Of the five Nordic countries, Finland might be the least familiar to travelers. While hordes have descended upon the Scandinavian capitals of Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen — and Iceland’s Reykjavik, of course — Helsinki is still somewhat of an under-the-radar gem. But the small capital city is one of the most alluring destinations in Northern Europe, offering a wealth of attractions from historic UNESCO sites to design museums to beautiful parks, not to mention the kindness of local Finns and the warmth of their famous saunas.
Visit the Suomenlinna Fortress
Suomenlinna Fortress is one of Helsinki’s top tourist attractions, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Construction on the UNESCO-designated historic site, which spans six different islands in Helsinki’s harbor, began in 1748, when Finland was still part of Sweden. While it’s no longer an active military site, Suomenlinna is home to a number of museums — including one housed in the Vesikko submarine — as well as shops and restaurants. There’s even a hostel for guests who want to stay overnight. Suomenlinna is also much more than a tourist attraction, with some 800 permanent residents who rent apartments on the islands. To get to the fortress, you’ll need to take a 15-minute ferry from Market Square.
Stroll Through Helsinki's Market Square
Helsinki’s Market Square is lined with colorful tents, each hosting a local vendor selling everything from baked goods to handicrafts to fresh produce. While it’s easy to write this off as a tourist attraction, locals do drop by to grab a coffee or some fresh vegetables — they’ll often avoid the crowds during the summer, though. The Market Square is open year-round, though there are far fewer vendors in the winter. Adjacent to the square is the Old Market Hall, which is the indoor companion to the tents that’s open all year and provides shoppers and diners respite from the weather.
Sail to Helsinki's Nearby Islands
Helsinki is surrounded by an archipelago comprising some 330 islands, and locals and visitors alike flock to them for recreation and entertainment throughout the year. Seurasaari is one of the most popular, as it’s home to Helsinki's “open-air museum,” which showcases not only Finnish buildings from the 1700s to the 1900s, but also Finnish traditions. Seurasaari also host big annual celebrations for Christmas, Easter, and Midsummer's Eve. For exploration on a smaller scale, head to the tiny island Lonna, a former military base that’s now home to a new Nordic restaurant, a café, and a traditional sauna — grab a can of local “sauna beer” before heading inside. Ferries to the islands depart from the harbor next to the Market Square.
Partake in Finnish Sauna Culture
You might have heard the statistic that there’s approximately one sauna for every two Finns, and it’s absolutely true. Saunas aren’t just found at the gym or the spa — they’re ubiquitous in many Finnish households, as they’re an integral part of the country’s culture. If you’re in Helsinki, you can try it out for yourself at one of the many public saunas throughout the city, from the historic Sauna Arla, which opened in 1929, to the modern Kulttuurisauna, both located just north of the city center. You might want to ask your hotel concierge or the admissions desk at the saunas about proper etiquette before entering, as there are some customs that may surprise visitors — for instance, Finns always go nude in saunas, though it is not usually frowned upon if tourists wear bathing suits. Some saunas, however, forbid wearing any sort of bathing gear.
Explore Helsinki's Numerous Churches
Helsinki’s skyline isn’t dominated with skyscrapers, but steeples. There are nearly a dozen major churches in the city — most of which are open to the public daily — each with impressive architectural flair. Helsinki Cathedral is the most iconic traditional church, displaying a bright white neoclassical façade and green domes, while the modern Temppeliaukio Church is famous for being built into the rocks and hosting numerous concerts. But for a more meditative experience, visit the Kamppi Chapel, or the "Chapel of Silence,” a soothing wooden space dedicated to quiet reflection.
Go to the Beach
You might be inclined to think that chilly Finnish weather might discourage sunbathing, but the short summers are perfect for visiting the beach. Given that Helsinki is a coastal city surrounded by hundreds of islands, there are dozens of public beaches to visit. One of the most popular is the café-lined Hietaniemi Beach in Töölö, which you’ll find filled with locals playing volleyball on a sunny summer day. There’s also a beach at Suomenlinna Fortress, so you can take in a museum in the morning before going for a dip in the afternoon.
Go Swimming Year-Round
Finns love to swim, whether that’s at a beach during the summer or in the icy waters in the winter (followed by a visit to the sauna, of course!). For those who don’t want to brave the elements, there are also a number of public swimming pools throughout Helsinki that have more temperate waters. The Allas Sea Pool comprises three outdoor pools on a floating jetty on the harbor—they’re all filled with seawater, but only two are heated. There are saunas on site as well as a café. For a different experience, head to the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall, which is Helsinki’s oldest public indoor pool. The beautiful Art Deco space opened in 1928 and is a beautiful spot to take a dip. Note that bathing suits are not permitted here, so you’ll be swimming in the nude.
