I recently spent some time in Helskinki to celebrate Finland’s 100th birthday! The capital of Finland has a lot to offer, so whether you’re visiting for a weekend, or on a stopover from the airport. Take my list, save it in your phone, and do as many of the following as physically possible during your time here…
Check out a Sea Fortress
Whilst this list is in no particular order, Suomenlinna Island is number 1! It’s only 15-20 minutes by ferry to Suomenlinna, an old sea fortress built on 6 islands. Suomenlinna is just as striking in the winter as it is in summer. But in the summer take a picnic and some cold beers, and in the winter find a cosy café for coffee and homemade soup.
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Sweat it out in a Traditional Finnish Sauna
OK you’re spoilt for choice here, pretty much every hotel and even hostel has its own sauna. But I’d suggest finding a more traditional one. Just a short bus ride to Vantaa (bus 739 from central station) is Lake Kuusijarvi, a public sauna and only €6 (although the smoke sauna is more). You can also get here directly by bus from Vantaa Airport, what better way to spend a stopover!? Especially if you take a dip in the frozen lake! Another option is Loyly Sauna, a design sauna on the beautiful Helsinki waterfront.
Soak up the coffee culture
So apparently the Finnish like their coffee, I heard this a few times every day in Finland, so it must be true! There are a ton of coffee shops around the city, and you won’t be invited anywhere without being offered a coffee. For the picturesque head to Café Regatta, for chocolate there’s the Karl Fazer Café, and for a trendy workspace I liked Roasberg, near to the Central Station. I’m not going to suggest more than that, as I think it’s important to find your own favourite, if you have time.
Find a secret Speakeasy
If it’s a secret, why am I writing about it? Well I’m going to set you the challenge to find it. There’s an old fashioned speakeasy located near the cathedral that’s well worth a visit. You’ll have a Gin & Tonic like you’ve never tasted in your life, or a freshly made cocktail. Trillby & Chadwick was a London-based detective’s agency, which eventually became an illegal “speakeasy”, and that’s all you need to know for now. I’ll give you one clue, you’ll find the bar on Katariinankatu Katrinegatan (a street!), and the unmarked entrance is somewhere behind the tram pictured below. The rest is up to you.
Mooch around the Museums
There are a ton of museums in Helsinki, and the Finnish are known for their art and design. To be perfectly honest, museums aren’t my thing, so you’ll have to find one that suits you. However, the HAM museum (Helsinki Art Museum) has a brand new exhibition called Modern Life, celebrating Finland’s 100th Birthday. It’s a collection from numerous museums celebrating architecture, design, visual art and photography. If Finnish design is your thing you can visit the Iittala & Arabia design centre, famous for it’s lifestyle brands with a great insight into how the products are made.
Take in the views at a Rooftop Bar
Most of Helsinki isn’t that tall, so there are a very few buildings tall enough to get a view. The best spot however is Ateljee Sky Bar, located on the top floor of Hotel Torni. To get there you just walk in and take the lift, and if you’re a budget traveller you don’t necessarily need to buy a drink (although it is expected you will). At busy times don’t expect to get a seat, as the bar is only small, but dropping by day or night for the views is definitely worth it.
Spend a day in Tallinn
Many Fins head here themselves, mostly for the cheap booze but also to see such a beautiful city which is totally different to Helsinki. The ferry runs daily and you can get it for as little as €20 if you book in advance. There will be a whole separate post about Tallinn coming soon, but exploring the old town is a must. (Photo: Visit Tallinn).
Get a shot at the Cathedral
Not a shot of alcohol, a photo! The Cathedral is also very close to a number of other attractions (such as the ferry to Suomenlinna and the Speakeasy bar). The Cathedral was designed by Engel, and continued after his death by architect Ernst Bernhard Lohrmann. I’m not going to pretend those names mean anything to me, but maybe they do to you! Either way it’s a very impressive building.
Learn to cook Reindeer
What, Rudolph!? I hear you cry. Well, yes. Reindeer is a common dish served here and it takes a skill to cook it just right. I must admit the food in Finland has been amazing, and there are some incredible restaurants to try (see my suggestions below). However, Flavour Studio is a kitchen school in a former slaughter house called Teurastamo, in Gallio. Gallio is also a great area to drink where the locals drink, and the prices are often lower. We had a hands-on experience with a quality chef and between us cooked a four course meal whilst drinking lots of wine and beer. Brilliant!
Restaurants to try: Ravintola Nokka (for fresh local ingredients) Naughty brgr (for delicious homemade burgers) & Hotel Katajanokka (for dinner in a former prison!).
Lahti is a region just 1.5 hours drive from Helsinki, so you may need longer than a weekend to visit, but I would highly recommend it. Regardless of whether you visit in winter or summer, there are plenty of activities to do and some breathtaking scenery. Look out for my article on Lahti coming soon.
It’s so easy I don’t even think I need to write about it. The trams are amazing, the city is small, and if you’re worried download Helsinki in Google Maps, so it is available offline. I used the trams, buses and metro and found them all on time and easy. Consider the a Helsinki Pass if you are looking at cramming a lot into 1 or 2 days at it will save you money and hassle!
I stayed at Eurohostel in Katajanokka, close to a few of the trendy restaurants, the cathedral, ferry port, and only a 10 minute walk to the centre. It’s also conveniently located on the Tram line 4, which easily connects you to main station and therefore the rest of the city. Private, twin and triple rooms are available, and the shared bathrooms were very clean and never busy. There’s also an awesome buffet breakfast available for just €10, and of course it’s Finland, so a sauna is open in the mornings and evenings (may have extra charges). The staff were very helpful however a word or warning, this hostel is quiet and doesn’t have too many areas to socialise and meet other backpackers.
Your Helsinki Checklist
- Suomenlinna Island
- Traditional Sauna
- Drink coffee!
- Secret Speakeasy
- Rooftop Bar
- Day trip to Tallinn
- The Cathedral
- Cook/eat reindeer
- Visit Lahti
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