The port city of Helsinki –the capital of Finland –sits in the Gulf of Finland, its coast edged by many of the country’s islands which number in their hundreds. Home to both the National Museum and the National Gallery, the cultural attractions here are plentiful offering everything from amazing public sculptures to open-air concerts in lovely parks. Helsinki’s charms are both obvious and subtle and it is impossible to stroll the streets of this city without being touched by it in some way.
Once part of Sweden and later ruled by the tsars of the Russian Empire, Helsinki is saturated with history. Ways of exploring this side of things are numerous; you can marvel at the old insurance office which is covered in stone sculptures relating to Finnish folklore for example, check out one of its 19th century market halls or head out to the six linked islands which are home to the Suomenlinna Fortress to see evidence and leftovers which tell the story of both the Swedish and Russian eras.
Historical architecture and the thoroughly modern often sit side by side in this lovely city. The old is represented in such things as its two very beautiful but totally different cathedrals –one majestic and domed and its other constructed from red brick. The 21st creations include the curved Chapel of Silence which holds neither religious services nor ceremonies but is instead a sanctuary for all to escape the city bustle. There is even a 20th century church carved directly from a rock face. Helsinki is small for a capital but it is nevertheless full of an incredible menu of things to see and do. Most things are within easy walking distance of each other and should you want to save time and energy the city is home to a pocket-friendly tram system which passes most of the major sights, an efficient subway system and a regular ferry service to its islands which will cost you less than buying a cup of coffee in many cities.
A Morning in Helsinki
Your day of Helsinki adventure starts with tranquility and history in its lovely botanical gardens followed by its striking cathedrals. After a break for coffee you can decide if you want to explore the treasures of the National Museum or those of the National Gallery’s three choices.
Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden
A lovely way to start your Helsinki day is with a visit to the Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden whose large area of outdoor pathways, ponds and highly colorful plants and flowers are free to roam. Besides simply being a calming and beautiful place to visit the botanical gardens also have significant historical interest. With roots dating back to the 17th century Kaisaniemi is the country’s oldest scientific-interest gardens and is today home to hundreds of botanical species from all over the globe.
The criss-crossing paths you wander over this four hectare site are the same today as they have been for almost 200 years and the same is true of much of the design in general. The rock garden for example was established in 1884 and was the first of its kind in the country while the French Formal Garden was first planted in the 1830s. The outside areas also feature rose gardens, a sensory garden with species especially planted to stimulate smell and touch, a rare species collection, a herbarium and an arboretum of evergreens and deciduous trees which is full of birds and small wildlife species.
The glasshouse collection with its vast central greenhouse offers the visitor an escape into the tropical and the exotic and is exceptionally lovely. Divided into sections you can explore the flora of deserts, jungle, fragrant Mediterranean forests, tropical wetlands and more but almost all are taken from countries which lie on the same longitude as Finland and thus trace a line from pole to pole. Highlights include the largest seed on the planet in the Palm House, a gorgeous orchid collection and a pond full of water-lilies so large their vast leaves can hold up a fully grown adult. You can also follow the evolution path to encounter species so ancient they are deemed living fossils of the plant world.The oasis-like gardens also host nature-themed temporary exhibitions which you can see in the area which separates the large glass house from the smaller ones.
An Alternative Start to the Day
For views of a very different kind head to the city’s 40 m high Skywheel where, from the glass-sided capsules, you will be able to see many of the landmarks and sights you will be visiting during your day. These include the beautiful main cathedral and Market Square as well as the coastline and islands. One full revolution only takes 12 minutes so it isn’t hard to fit this popular attraction into your day.
A 10-15 minute walk from the botanic gardens will bring you to what is arguably the city’s most iconic building –Helsinki Cathedral. Neo-classical in style and stark white, this green-domed 19th century beauty features again and again on tourist literature and visitor-aimed promotion for the entire country. The distinctive central dome rises to 80 m, dominating the city skyline and visible from far and wide, in part due to its elevated position at one edge of Senate Square.
Adorning the cathedral’s facade can be seen 3 m statues of the Twelve Apostles and the grand pillared portico is approached by way of a huge series of stone steps which enhance the overall majesty of this beloved symbol of the city. Inside the cathedral is surprisingly spartan in appearance but still attractive due to the natural light which spills in from multiple directions.
