Helsinki travel guide
The mean annual temperature in efficient, elegant Helsinki hovers around 43°F (6°C), but this does not mean visitors need expect a chilly welcome. The funky Finns, known for their hip and happening sense of style, design and association with high technology, know how to warm hearts and minds in their modern, cosmopolitan capital.
The city, spread across a cluster of promontories and peninsulas, is 450 years old, its clean, wide avenues lined with buildings echoing centuries of architectural excellence from Gothic through Art Deco to cutting-edge contemporary. It all fits together in total harmony with nature, which invades the urban environment with green spaces when it is not blanketed in snow. Trees, flowers, hares, squirrels, pheasants and even the odd elk are often spied in the myriad parks in the centre of the city, the whole surrounded with crisp, unpolluted air and the bright blue waters of the Baltic Sea.
Despite the cold climate, the invigorating outdoors beckons in Helsinki even in the middle of winter. Recreation takes the form of ice skating, skiing, ice-fishing, sailing, cycling, soaking in saunas, or during the short-lived summer, sunbathing. After action, sit tucked in a rug outside one of the many street-side bars sipping hot 'gloggi' (spiced wine) and watch the wintry world go by. The city is also ideal for walking, with the sights all concentrated in the central area beneath the towering cathedrals.
The great outdoors is also the setting for Helsinki's numerous festivals and fairs, like the May Day Carnival, October Herring Festival, the Helsinki City Marathon, annual Samba carnival and the midsummer festival, to name but a few. Events do move indoors when it comes to the city's rich cultural life, featuring some of the world's finest orchestras and choirs, rock concerts, film festivals, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet performances, and the output of countless theatre and dance troupes.
Whether visited as a snowy winter wonderland or scenic sun-splashed cityscape with almost permanent daylight, Helsinki is a unique destination that will delight the heart of any traveller.
The fortification became a strategic military shipyard with one of the biggest dry docks in the world, comparable to the fortress at Gibraltar. Apart from admiring the architecture there is plenty to experience at Suomenlinna, which contains seven museums, galleries, restaurants and cafes, several parks, beaches and nature areas. Guided walking tours are offered and there are always events taking place like exhibitions, jazz shows and theatrical performances, particularly during summer.
The interior is as perfect as the exterior design, and is open to the public daily for no charge. Other buildings on the Square designed by Engel are the Palace of the Council of State, built in 1822, and the University buildings (1832), including the library, regarded as Engel's finest masterpiece. The square is a thrilling place to be on New Year's Eve as this is where the locals come to celebrate with singing, dancing and brilliant fireworks displays. There are bus and walking tours of Helsinki departing from the square, which is a good starting point for exploration of the city.
The magnificent Byzantine edifice is topped with a characteristic golden onion dome, and the interior is opulently decorated with valuable icons. The cathedral is beautifully situated and very eye-catching; it looks out over much of the city and from much of the city you can look back at it. There are wonderful views of Helsinki from the hill. Parts of the church are off-limits when there is not a service being conducted but there is still plenty to see in this ornate cathedral. Flash photography is not allowed inside but if you are respectful about it you can take pictures without a flash.
Address: Unioninkatu 39 A 19, Katajanokka
Seagulls have become something of a menace in the Market Square, swooping down to snatch food of all kinds from the hands of unsuspecting tourists.
Although it is not very impressive from the outside - it still feels like part of the rock that surrounds it - the interior is magnificent and quite the opposite of the dark, cave-like place you would expect when looking at the rock-hewn building. It is an unusual place of worship but clearly a spiritual attraction and no matter what your beliefs this artistic church will surprise and perhaps inspire you. The church is often used as a venue for musical events due to its wonderful acoustics and there are sometimes piano recitals in the afternoons; if you visit during one of these performances you can leave a donation to show your appreciation. English services are conducted on Sundays at 2pm.
