If you are wondering what to do in Helsinki, this post will blow you away. There’s so much to see, do, and eat in this charming European city. Known for it’s fabulous winter sports areas and refreshing summer temperatures, this Nordic country is a good bet when looking for an off-the-beaten path, quirky, and breathtakingly beautiful city to visit.
Helsinki is full of surprises…delicious, fun, interesting surprises. It boasts an urban vibe while also being crazy friendly. It is sleek, yet warm, full of function as well as tradition. I consider myself honored to have experienced this wonderful Finnish city. And I hope you get to experience it too!
What to do in Helsinki
Here’s everything you need to know regarding what to do in Helsinki…and everything else.
I didn’t know much about Helsinki in particular and Finland in general before I visited. Honestly, that’s half the fun of travel, experiencing the most fascinating things you never knew existed. Helsinki blew my mind with it’s rich history, awe-inspiring architecture, and variety of tourist destinations. Here’s a few I really enjoyed.
Helsinki is filled to the brim with interesting art, like the collection at Amos Rex Museum, and it’s all housed in immaculate, intriguing buildings. The curving mountainous skylights at the Amos Rex Museum are breathtakingly beautiful, but also functional as they provide light to the museum below. This museum houses 20th-century and contemporary art collections and exhibitions. It just opened last year but has quickly become a tourist hotspot. Over 10,000 people visited within the first few weeks it was open! I can see why!
When I was here. there were two amazing exhibitions. There was a collection on display by the famous painter Magritte, and it was amazing. Only thing missing was his most famous painting, Son of Man (man wearing a bowler hat with a green apple in front of his face).
However, the showstopper for me was Floating Monolith, by Studio Drift. A gigantic block that looked like concrete literally floated in the middle of the gallery, untethered and without any visible wires. It defied logic, and was so very cool to see in real life.
Want to go back in Nordic history? Then make sure you visit World Heritage Site Suomenlinna. It is an 18th-century military sea fortress turned nature area, spread across several islands linked together by bridges. Suomenlinna is filled with ancient-looking cobblestone walkways and centuries-old artillery and defensive walls. Mixed in are modern touches like a local micro-brewery and several restaurants. Walking trails cross rambling park land and waterways with bridges abound. Popular sights include the King’s Gate drawbridge and Suomenlinna Museum, which tells the story of Finland’s military history.
During the summer, Suomenlinna is a huge hit with locals. Families, lovers and everyone in between all swarm to the island for picnics and scenery. When we visited it was relatively quiet, but crowds gather when the weather warms. Trees blossom, flowers spring up, grass greens and locals love it. You will too.
Oodi Central Library
A library is a tourist attraction? Uh…yup! The brand new Oodi Central Library in Helsinki is a masterpiece! Honestly when it was suggested we visit the library, I rolled my eyes anticipating extreme boredom. Quite the contrary. Never have I seen a library more innovative, inviting, and thoughtfully-designed.
Oodi was warm and inviting and lives up to its goal of being the free, open-to-all “living room” of Helsinki. It’s architecturally interesting, lively and filled with people. No one was stage whispering “Shhh!” in here! I totally could have hung out there all day. It has two coffee bars, a cafe, meeting rooms, kids play area, recording studios, 3D printers, sewing machines and tons of places to relax. (Oh, there are books there too I’m told.) Locals can access all of this and more with just their library card.
Loyly Helsinki Sauna
There are something like 2 million saunas in Finland, and there are only 5 million people in the country! Finns adore their saunas! If you visit this tremendous country, it’s mandatory to check out at least one of their saunas. When I was in Helskini, I visited an uber-cool and luxurious sauna, Loyly Helsinki. It seriously rivaled a health club. Their public saunas fit about 20 people each. They are co-ed and swimsuits are required. (Thank God.)
I tried both the smoke and regular sauna and both were HOT. So hot that I even dunked into the freezing Baltic Sea to cool off…3 times! It was unbelievably cold AND just the ticket after baking in the sauna. The whole experience was surprisingly refreshing. Once again travel expanded my horizons.
