How Helsinki Became One of My Favorite Cities in Europe

Helsinki is truly a hidden gem.

A longtime lover of Scandinavia, visiting Iceland, Sweden and Norway ranked high on my list of travel priorities over the past few years. Perhaps because Helsinki and Lapland, and the Faroe Islands, aren’t discussed as often as the others, but while Finland was on my radar, it wasn’t a top priority.

When planning out a few long weekend trips for this year, I decided to finally prioritise Finland, deciding I’d do 2.5 days in Helsinki and one day in Tallinn- a short ferry ride across the sea.

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I may not have had a ton of time in Helsinki on my first visit, but it was enough for me to fall in love. Stockholm is still my favourite Nordic city, but Helsinki has secured a spot as a close second.

Trendy restaurants, excellent cold brew, beautiful architecture and design, relaxing Finnish customs and incredible nice locals make Helsinki a great city break.

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What to Do

Senate Square + The Harbour
A ~5 minute walk from different points in the harbour, which is lively, beautiful and worth exploring, Senate Square is home to some of the city’s most recognisable buildings. The Helsinki Cathedral is a Finnish Lutheran church built between 1830-1852. There’s also the Government Palace, the National Library and a few university buildings.

The Design District
Candy coloured homes left and right, stunning architecture, even examples of Art Nouveau. Really enjoyed strolling this area. On one rainy afternoon, we also stopped in the Design Museum for a few hours. There was a beautiful glassworks display, and it was cool to learn about some of Finland’s famous design achievements (Angry Birds, Fiskers orange scissors). Interested in seeing more design? Amos Rex is a new underground design museum in city centre- checked it out, very cool

Hakaniemi Market
Always a fan of local market halls, this one is filled with vendors carrying great food (pastries, sandwiches, soups, fish, cheeses, veg), coffee and displays of craftsmanship. We came here for breakfast one morning, a great way to explore Finnish cuisine

Uspenski Cathedral
A beautiful church, elevated on a hillside near Market Square and overlooking the harbour. Interesting Russian architecture, worth a visit to see the outside even if you don’t have time to head in

Finnish Sauana
You can’t visit Finland without going to the sauna, it’s a key part of Finnish culture. I’ve heard there are more saunas in Finland than people. I’m reading more about how/why sauna came to be integrated to their culture, but I already have no trouble understanding why Fins love it- talk about ultimate relaxation. In a typical sauna experience, you’ll sit in the sauna for a bit, possibly ‘beat’ yourself with birch branches to energise yourself, and then jump into the sea (or a lake) to cool out. Then, repeat the hot/cold cycle 2-3 more times (or as needed).

Löyly is an urban sauna situated on Helsinki’s waterfront. After being in the steam room, you can jump into the Baltic Sea. And, afterwards, there’s a relaxing terrace you can lounge on if you’re not quite ready to leave. After our sauna experience, we ordered a bottle of wine and sat on the terrace in the late afternoon sun, listening to the waves crash into the rocks below us. Utter perfection 

Sibelius Park
Helsinki is packed with green spaces, the Sibelius Park is near water on the westside of the city and home to a beautiful work of steel art that resembles organ pipes

Dubbed as a must-visit, this was something else we didn’t quite have time for but came highly recommended. It’s an island with a fortress that’s only a short ferry ride away from downtown

An hour outside of the city, you’ll find the second oldest city in Finland. We’d hoped to make it here, but didn’t because it rained pretty heavily and steadily on the day we’d planned to visit. It’s high on my list for a return trip, think: Red wooden houses and an Old Town that dates back to the Middle Ages

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Where to Eat & Drink

We didn’t have much time in Helsinki, but set out with the intent of visiting as many cafes renowned for their cold brew as possible. And, in between, sampling some Finnish delicacies and treating ourselves to holiday indulgences.

