Before May 2023, the only things I knew about Helsinki were that it probably had a bunch of saunas, and that Richard Ayoade went there for an episode of Travel Man once. It was the final Nordic capital that I hadn’t yet managed to tick off during my year abroad, despite the fact that a close friend of mine was spending her Erasmus there, so we were sure that we’d be constantly visiting each other. This was not to be, however, as getting between the two cities was much harder than anticipated, and between time and money, it never quite came together. I only finally completed this trip in May, close to the end of my time in Gothenburg. Luckily though, it was well worth the wait.
I arrived in Helsinki with no expectations whatsoever, and since I was also visiting my friend, I’d have been perfectly content just relaxing with her all weekend. So I was pleasantly surprised when I was met with a beautiful, sprawling city, sun-bathed thanks to much better weather than I’d expected, and lots of wonderful views. For others looking to visit the Finnish capital, you might find it useful to know that most people (in the city centre) have a good level of English, almost everywhere accepts cards, and there is a very good public transport system which includes ferries. You’ll also notice that street signs are often in both Finnish and (a dialect of) Swedish. Finland has not been an independent country for as long as you might think, and for a long time was part of the Kingdom of Sweden, before being Russian territory. This history is worth looking into so that you can understand some of what you see around the city, and perhaps some of the Finnish mentality.
The first sight that I enjoyed on our walks around the city was that of Helsinki Cathedral, an imposing, white, dome-topped building overlooking Senate Square (Senaatintori). It was built between 1830-1852 as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I, who was also the Grand Duke of Finland. The bells from an older church were reused in this one. The steps outside it seem to be a fun place to gather when the weather is nice, to meet friends and relax. Close by is the market square, on the water front, which hosts various events through the year and where there was a market selling food and gifts every day that I was there.
One thing I loved about Helsinki was the number of beautiful libraries. I first visited one of the university libraries, which had a striking atrium and large windows. But I especially like the Oodi Library, a striking golden building, not just for its looks but because it seems to work as a fantastic community centre. There are craft stations inside with sewing machines, games rooms with consoles, music instruments, and more. It’s far more than your average town library!
Nothing could compare, though, to the beauty of the National Library of Finland. After leaving our coats and bags in the lockers in the cloakroom, we spent some time exploring this fantastic building. Although I understand why, the only shame is that you can’t bring in food or drink – otherwise I’d love to spend a day in there studying! Or imagining I’m in Harry Potter…
A breezy day out at Suomenlinna World Heritage Site
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once a great island fortress tasked with defending the then Kingdon of Sweden. It was named Sveaborg (Castle of the Swedes) upon its construction in 1750, and known as Viapori in Finnish. In 1808, the fortress was surrendered to Russian forces and became a Russian military base, as Finland became a Grand Duchy of Russia. In the First World War it was part of a number of defences intended to defend the Russian capital St Petersburg. Then, after Finland’s independence in 1918, the fortress was taken over by the new Finnish government and renamed Suomenlinna – Castle of Finland. Since the 1960s, it has been under civilian management. It is now home to around 800 people and a workplace for 400, as well as being a popular tourist attraction and picnic site.
On the island, you can wander around what was once a large fortress, exploring the remains of barracks and artillery weapons. There’s a dry dock, a gift shop, some galleries, and several museums – including a WWII submarine. Entry to the submarine was 7 Euros, or 4 for students, and also gives entry to two of the military museums on the island. There are also guided tours in English.
On my second evening, we had dinner – and plenty of wine – in a restaurant with my friend’s lovely Erasmus friends. This was a bit emotional as it was the girls’ last evening, and as well as feeling their own sadness, I was replaying the emotions I felt myself in January when most of my friends also went back home.
So the next day, after seeing them off, it seemed right to head to a sauna – nothing too taxing for an emotional day! We tried Sompasauna, which my friend also hadn’t been to yet. Now a thing to note about Sompasauna: it’s not your average spa. You’re heading down a derelict gravel road, with construction on either side; you’re not expecting to find this colourful outdoor space, run by locals, who have built their own sauna huts and help keep it going. There are benches, hooks and lockers in the middle (uncovered) for changing, and lots of seating dotted around. If you go, you’re invited to do your bit by perhaps chopping or restocking logs in the sauna. It was situated close to the water, so you could get in and cool down once in a while. And we needed it! Only after a couple of rounds in the sauna did we find out we were actually in the cooler one! The Finns are hardcore.
It was a super friendly atmosphere and felt very authentic. Some of the volunteers were building a third hut whilst we were there, and there was even a guitar and a piano so you could sometimes hear some music as you sat around. It seems like a lovely community, and something I might have done regularly if I stayed there. If you’re uncomfortable with nudity or prefer a more “polished” sauna, I’m sure you’ll find dozens of other options in the city – this is Finland, after all. But if you’re prepared to embrace a bit of local (and DIY) culture with respect, I highly recommend giving it a visit.
