By Amber Musgrove-Benford (University of Helsinki, Finland)
- Explore the Architecture
From Nordic minimalism to neoclassicism and even Byzantine-Russian, Helsinki is formed by an amalgamation of architectural styles, which can be seen on a (free!) walk around the city.
Try Senate Square and its star, Helsingin tuomiokirkko, designed by Carl Ludvig Engel for neoclassicism, and Lasipalatsi (“Glass Palace”), along with other buildings designed for the 1952 Olympic Games, for modernism. The capital also houses the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Northern Europe!
Newer structures, like Kaisa-Talo (the Main Library of the University of Helsinki) and Oodi library further indicate why Finland is world-renowned for its contemporary architecture and design.
2. Visit Suomenlinna
This UNESCO heritage site is located a 20-minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square, costing only €2.80. Built as a sea fortress, it has survived three distinct periods of Finnish history, defended first Sweden, then Russia and finally Finland itself.
In the warmer months, Suomenlinna is perfect for a walk and picnic. I even went for a (very quick) swim in the Gulf of Finland.
3. Amos Rex
Located on Mannerheimintie (Helsinki’s main street) and within the Lasipalatsi is Amos Rex, a subterranean modern art museum. Tickets for students and under 30s are only €5, so it’s worth exploring for both the art and the architecture.
4. Walk on the Sea
If you’re in Helsinki between January and mid-March and the winter has been cold enough, you can take a walk over water. When the Baltic Sea freezes, Finns use the ice as an extension of the city, using it for walking, running and even skiing.
The novelty of it never wears off, and the sea also makes for a great place to hunt for the perfect spot to watch the amazing winter sunsets!
5. Go Thrifting
Helsinki has a big thrifting scene, and throughout the city is possible to find chains of thrift stores, carefully curated vintage boutiques, flea markets and antique shops. Perfect if you’re taken with Nordic fashion (like me!), looking for something unique, or aiming to live more sustainably.
Cost: However cheap or expensive you choose to make it
While Finland does not have a particular reputation for its baked goods, in my opinion, it should. Try the riisipiirakka, a rice pasty developed in the Karelian region in as early as 1686, or pulla (bulle in Swedish), a buttery cardamom pastry and korvapuusti, a cinnamon variety of the pulla. In spring, make sure to seek out a laskiaipulla, a sweet roll hugely popular in Northern Europe and associated with Shrove Tuesday and Lent. Most bakeries in Helsinki are pretty affordable – my favourite remains Helsinki Homemade Bakery in Töölö.
Cost: 0.60€ to 3€
7. Visit Nuuksio
Nuuksio National Park is located around an hour away from Helsinki by public transport and costs around €4 to get there. I’d really recommend taking a day exploring the parks trails, especially in autumn!
8. Warm up in the Botanical Gardens
The Kaisaniemi Botanical Gardens are located in the centre of the city and are a great escape from the Finnish cold. As a bonus, entrance is only €6 for students.
9. Catch a Ferry to Tallinn
Though obviously not in Helsinki, visiting the Estonian capital of Tallinn can be done by catching a two hour ferry from Helsinki’s port. Tallinn itself is small, beautiful, and full of history but can definitely be explored in one day. Even better is the fact that food and drink in Tallinn is much cheaper than in Helsinki, so gorge yourself for perhaps a quarter of Finnish prices!
Cost: 10€ for a round trip
10. Hunt for the Northern Lights
I reluctantly add this to the list, but when conditions are perfect, it is possible, albeit rarely, to see the Northern Lights in Helsinki. Download an Aurora Hunting App onto your phone and wait for a notification telling you when chances are at their highest. Head to Observatory Hill in Kaivopuisto or Hietaranta Beach, somewhere away from the city light pollution, and hope!