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A first-timer’s guide to Helsinki

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Confession: I feel like I only scratched the surface of Helsinki. I owe the city another visit. I had ambitious plans for my short few days in Finland’s capital, but the main purpose for my visit was the MATKA travel conference which took place in January, also not the best time of year to be out exploring for hours on end. And as it is often the case with conferences: you just don’t get to see as much as you’d like of the city you’re in, especially when the sun rises only around 10am (!) and sets again six hours later already. Also: I got the chance to take a side trip to Stockholm which was amazing, but again, it took time away from exploring Helsinki.helsinki statue

The quintessential Finnish experience: A sauna evening

I still think I got a good idea of Finnish culture during my visit. Of course I couldn’t go to Finland without visiting a Finnish sauna. The Finnish Sauna Society – Suomen Saunaseura ry – organized an evening in a Finnish sauna for us, which was the perfect way to spend a cold winter evening.

helsinki kiasi museum
Icy Helsinki in January

The saunas usually comprise of several wooden, dimly-lit sauna rooms which differ in the way they are heated and how hot they get. Most saunas have wood-burning saunas (70-130C /158-266F), smoke saunas (80-160C /176-320F) and electric saunas (80-105C /176-221F). Expect to sweat A LOT. To cool off in between sweat sessions, you can either simply take a cold shower or, if you’re brave enough, jump into a lake. Yes, even in the middle of winter! While I wasn’t brave enough to do that (I only dipped my toes in, then I chickened out), others had no problem jumping into the icy lake, where a hole had been cut into the ice just big enough to swim a small round (as if a dip wasn’t enough!).

I might not have jumped into the lake, but I love the concept of the Finnish sauna. Getting together with friends while enjoying the benefits of the sauna experience (it is not only a place for physical and spiritual cleansing, but also good for your skin and takes stress of you, helping you unwind after a long day at work for example) or simply sitting in silence taking time to reflect on the day is just the most wonderful invention. There are about 3.3 million saunas in Finland (a nation with only 5.3 million people!) and you find them everywhere – in hotels, in private homes, hotels, gyms, even office buildings! Some Finns go to the sauna six times a week, and 99% of Finns use a sauna at least once a week, and I can totally see why. Once you get over the fact that you have to get naked in front of strangers (note: you can leave your towel on if you’re more comfortable that way, but you’ll stand out for sure), you will, without a doubt, love this cleansing and relaxing experience. I felt like a new person after my sauna night. To prepare for your first sauna visit, read this sauna etiquette. If you want to visit a sauna in Helsinki, check out Kotiharju (a wood-burning sauna) in the Kallio neighborhood, Kulttuurisauna, a modern sauna right on the water, or Saunasaari, a sauna resort on an island, a short 15-minute boat ride from Helsinki.sunrise finland

Culinary Delights of Finland

Like I said: I didn’t get to explore Helsinki as thoroughly as I wanted to, but I got a good taste of the city during my stay when I joined a food tour with Heather’s Helsinki. Heather, an Australian expat and long-time Helsinki resident, put together a diverse culinary teaser of some of Helsinki’s delicious foodie hangouts. We got to know Stockmann’s Department Store which has the biggest fresh produce department in the city, including lots of fresh fish and sea food, followed by a stop at the city’s smallest grocery store, a café that specializes in porridge (oatmeal), which was great to warm up on the cold winter morning, and the best sweet treats in Helsinki at the Karl Fazer Café (more on that below).karl fazer cafe helsinkiThe cold temperatures saw me make a beeline for coffee shops to warm up in more often than I had planned, but coffee is also an essential part of Finnish culture, because Fins have the highest per-capita coffee consumption in the world, with around 12 kilos per year. Who knew? So of course I had to sample some of the capital’s coffee shops.helsinki coffeeI did get to see some of Helsinki’s main sights and landmarks though, and if you only have a couple of days in the city, read on for the places I recommend you visit.