Helsinki is actually home to two cathedrals –this, the main city cathedral and the 19th century Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral which is 1 km away. Built of red brick and crowned with golden onion domes the appearance of this cathedral is decidedly Russian in design and very different from its counterpart. It is also has a rather more ornate interior as was standard with Russian religious buildings of the time.
Other sights to see while you are in Senate Square include the 19th century statue of Russian emperor Alexander II. When Finland achieved independence in the early 20th century many wanted this statue removed although, as it is very obviously still here, nothing was ever actually put into action.
The other edges of the square are made up of the neo-classical 19th century Government Palace, the University of Helsinki’s principal branch and Sederholm House. This latter claims the title of the city’s oldest building, dating from 1757.
The Pohjola Insurance Building
Just 400 m from the cathedral can be found the Pohjola Insurance building which is certainly worth checking out while you are in the vicinity before you take a coffee break.
According to Finish folklore and mythology Pohjola was a land in part under the control of an evil witch. When the Pohjola Insurance Company constructed this building in 1899 they obviously decided to honor the mythical land from which they took their name. As a result the building’s facade is covered with a fantastical display of carved stone embellishments which include monsters, bears, gnomes, devils, trolls, various other animals and birds and trees.
Morning Coffee in Helsinki
For perfect convenience your last stop -the Helsinki Cathedral –happens to have an especially lovely cafe which is open during the summer months. Named the Cafe Kryptathis serene spot is indeed located in one of the cathedral’s arched stone crypts making your morning coffee pause particularly atmospheric. There is a good selection of sweet and savory accompaniments here and you can indulge knowing that all the cafe proceeds are donated to worthy and charitable causes. There are sometimes free art exhibitions here too.
For a morning coffee break with glamour you need only walk 400 m from the cathedral to find the gorgeous Kappeli. This beautiful 19th century building with its grand portico entrance and ornate glass frontage looks like the type of place where your check at the end of your visit could make quite a hole in your travel budget. However, despite its glittering chandeliers and original artwork the cafe serves refreshments and coffee break treats at prices comparable to the rest of the city’s options. Once the haunt of the famous Finnish art set of the 1800s such as the poet Eino Leino, the composer and violinist Jean Sibelius and the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Kappeli has had more than 150 years of perfecting its art of keeping customers happy. If the Finnish sun is shining there is also a lovely outdoor terrace on which to relax for a while.
Finnish chocolate fans will be highly familiar with the name Fazer as it is the country’s leading chocolate maker, producing confectionery since the 1800s. Right here in Helsinkithey also operate a collection of cafes so you can be sure of some extra-special treats. The modern Fazer Cafe Kluuvikatu 3 is the closest to your last stop at the cathedral where a free chocolate on the side comes as a standard extra no matter what drink you order.
A Choice of the National Museum or a National Art Gallery
Helsinki is home to a huge national museum as well as three separate branches of its national gallery. Each is covered here so you can decide for yourself which is most worthy of your time and interest.
The National Museum
With its spire-like tower, ornate granite stonework and majestic appearance, at first glance many assume the late 19th-century-constructed National Museum to be a church. Opened in 1916, it is in fact home to the country’s most important museum and is packed with artifacts, archaeological finds and artworks which date from prehistoric times to the present day.
The award-winning museum’s collection is so vast it takes up several separate buildings and is divided into six sections to make navigation easier. These divisions which incorporate virtual reality elements in places focus on such things as ancient history, medieval developments of the city and its society, the Swedish Kingdom era and the period when Finland was ruled by the tsars of Russia. There is also an additional exhibition which highlights rural life and the part folklore and legend have played in the country’s story. Displaying everything from vintage peasant costume to the first fridges of the city, some major highlights include the throne of Tsar Alexander I which dates from the 1700s and a treasure-like collection of everything from coins to swords which are displayed in the basement. Be sure to pause on the first floor balcony to admire the frescoes depicting scenes and characters from Finnish folklore.
The National Museum also hosts temporary exhibitions highly diverse in nature. Past events have included such things as Japanese design and photography.