Favourite places:

  • Eat:
    • Cafe Regatta: Few things are as synonymous with Scandinavia as cinnamon buns. Regatta had the best ones of the trip- warm, gooey cinnamon and topped with flaked almonds – so good. And, served up in an adorable lakeside Finnish cafe where dogs are welcome
    • Vanha Kauppahalli: One of Helsinki’s historic markets, we loved the fish and salmon soups on offer here
    • M/S Flying Dutch: A floating beer garden with good salads and tasty fish soups
    • Putte’s Pizza: Again, not Finnish food but pizza being a classic ‘treat your self’ vacation food, we were eager to find good za in Helsinki. Daddy Greens Pizzabar is also supposed to be good, but we chose Putte’s since it was closer to our Airbnb
    • Pueblo: Whenever I’m on holiday, always into tacos and margaritas. Stoked to find good nachos, tacos and margs in the Finnish capital
  • Drink:
    • Chapter: Known for its awesome tasting menu, we’d heard the cocktails were ‘can’t miss’. Happy to confirm we weren’t misled- the drinks we had here are some of the best gin cocktails I’ve ever had
    • Liberty or Death: Cosy cocktail bar with a fun, tempting drink list. We stayed for two rounds and could have easily stayed for a few more
    • The Riff: Rock + roll, plus pints while in Helsinki? Practically a mandatory
    • Apero: Lovely little wine bar with a solid Aperol spritz
    • BrewDog Helsinki: Not much of a beer drinker, but we stopped in and were delighted to find Finish micro brews alongside BrewDog classics
  • Coffee:
    • Cafetoria: THE. BEST. COLD. BREW. EVER. Do not miss this place. I’m serious, it was so good, we bought beans to take back to the UK
    • Andante: On our first day, this was my favourite cafe for its minimalistic decor and ace cold filter
    • Johan & Nyström: We stopped in here with the intent of grabbing coffee/waiting out the heavy rain, but were pleased to find a great lunch (delicious, hearty salad of greens, feta, watermelon, lentils + olives with a balsamic reduction) and cold brew soda flavoured with Swedish blueberries. SO good, on both counts
    • Kaffa Roastery: Regarded as the best coffee in Helsinki, the cold filter here was great. Don’t miss their giant cinnamon buns!
    • Story: We were on a bit of a cold brew tear in Helsinki (I’d heard the coffee scene was great), and popped in here to sample more of our preferred beverage. Cute cafe in the midst of a historic market on the harbour, definitely recommend popping in
    • Brooklyn Cafe: Cold brew and bagels in Scandinavia? SOLD
    • La Torrefazione: Good cold brew, great lattes – several locations around the city

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Where to Stay

We opted to stay in the West Harbour area, which was only a 10-20 minute tram ride to downtown destinations. Because we were taking the ferry to Tallinn from West Harbour, we decided it’d be best to stay in an area close to the terminals.

It also helped we found an incredible deal on an Airbnb- £55 a night for a beautiful, huge flat with a huge balcony in a new condominium. The only downside was the amount of construction happening in the area, but it was nice to have such a great space to come home to and start the day in, so I’d stay there again vs. paying +2-3x more to stay closer to downtown. That said, I also really liked the Töölö area, slightly north of city centre, and would look there on a return trip.


Other Bits to Know

Airport to City Centre: It’s easy to take one of the trains, 5 Euros, from the airport to Central Station, and only takes 30-40 minutes

Currency: Finland is on the Euro. We carried cash, but also found, that much like Sweden, just about everywhere accepted cards/contactless payment

Cost: Yes, Helsinki is expensive. All of Scandinavia is. As with any trip, there are ways to keep down cost, like prepping some of your meals at an Airbnb, or spending less on alcohol out / have a few drinks at your Airbnb or hotel before you head out (super key, alcohol is very expensive in Finland)

Getting Around: City centre is walkable, and if you head to any of the areas a bit further out, the city is well connected through underground metro, buses and trams. Download the HSL app, where you can buy tickets – single ride, day pass, etc. – through mobile. I loved this- so easy, we didn’t need to worry about having the right amount of change, or find ticket machines every time we wanted to take a bus/tram

Have you ever been to Finland? I’m dreaming of a winter trip in the snowy north, spending a weekend in Lapland. 

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