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 not difficult to navigate, tourists could basically go anywhere on foot, even when it’s winter. But if it’s a bit too cold to walk for you, you can hop on a tram and it will bring you to any major museums or attractions in town. I stayed in a cozy apartment in Helsinki, and for a few days, I just travel around and stopped by a café for a cup of hot chocolate or coffee before continuing my city tour.
One way to visit all these places in Helsinki is using the Helsinki card (read more: How to Plan Your Own Museum Tour in Helsinki with a Travel Pass), the Helsinki card offers free access to many major museums and attractions in Helsinki, discount for guided tours, excursions, and cruise tickets to Tallinn and Saint Petersburg. Note that the museums close as early as 5 pm in wintertime, so plan your itinerary to make the most of the card.
Here, I am offering a winter itinerary to see some of the major attractions in Finland’s Daughter of the Baltic.
Day 1: Helsinki classics. Design District and Senate Square
St John’s Church
My “walking” tour began at St John’s Church because it was the closest to my rental apartment. The church is located in Ullanlinna, or the Design District, 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. How to get there? Simply take the tram and hop off at the Johanneskyrkan station (H0706).
Design District Helsinki
Helsinki is widely recognized as a city of design. The Design District in Helsinki brings together creative people in the heart of Helsinki. Therefore, don’t be surprised that you would wander off and discover some interesting designer shops, chich souvenir stores or artsy cafes. The Design Museum and Museum of Finnish Architecture nearby St John’s Church is a good place to start. They are right across the church and the Design Museum has a collection of 75,000 objects, 125,000 images, and 45,000 drawings (plus temporary themed exhibitions) that showcases the highlights of 145-year Finnish design development – from the trailblazers of the late 19th century to Alvar Aalto, and into the represent.
That’s why the district is an exciting place to explore in summer, where you can visit many flea markets and vintage stores, and find a timeless piece for your home if you take some time and do some digging. During winter, take note of the opening hours of the museums and shop because there’s a chance that these shops may be closed and museum opening hours are usually shorter. Don’t worry, have a coffee or a glass of wine in one of the cafes or bars in the area instead!
Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral
Senate Square is within walking distance away from the Design District, and while it could be quite cold in the snow during winter, take a walk through Esplanade when the snow stops. There are many shops, retail chains, and restaurants scattered in the street of the area, take a tram to travel up and down the avenue because most lines converge here. Of course, the Senate Square is the focal point of Helsinki, especially with Tuomiokirkko (a.k.a. Helsinki Cathedral), dominates the skyline at the waterfront.
Tuomiokirkko, 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.
The Helsinki Wheel, or to give it its proper name the SkyWheel Helsinki, was first opened to the public in June 2014. It is 40 meters tall and has 30 climate-controlled capsules allowing it to operate all year round, even when it’s below zero outside. It is located on Katajanokka harbor and also has the world’s first sauna on a Ferris wheel called the SkySauna.
The SkyWheel Helsinki is a great place to add to your Helsinki itinerary as you can get unparalleled views across the city and the south coast from it during the rotations. And, if you are lucky and you are the only people on the wheel, you might get some extra time on the wheel like we did when visiting Helsinki with kids in December. The Wheel is also reasonably priced, unlike some of its more famous global counterparts.
The SkyWheel Helsinki can easily be combined with a trip across to Suomenlinna, the Sea Fortress everyone should visit at least once, and which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Helsinki Wheel and the ferry dock to reach Suonemlinna are both located in the same part of Helsinki, making them ideal partners for a great day out in Helsinki.
Christmas Markets on Aleksanterinkatu
Helsinki City Museum and Market Square is a stone’s 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 performances 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”.
If you are visiting Helsinki during Christmas time, then you simply have to drop by Senate Square. Being an important trade center for centuries, the location is now successfully transitioned to becoming a hot spot of Christmas markets in winder! the Aleksanterinkatu is a Christmas Street where all the festivities are all about. Even Christmas is over, try your luck that you could also probably drop by a few street vendors serving some warm glögi (a traditional Finnish Christmas drink), or a great coffee. Nothing tastes better when you are freezing out.
Want to know more about how to visit the Christmas markets in Central Europe like a local? Check out 6 Tips to Go to Central Europe’s Christmas Markets Like a Local.
If you have more time, the Hakaniemi Market Hall is a genuine Finnish market hall that is opened in 1914 and designed by Karl Hård af Segerstad. The 100-year-old building has two floors, with a lot of shops selling fresh fish, bread, pastries, and other kinds of food on the first floor, and souvenirs, handicrafts, interior decorations, and other design objects on the second floor.