The National Gallery
Helsinki’s national art collection of tens of thousands of pieces is so vast it is divided between three separate locations. The Ateneum –considered the principal branch –is home to fine art dating from the 1800s. The Sinebrychov Art Museum exhibits art and sculpture which covers the 1300s to the mid 1800s while Kiasma is the National Gallery’s contemporary art branch.
The Ateneum Art Museum
Opened in 1888, the Ateneum is the country’s oldest gallery and home to the country’s largest art and sculpture collection. The majority of works here have been completed by Finnish artists during the 1800s to the present day but there are some notable and priceless international inclusions too. The old building itself which rises up three storeys high is also something of a work of art decorated with sculpture and embellished with bas-relief works.
In order to demonstrate the development of Finnish art over the period covered the gallery displays Finnish works side-by-side with such famous names as Le Corbusier, Edvard Munch, Hugo Simberg and Vincent van Gogh.
An interesting section exhibits sketchbooks, personal letters and photographs which allow the visitor to learn something of the artist behind the works on display here. For those who are interested there is also an exhibition which relates the story of this historical building.
The Sinebrychov Art Museum
The Sinebrychov houses the Finnish National Gallery‘s collection of early European art dating from the 14th century which includes paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings and decorative arts. Once home to the wealthy Sinebrychovs after which it is named, the private art collection of this 19th century family was donated to the state to form part of its collection while the building itself was acquired at a later date. Today the Sinebrychov is part art museum and part house museum, allowing the visitor to wander through grand reconstructed rooms filled with the family’s furniture and decorative arts such as porcelain, clocks, silverware and glassware.
The four-floor Kiasma is home to the National Gallery’s modern and contemporary art collections and, not to be outdone by its counterparts in their own lovely buildings, is housed inside a distinctive construction itself. While the Ateneum and Sinebrychov buildings have historical value, the Kiasma’s architecture both inside and out is strikingly contemporary making it a perfect environment for the modern works it displays.
Some Interesting Helsinki Asides
Depending on whether you opt to explore the National Museum or one of the National Gallery branches you will be well placed to quickly check out some interesting Helsinki sights while you are in the vicinity.
From the National Museum –The Temppeliaukion Church –700 Meters
Helsinki may have grander and older churches but the 1960s created Temppeliaukion Church is the only one which has been carved directly from the rock to form a unique place of worship. The church’s multi-hued granite rock walls have not been covered or hidden in any way giving it a highly atmospheric feel. In fact the sounds of voices raised in hymn here are often accompanied by the music of miniature waterfalls which seep through the rock crevices at times.
From the Ateneum -the Chapel of Silence –500 Meters
The Chapel of Silence or the Kamppi Chapel holds neither religious services nor ceremonies. Instead this is a church dedicated to silence, built only a few years ago to offer a sanctuary and place of pause from the city sounds and bustle outside. Ultra-modern in design, the thick-walled wooden structure is distinctive from outside and the winner of a number of awards in the field of architecture. Its unadorned interior is an unembellished bare wood curving space filled with benches and a simple altar with a candlestick.
Interestingly it would appear that a chapel of silence was just what the city needed. Since it opened its doors in 2012 it is estimated more than 500,000 people come here every year to take some time out from shopping, working and sightseeing.
Lunch in Helsinki
Helsinki is a multi-national city –so much so that one in every four people here speaks another language as their native tongue. Such a cosmopolitan population means a fantastically diverse range of cuisines with Indian, Nepalese, Japanese, Mexican, Mediterranean and Turkish all far from hard to find with sushi being especially popular. Additionally, with shop owners and marketers selling especially imported goods in order to cater to its diverse population, the flavors of these cultural-niche cuisines are authentic. Its Baltic Sea location also means fresh fish features regularly on many restaurant menus so seafood fans are going to find themselves with plenty of choice.
Finnish fare is of course in the dining mix too and one of the very best ways to experience this is with a visit to the undercover Old Market Hall. Doing so also means you can take in another of the city’s iconic sights. Helsinki is actually home to three market halls but this one, next to the Market Square, which you enter by way of its beautiful historic facade is the oldest. Selling everything from chocolate to cheese and smoked fish to seafood salads, the Old Market Hall has been selling fresh produce to Helsinki locals since 1889. The Old Market Hall is also home to a variety of restaurants and cafes serving up some of the finest traditional Finnish cuisine you can find anywhere in the city.There are numerous options but one popular lunch venue is the charming soup restaurant of Soppakeittiö which has some regular offerings along with daily specials based on the fresh seasonable ingredients available.