Seurasaari Open Air Museum
The 86 buildings currently on the museum site have been arranged to form a complete replica of a country district, reflecting what life was like in various levels of rural society between the 18th and 20th centuries.
Address: Seurasaari Island
National Museum of Finland
The Finnish are not a very well studied nation internationally and their rich history is usually relatively unknown to outsiders which makes this museum especially intriguing. The museum also has a café and shop.
Address: Mannerheimintie 34
Santa Claus Village
There are beautiful Christmas decorations on sale here as well and plenty of opportunities for present shopping. Santa's Village and Santa Park are located just a mile from the international airport of Rovaniemi (capital of Lapland), and is also accessible by bus or train from Helsinki.
Visitors can see Finnish wildlife like musk ox, reindeer and snowy owls, or more exotic flora and fauna from all over the world, including really rare animals like the majestic snow leopard. As part of its mission to preserve and protect biodiversity the Helsinki zoo, which was founded 120 years ago, breeds and raises endangered animals. The zoo also offers rest areas, restaurants, and souvenir shops and you can bring your own picnic and enjoy it sitting on the cliff tops with lovely views.
Address: Mustikkamaanpolku 12, Korkeasaari
The festival also features a Children's Festival. The mission of the festival is to make art of all kinds accessible to all people so tickets are quite cheap, and the Night of Arts is celebrated all over the city for the public to enjoy. The festival also runs for almost a month, in the pleasant summer season, which means that many visitors have the opportunity to experience this special event in Helsinki. Check the website for details on the programme for each year and ticket prices for different events. You can buy tickets online or at the festival venue.
Venue: The Huvila Festival Tent at Hakaniemi, opposite the Helsinki City Theatre; Date:4 August - 19 September 2016; Website: www.helsinkifestival.fi
May Day (Vappu)
For more information contact the Helsinki City Tourist and Convention Bureau.
Venue: Market Square; Date:30 April to 1 May annually;
Helsinki City Marathon
For those interested in Finland's running events there is also the popular Helsinki City Run, Finland's largest half marathon, which takes place on the 5 April in 2013. For more information on all running events in Finland check out the website.
Venue: The marathon starts and ends at the Olympic Stadium; Date:13 August 2016; Website: www.helsinkicitymarathon.fi/en
Wife Carrying World Championships
These days the women have to be willing! But men keen to participate don't necessarily have to be married, they can use any woman for the race so long as she is over 17 years old and weighs more than 49kg. One of the rules is that all contestants must have fun and there is also a prize for the most entertaining couple. Contestants can be of any nationality.
Venue: Rutakontie 21, Sonkajärvi; Date:1 - 2 July 2016; Website: www.eukonkanto.fi/en/
With more than 800 restaurants to choose from it is possible to find many international cuisines as well as places to sample tasty local food when eating out in Helsinki. Various restaurants on offer include steak houses, bistros, cafes, up-market gourmet establishments and fast food joints; whatever else you may want to try though, the traditional Finnish food is a must.
Finnish food is generally quite healthy and simple with an emphasis on fresh produce and some influence from Russian and Scandinavian cooking traditions. The local cuisine centres on seafood and many of the trademark meals are fish dishes. Fresh berries are also common on menus in Helsinki, often served with ice-cream or pastry. Lapland has its own distinct cuisine and its most famous staples are reindeer steak and snow grouse. The most common drink in Finland is vodka but in Helsinki it is also wonderful to sample the hot spiced wine called gloggi, especially in the winter.
The best areas to find restaurants in Helsinki include the central areas of Katajanokka and Kruununhaka as well as the city's main boulevard, the Esplanadi. The Hietalahti area is good for those eating on a budget, and the Kallio quarter is a fun clubbing area with cheap ethnic food and some good bars.
