An Introduction to Helsinki

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.

There’s now a train from the airport to the center. If you prefer, you could also opt for the airline Finnair’s direct bus service, which is quite comfy.

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58 responses to “An Introduction to Helsinki

    • Venezia seems so much prettier to me, but it’s probably always like that- the exoticly foreign always seems so much more alluring… Thanks Sid, for your lovely comment, as always! 🙂 Happy Easter weekend, ciao!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you, SSW, spoken like a true Helsinkian. 🙂 First time I hear this word, by the way. So many useful information for anybody who plans to visit. I cannot help but notice a variety of blues and greens. Who knows… maybe one day…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Let me know if you do visit! 😉 These pictures are from several recent years (and I have many hundreds more), hopefully summer 2016 will be a good one! With blue and green 🙂 I’m not sure if Helsinkian is an actual word, by the way… well, now it is!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! It’s been ages since I’ve been to the Sinisen Huvilan kahvila – I must make a point of visiting. I have never experienced the Samba Carnival, maybe this year. I so look forward to summer 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Were you here this year or another January? It really does look very different in the winter compared to summer. Needless to say, I prefer summer (that’s the whole theme of my blog! hahah) Happy to hear you still enjoyed yourselves! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved the article! It was very detailed and the pictures are amazing! Now i want to book a flight to Helsinki!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is just what I needed to read SMS… Excellent info for my forthcoming trip. I think zi have 2 days to explore the city. As I have been to Talliin, I was thinking of taking a trip up to Porvoo. What would you suggest for the best way to get there. I will be there at end of May.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t tried Cafe Sininen Huvila. Are you referring to Hoku as the Hawaiian restaurant? I’ve been yearning to go there for ages! Our favourite dining out is usually Japanese. The hubby has been wanting to take me to Pastor (Peruvian/Japanese) but somehow we end up being this old boring couple going to our same old favourites 🙂 I’ve heard Southpark is good. Looking forward to more reviews from you! x

    Liked by 1 person

    • You should definitely try Cafe Sininen Huvila (=blue villa), it’s at a beautiful spot at Töölönlahti. Open depending on the weather because you’re seated outdoors 🙂 I used to eat at a lot of the Japanese places, too. Never heard of Pastor, sounds very interesting, will write it down for later! Nowadays I don’t eat out that much anymore but a couple of years ago I was more active. Never tried Southpark either! Yes, I meant Hoku. I used to love Meze Point but it closed down.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s quite depresing when you don’t see the sun for months, but for a visitor just stopping by I’m sure it’d be interesting! Let me know if you decide to visit! 🙂

      Like

  6. Do you live in Helsinki? 🙂 Great! I knew from your bio that you lived somewhere in the Nordics but never assumed it to be Finland for some reason. I used to live in Finland until I moved to Poland a couple of years ago, in a quiet student town called Kokkola in the Central West part of Finland.
    I have been to Helsinki multiple times and have fond memories from the city. I was lucky enough to see Samba festival one summer, it was so, so lively! People say that Helsinki is so boring compared to other Nordic capitals but I think it’s quite nice. Fantastic post, by the way! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t realise you’d lived in Finland, either! Small world! I’ve never been to Kokkola, did you like it there? The samba carnaval is great, though unfortunately the weather keeps getting worse and worse each time, it seems. This year it was freezing, windy and rainy. I felt sorry for the dancers who’d gone to all that trouble with their outfits and dance routines. Helsinki is quite small for a capital, but it’s growing! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kokkola was so small and quiet that sometimes I just wanted to get out – and would wonder what I was doing in the middle of nowhere. Same few pubs, same faces, same stores etc. But there were perks: seeing Northern lights, experiencing frozen sea nearby, walking/biking everywhere. There are things that I so miss about Kokkola now. 🙂
        Oh that’s a shame – when I was there, the weather was really nice and it just added to the beauty of the colors, the dance and the celebration mood. Finnish summers are so unpredictable aren’t they.. We’re enjoying last few days of hot weather here before the autumn kicks in.

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