Helsinki can be a fantastic family destination, with a variety of things to do that will keep the kids occupied and happy:
- Helsinki Zoo: Situated on an island, Helsinki Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world. (Established in 1889.) It boasts 150 animal species.
- Sea Life: This Aquarium offers lots of colorful fish species and even sharks. There’s also an ocean tunnel at Sea Life where you can walk below the sharks…if you dare.
- Amusement Park Linnanmäki: Unlike amusement parks in the US, the entrance to the park is free of charge. Linnanmäki was opened in 1950 and still has a vintage feel. The most popular ride is the wooden rollercoaster from 1951. Would you ride it? Uh, I’m OK with missing that one I think!
How to get to Helsinki: Finnair
Look, there are probably a lot of options to get to Helsinki from the US. However, the luxurious personal service I experienced on the official airline of Finland, Finnair, was pretty darn special. Finnair recently invested heavily in its fleet by adding 13 new Airbus A350 wide-body jets over the last few years. And they also added a direct flight from LAX to Helsinki. And I had the good fortune of being on the inaugural flight between these two amazingly different destinations. It’s a 10.5 hour flight which goes over the North Pole, Greenland (that is icy) and Iceland (that is green) all the way to Finland. If you can splurge on Business Class, the lay flat seats are like a little cocoon of heaven.
When to go to Helsinki: Helsinki weather in Spring won’t freeze you to death
I visited Helsinki in April and thought it was the perfect time to go. It was coldish but not freezing. Typically, in April Helsinki weather averages to be about 39 degrees. Winter tends to last through mid-May. Coming from LA, the Helsinki weather was fun and different and made me appreciate the sun and warmth back home. It was novel to see the last remnants of snow in a couple of shady spots. Honestly, it was all rather lovely. One day was even legit Spring-like.
You will need to pack a heavy coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. It can get chilly year round, especially at night. You could go in summer when the average temperature reaches a balmy 65 degrees, but it’s crowded and can get pricey. The best part of going in Spring was that there were almost no crowds. By the way, it also gets crowded in winter because these hearty Scandinavian folks love their outdoor snow sports.
What to eat in Helsinki: Everything
I enjoy good food, so I was honestly very worried about what I would eat in Finland. Was every meal going to be like the food in Ikea? Not always. (Fun fact, Finland used to be part of Sweden so the food does seem kind of similar). My meals were all really delicious. If you want smoked fish and gamey reindeer meat, you can definitely find it. But if you want contemporary cuisine and international restaurants, you can find that too.
I ate in some swanky restaurants and was definitely impressed with each of my meals. I did not go hungry! One thing I couldn’t make myself try is the Finland favorite, salmon soup. It looked as disgusting as it sounds. I could not do it. You find it EVERYWHERE though and the Finns adore that stuff. Next time I come to Helsinki maybe I’ll be brave enough to try it. Maybe.
The top restaurants I experienced:
- Restaurant Emo is located in the middle of the city center. It is described as “modern European with a Nordic twist”. Delicious.
- Story is a restaurant/café found in the Old Market Hall in Helsinki. It offers traditional market fare, incorporating the ingredients found at the market and nearby sea.
- La Maison is exactly what you think it is: a charming French bistro. It’s the kind of place that makes you remember you are in Europe.
Where to stay in Helsinki: Hotel Katajonkka
I stayed in a Helsinki prison. No really. I did! The Hotel Katajanokka was once the Helsinki County Prison, dating back to the 1800’s. Prisoners were still being held here as late as 2002. You’d never know that by looking at this magnificent hotel though. Look for a post soon on this modern, service-orientated hotel. https://www.hotelkatajanokka.fi/en/
If Helsinki is not on your bucket list of places to visit, it should be. It’s a city designed to welcome visitors. Don’t let the fickle Helsinki weather scare you away! Open and friendly, the Finns love to show off their jewel on the Baltic Sea.