Things you shouldn’t miss on a visit to Helsinki

Karl Fazer Café
Yes, let’s start with food. Karl Fazer is a Finnish institution, producing the very best Finnish chocolate since 1922. This chocolate is so good that I ended up bringing back THREE giant 200 gram chocolate bars and I am still dreaming about the salty popcorn in milk chocolate which I’ll have to stock up again on my next visit (you don’t want to leave Finland without trying this chocolate, trust me!). But back to the cafe: Karl Fazer doesn’t only know how to make to-die-for melt-in-your-mouth chocolate but also how to make some of the best pastries someone with a sweet tooth could ask for. If you happen to find yourself in Helsinki in February, make sure to try the fastlagsbulle (the Finnish version of Swedish semla, a seasonal pastry), cardamom-scented yeast buns filled with marzipan and whipped cream. They are available in other bakeries as well, but none beats Karl Fazer’s! If you’re in Helsinki at any other time of year, good luck deciding which pastry you want to try, because they all look (and taste!) amazing. Apparently the weekend brunch is also fantastic, but you have to book a table in advance since it gets crowded. Address: Kluuvikatu 3karl fazer chocolatesEat Korvapuusti (Cinnamon Bun)
Trust me, you will want to try one of the delicious Korvapuusti, cinnamon buns, which you can buy in most cafes and bakeries. Absolutely to die for. A scenic spot for a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun is Café Regatta right by the sea (Merikannontie 10), or try Korvapuusti at Cafe Esplanad (Pohjoisesplanadi 37, right in the city center), Cafe Succes (Korkeavuorenkatu 2), Cafe Aquamarine in the Kamppi neighborhood (Uudenmaankatu 19-21) or at Villa Ullas (a seaside cafe in the suburb of Helsingfors, if you have a car and time to venture further; Kallviksuddsvägen 6).finland cinnamon bun helsinkiA free walking tour
The best way to pack in a lot of the city while getting some insider knowledge at the same time is to take a free walking tour. As most European capitals, you can take a free walking tour of Helsinki which doesn’t only cover the main sights but also gives you an overview of how the city is laid out and some ideas for spots to return to, plus you can get some local recommendations for good places to eat and drink.helsinki from the waterTake the tram
No need to fork out the money for a hop-on hop-off bus in Helsinki, you can just hop on one of the old-fashioned trams instead and take in the city’s sights from the window seat. Tram 2 and 3 pass most landmarks, such as Senate Square and the Cathedral, Kamppi Chapel, Temppeliaukio Church and the railway station. You can even pick up a brochure outlining the sights you’re passing on tram 2 and 3 at the ticket offices. A tram ride is only €2.50 when purchased at a ticket machine (slightly more expensive when purchased on the tram), or you can get a day ticket for €8.00 which covers trams, buses and trains.finland helsinki tramIf you are planning to visit several museums and take a sightseeing tour, you might want to consider getting a Helsinki Card (€44 for 24 hours or €54 for 48 hours, the latter option is a great deal and includes most museums, all public transport, a sightseeing tour, the Finnair SkyWheel, the ferry to the UNESCO site of the Suomenlinna Fort, and more).

Helsinki Cathedral
You can’t miss the Cathedral, which is one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve seen: a bright white Evangelic-Lutheran church with five green domes is visible from most places in central Helsinki. Look out for the zinc statues of the twelve apostles on the roof and head up the stairs to get a great view over Senate Square and the city center. It is free to go inside the cathedral.helsinki cathedralTori Quarter
The Tori Quarter starts right next to the Cathedral and it is here where you find independent shops and boutiques selling unique Finnish clothes, handicrafts and other home decor made in beautiful Finnish design. There are also a number of cozy cafes in this neighborhood – Café Engel comes especially recommended.helsinki coffee shopTemppeliaukio Rock Church
Even if you’re not into churches, you might want to check out this one, which is carved into granite rock and doesn’t look anything like your usual church. Don’t be fooled by the unassuming outside of the church – it’s all about the inside, where the interior walls are made of natural bedrock.

