Though we were in Finland for a week recently, we were really only able to be tourists for the first few days since we were working during the second half of our trip. And while there was a lot that we didn’t get to do during our brief visit, we definitely enjoyed all of the fun stuff we DID get to do. I would certainly recommend more than three days to be a tourist in Helsinki and the surrounding area, but if that’s all the time you’ve got, here’s a rundown of how to make the most of your visit!
Where to Stay
A friend of mine had recently traveled to Helsinki and recommended that we stay at a place called Hotel Katajanokka. It’s part of the Marriott chain, but it’s a far more interesting hotel than its chain affiliation would lead you to believe. You see, it was actually once a prison! The Helsinki County Prison to be exact.
The first part of the prison was built in 1837 and was later expanded in 1888. It served as a prison until 2002, at which point it was closed and renovated until it was officially reopened as the Hotel Katajanokka in 2007. The former cells were merged to create more space for hotel guests, and our “cell” was actually two and a half former cells that had all been combined.
Of course, the rooms are more hospitable than they once were during the prison days, but there are still some touches throughout the hotel to remind you of its fascinating past. There are gates that they’ve kept (though not to block your access!), our room had some old locks displayed in a box on the walls, and the basement has a couple of cells that have been kept in their original state to help you get a sense of what they looked like.
There is also a wonderful photo exhibit at the hotel where you can see images from the hotel’s prison days and see what features they were able to preserve when the prison was converted to a hotel. It will also help to give you a sense of just how many renovations took place to transform the hotel into its current, beautiful state!
In the basement, there is a restaurant, Ravintola Linnankellari, where we enjoyed an excellent dinner the night we arrived in Helsinki. The bread served with our dinner was probably some of the best we’ve ever had, and the steak was tender and flavorful. The restaurant also offers a fantastic breakfast buffet, which we took advantage of during our stay. And though it was too cold to use in September, there is a beautiful terrace outside that would be a wonderful place to sit and have a drink on a warmer day.
The Hotel Katajanokka is lovely, the service was excellent, and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there! The #4 tram stops right out front, and it’s only about a 10-15 minute walk to Market Square, making it very easy to access all of Helsinki’s sights.
And if you are in town for a conference at the Messukeskus like I was, we also really enjoyed the second hotel we stayed at, the Holiday Inn Helsinki-Expo. It’s right next to the Messukeskus and just a 4-minute train ride away from the city (and with trains coming every 3 minutes, it was rather convenient!)
What to Do
There is so much fun to be had while you’re in Helsinki! If you do only one thing while you’re there, though, I’d highly recommend that it be a trip to the sea fortress, Suomenlinna. It’s open year-round, ferries depart several times every hour, and you can easily spend an entire day exploring the collection of islands that make up this UNESCO World Heritage site. Not everything is open in the off-season, though, so check their calendar in advance to see what all will be open when you visit.
If you do decide to stay at Hotel Katajanokka, you’ll be delighted to learn that is is very close to the harbor. The surrounding area is excellent for walking around and enjoying the many lovely boats docked in Helsinki. We enjoyed strolling along a couple of different piers that were open to the public so that we could get a nice close-up view of some of the beautiful sailboats docked there.
Near the harbor, you’ll also find the beautiful Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Uspenski Cathedral, which opened in 1868. It’s free to enter, and the interior is just splendid. We arrived right before a tour bus, so we had just enough time to walk through without a huge crowd.
If you do see a large group heading in, you may want to wait until they come back out before venturing in. There’s not a lot of room inside, and you’re going to want to be able to just stop and look up and all around because it really is stunning inside. And when you’re done, don’t forget to spend a little time outside the cathedral, as it’s perched atop a hill and there are wonderful views of Helsinki to be enjoyed there.