Day 2: Helsinki hidden gem. Unique landmarks and museum tour
Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
The Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is close to 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…
Of all the winter activities that there is nothing else to get you warmer than having a traditional Finnish sauna. It is a very special thing to do and there’s no way to leave Finland without at least going to the Sauna once! There are plenty of Finnish Sauna Center in Helsinki, in fact, if you are staying in a hotel, there’s usually one available within. Finnish saunas use smoke, wood, or electric sources for heat; and it’s nothing wrong to venture to different centers just to have different experiences of the sauna. The local sauna is really convenient and so it doesn’t have to be a whole day thing. Just stop by any of the saunas on your route, warm up and continue on!
Some of the recommended saunas in Helsinki:
- Löyly Helsinki: Seaside sauna & restaurant with a deck, this is one of the most popular in the city.
- Saunat.fi Punavuori
- Saunat.fi City
- Kulttuurisauna Public Sauna
- Kotiharjun Sauna
Finnish National Museum and … art museums
Afterward, explore 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 the 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 to 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. There are so many Lutheran and Catholic churches across Europe, but still, you have to visit Temppeliaukio Kirkko as this is truly one of a kind.
The Lutheran church, craved into solid granites, is one of Helsinki’s modern architectural masterpieces. 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 it 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.
Day 3: A frosty day trip to Suomenlinna
The next day, head on a mini excursion to one of the islands in the city’s archipelago, Suomenlinna. Suomenlinna Island is constantly listed as one of the “must-see”s in Helsinki. Being one of the islands in the city’s archipelago, and this island captures not only the struggles about the Finnish’s past but also the beautiful sceneries of the Baltic Sea and beyond. It takes about 45 minutes by ferry to get there. If you are visiting the island in winter, the unique experience begins once you get on the ferry and it sails through the floating ice in the Harbor. I could feel the icy wind hitting on my face on the deck when we were sailing through the floating ice.
We arrived at 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). The tour guide offers a better understanding of the island and I needed it. The friendly and knowledgeable guide shared interesting stories about how the fortress was originally built by Sweden, later captured by Russian, until it finally fell back to the hands of Fins.
Today, the island is a great outing spot for not only tourists but also locals. Have a walk through the 1918 prison camp memorial, Suomenlinna church, Dry Dock, the tomb of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the earthworks and guns of Kustaanmiekka, and the King’s Gate. The fortress is also a city district of the City of Helsinki, with 800 residents. One place on the island that you can warm up and learn about the history of the Suomenlinna naval fortress is the Suomenlinna Museum. The museum showcases the history from the 18th century to the present day. For example, the living conditions of the families, the struggles of Civil War and life thereafter, as well as an important role the island had to play in naval defense.
The fortress’ church also serves as a lighthouse. There are also a number of museums opens during summer, including Ehrensvärd Museum, Military Museum’s Manege, Toy Museum, Customs Museum, and the underwater Vesikko.
The island is a great outing spot for not only tourists but also locals. If you simply look for a weekend getaway, the island is also an excellent choice. There are some nice restaurants and cafes where you could just chill and enjoy the view; pack a picnic, have a stroll in one of the walking trails, or rent a bike and explore the numerous historic sites and monuments on the island – The Kustaanmiekka sandbanks and artillery are some of the best places to see the sunset in Helsinki.
Day 4: An excursion to Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, Stockholm or more!
Although it’s snowy and cold outside, the beautiful sceneries of old towns in the snow are something that you may want to see – why not take a day trip in the city outskirts like the Nuuksio National Park or Porvoo? If you have a Helsinki Pass, make the most of it and hop on a cruise, and head to Tallinn or Saint Petersburg to continue your winter Journey!
Tallinn is the capital city of Estonia, a small country on the Baltic that may not be on many people’s bucket lists if it’s a stand-alone destination. Having said that, the city’s old town has a unique “format Soviet” charm and is a compact scenic site that has a lot of historic buildings, unique heritage, and orthodox churches, making it a great day trip from Helsinki. The scale of the town is perfect for a day trip, and it takes only about 1.5 to 2.5 hours one way on a speedboat or a cruise to get there. For more about what to see and do in Tallinn, check out my other post about a day in the Estonian Old Town.
Saint Petersburg, on the other hand, is a little farther away from Helsinki as a day trip. Because there are so many things to see and explore in Saint Petersburg, and some of these places, like the Peterhof, a.k.a. the Summer Palace, looks much better during summer with the fountain works in the Garden. Anyway, I managed to visit the palaces in the city and I love exploring the Hermitage, it is one of the best art museums in Europe – not only its impressive collection of artworks from the classical times to contemporary arts but also the extravagantly decorated rooms.
To go a little bit further, head to Stockholm and check out the beautiful city landmarks and museums. Stockholm’s subway stations are constantly named the most beautiful in the world – check out how to design your own subway tour in Stockholm.
Consider staying 4 days in Helsinki, and then head to Saint Petersburg for the rest of your journey. But you fancy going somewhere else, feel free to check out my other posts about what to see and do in Europe during winter!