How to spend a weekend in Helsinki
With its mix of Russian and Scandinavian heritage, Finland is perhaps the most unique of the Nordic countries.
And that’s an interesting fact by the way – I say Nordic because Finland isn’t technically part of Scandinavia. Turns out neither is Iceland. Who knew? Shocking I know. But Finland definitely feels Scandinavian and most of the world thinks of it as such (as no doubt many Finns do too) so let’s just roll with that.
Its capital Helsinki is quirky, artistic, full of functional design and effortlessly cool. It’s no secret that the Finns are the world’s biggest consumers of coffee (come on, surely you've seen that stat somewhere?), so as you can imagine its café culture is on point. Before my trip I wasn't really sure what to expect of this city which seems to fly under the radar (or my radar at the very least!), but now I’ve been it’s right up there with places I’d recommend for a perfect European weekend away, especially for couples or friends that want a super relaxed trip.
Helsinki is a city of experiences rather than things you have to see, but I honestly think that's the best way to travel. Never be scared of a city that doesn’t have a long list of must-sees is my motto. So instead, let me tell you about the must-dos.
Top things to do in Helsinki:
Relax at a Finnish Sauna
When I go for a swim at my gym’s pool, I generally head to the sauna afterwards – for about 5 minutes. Infrared saunas just don’t do it for me. But a Finnish sauna is a different thing completely. And I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it.
Löyly is an architecturally stunning public sauna and restaurant that sits on the Baltic Sea about 2kms outside the city centre. For only €19 per person you can book 2.5 hours of pure joy – going between three different saunas, jumping into the Baltic to cool off, and sitting around on the deck sipping a cool (or warm!) drink.
Löyly is a mixed sex sauna, so unlike some more traditional facilities, you need to bring your bathers. When you get there, you’ll be given a towel and a locker and women and men are split into different changing/shower rooms to get changed.
Once inside, you have a choice of three different types of sauna: a continuously heated sauna, a once heated sauna (that stays warm all day) and a traditional smoke sauna. My favourite was the traditional smoke sauna, as it was so cosy and otherworldly. One thing that made me laugh was that many of the tourists, including me, didn’t feel comfortable adding water to the sauna, as it’s quite the process if you haven’t done it before. But there’s always a local around to do it for you. And be warned, the locals like it hot so they will add a lot of water!
Drink copious amounts of coffee
I’m starting to notice a theme in my travels. Coffee is nearly always involved. But hey, I’m a Melburnian on a desperate search to find decent coffee in somewhere other than my hometown so hopefully it understandable.
Helsinki’s coffee culture is typically Scandinavian in style – beautifully designed cafés, lots of filter and pour over coffee, cute little cakes and of course cinnamon buns. The baristas take their coffee seriously and are always happy to help you pick one that’s best suited to your tastes.
My favourite Helsinki café was Johan & Nyström, which I think it a good representation of the city’s coffee culture (although its actually originally Swedish). Slow roasted, sustainable, carefully chosen beans, well-trained and passionate baristas, and a mix of vegan cakes and more traditional Scandi treats like cinnamon buns in a perfectly cosy and chic environment.
See the city’s crown jewel: Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki cathedral is probably the city’s best-known landmark and it’s obvious to see why – it’s stunning. Built between 1830 and 1852 when Finland was still under Russian rule, it was a tribute to the then Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.
Of course, with all the most popular sites in any city, you’ll find you’re not the only tourist there to see it. Lots of tour groups head to the cathedral first thing in the morning, so if you want a photo without copious amounts of people and tour buses in the background, I recommend planning a visit to Cathedral in the late afternoon. Seriously, nothing kills the vibe of a beautiful photo like a tour bus with front windows that look like insect antennas making its way into the frame.
If you time, have a peak inside, if just for the fact that the church isn’t covered with the traditional gold and jewels of many others which is quite refreshing. After your visit, wander down the down the road directly opposite the cathedral to get a photo of it peeping out at the top.
