Truthfully, there are few cities I expected less out of than Helsinki. Unlike other popular Scandinavian cities, I’d rarely hear about all the exciting things to do in Helsinki, but rather what a dull place it was and how it held little to no real interest to travellers.
I’m glad to report that’s not the case. At all.
Even if it lacks the obvious charms of other cities in Northern Europe, Helsinki is anything but a bust. At its heart, the capital of Finland is a fun-loving city and one of the most surprising that I’ve encountered in my travels (probably thanks to some seriously low expectations).
Not sure where to begin? Get started with this quick guide of what to do in Helsinki…
Table of Contents
What to do in Helsinki: The top attractions & best places to visit
Cruise over to Suomenlinna
Even if you’re stuck to just one day in Helsinki, I can’t recommend a trip to the island fortress of Suomenlinna enough. Built by the Swedes in the mid-1800s to fend off Russian attack, Suomenlinna feels locked in a bygone era with its well-preserved stone & wooden houses and defensive walls.
Besides being one of the top tourist attractions in Helsinki, Suomenlinna is still home to about 800 residents with a whole host of amenities from restaurants to a grocery store and even a brewery. (Pretty cool place to live, wouldn’t you say?)
To access Suomenlinna, take a ferry from Kauppatori (Market Square), running 1 to 4 times per hour depending on the time of day.
Grab fresh produce at Kauppatori (Market Square)
When you’ve got a little time to kill before the next ferry departure, peruse the market stalls at Kauppatori (Market Square) for a fresh snack that’ll fill your belly for all the Helsinki sightseeing ahead.
Sitting at the edge of the harbour with relaxing views over the outlying islands and to the Baltic, Kauppatori is a colourful place to explore as vendors beckon you to buy everything from fresh fruits, vegetable & fish to handcrafts & souvenirs.
Marvel at Uspenski Cathedral
As my original visit to Helsinki was little more than a pre-amble to my next destination of St. Petersburg, first stumbling upon Uspenski Cathedral at the edge of the harbour made me feel as if I’d somehow walked into a portal and straight into the heart of Russia.
While it’s not unheard of to find Russian Orthodox churches outside of Eastern Europe, Uspenski Cathedral holds a special place as it’s one of the biggest outside its homeland. The influences are quite obvious, and, considering it was designed by Russian architect Aleksey Gornostayev, hardly surprising.
Entrance to Uspenski Cathedral is free, and I’d highly recommend taking a few minutes to check out the inside where you’ll see a valuable collection of icons and impressive Orthodox decorations.
Eat Finnish comfort food at Zetor
If you like hearty meals served up with a side of kitsch, you’ll love Zetor, a popular Helsinki restaurant delivering classic Finnish comfort foods in a fun-loving atmosphere that’s anything by ordinary.
Upon entering Zetor, you’ll be greeted by tractors, milk jugs, motorbike parts, and a whole slew of other eclectic decor reminiscent of a mid-20th-century Finnish country home.
Of course, the real reason to come here is for the food. Although there might be better restaurants in Helsinki, Zetor serves up filling Finnish meals at good prices.
For a taste out of the ordinary, I’d vouch for the smoked reindeer soup with cheese and rye breadcrumbs or the Lovely Lapland special featuring reindeer filets, smoked reindeer mousse, and lingonberries on dark rye.
Escape the city on a day trip to Porvoo
To get a taste of Finland outside its biggest urban destination, hop on a bus due east for the relaxing one-hour ride to the lovely town of Porvoo. The second oldest city in the country, Porvoo is replete with quiet riverside charms making it the perfect escape from Helsinki.
There’s a handful of interesting things to do in Porvoo, but my recommendation is to start by simply wandering through Old Porvoo: walking along the riverbanks and ducking into shops & restaurants as you wind through narrow cobblestoned alleys lined with traditional wooden houses.
Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Helsinki
Don’t let the smaller population of Finland’s capital compared to other European cities fool you: Choosing among the best places to stay in Helsinki isn’t easy as it first looks. The city itself spreads out over more than 700 square kilometres; any ol’ hotel won’t do if you’re looking to get close to all the top points of interest in Helsinki!
For most travellers, the best areas to stay in Helsinki are the central most districts, particularly Kamppi, Kluuvi, and Kaartinkaupunki. Start your accommodations search with these top hotels…
- Hotel St. George Helsinki: Situated in an elegant heritage building, this classy design hotel features sophisticated modern rooms decorated with hip Finnish artwork and fitted with luxurious extras like a rain shower.
- Hotel F6: A laid-back boutique hotel just steps away from some of the top Helsinki attractions including Market Square and Uspenski Cathedral, located less than five minutes away by foot. The rich wood grain interiors of the guest rooms adds an air of sophistication to your stay.
- Radisson Blu Aleksanteri Hotel: Twists of neo-Renaissance and neoclassical decor along with a host of superb amenities give this lovely 4-star hotel a heads up on the competition. Guests will absolutely love grabbing a freshly-prepared meal or Finnish craft beer at the on-site Aleksanteri Lounge or sweating out their stresses in the free-to-access sauna.