My Helsinki Tips For Travellers. The Must-Do and Must-See Sights and Attractions
Come with me on a visit to the Finnish capital city of Helsinki.
Before I visited I had no major preconceptions, except people I knew that had sailed in and out of Helsinki raved about how stunning that was. Helsinki is all about the sea and built on a series of peninsulas and islands with water all around. It is an important focal point for the city’s social activity, particularly in summer.
Helsinki is a relatively small city by global standards, with a population of just over 1.3 million with excellent facilities – making it very manageable for visitors. As it is only about 50 miles from Tallinn, 190 miles from St. Petersburg and 250 miles from Stockholm, it is a popular stop for Baltic cruises around the region.
It was much more beautiful than I had imagined it would be, and it proved to be a surprisingly interesting place. I’m not sure it’s a place that I would want to spend a lot of time in as there was not a lot of diversions and it struck me more as a city to visit to relax and chill in.
It’s a well-educated and affluent place. Although Finnish and Swedish are the official languages, you’ll find as an English speaker, it’s easy to find your way around Helsinki. It’s also a diverse city with around 130 different nationalities. There are large Russian and Estonian contingents as well as Swedish, Serbians, Somalian, Serbians and Chinese.
Best Time To Visit
Visiting in summer is key. It has long days, nice weather and the city changes for the better. Residents get energized and spend as much time as they can outside. This is because in winter it’s dark with few hours of daylight and the lakes and rivers freeze over. In summer, they experience 19 hours of daylight and glorious warm days.
People are out and about picnicking, cycling and embracing everything outdoor that they possibly can.
In summer, the beaches are popular even though the water is cold. You are quite likely to find many swimmers nude. Tourists are a bit more prudish, but the Finnish certainly have no qualms about taking off their clothes at the beach or in the sauna. Saunas are also popular to the Finnish way of life.
Getting There And Getting Around
I’ve already mentioned going there by cruise is popular. If you travel on a smaller cruise ship like I did with Silversea, you dock right in the centre of town. You get off the ship and step right into a market, with a major bus and tram hub close by. If you come in on a larger ship, you will dock further away from the centre and need to get one of the shuttle buses, hire a bicycle or use the hop-on-hop-off bus.
There’s a large airport about 20 km north of Helsinki with lots of international connections.
In terms of getting around Helsinki, it’s easy. It’s a compact city, so walking is very doable and there is excellent public transport. If you buy the Helsinki card, it gives you unlimited travel on public transport, entry to museums and various other discounts.
The other option is the hop-on-hop-off bus. There are two main providers with one having green busses and the other red. They only run in the season, which is from May to September. The most popular place to get them, and where they start from, is Senate Square, which is a couple of blocks back from the harbour front. If there are large cruise ships in they add a stop to where they dock.
On the downside, they are not very frequent and many people complain online that they have had to wait 30 or 40 minutes for the bus at a stop as they only run about every half hour.
You can also use organized bus tours like the Helsinki Panorama Sight-Seeing, who offer ninety-minute tours. This is an escorted tour but do offer audio guides if you speak different languages.
Tips on Must-see and Must Do sights and attractions
This is on the waterfront where the smaller cruise ships dock. It is an institution, and very popular. It operates all year round. In summer, it is food, handcrafts and souvenir focused. There are all kinds of local dishes and beautiful, mouth-watering berries (which Finland is renowned for).
The Market Square is a real hub. It’s where people congregate, hang out and people-watch. Everyone knows where it is and, as many buses and trams stop right near there, it is a destination point for locals and tourists.
A couple of blocks back from Market Square is the stunning Senate Square. It’s the heart of historic Helsinki.
Around the square are four buildings, all designed by Carl Ludwig Engel: a neo-classical style Cathedral, Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library. All striking and most you can visit.
Around the square are many souvenir shops. While they have some attractive items, they are quite expensive. But you will find rugs, sweaters, ceramics, porcelain and lots of interesting wooden Christmas decorations.
Central Railway Station
Another place to see, some blocks back from here, is the Central Railway Station. I normally wouldn’t recommend going to look at a railway station, but this one is worth seeing. It was designed by a Finnish architect (Elial Saarinen) and is a noted landmark. It’s dominated by a tall clock tower and surrounded by beautiful sculptures.
Another good reason for going is the tourist information office is inside here.
Church In The Rock
Another very popular destination, and something really worth going to see, is the Church In The Rock. It literally is what is sounds like, it’s a church quarried inside a rock. The place was blasted into the hard rock and a copper roof installed. You can always tell when you’re getting nearby because there are hordes of tourists pouring around the place. It’s one of the most popular stops on the hop-on-hop-off bus tour.
Not far from the church is a collection of concert halls and cultural center. Near the lake is the Finlandia Hall, a famous concert hall that you can tour. There is also the more recent Finnish National Opera, which was finished in 1993. It’s a striking building, and you can also take various tours through.
The Olympic Stadium is one of the more famous landmarks of Helsinki, and is very beautiful. It was originally built for the games that never took place because the Second World War broke out. The games were finally held here in 1952. Probably the most important part of the stadium is the Stadium Tower. It’s 72 meters high, and has incredible views of Helsinki if you climb to the top – making it a popular destination. It’s high, so you’ve got to be fit and energetic to do it, but the views are worth the exercise. The Olympic Stadium itself is also worth visiting and hearing the history about how it was built.
Not that far away in the Sibelius Park is the Sibelius Monument, another popular attraction. The monument was unveiled in 1967, as a monument to the famous composer of the same name. It’s a contemporary looking piece with pipes. It’s surprisingly modern considering it was actually built in 1967. The park is gorgeous and peaceful to walk through.
The Kaivopuisto Park is on the southern tip of Helsinki. It’s very old with vast lawns and impressive cliffs. In summer, they host concerts and popular restaurants. Within it, the university Ursa Observatory and visitor. It’s a very popular park in the summer, and you’ll find lots of people hanging enjoying themselves.
If you are interested in water, while down at the park consider exploring all that it has to offer around Helsinki.
The waterfront is always busy with runners, cyclists and walkers. Across the water you will see the island of Suomenlinna. It’s one of the most popular places for the locals to visit.
It was originally a maritime fortress to help defend Finland against Sweden when it was an aggressive maritime nation. It was also strategically important during the Soviet days and the Cold War. Today it is a unesco World Heritage Site.
It’s beautiful and provides insights into the history of Finland and Helsinki. Only 850 people live there, but it’s full of museums, cafés and restaurants. Kids love to play around the fortresses.
You get there the municipal ferry from the Market Square, which takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Once there, you can go on the guided tours during the season from June to August. They are run in English, Finnish, Swedish and Russian. The museum covers the period from the 1700s to today.
The island also has a toy museum, submarine museum and military museum.
Helsinki seems to have an incredible amount of museums. These include the city museum, architecture museum, National Museum, design museum, theater museum, photography museum, national history museum, sports museum and cultures museum.
If you don’t want to spent time in Helsinki, you can go on a day trip to Tallinn. There are a couple of options including Tallinn Link and Eckero Line. These run up to seven times a day and transport you the 50 miles across the bay. Locals head there for shopping and to explore the old town.
You can also get to St. Petersburg. You can’t do that in a day. The St. Peter line offers two-night one-day packages.
Helsinki is a slick, clean and efficient city. Although fairly compact there is enough to keep you occupied and entertained either by visiting and touring the grand buildings, multiple museums and Olympic Village or by simply enjoying the parks and island in the warm and long summer days.
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