Before I went I wasn’t too sure about the things to do in Helsinki that I wanted to check out during my visit.
Helsinki is yet another gem of Northern Europe that you definitely need to explore if you ever get the chance.
The city was founded sometime during the 16th century making it fairly new compared to other European capitals. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the development took place resulting in what you see today.
It was during this time that the Russians, who had full control of the city, laid everything out in a specific pattern. Walking around Helsinki ti looks much like it would in St. Petersburg.
What to Do in Helsinki During Your Visit
Built during the middle of the 19th-century, the Helsinki Cathedral dominates the city skyline and is one of the main tourist attractions in the city center.
If you’re arriving to the city by ferry then you’re bound to see it standing tall above the surrounding rooftops and if you’re lucky enough to arrive at night then it’s like a shining beacon welcoming people to Finland.
The Cathedral was originally known as the St. Nicholas Church and was built when the Russians had control over Finland.
They built it as a way to exert their religious influence over the people living in the city and it eventually become the most recognizable landmark.
These days the Cathedral sits high over the surrounding city area and offers commanding 180-degree views towards the harbor.
The exterior is very intricately done, with impressive sculptures of the 12 Apostles mounted up on the roof, and try to head inside so you can check out the interior as well.
Just a few steps away from the Cathedral is the bustling Market Square, known locally as Kauppatori.
This is the main market area in the city and every day, even in the winter, there are tourists and locals here milling about.
It’s one of the most popular outdoor markets in all of Northern Europe and its location right on the shores of the Baltic Sea makes for a beautiful location to come and enjoy yourself.
In the winter it’s not as well populated with market stands, but during the warmer summer months you can buy a wide range of different Finnish goods like flowers, food, souvenirs, and clothes.
There are some food stands around the market where you can grab a quick bite to eat, or you could relax and one of the outdoor cafes right on the waterfront.
Throughout the year there are some special events held here, like in October when the herring market begins, and on May 1st where there is a classic American car celebration for May Day.
Apart from the Market Square, the Senate Square is another one of the main squares in Helsinki.
If you’re hoping to head to the Helsinki Cathedral, then you’ll see the Senate Square right out front at the bottom of the stairs.
Right in the middle is a famous statue of Tsar Alexander, and this is one of the most photographed spots in the entire city, so make sure to get your picture taken right in front of the monument.
The streets surrounding the square are lined with historic houses, some of which date back to the early 19th century, and nearby is the oldest stone building in Helsinki, known as the Sederholm House.
One of the main buildings on the square, the large on on the west side, is the University.
Here you can check out the famous University Library and take a look at the largest collection of Slavonic literature in Europe.
At the University is also the Museum of Natural History, and it’s a great place to visit if you’re into museums and you’d be interested in exploring more than 7 million different specimens and a collection of unique exhibits.
This is arguably the centre of the city so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the area in case you get lost and you should consider starting all of your adventures from this central meeting point.
Many of the free walking tours also begin here.
One of the main Helsinki attractions is the fortified islands known as Suomenlinna.
It’s possible to reach Suomenlinna with a quick 20 minute ferry ride and it’s definitely worth visiting if you’re going to be spending more than a day in the city.
Suomenlinna is actually a small collection of islands that have been fortified to protect Helsinki from the Russians, if they decided to attack the city from the Baltic Sea.
The islands were built up and fortified during the middle of the 18th century but at the beginning of the 19th century the Finnish army actually lost control of Suomenlinna, coincidentally to the Russians.
The Russians maintained control of the islands for more than 100 years.
They really helped to strengthen the defensive features as well as enlarge the islands so that they could better protect the harbor and also help to keep Russian control over the city.
Eventually there was no longer any need for the fortified islands as a means of defence and Suomenlinna is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage monuments list.
Today it’s very easy to visit Suomenlinna by ferry and there is a museum and park on the island as well as some interesting art exhibits.
It’s quite an interesting place to check out in Helsinki and I would definitely recommend heading to the islands if you get the chance.
Mannerheim Street (Mannerheimintie)
As you make your way to the end of the esplanade that stretches out from the Market Square, you’ll eventually wander onto Mannerheim Street.
This is a popular and historic street in Helsinki that stretches all the way to the Central Railway Station and passes by quite a few interesting cultural monuments.
When you’re walking along the street you’ll pass by the Parliament Building, a collection of small shops and cafes, and some of the best restaurants in Helsinki.
Some of the points of interest that you might want to check out include the Central Railway Station, which was built in 1919 by the famous architect Eliel Saarinen.
Right across from the train station is the Post Office, also a very interesting building, and right beside the post office is the large statue of Marshal Mannerheim, a very important figure in the history of Finland.
A few steps away you can find the Museum of Contemporary Art and this is a great place to visit if you’re interested in art or you’re looking to escape some of the busier crowds in the city centre.
Mannerheim Street is the main thoroughfare through the downtown area and you can definitely access public transportation from here to get anywhere else you need to go in the city.
The Uspenski Cathedral is a short walk away from the Helsinki Cathedral and the Market Square. It’s definitely worth checking out since you’ll be nearby.
This is the largest Orthodox church in northern Europe. The design and architectural style clearly show the Russian influence ever-present wherever you’re wandering in Helsinki.