Kamppi Chapel
In the middle of the busy Kamppi neighborhood you find the Kamppi Chapel, or Chapel Of Silence – with its quiet inside a stark contrast to its hectic surroundings. The chapel was built as part of Helsinki’s nomination as World Design Capital 2012 (see below) and is a stunning piece of architecture made entirely of wood. The contemporary design and egg shape of the chapel is, similar to Temppeliaukio Church, unlike any other chapel you’ve ever seen.chapel of silence helsinki finlandDesign District
You probably didn’t know that Helsinki was World Design Capital in 2012, did you? The city even has a designated design district in which you find over 200 shops featuring interior design, fashion, jewelry, art and antiques. Dianapouisto Park is the center of the district and right by the park you find the Design Forum Finland which features up-and-coming Finnish designers. If you’d like to check out the best in Finnish design, I recommend you pick up the Design District Map at the Tourist Information or in the Design Forum.finland statue helsinkiKiasma Museum
If you love contemporary art as much as I do, don’t miss the Kiasma Art Museum, well worth a visit for the stunning design of the building alone! You’ll find Finnish as well as international artists featured here, and several exhibitions that change throughout the year. Admission is €10, and if you happen to be in Helsinki on the first Friday of the month, you can take advantage of free admission between 4pm and 8pm.

Helsinki Railway Station
If you’re venturing around the city, chances are high that you’ll pass by the Central Railway Station at some point. Make sure to take a proper look at the station, which is one of the city’s most important architectural landmarks. Designed in Jugend architecture, massive the torchbearers on each side of the entrances are particularly noteworthy. If you are an architecture geek, you might also want to check out this fantastic self-guided architecture walk which I am planning to take when I get back to Helsinki.Helsinki statues finland1

See you soon, Helsinki!

Yes, I will be back in Helsinki – but next time, I’ll come to the summer. This short visit was nothing more than a teaser that left me longing for more. Luckily I won a 2-night stay at the Radisson Blu Royal and I will also give away a stay to one lucky reader, so stay tuned for the full hotel review, but I can’t wait to stay at this beautiful and centrally located hotel again and see more of Helsinki.Radisson Blu Royal HelsinkiIf you’ve been to Helsinki and have some recommendations for my next visit, feel free to share your tips in the comments below!

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14 Comments

  1. I’ve never been to Finland, but it looks like a fascinating place. I have a friend who has just moved to Helsinki after a long love affair with the city, and it seems like in some ways it’s just different enough from other European countries to be a bit special, but still very accessible. I’m also surprised how affordable the public transport is to be honest, I imagined it would be a lot more being a Nordic country (I guess I’m comparing with my experiences in Norway and Sweden.) Anyway, Helsinki is for sure on my list, but I’m guessing summer is a *much* better time to visit!

    1. Haha, yes, I am sure Helsinki is much more fun in the summer. I am such an outdoor person and reading about all these ‘perfect picnic spots’, ‘beautiful parks’ and bike rides along the coast got me really excited about visiting again in the summer 🙂 I was surprised about prices in Finland in general – in a good way! I found it to be much more affordable than I expected, also comparing it to Sweden and Norway 🙂

  2. Such rotten luck that we were offered the chance to house sit in Helsinki soon, but we’ll be busy elsewhere as I’d love to discover these sights and enjoy some of the food that we’ve been reading about recently.

    1. Yay, in the spring, I think that’ll be a great time to go! And the Design District is a great neighborhood to stay in, very central and in walking distance from Karl Fazer Cafe 😉 Among other cool cafes and restaurants, of course 😀

  3. Hi Dany,

    The best panoramic view of Helsinki from Sokos Hotel Torni roof top bar Ateljee at Sunset time. One of the finest place is Suomenlinna which one is world heritage site (http://www.suomenlinna.fi/en/). Of course in winter time it could be too cold place, but summer time is perfect place for example to picnik. When you take ferry trip (5 €) from Market Square to Suomenlinna, you see same time Helsinki by boat. I also recommended take walking trip to Kaivopuisto area and there is one of the locals secret’s by Cafe Ursula (http://www.ursula.fi/yhteystiedot/ -> sorry only for Finnish this web site).

    Have a nice trip to Helsinki next time!
    -Rami / Kohteena maailma

    1. Rami, thanks so much! I really appreciate the recommendation. And Suomenlinna is on my list of things to explore during my summer visit 🙂 I didn’t know you can go there by ferry, so that’s great to know. And I’ve added Cafe Ursula to my list of places to check out 🙂 Thanks again!

    1. Haha, for a second I was thinking about looking up the location of Suomenlinna on Googlemaps when I replied to your comment but laziness won. I’ve now rectified the flaws in my geographical knowledge of Finland 😉 (And while I love swimming I don’t think I could make it that far!) 😀

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