If you are looking for a rather more refined lunch head to Juuri. Options for dining alfresco aren’t the norm in the city where really only the summer months provide the sunshine and warmth to make it possible. However, they are there if you know where to look and Juuri, which specializes in Finnish tapas, is one of them. Inside the decor is simple but elegant while a handful of tables outside the restaurant mean you can watch the world go by as you lunch.
Should you happen to be a sushi fan you are going to feel rather spoiled. Helsinki has a diverse range of sushi venues and sushi buffets offer an especially pocket-friendly way to feast at lunchtime. One of the options in this category is the spacious Ravintola Konnichiwa which has a very reasonable fixed price for an all-you-can-eat high-quality Baltic Sea-sourced sushi and soup lunch.
An Afternoon in Helsinki
Once lunch is over you can get back to exploring the gems of Helsinki. Many who visit the country are unaware that Finland has almost 800 islands off its coast both inhabited and uninhabited. One of Helsinki’s principal historical treasures can be found on such islands, located just a short ferry ride from the mainland and divided between six separate islands joined together by bridges.
A visit here isn’t simply a way to explore the Suomenlinna Fortress -one of the country’s most incredible sights -but also offers the opportunity to escape to green and park-like islands. Here, amid a constant backdrop of sea views, you are just 15 minutes away from the city but it might as well be half a world away. As an extra bonus visiting these history-infused sites is absolutely free. Your afternoon need cost you nothing more than the ferry fare –around 2 to 3 Euros –with ferries departing up to four times an hour in summer.
The Suomenlinna Fortress
The Fortress of Suomenlinna is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is remarkable not least of all for the fact that during its centuries of existence has served as a defensive fortification for three different countries.
The construction of the fortress began in the mid 1700s, raised by the Swedish during an era in which Sweden and Russia were at war and Finland was part of Sweden. In the early 1800s the Russians gained control of the site at which time it was known as Viapori. The Russians made their own additions and extensions to the fort which included the construction of a church. It was to remain in their hands until the end of the First World War after it had played its part in their military campaigns. Initially this was during the Crimean War in the mid 1800s when it was extensively bombed by ships owned by the French and British and then later during the years of World War I.
Finland became the third and final owners of the site in 1918 when it was renamed to the title it has today. The fortress had fallen into a state of disrepair during Russian ownership and after extensive renovations the fortress was once again to serve as war time defense;this time for Finland in the Second World War. Since the 1960s Suomenlinna has ceased to have any military purpose and is today a highly popular tourist attraction, representing as it does one of the entire country’s most historically significant sites.
The fortress site is enormous, its walls alone covering 6 km and spanning several islands; fully exploring its many highlights of ruins, battlements, historical buildings, Russian cannons, atmospheric tunnels and trails across parkland would take at least a day. In addition to the fortifications themselves where many of the buildings date from the very beginning of its story the site also incorporates no less than six museums including one which is a restored World War II submarine. Because there is so much to see many visitors opt for a guided walking tour to be sure nothing of especial interest is overlooked and to learn more of this unique site’s history. However, should you wish to do so you can explore the site on your own with useful visitor maps and unless you want to enter the museums you will not have to pay an entrance fee.
Suomenlinna offers a choice of walking routes of varying length and terrain which take in tranquil parkland and gardens as well as the historical elements. The main one, known as the Blue Route, will take you past all of the site’s major highlights along a 1.5 km trail which has both steeper and rougher sections. Each of the major stops on route have excellent information panels so you can learn a little more about what you are looking at. Some of the fort sites’ principal gems include the King’s Gate, the Russian Merchant’s Quarters, the dry dock, the garrison church, the Great Courtyard and Bastion Zander.
Your first stop on arriving from the ferry will be at the Jetty Barracks which date back to the Russian era of the 1800s. During these times the building served as main guard house and living quarters and also had prison cells. Today it houses the visitor information center where you can pick up trail maps or book onto a guided tour. The King’s Gate is the fort’s main gate and is one of the oldest parts which dates from 1753.
