Your Complete Guide to Helsinki, Finland
We landed with a sudden thud. The snow was coming down hard and thick, as though the clouds reached to the ground. I didn’t expect to see snow in October. But it was as though Finland knew the perfect way to greet us.
I can't say that Finland has ever been high on my list, or that Helsinki has ever really called to me. The truth is, I didn't know much about this small nordic country until I stepped off the plane. I expected Helsinki to be much like all the other Scandinavian cities I had visited. But my first impressions were similar to my first impressions of Eastern Europe. There was a lifelessness to the city. Like someone had pulled the saturation down in an image.
It suddenly made a lot of sense when we learned that Finland was, for a long period of time, part of Russia.
But I found myself in Helsinki, of all places, after some cheap flights came my way. And landing in a city after an extra long long-haul, you may as well stay! And stay is what we did. We set ourselves up in an old apartment in the hip, up-and-coming neighbourhood of Kallio, for a week of exploring.
Helsinki isn’t a city you go to with a long list of tourist attractions. Instead, a city you experience.
Stay somewhere with a kitchen
Helsinki is surprisingly affordable for a capital of the north. We stayed in an old apartment in the up-and-coming, hipster suburb of Kallio. Our room came with a kitchen, and we shared a teeny bathroom with a couple of guys from St. Petersberg, living in the second bedroom.
With a kitchen, we were able to make ourselves dinner and breakfast. Most AirBnB’s will come with coffee and coffee machine too. Apparently the Fin's love their coffee.
I find staying in an AirBnB gives me a much more authentic experience of a city. From my experience, AirBnB’s are often located in some pretty cool areas off the tourist path. I also love to see inside apartment buildings. This one still used the lift that was installed in the 60s.
Splurge on lunch (save on dinner)
We found most places in Helsinki had a cheap lunch menu which was generally half the price of the dinner menu. We managed to eat lunch out everyday and never once went over our daily budget.
Although there was a tram line right outside our apartment building, we saved and walked everywhere.
I mean, Helsinki is a pretty big city. But you can walk it. It might get a little difficult to walk during the peak of winter, with the thick snow and icy air. But while we were there, most days were a maximum temperature of 1 degree C, and we managed without any (many) issues. If you're dresses appropriately, you'll be fine.
Things To See and Do
Helsinki isn't so much about the things to see, but the experiences to have. The great thing about Helsinki is it's not overly touristy (yet). So you'll really get to settle into the locals ways of life.
Go for a walk | I think my favourite thing to do in Helsinki was to just walk around the main town centre. With stunning European architecture, malls, trams and small cobble stone streets, you'll be happy just putting one foot in front of the other with your head in the clouds.
Market Square | We visited Helsinki in a strange time of year. It was when winter had just started – the days were getting shorter, the cold was getting icier, and the weather was wet. So Market Square was a little underwhelming. But, even when the market is lacking, you've still got panoramic views of the water and the huge cruise ships coming in, and the beautiful city as it creeps up the hill.
Address: Eteläranta, 00170 Helsinki
Old Market Hall | From Market Square you can walk over to the Old Market Hall, dating back to 1888. I find market's are always a nice place to wander around and people watch. It's a nice insider into locals life.
Address: Eteläranta, 00130 Helsinki
Helsinki Cathedral | A stunning, large building that looks across to old, pastel coloured buildings, a tram line and a cobble stone Senate Square. This is iconic Helsinki, not quite Scandinavia, not quite Russia.
Address: Unioninkatu 29, 00170 Helsinki
Helsinki Winter Garden | Looking for something that's a little different and not in the tourist guide books? Visit the winter garden. It's a plant conservatory overlooking Toolonlahti bay.
Address: Hammarskjöldintie 1 A, 00250 Helsinki
The National Museum of Finland | I love visiting the national museum when I'm in a capital city. I much prefer to find out all my information from the nations museum than Google or Wiki. If you're like me, the National Museum of Finland won't disappoint.
Address: Mannerheimintie 34, 00100 Helsinki
The Design Museum of Helsinki | If you're a museum lover like me, then visit the design museum. And while you're at it, head around the back of the museum where you'll find the Museum of Finnish Architecture, where your design museum ticket will get you free entry.