Not far from the cathedral, you’ll find the SkyWheel, Helsinki’s 40-meter tall observation wheel. And being that this is Finland, you can even book a “sauna” cabin on the wheel! The 12-minute ride offers 360-degree views of the harbor and Helsinki’s city center, and you’ll also get a great view of the Allas Sea Pool, which is located right next to the wheel.
The Allas Sea Pool has saunas and both fresh and seawater pools. It was fairly chilly while we were in Helsinki, but people were definitely somehow swimming in that freezing water. I guess it must be refreshing after sitting in the sauna for a bit? (We didn’t try it out for ourselves, but we did enjoy the saunas at the Holiday Inn-Expo during the evenings of the work portion of our trip!)
Before you leave the harbor, check out the vendors in Market Square. Or if the weather isn’t so great, you can visit the indoor market, Old Market Hall, instead. When you’re done, hop onto a sightseeing boat, such as Doris II, to enjoy a cruise along Helsinki’s shores and nearby islands. We loved seeing Helsinki from the water, and we especially liked getting to see some of the icebreakers Helsinki uses to keep the waterways open during their frigid winters!
If you prefer to tour on foot, though, there are a couple of free walking tours you might want to check out instead. These tours will take you through Helsinki’s highlights, give you a bit of history about the city, and offer tips and advice on how to make the most of your time in Helsinki. Though the tours are free, always remember to tip your guide to show your gratitude for their hard work!
No matter where you are in the city center, you will probably never lose sight of the Helsinki Cathedral, which overlooks the Senate Square. It is free to visit the interior of this cathedral, too, but you may find it’s not quite as grand as the Uspenski Cathedral. However, when you stand in front of Helsinki Cathedral and look down upon the city and Senate Square, you’ll see the appeal of a visit here. It’s quite spectacular!
Two spots we didn’t get to visit but which tend to be on the must-see lists are the Temppeliaukio Church and the Sibelius Monument. Temppeliaukio Church is also known as the “Rock Church” due to the fact that it was built into solid rock! The church isn’t far from the Central Railway Station (which is actually a lovely art deco building itself), but the Sibelius monument is a little further from the center.
Erected in honor of the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, the Sibelius monument’s more than 600 steel pipes create a very unique design, which is primarily why it’s such a popular spot to visit in Helsinki. If you make it to either of these places, stop back and tell me all about them because we were sad to miss them ourselves!
And finally, if you want to get out of Helsinki to explore even more of Finland, there are plenty of places where you can take a day trip as well. We looked into both Porvoo and Fiskers based on recommendations from friends, but there are several other options to consider before making up your mind. Ultimately, though, we decided to leave Finland altogether and visited Tallinn, Estonia for a day instead.
We enjoyed the two-hour ferry ride there and spent the day exploring Tallinn on a 4-hour bike and food-tasting tour. Tallinn is a particularly beautiful city, with its well-preserved medieval buildings and old city wall, so it was a delight to see. And it was also fun to be able to check another country off of our travel list!
Where to Eat and Drink
Helsinki has an international vibe, and you can find a very wide variety of cuisines there to suit your palate. We didn’t eat a lot of “traditional” Finnish food during our visit, but we DID enjoy a Finnish beverage called “Long Drink”. This is basically a combination of gin and grapefruit soda, and it is DELICIOUS. We drank a whole lot of it while in Finland, and we even tried some other flavors such as cranberry. You can buy it in bottles and cans, but most places even have it on tap!
For traditional Finnish food, Market Square and the nearby indoor market both have excellent options, including all kinds of different fish, cheeses, bread, and even reindeer jerky! Both places offer hot and cold options that you can eat on the spot, as well as tons of packaged treats you can take home with you. I also spotted the largest meringues I’ve ever seen in my life at the indoor market in case you’re a fan.
We visited a couple different breweries in Helsinki, both of which we really liked. The first was the Sori Taproom, which we later learned is actually an Estonian brewery. They had a ton of their own beers, but they also had quite a few other craft beers from around the world, too. We both got flights so we could try the Sori brews, and we pretty much liked everything. They serve food as well, but their kitchen was closed the day we were there, so we didn’t get to sample anything (though the menu had some tempting options!)