The impressive Great Courtyard is another of the older Swedish leftovers which was once the principle square where the commander’s house was built. In the middle of the courtyard you will find the tomb of Augustin Ehrensvärd,a Swedish military officer and the creator of the fortress. The Suomenlinna Church which you will encounter during your visit dates from 1854. When the Russians seized the fort in the 1800s one of their new additions was an Eastern Orthodox church which was to address the spiritual needs of the garrison population here. Old photographs show the church as originally having the distinctive Russian-styled onion domes which were replaced once Finland took control of the fort. Today the church still functions as a church as well as its middle dome serving as a lighthouse. Such a feature makes it one of only a handle of churches in the world to incorporate such an unusual combination of uses.
Suomenlinna’s dry dock dates back to the mid 1700s when it was constructed by the Swedish to act as home to a coastal fleet squadron. Today it is a center for repairing wooden sailing ships and is also home to workshops for both a blacksmith and a sail-maker. You can’t enter the dry dock area during your visit but you can view it from an observation deck.
The island of Kustaanmiekka is home to what many consider to be the entire fort site’s main gem –the tranquil and greenery-surrounded Bastion Zander which has especial significance for Finnish people. This bastion -built by the Swedish in 1748 -has, since the beginning, been the point from which the ruling nation’s flag was flown. Every 12 May a special flag hoisting ceremony is still held here as it marks the date in 1918 when for the first time in the fort’s history the Finnish flag was raised. Close to the ferry harbor you will also find a simple memorial dedicated to Suomenlinna’s prisoners of war. At the end of the First World War the fort was home to thousands of Red Guard prisoners around 800 of which died here.
The fort site’s six islands are also home to no less than six museums:
The Suomenlinna Museum – This is the main museum which tells the story of the fort and its history. Here you can learn about the lives of those who passed time on the island over the centuries and view exhibits made up of archaeological finds such as weapons, household items and tools.
The Ehrensvärd Museum – Named for the fort’s creator and the first of the commanders to take up official residence in this building, the Ehrensvärd Museum relates history pertaining to the fort’s earliest years when it was owned by the Swedish. Everything you see here dates back to the 1700s and includes paintings, weapons, armory and furniture.
The Vesikko – One of the most visited parts of Suomenlinna, this museum is actually a World War II submarine which will give you some understanding of what it must have been like to live and work in such a confined space.
The Military Museum’s Manege – This museum concentrates on the fort’s time in Finnish hands and their military campaigns during the 20th century.
The Toy Museum – This collection of antique toys and dolls has exhibits dating back to the early 1800s with extensive displays of war era games. It is housed in a wooden building which dates back to the fort’s Russian era.
The Customs Museum – Found on Susisaari Island this museum showcases the story of Finland’s customs and also covers the theme of smuggling.
All of the museums except the main Suomenlinna Museum are only open during the summer months. Entrance fees are charged separately for each museum but if you wish to visit all of them you can buy a special pass which will save you money.
You will probably find yourself covering a lot of ground during your visit which can sometimes be hard going in the height of summer. If you find yourself in need of a pause during your Suomenlinna adventure you have a choice of some exceptionally lovely cafes in which to take a rest and refreshment. These include the Cafe Samovar bar with its gorgeous terrace at the Toy Museum or the Cafe Piper which has been serving customers for almost 100 years. You can also take a refreshing dip at the beach which provides changing facilities and showers.
As the last ferry for the mainland doesn’t depart until 2am in summer you might even decide to stay for dinner in this tranquil escape from the city and if so your options range from casual venues to fine dining.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Helsinki
Finland has a far-reaching history which has known both Swedish and Russian ownership. Additionally modern day Helsinki itself is home to a current multi-cultural population where one out of four locals can claim a heritage other than Finnish. Consequently the city offers an incredible diversity of culinary types as well as having a wonderful range of locations in which to dine or enjoy some drinking down time. These include the waterside harbor choices, beaches, a collection of neighborhoods with different atmospheres such as the Design District and even islands which offer escape and tranquility.