Address: Korkeavuorenkatu 23, 00130 Helsinki
Helsinki Tram Museum | We randomly stumbled upon this museum and went in because it was free. There are pretty bad reviews about it online, which really baffle me because honestly, it's worth the visit. It's freaking free after all! And you get to look, touch and go inside Helsinki's trams that take you through the ages. Don't go on a weekend, kids will be everywhere.
Address: Töölönkatu 51 A, 00250 Helsinki
Walk around Toolonlahti bay | Helsinki is located around Toolonlahti bay, which comes in from the ocean. It's not really a river or late, it's actually an inlet from the ocean. There's a beautiful park all around the bay that you can walk right around.
Loyly | When in Finland you HAVE to experience their sauna culture. They're absolutely mad for sauna's so it's not hard to find a sauna in Finland – they're everywhere. But Loyly is the place to be. It's not only architecturally stunning, it's got one of the best views in the city. Loyly is a nice introduction into the Finnish sauna experience if you're a little nervous about being naked around other people, as it's mix gendered and you're not allowed to go in naked. So a swimsuit is a must!
If the sauna experience is so not your thing, Loyly also has a restaurant. It's pretty pricey, but you can just go for a coffee and the view.
Address: Hernesaarenranta 4, 00150 Helsinki
Places to Eat & Drink
Like any good travel destination, Helsinki is all about eating and drinking. Well, at least, it was for us.
Sori Taproom | Whether you're a beer drinker or not, you'll find something to drink here. Talk to the staff and they'll recommend something. With a menu that goes very well with a good beer, you'll be surprised by the quality and flavours. I had a vegetarian quinoa burger which absolutely blew me away.
Address: Vuorikatu 16, 00100 Helsinki
Il Birrificio | Another restaurant that offers a great selection of boutique beer. The lunch menu was quite limited, but an absolute bargain for what you get. There were no vegetarian options, but the chef happily recommended the risotto without the meat. After reluctantly agreeing, it was, hands-down, the best risotto I've ever had. I'm usually not a fan of risotto but I could've eaten bowl after bowl of this stuff.
Address: Fredrikinkatu 22, 00120 Helsinki
BrewDog | BrewDog is a Scottish brewery who are pretty well known in the international craft beer scene. Although I was travelling with someone working in the beer industry, we didn't get the chance to make it to this bar. I'm recommending it because, judging by the quality of their beers, I'm sure their bar will be good. If you go, let me know your thoughts!
Address: Tarkk'ampujankatu 20, 00150 Helsinki
Fafa’s | This is actually a chain, you can find it in most busy areas. What looks like a hip felafel joint, offers a range of satisfying souvlaki's and souvlaki bowls. It's usually pretty busy, but people come and go pretty quick.
Kanniston Leipomo | There are three of these bakeries scattered around town. One was on our walk into the city, so naturally we stopped off most mornings for a baked good. And let me tell you, they're definitely the place to go for buttery, sweet goodness.
Paulig Kulma | A coffee snobs paradise. It's true what they say, Fin's do seem to love their coffee. But their coffee doesn't match Melbourne standards. This place is probably the closest to Melbourne coffee, but also is a very hip (and large) cafe, where you could sit and people watch for hours.
Address: Aleksanterinkatu 9, 00100 Helsinki
Kotipizza | Another chain that's around town. They do delicious gourmet pizza's that the locals seem to LOVE. Kotipizza is always busy, and you often see people walking the streets with a Kotipizza box under their arms.
Picnic | And yet another chain. Picnic can be found absolutely everywhere, and it's always full. Helsinki seem to really nail healthy, gourmet, fast food. This place is very Finish. Y'see, the Fins seem to love a plate overflowing with different types of salads. And that's exactly what Picnic offers – salads, sandwiches, wraps.
Old Market Hall | Take a wander around the Old Market Hall before sitting at a table for warm baked goods and coffee.
Address: Eteläranta, 00130 Helsinki
Cafe Regatta | Last but not least, the notorious Cafe Regatta. You would've seen this place in photos. Located right on the water, in a small red boat house, is a cafe. Inside you'll find a couple of long wooden tables to share with strangers, as you warm your body with a warm hot chocolate. It smells like burning wood and cinnamon. Expect to wait for a spot at the table.
Address: Merikannontie 8, 00260 Helsinki
Would you love to explore Helsinki? Tell me what you'd love to do and see...