Pride of Helsinki's very worthy cuisine scene is the Michelin-starred restaurant Chez Dominique, imbued with elegance through and through - from the inventive signature dishes to the minimalist décor. The ever-changing menu blends traditional Scandinavian with French gourmet touches to produce items like pigeon stuffed with foie gras or roasted lamb from the Pyrenees. The beautifully prepared dishes are prepared under the direction of top Finnish chef, Hans Välimäki. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday, and lunch Tuesday to Friday.
Address: Rikhardinkatu 4; Website: www.chezdominique.fi
For many years Sundmans has set the standard for Helsinki fine dining and can be consistently relied on for high-class cuisine, a beautiful setting and elegant atmosphere, top class service and the best desserts in Finland. The landmark restaurant is housed in five rooms in a 19th-century empire house designed by Finnish architect Carl Ludwig Engel, offering a great view across the Market Square. Only the finest ingredients are used to create the dishes on the menu, which are modernised Finnish, including the specialty Baltic Herring Fillet. Another plus for this restaurant is its extensive wine cellar, the selection housed in a magnificent vaulted chamber, which can be hired for private functions. Open for dinner Monday to Friday. The wine cellar is open Monday to Friday from 11:30am and Saturday from 6pm. Closed Sundays. Reservations are essential.
Address: Eteläranta 16; Website: www.royalravintolat.com/sundmanskrog/en
Helsinki is renowned for its Russian restaurants, and probably the best of the bunch is Bellevue, which is reputedly the oldest Russian restaurant outside of Russia. It also claims to produce Russian favourites that are better than you will taste in the home country, and many gourmets tend to agree. Characteristics of Russian cooking are soups, black bread, pastries, caviar and fish dishes. Bellevue's menu contains all these, for example a set menu featuring beetroot soup, Chicken Kiev and Baked Alaska, or try post-roasted bear steak or roast fillet of reindeer off the à la carte menu. The ambience is pleasant, the décor unpretentious but classy, and the service friendly and efficient. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and Saturday for dinner only.
Address: Rahapajankatu 3; Website: www.restaurantbellevue.com
For a taste of traditional Lapland cuisine in the heart of Helsinki, Lappi should be a definite dining experience on any visitor's itinerary. Finnish dishes, including reindeer of course, are served up on the rustic wooden tables in a warm, friendly 'log cabin' atmosphere. If you want to just pop in for a drink the attached Kelonkolo bar will give a sample of the ambience to be enjoyed in the restaurant itself, where specialities include dishes like reindeer tongue and liver, grilled breast of snow grouse, or grilled fillet of elk with turnip and red wine sauce. Reservations are essential at Lappi, so popular with tourists that its menu is printed in eleven languages. The restaurant opens daily for lunch and dinner.
Address: Annankatu 22; Website: www.lappires.com
Kynsilaukka Garlic Restaurant
If the pervasive scent of garlic tickles your taste buds, Kynsilaukka Restaurant in Helsinki is a must, particularly in a country where this renowned root is a rarity in local cuisine. The atmosphere is intimate, and the quality of the fascinating dishes excellent. The menu includes items like hot goat's cheese as a starter, salmon loaf, lamb stew or noisettes of pork as a main, all imbued with garlic. Side items like garlic jam and garlic beer spice up the experience. Snails sizzling in garlic sauce are, of course, a hot favourite. The restaurant opens at 11am on weekdays and 1pm on weekends.
Address: Fredrikinkatu 22; Website: www.kynsilaukka.com
The far north has not been left out of the worldwide penchant for Italian food, and Helsinki boasts its fair share of Italian restaurants, from fast-food pizzerias to top-notch gourmet establishments. Papa Giovanni's in the city's World Trade Centre is rated one of the best. This is not a spot for the ubiquitous pizza, but the small, quality menu does offer several meat and fish dishes, and various pastas, at a comparatively reasonable price. The restaurant is very proud of its lobster pool from which diners can pick out their chosen lobster for immediate preparation. A handy touch is that each item on the menu is listed with a recommended wine. The restaurant opens Monday to Saturday until late, and for lunch on weekdays.
