the Icepark next to the railway station. For a more local feel, head to Kallio district's Brahen kenttä, or to Oulunkylä. You can rent skates at some of the rinks (for example Brahen kenttä). In addition to the ice rinks, there are many natural long distance skating tracks on the sea (when it's frozen), I've tried the one in Munkkiniemi! All the skating rinks on and conditions at mskate.

Skating in Helsinki - I prefer to do it outdoors! Popular among tourists is the Icepark (top picture), but why not venture out of the skating tracks on the sea (bottom picture, in Munkkiniemi)!

If you'd rather not strap on skates or skis, just a walking tour of the snow covered Helsinki is highly recommended. Take a stroll around Töölönlahti bay (pictured in the introduction "Winter in Helsinki") - you can even cross the bay when it's frozen up (ask advice from locals if you are not familiar with the ice conditions). Korkeasaari zoo island is open all through the winter and animals walking about.

Things you may encounter on a winter walk: snow, ice and tigers! Latter at Korkeasaari only.

Check the Helsinki all year round for more sports venues & outdoor activities!


There's no time for shopping like Christmas, right? Well, it can be quite hectic but Helsinki does have a certain charm about it! Note that the shops will be closed on Dec 6th, 25th, (some on 26th) and Jan 1st. Once the shops open after Christmas on Dec 27th you'll find lots of discount shopping!

Christmas shopping in Helsinki. On top right the Christmas market at Senate Square!

For your holiday shopping visit some of the many Christmas markets! My favourite is the outdoor Tuomaan markkinat which nowadays resides on the spectacular Senate Square and another popular ones is Kaapelin joulu. Perhaps the most traditional place to buy your holiday presents is the Stockmann department store - the Finnish version of Harrod's. Visit the city center store's fifth floor with its Christmas themed hall. The children will also love their animated 'story window'.

More about shopping in Helsinki and the best souvenirs at my Helsinki all year round post!

COMING TO HELSINKI? LOOKING FOR MORE INFORMATION...? back to Helsinki all year round ! There you'll find:
  • Interesting parts of the city (with a map)
  • Comprehensive look on Helsinki by themes; architecture & history, eating, drinking & dancing, culture & entertainment, shopping, activities, best tours and best views
  • Practical information

Stay tuned for the third part of the Helsinki seasons: Spring in Helsinki - or click back to Helsinki: Autumn!


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