Remember though if you are visiting Helsinki in summer you won’t be watching any sunsets with your sundowner drinks. The city only experiences around three hours of true darkness per day and official sunset times are well past 10pm. If you spent your afternoon on the islands of the Suomenlinna Fortress you may well decide to stay right where you are and make an evening of it. There is not even any need to rush drinks and dinner as the ferries run between the city and the islands until 2am during summer. Housed within the historic Jetty Barracks dating from the days when the soldiers of the Russian tsars were garrisoned here you will find the Suomenlinna Panimo Restaurant which also happens to be a brewery. There are outdoor terraces to enjoy your locally-brewed beer or wine choice and should you decide to dine here afterward the cuisine is authentically modern Finnish.
Another choice on Suomenlinna’s islands –Cafe Bar Valimo–puts you right at the yacht marina where taking a table at the lovely deck terrace surrounds you with a maritime and seaside feel. Located within an historic 19th century building and a little off the tourist trail, Valimo is something of a hidden gem and its customers are usually locals. You can just stop by for drinks and should you choose to dine here the menu here is not large but the choices, which include fresh fish and pasta, are of a good standard.
If you prefer to head back to the city center your choice of drinking and dining venues is extensive. For pre-dinner drinks with a view and if you are looking for decent cocktails head to Ateljee Bar which sits perched 70m above the city at the top of the Torni Hotel and has views which stretch to the sea. Afterward you can transition smoothly from drinks to upscale dining at the hotel’s restaurant.
For those who want to be absolute seafront with a glass of champagne in hand check out Mattolaituri which is both champagne and wine bar and also offers bar snacks. Located just a 20 minute walk (or a quick taxi ride if you are feeling lazy) from the center of the city at Kaivopuisto the setting here at an inlet between islands is truly gorgeous. The terraces –either at the beach or on a rooftop -are large which is just as well as understandably this spot is popular.
An Evening in Helsinki
If you still have any energy left after dinner Helsinki has plenty of choice for things to do in the evening. The city’s northerly latitude ensures long, long daylight hours in the summer when the official sunset times are after 10pm and even then it is not truly dark for hours afterward. This means you can enjoy things such as strolling in the park well into the night.
One great venue for midnight sun experiences such as this is Sibelius Park. The gardens, lawns and tree-filled spaces here are lovely and the park is also home to an incredible sculpture. Unveiled in the 1960s, the park is home to the Sibelius Monument, created in honor of the country’s composer Jean Sibelius. This hugely striking and vast abstract is made up of hundreds of metal pipes whose flowing aesthetic is intended to give a visual representation of the composer’s music and as they are hollow make music of their own if there is a breeze. There is also a bust of the composer in the same site which was added later.
If you are a fan of classical music you may be able to enjoy just that in Sibelius Park too. Classical music performances are often held at the monument during the summer months while another unusual venue for live performances is the unique Rock Church which has regular concerts year round. Live music in general really isn’t hard to find in Helsinki. The Esplanade bandstand for example features something every evening in the summer offering a multitude of musical genres ranging from classical to jazz. Jazz and blues fans might also like to check out Juttutapa –a pub which has been providing entertainment in one form or another to its patrons since the late 1800s. Otherwise everything from open mic nights to multi-performance music festivals are a common part of Helsinki summers.
Something decidedly Scandinavian to do in the evening is head to a sauna. While other places in the world might consider this a luxury here in Finland –where the sauna was invented -it is an essential ingredient of the culture. You can visit one of the characterful public saunas such as Arlan or Kotiharjun with their casual all-inclusive vibes or hit one of the more luxurious venues. One choice in this category is the Löyly Sauna Complex where you can take your sauna with a sea view. Otherwise quite how you spend you evening hours in Helsinki is up to you. Take a ride on the Skywheel which offers champagne VIP experiences or perhaps you’d enjoy strolling cemeteries and tucked away corners while listening to stories of macabre goings on of the past and folklore legends on a ghost walk.
You can also try your luck at the Casino Helsinki which frequently has entertainment too or simply just wander amid the evening buzz of port-side Market Square and perhaps pick up a Helsinki souvenir or two. When the sun stays up late in summer so do the locals and tourists so you will always be able to find something going on somewhere which matches your personal idea of a great evening.