The other brewery we visited was called Bryggeri, which is just a block away from Market Square. We sat upstairs in the bar area, but there is a huge room in the lower level where you can eat and drink as well. We liked our beers here as well, AND the food! We split a burger and a pastrami sandwich, and while the sandwich was just ok, the burger was probably one of the best we’ve ever had. YUM.
When the kitchen was closed the day we visited Sori, we decided to have dinner at a place next door called Oluthuone Kaisla. They have a great selection of craft beers on tap, and this place seemed like a locals bar. It’s massive, with four different rooms to choose from, and when we visited, the first room was overflowing with TONS of people playing a very spirited game of trivia. Honestly, I’ve gone to some trivia nights in NYC, but I have never seen as many people playing as there were at this spot. We ordered some food and while everything was tasty, we particularly enjoyed the malt meatballs. Sooo good!
If you’re in search of more craft beer, we found another cute little spot called Bier Bier. It was in a less busy area of the city, though still within walking distance of the Central Railway Station. There wasn’t a huge crowd there, but it was warm and cozy inside, with comfy chairs and lots of beautiful wood features. We shared a charcuterie and cheese plate here, which was substantial considering the price, and we both had a pint of beer. It’s a great spot if you want to kick back and relax while enjoying a nice craft brew.
If you’re traveling for work with others who aren’t on your expense account, Helsinki has a Vapiano, which is the perfect place to eat if you don’t want to have to worry about splitting the check. Everyone gets their own charge card when they enter Vapiano and then you go from station to station getting whatever you’d like, such as pasta, pizza, salads, wine, beer, dessert, and more.
Vapiano is an international chain, and you can find them in major cities around the world (we ate there while I was attending a conference in Geneva last year, too!) When you’re ready to leave, you turn your card in and pay for your accumulated tab. Really, really convenient when you’re doing work travel with non-work companions!
And finally, for a more upscale meal, you definitely can’t go wrong with dinner at the Ravintola Linnankellari at the Hotel Katajanokka. You’re welcome to dine there, even if you’re not a hotel guest, and you can explore the hotel while you’re there, too!
How to Get Around
The public transportation system in Helsinki is A-MAZING. We have lots of public transportation in NYC, but most New Yorkers will agree that it’s usually a smoking hot mess. In Helsinki, there was a plethora of transit options, from buses and trams to ferries and commuter trains, all of which you can access through the same ticketing system. And the best part is that they were always on time, which makes getting around Helsinki super easy!
For the most part, you won’t likely need to show anyone a transit ticket in Helsinki. A lot of the transportation options work on the honor system, and you’ll only need to show your ticket if there is an actual inspection. However, do be sure to buy tickets because you will have to pay a fine if you’re caught without a valid ticket (and also, don’t be a crappy human who tries to cheat the system).
The easiest way to buy tickets is through the HSL app, and you’ll need to buy tickets for the zone(s) in which you’ll be traveling. Most of the places you’ll want to visit during a short trip to Helsinki will be in Zones A or B (the airport is in Zone B, btw). We bought a 3-day AB pass which meant we could use the public transit system as much as we wanted during those three days as long as we were traveling within Zones A and B.
If you don’t think you’ll use public transit a lot, you can also just buy a single ticket if you prefer. When you buy your ticket, set the time for when you want it to be activated and then off you go! The HSL app has timetables and a trip planner, but Google maps seemed to have all the transit info and times synced up as well, so it’s easy enough to plan your travels to anywhere you want to go in Helsinki.
Helsinki is a wonderful city! It’s so easy to get around, there’s plenty to see and do, and we had lots of great food and beer during our stay.
I hope you’ll have a chance to experience this lovely little city, and if you’ve already been, please let me know in the comments if you have any other tips and recommendations!