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The next stop on our Scandinavian tour was in Helsinki, and we could not have been more excited.
I must admit that I knew very little about Helsinki or Finland. It always seemed like such a far away and hidden place, so close to Russia yet considered part of Western Europe, it was an enigma to me. These are the types of places I like to visit most though!
What we found was a pretty, compact city. A mix of old and new. Many attractions, including some great attractions for kids and a nice and easy place to explore. Below, you will find our guide to the best things to do in Helsinki as well as information about food, getting here, getting around and where to stay.
If you are wondering what to do in Helsinki, there are many choices. Below are our top 10, as well as some other suggestions of Helsinki attractions that you might enjoy.
The first attraction we came across on our Helsinki adventure was Senate Square and the beautiful, imposing Helsinki Cathedral. The cathedral was completed in 1852 and towers over Senate Square being perched up some stairs.
Senate Square itself is lined with important buildings including this church, the government buildings, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland.
Helsinki Cathedral has a low key but spacious and peaceful interior. We especially enjoyed sitting on the steps at the front and watching all the action in the square.
Sitting on another nearby hill and looking out over Market Square, is the Uspenski Cathedral. This was completed in 1868 and is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe.
Unfortunately, we were unable to enter on the day of our visit, but there are great views from around this cathedral (as there is from Helsinki Cathedral as well) so it is worth the short hike up even if you do not go inside.
Market Square on Helsinki’s waterfront seems like the hub of Helsinki. In addition to being in the centre of everywhere and the jumping off point for many cruises and boat rides, there is a market here. You can buy fruit and vegetables, souvenirs and handicrafts. There are also lots of food tents and we had a great lunch here of reindeer meatballs and vegetables. This was one of our favourite places to see in Helsinki.
As part of our Helsinki Card, we were able to take a “beautiful canal route” boat tour from Helsinki sightseeing around Helsinki harbour and neighbouring islands.
We saw great views of the downtown harbour, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, Helsinki Zoo, an ice breaker fleet and many pretty island views. I was quite jealous by the idyllic setting of some of the houses. We also saw many saunas right by the water so that locals could heat up and then jump straight into the cold water!
The best part of this cruise was the commentary. We were able to learn a fair bit about Helsinki while listening to this while the kids looked at the views and happily coloured away. A staff member gave them some pencils and colouring in sheets which was a lovely touch.
The Finnair Skywheel is an observational wheel on the waterfront near Market Square that gives 360 degree views of the neighboring areas.
It is not all that tall so we weren’t able to see all that far but it was a great view of all the areas mentioned above. It also moves relatively quickly for this type of attraction which made it more fun for the kids. It was like an enclosed ferris wheel.
Esplanade Park is a fantastic strip of parkland, cafes, gardens and art work which forms the main promenade in Helsinki. Walking along here was probably our favourite thing to do in Helsinki – it is just so nice and atmospheric. There are also some great looking buildings lining the sides of the street.
My favourite way to explore a city, particularly in Europe, is on foot. Helsinki is no exception. I recommend getting out there and just walking around. You will find many places to visit in Helsinki as you walk around.
I found these great walking tour routes. We did some of route 1 and one I made up.
A visit to this island is definitely one of the top things to do in Helsinki. This place is gorgeous! From its fort walls to museums to green, open space, it is a lovely place to explore. There are many places to see and visit.
Suomenlinna, a quick ferry trip from Market Square, was a sea fortress and naval base built in the 18th century under the Swedes. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is also a Helsinki suburb home to over 800 people with many facilities such as a school. It’s also a great size for exploring on foot and learning more about the history of the area.
There are museums, playgrounds, restaurants, shops, a church and other sites on the island. We enjoyed exploring the three main museums and a submarine! We could have also done a guided tour with our Helsinki pass, but didn’t think the kids would be patient enough for that – I would definitely do it if you are travelling without young kids though.
We visited the Suomenlinna Museum, Ehrensvard Museum, the Military Museum’s Manege and Submarine Vesikko. The Suomenlinna Museum is a great place to start. There is a 25 minute film which gives a good introduction to the site. We found the Military Museum’s Manege helped us understand Finland’s past.
Submarine Vesikko is extra cool. We got to go on board a submarine built in 1933. I was surprised by how small it was. I would hate to be in that under the sea! It was fun to explore on land though.
Helsinki Zoo has a picturesque location on its own island just a short bus ride from central Helsinki. It is home to over 150 animal species and nearly 1000 plant species. It is also one of the oldest in the world being established in 1889. If you are travelling with kids, this is a good one to add to your Helsinki things to do list.
The zoo specialises in Nordic animals. Given the temperatures in Helsinki, you won’t find elephants or hippopotamuses. This was fine with us since we are not used to seeing Nordic animals. The snow leopards and bears were a highlight for us. It was not easy to see all of the animals, but it is a nice area to walk around and explore especially on a nice day.
The Seurasaari Open-Air Museum is located on a beautiful island a very quick bus trip from the centre of Helsinki. We found it actually hard to believe we were so close to a capital city with the bush location of this open-air museum. It feels a long way from everyone.
The island is home to many cottages, manors and farmsteads from all across Finland from the last four centuries. They are all spread out across this tree filled island and it’s easy to get away from everyone and enjoy a bit of wilderness as well as the history.