Leftover noodles & cherry blossom
After our sauna, we had unsurprisingly worked up an appetite! Luckily, just like in Stockholm, we were able to buy from a food waste app and settle in Roihuvuori public park to admire the last of the cherry blossoms. In Helsinki you’ll want the ResQ Club app, which I actually prefer to Too Good to Go, because you can see what you’re getting!
As it happens, there was a Hanami festival happening in the park, so tons of families were having picnics and taking pictures – some in traditional Japanese dress. This was the perfect spot to eat our food!
Museums, churches and soup
On a small hill overlooking the city is a second church, standing tall, opposing the Cathedral. This is Uspenski Cathedral, an orthodox church designed by the Russian architect Aleksei M. Gornostaje and consecrated in 1869. It’s the largest orthodoz church in Western Europe, and it shouts its Russian heritage proudly – if you’re looking for a sign of the Russian impact on Finland, it doesn’t get more obvious than this! It’s a marvelous and imposing red brick building, and exquisite inside. You can visit for free.
Next, we headed to Restaurant Kappeli to their cafe, to try some salmon soup, and my goodness, it was delicious. Kappeli has a long history serving top notch food in the city, and to this day take great pride in preserving Finnish art and food culture. The soup of the day changes through the week, but on weekends it’s always salmon soup! Creamy, salty, and filling, it was the perfect lunch. After paying, we picked up a bowl and served ourselves from the huge vat of soup, and also grabbed some slices of Finnish rye bread and various butters.
We passed by the Haaviston Manta, also known simply as Manta, or Havis Amanda in Swedish. Or rather, we passed by the fountain she usually stands in. This is becuase the statue itself had been temporarily removed for some repair work. She was intended to symbolise the rebirth of Helsinki, but the statue drew criticism initially for its portrayal of women. Nevertheless, today she’s a beloved staple of Helsinki art and every year on Walpurgis Night, or Vappu in Finnish, university students place a cap on her head (possibly contributing to the need for repair work). Celebrated on 30th April, Walpurgis Night, Vappu, or Varborg in Swedish is a big student celebration in various Scandinavian cities, and you’ll see student clubs out in force in their white lab coats or overalls and black and white caps.
The same day we hit the tram musem – a great way to spend an hour or less, kid friendly and free! I’ve spoken before about my weird interest in trams (I don’t know why), and all my friends know about it, so my friend made sure to make time for this! With information in several languages about the history of the public transport network in Helsinki, as well as a few old tram carriages, it was a really interesting and informative visit.
Seurasaari open air museum
This is an island connected by a footbridge and populated original buildings from around Finland – yes, literally a bunch of buildings from various periods of time and with certain historical significance, transported to this island and made into an open air museum. The island itself is also very beautful, with lots of greenery and nature. The museum showcases how life has looked in the past, and in summer you can go inside the buildings as well as admiring them from the outside. This opens around mid-May and costs 10 Euros for adults.
The Sibelius Monument
This large steel monument is dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and is located in Sibelius park, a lovely green area. The monument appears to depict organ pipes, although I don’t think Sibelius was known for his organ music. A steel impression of his face is also present. Either way, I personally like the monument. It has a certain flowing nature for me, I can almost imagine it hovering slightly above the ground and the “pipes” bobbing up and down separate to one another. Jean Sibelius is a hugely celebrated composer, especially around the time of Finland’s independence. The interwar and postwar years are an interesting part of Finland’s history and it’s interesting to read about Sibleius’s life and outlook during that time.
After taking in the monument, we headed to Cafe regatta, for a waterside hot chocolate. It’s a super cosy cafe, mostly a hut, decorated with old pictures and copper kitchenware inside, and with a large seating area inside. It was lovely to watch the sun slowly dip lower over the water as we sipped our drinks.
On my final day, I paid the noble sum of 5 Euros to visit yet another church – Temppeliaukio church. This unusual space is built directly into the stone surrounding it, resulting in a gentle dome rising out of the street level. The rock inside is left rough, with machine marks still visible, and sometimes water trickles through cracks in the rock and collects in drains on the floor. Music specially composed for the church is played on speakers, and a huge coil of copper forming the centre of the ceiling hangs overhead. It was a very striking, unusual, and peaceful place to be, and I found it well worth the visit. Staff or volunteers inside are friendly and happy to tell you about the past and present of the building.
After a quick bike ride around a small park – the accessibility of city hire bikes these days is only a good thing, I think! – we both headed to the central station – not a bad sightseeing location in itself – and caught a train to the airport for our next adventure: Stockholm. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much we managed to fit in, given that we took it quite easy and enjoyed some relaxed mornings!
In this post:
- Helsinki Cathedral
- Senate Square
- Market Square
- Oodi Library
- National Library of Finland
- University Library
- Roihuvuori public park
- Uspenski cathedral
- The Sibelius monument
- Helsinki Central Station
- Manta statue
- Temppeliaukio church
Things to do
- Suomenlinna World Heritage Site
- Roihuvuori Hanami festival
- Helsinki tram museum
- Seurasaari open air museum
- Hire bikes to see the city – bike lanes aren’t perfect but they’re better than nothing and cycling is a popular option
Food & drink
- Restaurant & cafe Kappeli
- Cafe Regatta