Helsinki is the capital of Finland, it’s the world’s coldest capital with an average yearly temperature that doesn’t go past 0°c! The tap water comes from mountain springs and is such high quality that it’s exported to other countries! It arrives via the longest water tunnel in the world, the päijänne tunnel. Central Helsinki has heated sidewalks to keep them clear from snow in winter!
I was super excited to visit in January, I loved the idea of wandering through the snow in mainland Europe’s most Northern capital City. Only beaten by Reykjavik in Iceland. The tram and ferry system was so good when I was there, it meant that staying a little out of the City centre was much easier than I thought it might be. My top cost saving tip is for Helsinki is to eat at RAX, an all you can eat buffet restaurant that was sooo tasty and only 11E!!
What to do in Helsinki
Check out the amazing architecture
There are some incredible feats of architecture in Helsinki, Temppeliaukion church is built directly into a rock face and the skylight lets in amazing natural sunlight, the acoustics are so good that it’s also used as a concert venue.
It would be such a cool venue, the outside was covered with snow so I couldn’t get a good idea of how it looks but the inside was fabulous. I even found a sled nearby and had a little toboggan session!
Uspenski cathedral is near the sky wheel and Allas sauna, you can’t miss it up on it’s small hill. It’s free to enter, built in 1862 and was designed by a russian architect. The red brick and golden spires are beautiful.
A major landmark of the City is the neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral, this was completed in 1852 and dominates senate square where it’s located.
It’s plan is based on a Greek cross which makes it symmetrical in all directions. Senate Square and it’s surrounding area is the oldest part of Helsinki and you can find the Government Palace and Main building of Helsinki University here. There are also some lovely little streets running off from it to explore.
The train station is also a sublime and impressive piece of architecture, and railway square had ice rinks and fun winter stuff when I visited. The streets surrounding it are full of restaurants shops and bars. If you want something a little more modern, head up Finlandia hall and National opera and ballet house.
The Kallion Kirkko with it’s imposing tower is worth a visit if you’re in the Kallio area, it’s one of the more bohemian places in Helsinki with some cool alternative bars and not far from where I was staying.
Apparently you can see the Estonian coastline from the tower of the church. The walk from Kallio into Helsinki centre across the Pitkasilta bridge was really pretty.
Try out the traditional sauna
Saunas were invented in Finland and are a huge part of life and culture here. One of the first texts regarding sauna was written in 1112, they have a saying that they believe that you should act the same in a sauna as in church. Saunas are supposed to have many health benefits such as soothing tired muscles, relieves tension and stress and helps condition the heart amongst many others.
So I checked out a couple of saunas in Helsinki, my absolute favourite was the Allas sea pool, it’s located on Katajanokka island which is pretty nice to walk around, you can do a full circuit along the coast and there are some nice restaurants around that area too. It cost 14E for sauna and access to the sea pool at Allas, and it was such an amazing experience.
There are mixed, male, and female sauna, so you heat up, sweat it out, then head outside to the sea pool. In January it was 3°c! I jumped in and immediately lost my breath, it was so cold! There’s always a lifeguard to watch out for any problems so don’t be too scared to try it. I loved it so much I went for a repeat experience. There was also a nicely heated outdoor pool which was nice with the snow falling down around me as I swam.
Loyly was the other sauna I visited, it’s on the other side of the bay to Allas, in the Munkisaari district. I walked there in a huge snowstorm, even my beard froze! It was pretty exciting though, and I had about 8 layers on.
I did a 2 hour sauna that cost 19E and this included towels and shower products. This was a little more classy than Allas but instead of a sea pool you can just jump directly into the sea! It was really rough because of the blizzard so I opted not to try it for fear of being washed away, but I think it would be amazing in Summer.
There is also the infamous Burger King sauna in Helsinki, I didn’t visit it but you can book out the whole sauna with 48″ TV, playstation 4 and obviously access to Burger Kings full menu. Definitely an interesting choice of venue!
Visit the fortress of Suomenlinna
This UNESCO heritage site was built in the 18th century when Finland was part of Sweden to protect it from Russian advances, it’s built over 8 islands just 4km away from Helsinki City Centre. You take a short ferry ride to get there, when I visited in January the boat ploughed through the frozen sea which was cool. The ferry departs just opposite the presidential palace and is pretty frequent.
There’s a wonderful old pink gatehouse which has tourist information next to it, and once through this gate you can wander to your hearts content. In 1808 the Swedish ceded the fortress to Russia, and the following year Finland came under Russian rule, it stayed like that until 1917 when Finland declared independence.
Wrap up warm if you’re going in Winter, it was beautiful with the snow and frost, I visited a couple of the museums on the island including the Suomenlinna museum and the war museum to get a better understanding of Finnish history. Be sure to check opening times for all the main sights as some are seasonal.
As I wandered I passed a cool old submarine that was built in 1933, unfortunately the museum inside was closed when I visited. I continued on to the southernmost point of the islands, and found loads of cool fortifications with artillery pointing out to sea.
The fortress here was amazing, you can walk along the tops of the walls, through some spooky dark corridors and explore the King’s Gate. This was built in the 1700s and the strairs lead out to the water which has amazing views over the archipelago.
You can easily spend a full day exploring here, the 4 main islands are pretty big. There’s still a minimum security labor colony on Suomenlinna whose inmates volunteer to maintain the fortifications and reconstruction! Another fun fact is that George Martin, writer of Game of Thrones wrote a short story about Suomelinna in school!
Immerse yourself in Culture
The birthplace of the Moomins, Death Metal and sauna, the location of lapland and Father Christmas, Finland has a rich history, learn more about it at the National Museum of Finland, it had so many cool interactive exhibits on show, and the building is really pretty. Make sure you check out the stain glassed windows.
The Finnish Museum of Natural History is okay but there was nothing really here that I haven’t seen in other natural history museums around the world. Helsinki computer game museum is definitely only worth it if you’re in the nearby vicinity and really into computer games, but the view from the top of the shopping centre is pretty awesome.
For a real taste of Finland head to Market Square and the Old Market Hall, serving people since the late 1800s. You can find all sorts of traditional food and items here, plus souvenirs. There are a few nice little restaurants that you can sit in. The building itself is really pretty too.
Just wander and explore
It sounds a little morbid but the cemetary on the West side of Helsinki was pretty cool, a little further North is Sibeliusken park which has the impressive Sibelius monument and coastal views. Kaivopuisto park was also fun mainly because the snow was so deep!
I also really liked being able to see out across the bay at all the islands and the sea ice was amazing! I really felt like I was far north with all the snow.
Take a day trip to Tallinn
Take the star ferry over to Estonia for a cheeky extra country while visiting Finland, read all about what to do in Tallinn here. It takes around 2 hours one way on the ferry, with beautiful views over the gulf of Finland. Costs vary from 20E one way to 50E.
Helsinki is such a lovely City, loads of architecture to look at, the sauna is so amazing especially in the colder months, and I didn’t realise how much culture Finland had!