My impression of Helsinki: compact, cultural, clean and cool. I stayed in the city for a few days in winter, yet I found the city was welcoming and charming. I wandered around the streets and the city is filled with modern and traditional architecture – with the snow adding a romantic touch.
Helsinki’s city center is compact and easy to navigate, while tourists could basically go anywhere on foot. If it’s a bit too cold to walk, hop on a tram and it will bring you to any major museums or attractions in town. I stayed in a cozy apartment in the city, and for a few days, I just walked around and stopped by a café for a cup of hot chocolate or coffee before continuing my journey.
Using the Helsinki card (read more: Helsinki Museum Collage .14) is a great way to explore Helsinki, the card includes free access to many major museums, and attractions in Helsinki, a discount for guided tours, excursions, or cruise tickets to Tallinn and Saint Petersburg. Note that the museums close as early as 5 pm in winter time, so plan your itinerary beforehand to make the most of the card. ~
Here is a 2-day easy going itinerary of the major attractions in Finland’s Daughter of the Baltic.
St John’s Church
My “walking” tour began at St John’s Church because it was near my apartment. The church is in Ullanlinna, a quiet neighborhood; and this Lutheran, red stone Church could be seen in many art paintings of the city, being the largest stone church in the country. The church is also a popular place for concerts or large choral works.
The Design Museum and Museum of Finnish Architecture are next to the church. Feel free to drop by as the Design Museum has a collection of 75,000 artifacts (plus temporary themed exhibitions)!
Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral
Leaving St John’s Church, I walked to the Senate Square through Esplanade as the weather was nice. Lots of shops and restaurants there. If not, you may take a tram. The senate square is the focal point of the city, owing to the presence of the Tuomiokirkko (a.k.a. Helsinki Cathedral).
The Helsinki Cathedral was originally called the Nicholas’ Church until the independence of Finland in 1917. The cathedral stands uniquely in the heart of the city, overlooking the Senate Square and Baltic Sea, and making it the most photographed building in Finland. The exterior of the church is one-of-a-kind, gleaming with its brightening white walls and green, golden domes on a clear sunny day. The inside – well, may not be as impressive as many other churches (to me) in the world, but I have learned to appreciate the simplicity of the neo-classical architectural style.
Helsinki City Museum and the Market Square is a stone throw away at the waterfront. The Market Square, known as “Kauppatori”, is a waterfront open-air market in the city. The market features traditional Finnish treats, colorful handicrafts, and souvenirs, with a lot of street performance and talent shows during the day. The market could be closed early in winter, (and the number of stalls would be much less than in summer), check the opening hours if anyone is planning on “doing some real damage”.
Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
The Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is close to the Senate Square. It’s a “classic” Orthodox cathedral featuring a red stone exterior, green rooftops, and golden onion domes. It is one of the largest Orthodox Churches in Europe and it’s considered to be one of the reminders of Russian ruled over Finland for 180 years, until 1917. There, (though it was most likely just me) beware of the staircase outside the cathedral in the snow! I have seen people, including me, slipped and fell – I was basically slid down, not walked down the staircase on my way leaving…
Finnish National Museum
Next, we explored the area in the north of the train station, passing the Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery, and Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art (We will leave these to another day). The Finnish National Museum is one of the most important national museums in the country. The country itself is a historic landmark in the city center. The museum presents a rich demonstration of Finnish history from ancient times in Stone Age to the present day.
The cost of living in Helsinki is quite high and dining in Helsinki could be quite expensive. I would recommend museum cafes! I had the lunch buffet at the National Museum’s café for 10 Euros, while the buffet has soup, bread, salad, 2 main dishes of choice (beef stew and fish) and unlimited coffee!
After lunch, a walk in the National Museum, and a visit of the Finlandia Hall on the opposite side of the road, we headed to the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church), as the last stop of our first day. The Lutheran church, craved into solid granites, is one of Helsinki’s modern architectural masterpiece. The rock church is covered with a copper dome and the ring of glass under the roof welcomed beams of natural light. A pipe organ is installed in the church making a popular site for a concert. I was lucky that there was a rehearsal that day and I could hear how the sound echoes in the hall.
The second day is a mini excursion to one of the islands in the city’s archipelago, Suomenlinna. It takes about 45 minutes by ferry and I could feel the icy wind hitting on my face on the deck when we were sailing through the floating ice.
We arrived this UNESCO heritage site just before lunch and we were just in time for the guided tour (included in the Helsinki Card, by the way). I would highly recommend the guided tour because I wouldn’t know what’s going on walking around the island without the guide’s interesting stories and struggles about the Finnish’s part. Suomenlinna was a floating fortress, built by Sweden, then captured by Russian until finally taken back by the Fins, who experienced the constant “push and pull” of the two great powers over a long period of time.
Suomenlinna was a significant military and naval base; and it’s now a great outing spot for the locals, while the dockyard is still in use today. If you are visiting in winter, stay warm! I thought minus 10C was warm in the city, but once I was out on the island I felt so different in the wind. It takes about 45 mins – 1 hour to see the attractions on the island, most importantly: the 1918 prison camp memorial, Suomenlinna church, Dry Dock, the tomb of Augustin Ehrensvard, the earthworks and guns of Kustaanmiekka, and the King’s Gate. The other museums on the island–Ehrensvärd Museum, Military Museum’s Manege, Toy Museum, Customs Museum, and the underwater Vesikko–are open only during the summer months.
Returning to the city of Helsinki, visit the Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery, and Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art, or a little farther away, the Sibelius Park & Monument in the afternoon.