Helsinki, the ‘Pearl of the Baltic Sea’ and the beautiful capital of Finland, will enchant you with its arresting seascapes, colourful neo-classical architecture, and delicious cuisine. Built on the tip of a peninsula as well as 315 small islands, surrounded by forest and with 60 nature reserves within the city, Helsinki is often voted as one of the very best places to live in the world! It is certainly one of the sparsest populated capitals with small enclaves of building and homes surrounded by evergreen forests within the metropolitan area.
Historically, the area around Helsinki was settled during the Iron Age by the Tavastian peoples who built an imposing line of hillforts that demonstrate their propensity for warfare.
Undoubtedly, the Sámi and the Tavastians shared a tense coexistence which kept the more southerly peoples around Helsinki while the Sámi stayed in Lapland.
Helsinki was originally founded in 1550 by King Gustav I Vasa of Sweden. Sweden influenced Finland for several centuries until the Russian empire gained power in the region. Russia conquered Finland in 1809 and after three years Helsinki was declared the capital of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland so that administrative control was closer to Saint Petersburg. In the decades following this, the city was remodelled under the influence of the German-born architect Carl Ludwig Engel. Finland declared independence from Russia in December 1917. Today’s Finnish peoples are fiercely independent and revel in the modernity of their culture and society.
Here’s a Pro-Tip: Helsinki has a pleasantly warm climate during the summertime because of seasonal currents which makes it the perfect spot for a city-break. During the winter however, temperatures plummet to well below zero. So, depending upon your tolerance for cold, time your trip accordingly!
You’ll fly into Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport which is just 18 km (11.2 miles) north of central Helsinki and well-served by many major airlines. A taxi to the city centre will cost around 30-50 Euros (£25-43). Agree the price with the driver before beginning your journey. Alternatively you can board a train from T1, arrivals floor, to the city.
Helsinki is a dream to explore on foot as the distances between many sites are short and there are plenty of green areas for shade. Here’s where I recommend you visit:
- Market Square (Kauppatori)– Make a stop at this harbour side market which is the social and commercial hub of the city. This wonderful market is a great place to grab a cup of steaming Finnish coffee while browsing stalls selling everything from fresh fish to reindeer horns and handmade jewellery.
- Design District– This neighbourhood showcases a large number of buildings, workshops, galleries and design-oriented boutiques which you can find handmade products with expert level Scandinavian design. Helsinki’s Design Museum is located here.
- Suomenlinna– Just 20 minutes by ferry from Helsinki harbour lie several little islands that form ‘The Fortress of Finland.’ Constructed in the mid-18the century, the complex was an important line of defence for Southern Finland. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Suomenlinna comprises six museums spanning military history to toys.
- Helsinki boasts beautiful cathedrals and churches each with its own unique architectural style. I recommend you visit the following:
- – Helsinki Cathedral is a national landmark that shapes the city skyline, especially when illuminated by the night sky. This whitewashed neoclassical cathedral with its green dome was built during the 19th century in honour of the Russian Tsar Nicholas I, who was also Grand Duke of Finland. There are also beautiful city views from the top of the steps.
- – Partly underground and carved into solid rock, Temppeliaukio Church is an architectural masterpiece which floods with light from the skylight. The church was built by the brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, who won the commission in a post-war competition.
- Sauna– While in Helsinki, it would be rude not to indulge in the signature Finnish leisure activity. Dating back to the Viking period, saunas offer a wealth of health benefits. Visit Löyly or Kotiharjun Sauna for an authentic experience.
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Helsinki is a great place to experience Finnish food which adds a contemporary flare to traditional country recipes. Here’s where I recommend you try the cuisine:
- Savotta Restaurant – Offering beautiful views of the Helsinki Cathedral, this charming Finnish restaurant is where you can try the traditional dishes you’ve heard about! The set menu takes you through a charcuterie platter of reindeer and bear meats and local cheeses. Their mains are equally traditional with lots of reindeer featured on the menu.
- Café Regatta– This Instagram-able café looks like it came straight out of Lapland. Built in 1887, this cosy and traditional Scandinavian hut serves steaming Finnish coffee and delicious cinnamon buns to keep the cold away. You can even roast sausages over the fire!
- Baskeri & Basso – This casual bistro has a pasta course and wine menu that will satisfy any hungry traveller. Inspired by French wine bars, the atmosphere is one of relaxation, largely due in part to the friendly nature of the servers.
Here’s another Pro-Tip: Late July until August is crayfish season. The traditional festivities bring the shellfish and Akvavit (Scandinavian spirit) together in a combination of rituals that Helsinki’s citizens love to celebrate! If you happen to be in the city, head to a seafood restaurant where you’ll learn drinking songs and how to eat crayfish Finnish-style. Just be careful with the Akvavit – it is strong!
From cocktail bars to dance clubs, there’s something for everyone at night in Helsinki. These are my favourite spots:
- Sky Room– Located on the top floor of the Clarion Hotel, Sky Room provides a bird’s eye view over the city that is best experienced at sunset with a cocktail in hand.
- Apollo Live Club – Formerly a cinema, this venue hosts all sorts of events. Visit at the weekend for late night live music and karaoke or during the week for stand-up and theatre performances.
- Storyville – With its live jazz music, delectable Cajun fare, and laid-back beer garden, this bar caters for anyone seeking a memorable night out in Helsinki.
Here’s another Pro-Tip: Finland has one of the most vibrant LGBTQ+ scenes in the world. Forget “Pride Month”, in Helsinki there are “Pride” events all summer!
Stylishly designed and utterly hospitable, Helsinki’s hotels are incredibly comfortable. Here’s where I stay in the city:
- Hotel Kämp– Overlooking Esplanadi, this luxurious hotel was established in 1887 as Finland's grand hotel, with historical and elegant rooms and suites. Their glamorous bar is the perfect place to have a cocktail and they have a Finnish spa in which to relax.
- Hotel F6– Located on Aleksanterinkatu, this hip boutique hotel is conveniently sited for nearby shopping streets, restaurants and Esplanadi. Stylish rooms take inspiration from different cultures and add the perfect extra touch with fluffy bathrobes and slippers so you can truly relax!
- Hotel Lilla Roberts– This art-deco themed hotel is set around a beautiful courtyard in the Design District. Stay in their elegant and stylish rooms for ultimate relaxation and gorgeous views. The hotel also supplies free bicycles that you can enjoy around the city!
Helsinki is pretty in pastels!
Often touted one of the most liveable, happiest and safest cities in Europe, it’s so easy to see why I never want to leave Helsinki. If you visit Helsinki, I think you’ll love it as much as I do!