The Cathedral was built in 1868 on top of a small hill. There is a great view of the surrounding area once you reach the top near the entrance.
Entrance to the Uspenski Cathedreal is free. During the winter it’s closed on Mondays.
Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Kirkko)
The Rock Church best one of the more unique Helsinki attractions.
This church, that was actually excavated directly into the solid rock below it, was completed in 1969.
The interior walls are composed of the solid bedrock that found in geographical areas throughout Helsinki and the top of it is covered with a large dome that’s supported by these natural rock walls.
It’s a very unique church, especially if you’re used to seeing the more standard ones that you usually find across Europe.
On Sundays there is a mass that you can visit at 10 AM, otherwise there is an entrance fee of €3 per person.
The Chapel of Silence
Located right in the centre of the city is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence.
This is quite an interesting attraction and it offers a peaceful and quiet place that locals and tourists can visit if they’re looking to get away from the noise and stress of typical city life.
The chapel is designed using thick wooden walls and is rather soundproof so that when you’re inside all you have to contend with is your thoughts and you can enjoy the silence at your own pace,
The exterior of the building is also quite impressive and is constructed in a unique circular shape that really helps to highlight the architectural style and design innovation that is quite common across much of Scandinavia.
Once inside, there are more than 300 square metres of calming and welcoming space where you can relax and the Nordic spruce that the walls are made from only help to further enhance the experience that you’re going to have.
To get inside, you have to walk through three doors, with the final door leading you into the main space where you’ll find a series of wooden benches and an interesting altar on which a metal cross and a small bowl are placed.
This is definitely one of the more interesting and unique things to check out when you’re in Helsinki and if you just want to escape the busy tourist crowds and city noises of outside then I would recommend heading here as soon as you can,
Helsinki City Museum
For those of you that love museums and learning more about local history, the Helsinki City Museum is where you can learn more about how this city has developed over the years and what it went through during its history.
There is quite a wide variety of different exhibits and it’s possible to spend the entire day wandering around admiring all of the different exhibitions throughout the museum.
Some of the highlights include traditional Finnish costumes, an accurate representation of what a typical Finnish home looked like during the 19th century, and an in-depth look at the cultural development of the city and what the economic and political impacts are that Helsinki had to endure.
Entrance to the museum is free and it’s located just a few steps away from the Senate Square, so you don’t have to walk very far if you want to check it out.
The oldest cafe in Helsinki, the Cafe Ekberg is a must-visit for you coffee lovers out there.
This cafe was opened during the beginning of the 19th century. Inside you’ll find plenty of seating and room for nearly 100 guests. This is not a small cafe by any means.
The coffee here is delicious. Don’t miss out on the local speciality – the Napoleon cake – it’s baked on site!
Apart from coffee and cake, there are options for breakfast and a selection of other hand made pastries, cookies, and small desserts.
The cafe is steadily busy throughout the day given its local popularity and history.
Plan to visit early if you want a good seat with a view before it gets too full.
Head to a Finnish Sauna
There’s no mistaking that the Finnish people love their saunas. Considering they invented them this is something you definitely have to do when you’re visiting Finland.
Many buildings and hotels in the city has a sauna inside. This way you can enjoy yourself in the warm steam room even if you’re visiting for a short period of time.
Throughout Helsinki are a few public saunas. These offer a unique Finnish experience and are worth visiting if your hotel doesn’t have its own.
One of the most popular public saunas in Helsinki is Sauna Hermanni, located in the working class neighborhood of Hermanni.
When it was built many of the locals didn’t have access to their own personal sauna. Visiting one of the public ones become a popular past time, especially during the long and cold Finnish winters.
Entrance to the Sauna Hermanni costs €10.
Go on a Free Walking Tour
Free walking tours are one of the best ways to explore a new city the first time you visit.
There are a few options for walking tours in Helsinki depending on what you’re looking for. These tours are a great way to check out the popular tourist attractions and they make it easy for you to learn more about the history of the city.
The tours leave every day from the city centre. Expect to be walking for a few hours with a short break in the middle of the tour.
As always, make sure to tip the tour guide if you had a good time!
Here are some of the tour companies I recommend taking a look at:
Day Trip to Tallinn
A short ferry ride from central Helsinki is the beautiful medieval capital city of Estonia – Tallinn.
The ferry takes 2-hours to reach Estonia and spending the day in Tallinn is bound to be an interesting experience. This day trip will also introduce you to the Baltic countries.
Tallinn is quite different than Helsinki. You’ll get to enjoy more of the traditional European old town style type of city centre. This is in stark contrast to the modern and urban style that you find in Finland.
If you only have one or two days in Helsinki then I don’t recommend taking this day trip. With three days or more a day trip to Tallinn would make for an amazing experience!
Explore More of Scandinavia and the Baltics!
Helsinki is just one of the main tourist stops along the Scandinavian and Baltic route.
Tallinn, in Estonia, is just a short ferry ride away and I recommend taking a look at my article on the best things to do in Tallinn to get a better idea of how to spend your time there.
Copenhagen is another beautiful place to visit in Scandinavia and you should check out my article on things to do in Copenhagen to see if it’s somewhere that you might want to check out.