Address: World Trade Centre, Keskuskatu 7; Website: www.papagiovanni.fi
Whether you're after a quick bite or a relaxed cup of coffee, Gran Delicato is one of the most popular delicatessens in Helsinki. The scent of fresh-roasted coffee pervades the air as customers linger over the stuffed ciabatta and baguette sandwiches as well as pastas, salads and other light meals. The restaurant is a bit of a walk from the city centre, but worth it for the great food and cosy atmosphere.
Address: Kalevankatu 34; Website: www.grandelicato.fi
The décor, clientele and menu at Nuevo Restaurant and bar are upmarket and trendy, but fortunately the prices, along with the setting in an alleyway off Helsinki's Market Square, remain more historic. This restaurant is particularly attractive in summertime when diners can sit on the sidewalk terrace with a view of the harbour. Inside, stainless steel and glassware gleams as guests enjoy a varied menu and affordable wine list. Fish dishes are the favourite here, but the menu includes some hearty and eclectic meat offerings like almond-roasted lamb or beef fillet. Open daily for lunch and dinner (from 2pm on Sundays).
Address: Sofiankatu 4; Website: www.royalravintolat.com/nuevo/en
Helsinki may be cold, but the pulsating nightlife is enough to get this city hot and sweaty. With a number of trendy nightclubs, bars and pubs, visitors will have no problem making full use of the long, dark winter nights. Most of the nightlife in Helsinki is centred round Uudenmaankatu and Eerikinkatu, where bars and clubs abound and crossing from one to the other is a quick dash across the cold street. Finns love their tango music too so expect to find plenty of sultry dancing in restaurants, bars and even the streets during the summer months, with a few of the favourite outdoor dancing spots nearby the Vantaa area.
No visit to Helsinki is complete without seeing the famous Arctic Ice Bar at La Bodega, with its frigid temperature making for great photo opportunities even if it's overrun with tourists. The entry fee includes parka rental if you come unprepared. Head to the stylish bars in Uudenmaankatu 9 for a night out with the local trendoids and mingle with the ultra-hip, while sipping on designer beers and nibbling on tapas. Eerikinkatu 27 is the place to be seen working up a sweat to local techno music and a few bars here are synonymous with the gay scene of Helsinki. While in Simonkatu there are megaclubs, with some boasting up to three storeys, six bars and hundreds of Helsinki's hottest people partying the night away. For live music, Telakkakatu 8 is where some of Helsinki's hottest new bands showcase their talents, while Mikonkatu 15 is great for those looking for a heavy rock gig and a little moshing for good measure will be able to find this too.
For a more cultured evening, head to Finlandia Hall for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and other concert performances (this is the home of Sibelius after all). The Finnish National Opera performs regularly, and Helsinki's thriving jazz scene is personified in the UMO Jazz Orchestra, which plays at various venues around town.
For updated concert listings and gig guides, pick up a copy of the Helsinki Guide, available for free at most hotels and tourist centres.
Home to bustling market places, luxury boutiques, enormous department stores and the largest shopping mall in the Nordic countries, shopping in Helsinki has its fair share of opportunities. They may not always be cheap, but the quality of the goods makes them worth their sometimes hefty price tags. Best buys in Helsinki include reindeer furs, Nordic wool, traditional wooden kitchen utensils and jewellery made out of Finland's national gemstone, spectrolite, which captures the magnificent blues and greens of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). You can also find liquors made from locally-grown cloudberries, cranberries, and Arctic brambleberries that make unique and special Helsinki souvenirs. Head to Itäkeskus in East Helsinki, the biggest shopping centre in Scandinavia, where nearly 240 shops selling everything from clothing and shoes to sports equipment and cameras will keep you on your toes. The Sello shopping centre in Espoo in the west of the city provides a slightly less exhausting day of spending and the Stockmann department store on the Aleksanterinkatum, which has become somewhat of an institution in Helsinki, sells everything from electrical goods and clothing to make up and teddy bears. Shopping streets in Helsinki include Aleksanterinkatu, Eerikinkatu, Fredrikinkatu and Uudenmaankatu where boutiques and specialist stores can be found. Market Square at the eastern end of Esplanadi is undoubtedly one of Helsinki's most popular tourist attractions and a great place to scoop up some souvenirs, especially during the spring and autumn months when vendors selling fresh Finnish produce, souvenirs and trinkets abound and the mix of Finns and international visitors make this vibrant market electric. Petrolheads should visit the market on the first Friday of the month when a display of old American cars lines the seaside square, while October brings much excitement as the annual Helsinki herring market takes place. Shops in Helsinki are generally open from 9am to 5.30pm from Monday to Friday while on Saturdays stores only stay open until 2pm and remain closed on Sundays.
Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport
Location: The airport is situated about 11 miles (17km) from Helsinki city centre.
Time: GMT +2 (GMT +3 between last Sunday in March and last Sunday in October).
Contacts: Tel: +358 200 14636 or (0)9 82 771.
Transfer between terminals: Terminals are in the same building and within easy walking distance of one another.
Getting to the city: There are regular bus services between Helsinki, the Tikkurila railway station and the airport. Bus transfers from the airport to local hotels and parking areas are free of charge. The Finnair City Bus also transfers passengers to downtown Helsinki.
Car rental: Avis, Budget, Hertz and Europcar are represented at the airport. Service desks are located in the corridor between the two terminals.
Airport Taxis: Taxis are available at ranks outside the Arrivals hall of both domestic and international terminals. Expect to pay around €45 to €50 for the 30-minute journey into the city centre.
Facilities: The airport has several banks with exchange facilities, and there are ATMs throughout the airport. Numerous restaurants and cafes are available in the terminals, as well as duty-free shops and three shopping areas with a variety of retail outlets. Travel agencies, a pharmacy and luggage storage are also available.
Parking: Parking at Helsinki Vantaa International Airport is charged at rates ranging from €10 to €30 per day for up to three days, after which it's €3 to €10 per day. Short-term parking for pick-ups and drop-offs is charged at €1 every 10 minutes.
Departure tax: None.
Helsinki has a simple and extremely efficient public transport system, rated one of the best in Europe, making it easy to hop onto trams, buses, the metro or a ferry with a single ticket purchased from the driver, ticket machines or even by SMS on a mobile phone. Special tourist tickets are available for visitors allowing for one, three or five days unlimited use of the public transport system. There are also plenty of taxis available to be hailed, ordered by telephone or boarded at one of the many taxi ranks. A car in the easily navigable city of Helsinki poses no problems and it is easy to drive yourself around should you so desire. There are several car hire agencies available.
When the weather is good, why ride when you can walk? The city is so compact and pleasant that getting around on foot is an attractive option. Many of the most popular attractions are clumped together and can be easily navigated on foot. There are also many lovely parks to walk through. Alternatively, in summer make use of the hundreds of kilometres of bike trails by picking up a bicycle for a small coin deposit at one of the bike racks dotted around the city centre.
Helsinki has a climate that is transitional between maritime and continental. Summers (June to August) are warm and bright, with average temperatures ranging from a cool 59°F (15°C) to 72°F (22°C) in the warmest month of July. Days are long and sunny, with up to 19 hours of daylight. Towards the end of September temperatures cool down drastically as days grow shorter, and by November the weather is at freezing point as the cold, snowy winter sets in. The city is blanketed by snow in winter (December to February), with temperatures plummeting well below freezing to the point where the sea itself freezes over, and it is never fully daylight. Spring arrives late, in early April. The best time to visit is in summer, which is also when many of the city's festivals happen. Spring can also be pleasant as the natural areas of the city come alive with flowers and new greenery. If you are planning a trip to Finland in winter, Helsinki will be very cold but is not without its comforts and attractions.
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