Helsinki, Finland, is where you’ll find me most days… and I have some tips for you if you’re visiting.
Since I love walking, summer, and food, that’s mostly what my tips are about! For anything more detailed, please drop a line in the comments, I’d be more than happy to assist.
Where to go once you’re here
Since it’s a seaside town, the prettiest areas are located by the water. Take a walk from the Senate Square along the seaside and you’ll end up in Kaivopuisto park, which is a popular spot for locals to hang out. There are cafes and ice cream stands in the park – you won’t go hungry!
The Suomenlinna fortress island is a Unesco World Heritage site, you can go there by ferry – it’s worth a visit! Once there, in the summer, you can go for a swim in the sea but it might be chilly (consider yourself warned!). Also, watch out for seagulls while waiting for the ferry – they will eat your ice cream, whether it’s on the cone or on the ground!
There are many other islands you can visit right off the shore of Helsinki. One of them is Pihlajasaari, which has fireplaces for grilling sausages (popular here). The Pihlajasaari island has sandy beaches as well as smooth, large rocks which many Finns actually prefer to sunbathe on (not me -they’re too hard!)
The Helsinki Samba Carnaval is my favorite summer event. This year, it’s programmed for June 18th. Watch the parade advance along the esplanade (Pohjoisesplanadi) and yes, they are wearing proper carnaval clothes!
There are lots of art museums and little galleries everywhere. There’s some interesting architecture, best seen by wandering around the central residential areas by foot.
Take a boat to Tallinn, Estonia for an easy day trip or a 3-day cruise to Stockholm, Sweden with Tallink Silja Line.
If you come all the way to Finland, why not visit Finnish Lapland? It’s a very unique kind of environment – silent and peaceful. Other areas of interest: the lakes, Nuuksio National Park, the small town of Porvoo, the archipelago towards Sweden.
Cafes and restaurants
There are lots of cafes around the center of Helsinki. I’d recommend Cafe Esplanad, Cafe Regatta, and Café Sininen Huvila (also written as Sinisen Huvilan kahvila). Besides sweet pastries, cafes in Helsinki usually offer salads and filled baguettes for lunch.
For a rooftop view of downtown Helsinki, enjoy a drink at Hotel Torni’s top floor. Part of the hotel looks like a little princess tower from one of those stories where she climbs down knotted sheets from the top window – hence the name Torni which means tower in Finnish.
Finnish cuisine consists mainly of traditional, potato-based home cooking and it’s not really served in restaurants as such. When Helsinkians go out for dinner, they usually choose from the foreign cuisines on offer. The city has plenty, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, Nepalese, Greek, Spanish, and Mexican restaurants… there’s even a Hawaiian restaurant.
The best department store is Stockmann – they also have a good grocery store in the basement floor. (I’m not even going to defend calling it the best one, it just is!)
You can find most of these places online or with apps like Yelp.
What to expect
Dress for the weather (check out the weather beforehand), the four seasons really do differ a lot over here. Helsinki is generally a very windy town, being located by the Baltic Sea.
You can pay by credit/debit card pretty much anywhere, I rarely even carry cash. Of course you should still check in advance that your card will work here. The currency is euros.
A lot of things are written in both Finnish and Swedish. Finnish isn’t related to any major language families so it would be a hard language for most travelers to decipher, but English and German speakers might be able to guess some of the Swedish if they’re feeling adventurous or creative. This might come in handy if you go to a grocery store and are wondering about the labels.
If you arrive in the summer
During summer, the sun only sets for a couple of hours; during winter, it barely rises (both have the same result: chronic sleepiness.)
People take advantage of every moment of the short summers and you can see lots of picnics everywhere. Sunbathing in little more than a bikini in a park in the center of town is quite normal. The parks are popular places for jogs, too.
During Midsummer, this year June 24th – 25th, Helsinki is always very quiet. Many shops will be closed and most of those who are lucky enough to have a summer house somewhere by the lakes will have left town by then. July is the main vacation month.
Traffic and transportation
Bicycles are a popular form of transport in the summer (in all seasons, actually). There are bicycle lanes everywhere in center, located right next to the pedestrian lanes. The two are separated by a painted line on the ground.
Finns don’t really jaywalk (rules are taken seriously!) and so car drivers aren’t used to jaywalkers: they might not expect you to, so be careful.
Public transportation is great. Finns rarely take taxis for short trips since they’re quite expensive. Take the tram, metro, bus, or a local train! The tram system is much more complex than the metro, which is just a single line with a little fork at one end.