We came here for the Midsummer festival (see more below), so it was probably a different experience than others will have here. However, I think it would be enjoyable at any time. For kids, there are many special activities and a play area.
We would also have liked to visit:
If you are visiting in winter, check out this guide to winter in Helsinki.
We accidentally timed our Helsinki stay for during the midsummer holiday break. We did not realise but this time of year around the longest day is a big deal in Finland and nearby countries. It’s a big festival which also incorporates a couple of public holidays.
This was both good and bad. What was good is that we got to go to the Midsummer festival in Helsinki which is held at the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum. What is bad is that many things were shut during our entire stay in Helsinki – including many museums.
The Seurasaari Midsummer Bonfires is a special event. It starts at 4pm and goes until late. However, it never actually feels that late thanks to all that sunlight. We made sure we arrived by 6pm to see the lighting of the first bonfires. Bonfires are a big part of this celebration, as is singing and dancing and we saw all three. We also saw them erecting Midsummer poles and other festivities.
It is a very family friendly celebration. We took our kids and there were many others there. There were lots of activities for kids and it was enjoyable for everyone.
The one downside is that Seurasaari Open-Air Museum is quite big and we didn’t really know what was happening when and we spent too much time walking around trying to work it out rather than enjoying things. If you go, try to get as much information as possible first. It cost 20 euros per adult.
We used a Helsinki card for our stay. This card is great! It included all the Helsinki attractions above apart from the festival and Helsinki Zoo which was discounted. It also covers a zillion museums and other attractions and all public transportation. You can also use it to go on a Helsinki sightseeing tour by bus.
It is currently only 41 euros if you buy it online for 24 hours and 51 euros for 48 hours. Given a public transport day pass is 8 euros, it’s crazy good value. There is also a kids’ pass, but if your kids are under 7, everything was free anyway apart from the Skywheel.
We stayed at the Hotel Sokos Pasila which is just superb for families.
We had a big room with a king size and double bed. It came with all the usual hotel amenities plus some great extras like presents for the kids on check in, special family toiletries and rubber duckies! The hotel also has a great playroom complete with bouncing castle and a buffet table at breakfast especially for kids.
It is very easy to find good food in Helsinki. Even though it was Midsummer when we were there and most places were shut, we still found plenty of options.
Our favourite good value option was eating at the food tents at Market Square. We paid between 6 – 10 euros per dish here which were full of yummy vegetables and meat. The serves were big enough that we just needed 2 between the 4 of us. The kids and J enjoyed eating the reindeer meat.
Being vegetarian was trickier. As I said, most things were shut so I don’t know what it is like in normal restaurants. However the quick and easy options we came across did not cater well to vegetarians.
There are many options to get to Helsinki although most people fly or boat in. Here’s the details from our journeys…
There are ferries on this route but they are long and can be rough. We caught a quick and easy 45 minute flight from Stockholm to Helsinki for cheap from Norwegian Air.
The travel time from Helsinki to Tallinn by fast ferry is only 1.5 hours and only cost us 50 euros in total for the 4 of us, so it seemed silly to go any other way!
We caught the Linda Line ferry which was quick, easy and completely painless. There is a shop with snacks on board as well as some duty free items.
We caught public transport everywhere around Helsinki and it is super easy.
On arrival, we caught the Helsinki airport bus to the city. This leaves from right outside the terminal and is very easy to find. There is a ticket machine at the bus stop and it costs 5 euros per adult. Under 7s are free (as they are for all public transport).
The rest of the time we used our Helsinki card but it is easy to buy tickets at machines or on board. There are trains, trams and buses in Helsinki. We stuck to the trams and buses which are easy to work out. The trams can be a great way to see more of the city as well as a handy way to get around.
If you are pushing around a pram, you can get on public transport for free.
After hearing many times how expensive the Scandinavian countries are we were quite worried about our budget. We needn’t have been! It may not be as cheap as Thailand or Malaysia, but it is no worse than our home country of Australia.
After paying for accommodation and the Helsinki Card, we only needed to spend money on eating and the Midsummer bonfires. This cost us just under AUD$100/EUR68 per day over our three days.
We had no problems exploring the city with the kids and appreciated how basically everything was free for them. It is a very family friendly destination. They even allow parents pushing prams onto public transport for free!
There are also many things to do in Helsinki with kids. Our kids had a great time exploring Helsinki. It was interesting listening to them as they noticed all the differences between being in Asia and Europe. They especially enjoyed Helsinki Zoo, going to Seurasaari Midsummer Bonfires and the Skywheel. Z keeps asking for more reindeer meatballs too!
We loved exploring Helsinki and getting to know this part of the world. It’s a compact city that’s easy to explore and we enjoyed just walking around. I didn’t know much about Helsinki before we arrived, and it was fun changing that.
I have mixed feelings about the time of year that we visited. On the one hand, it was great to experience Midsummer here, but on the other, it was disappointing to have so many places closed. I also struggled with the weather after 6 months in the tropics – It was cold!
Thankfully, there was plenty to distract us from these issues though – we loved Suomenlinna, Market Square and the area around Esplanade Park. We loved how easy it was to get around, the great public transportation, the nice wide footpaths and the colourful buildings.
All in all, we had a great few days exploring all the fun things to do in Helsinki and we would love to see more of Finland one day.
You can also read our guide to Stockholm.