Eat Dinner at Grön
I debated whether to mention Grön on my blog. Maybe it was too good to share. What if my favourite restaurant in Helsinki became overrun with people and made it harder for me to get a booking? But let’s be honest, that’s probably overstating the reach of my blog. So I’ve decided to share.
If you’re into great food, don’t go to Helsinki without making a booking a few weeks ahead for Grön. I made mine a couple weeks beforehand and still only got a 10pm slot. This tiny little restaurant in the city centre focuses on creating Scandinavian style plant-based food from seasonal, local and wild produce. The four-course set menu was one of the best food experiences I’ve ever had. Everything from the fermented pea, lettuce and feta starter to the dry-aged beef tartare made me want to lick my plate (I resisted). The tartare was like eating fluffy clouds, and I’m writing this as somebody who was a vegetarian for 12 years and still rarely eats meat because I don’t like it much, so that’s saying something. But my favourite dish of the night was the grilled strawberries with granita, meringue, fennel leaves and caramelized strawberry milk. The ripeness of the strawberries, with the light cool granita topped with an adult version of the taste of childhood (strawberry milk) was perfect.
Drinks with a view at Ateljée Bar
I’ve become unashamedly obsessed with rooftop bars while travelling. I’ve always been a fan of viewing a new city from above, but why not one up that experience and do that with a cocktail in hand? The best place to do this in Helsinki is Ateljée Bar. The drinks are more expensive than the bars down below but it’s worth it for the view. If you’re on a budget, just have one and visit the loo before you leave for one of the best bathroom views you’ll get in your life.
Visit the Rock Church
Located in the heart of Helsinki, this unique church is one of city’s most popular tourist attractions and is definitely worth a look. Temppeliaukio Church is built directly into a solid rock – hence its nickname the Rock Church. The interior still has rugged, rocky walls and a stunning copper dome roof surrounded by a thin row of skylight windows, distilling the light beautifully around the alter. Due to the great acoustics of the church, many concerts are held here and when you visit you might be lucky enough to catch them practising.
Wander through the Kauppatori Market
Helsinki’s most famous market is located in the south harbour at the end of the Esplanade Park. There’s plenty of traditional food, beautiful fresh produce including lingonberries (which you’ll find in nearly all Finnish food), souvenirs and homemade crafts. We went here two days in the row to get meatballs and fries (it’s okay to be super unhealthy on holiday, isn’t it?) and on the second day the man recognised us and gave us free jam donuts. Who says the Finns aren’t friendly?!
A day trip to Tallinn
Okay so maybe it’s not fair to Helsinki to list another country as a thing to do in the city, but to me it seems silly to get so close to Estonia and not pop over if you have the time.
Ferries between Helsinki and the Estonia capital Tallinn go daily all year round and only take about two hours.
Despite their proximity the cities couldn’t be more different. Step off the ferry and into Tallinn’s old town and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a medieval, fairy tail city.
I’m going to write a blog about Tallinn, so I won’t go into detail now except to say don’t go to Helsinki without making the time to go to this beautiful city if possible.
Things I’ll do next time:
When we were in Helsinki we had pretty bad weather, which stopped us from doing one or two things we would have done otherwise. One of these was visit the Fortress of Suomenlinna, which is a short ferry ride away from the mainland. Next time I visit I’ll definitely be checking that out so if you have time I would add that to your list.
Another is the design museum, which in hindsight would have been perfect for the wet weather but we just couldn’t fit it in.
Helsinki is an awesome city; so don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. If you live in London or Europe it’s the perfect place to spend a relaxed weekend. From London in particular you can also get pretty cheap flights with many airlines.
Although there is one more thing I should add – it’s not cheap. While in my experience it was cheaper than its Scandinavian cousins, things like alcohol in restaurants and bars is pricier than in many European cities. But since it’s the perfect city for a weekend break, the slight hit to the pocket for a couple of days is worth it.