Bring the Kids to Linnanmäki Amusement Park
If you’re traveling to Helsinki with children — or if you’re a child at heart — visit Linnanmäki, where you can ride roller coasters, a ferris wheel, or family attractions like spinning teacups. You can also play arcade games, catch a theater performance, or experience the decorations of the Carnival of Lights, held in each fall. The park is open from April to October each year. Linnanmäki is run by a nonprofit organization that uses the money raised from the park to support child welfare.
Admire the Helsinki Central Railway Station
Opened in 1919, the Helsinki Central Railway Station is one of the most recognizable architectural landmarks in the city, designed by renowned Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. While it’s an operational station with both local and international train service, you can easily stroll through to take in the beautiful building, dine at one of the many restaurants on site, or peruse the shops. The station is conveniently located in the middle of the city within walking distance of many other tourist sites.
Catch a Concert
One of Finland’s greatest national icons is the composer Sibelius, who lived just north of Helsinki on Lake Tuusala. His legacy lives on in Finland’s musical heritage. If you’re in Helsinki, catch a concert at the Helsinki Music Centre, or Musiikkitalo. The building is home to the Sibelius Academy music school, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and offers a diverse range of programming, including events for families. If you can’t fit a concert into your schedule, you can also take a guided tour of its many music halls.
Helsinki is filled to the brim with museums covering all sorts of topics, from Finnish design history to military legacy. Many of the museums are relatively small, meaning you can fit several visits into a single day. If art is of interest, visit Amos Rex, an underground museum that hosts rotating exhibitions — two of 2019’s exhibitions included Finland’s first show dedicated to Rene Magritte and a show dedicated to Dutch duo Studio Drift, who blurs the line between art and design with its pieces. Want more design? Visit the Design Museum Helsinki to get an overview of the country’s historic connection to all sorts of design, from cell phones to fashion. If dinosaurs and animals are more your thing, you can visit the Finnish Museum of Natural History.
Shop 'til You Drop
Helsinki’s city center is full of vintage stores, designer boutiques, and malls to appeal to any kind of shopper. If you’re going to buy one thing in Helsinki, it should be something from Marimekko, Finland’s most famous clothing, fabric, and home decor brand known for its bold patterns. You’ll see Finns wearing it everywhere, and you’ll find the materials in everything from hotel rooms to the airplane blankets on Finnair. But you can also find plenty of beautiful craft pieces in Helsinki — check the markets to find stalls run by local artisans. And if you’re just in the market for window shopping, check out the Design District.
Enjoy Nature in Central Park
Finns love to enjoy nature, so it’s no surprise that there’s a massive park right in the middle of the city (well, it’s just north of the city center, but well within city limits). Central Park covers nearly 2,500 acres — a good portion of which is a primeval forest, so some parts feel more akin to a wild national park than a landscaped one like New York’s Central Park. You’ll find recreation like hiking paths, sports facilities, and ski trails, as well as facilities like cafés, restaurants, and even a sauna.
Relax at the Library
The Oodi Helsinki Central Library, which opened in 2018, is a massive public space for locals and visitors to share. There are books to rent, of course (though many are written in Finnish), but where the library really stands out is its urban workshop, which offers the free use of 3D printers, large format printers, vinyl cutters, and sewing machines, among other technology. You can also book video game rooms, play board games with the kids, or even have a glass of wine in the café. It’s not only a great spot to read, but to learn, relax, and socialize.
Take a Day Trip
While Helsinki itself has plenty of activities to keep you busy, there are a vast number of destinations just outside the city that are worth a day trip during your stay. Just a 30-minute drive or train ride north of Helsinki brings you to Lake Tuulsula, an area once favored by the city’s 20th-century creative elite. Tour composer Sibelius’s home Ainola, or visit one of the local art museums. You can also take a canoe out onto the lake or rent a bicycle to ride the paths around it. Another great day trip is to Fiskars Village, just an hour west of Helsinki by car, train, and bus, where the iconic Fiskars brand was founded. Today, artisans have studios and shops in historic buildings — stroll along the river, buy a few goods, then head to the local distillery and brewery for a drink.