Ok so disclaimer coming up, when I visited Helsinki, it was actually a national holiday!
Yes, unbeknownst to me, the one main day that I had set aside to run around Helsinki and undertake all the sightseeing I could, was actually Finnish Independence Day.
And it was minus 20 degrees celsius!
At first, even through the 14 layers I had on, I couldn’t work out why there were quite so many flags out on display in Helsinki and quite why the streets were so quiet at 9am, but then a bit of Googling and the penny dropped.. ah a public holiday!
Luckily the city sprang into a bit more life come lunchtime, and luckily a few more things opened their doors, but it’s safe to say the temperature did not warm up!
But that’s just how dedicated I am to this blog, dear reader, because undeterred, I actually walked the length and breadth of Helsinki in sub, sub, SUB zero temperatures in order to see as much of this city as I could and bring this, my list of the best things to do in Helsinki.
So let’s get stuck in!
Oh, but a hot tip first… if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing in Helsinki, it may prove cost-effective to buy a Helsinki City Card – just saying!
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel Finland?
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- How to Travel from Helsinki to Lapland
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#1 Check out the National Museum
Ok, so first up are Helsinki’s museums because, despite being a small city of just over half a million residents, there’s actually a huge and fantastic array of museums here and top of the list has to be the National Museum.
With free admission on Fridays between 4pm and 6pm, the rest of the time it costs €15 to enter, but is well worth it thanks to the wealth of permanent and revolving exhibitions they have here.
Charting the history of Finland from the Stone Age to the present day, this is a great place to start your time in the city and learn about the unique heritage of this Nordic land – when it comes to things to do in Helsinki it’s a must.
Oh and the building itself is pretty beautiful too!
#2 Visit the Design Museum
Next up, it’s the Design Museum, which is probably the city’s second most famous exhibition space thanks to the fact that, like much of Scandinavia, the Finns are pretty hot on architecture, design and, let’s face it, snazzy lampshades (which incidentally I’m very here for).
Internationally recognised and over a hundred years old, there’s a permanent collection at the Design Museum boasting over 75,000 objects and 100,000 drawings, which map the history of Finnish design from 1870 to the present day.
There’s also an impressive array of changing exhibitions and entrance costs €12.
#3 Swing by the HAM Art Museum
With an enormous art collection that includes over 9,000 works (and is impressively noted as belonging to the people of Helsinki), it’s a shame that it still costs €12 to get in here.
Nevertheless, if you’re an art fan, this is a must for the modern and contemporary focused collections, especially on a Saturday when guided tours are included in the ticket price.
Plus you can’t miss seeing the random and huge seagull head above the entrance!
Anyone know the backstory to this? Fill me in please!
#4 Stop in at Amos Rex
And last on this list of the top museums to visit in Helsinki, it’s the Amos Rex Museum, which has an emphasis on 20th century art, along with contemporary, interactive and immersive pieces from across the world.
The newest of the museums on this list – it was opened in its current home in 2018 – this place is very popular and has a subterranean annex that runs under the neighbouring plaza.
#5 Snap the Finlandia Hall
And now we move onto some of the city’s most iconic buildings in this list of the top things to do in Helsinki.
And first up, it’s Finlandia Hall.
An event centre, it’s really for the impressive architecture that you’ll visit this giant – unless you’re actually attending an event there – and the spectacle of the optical illusion it creates with the National Museum located behind it.
#6 See a Performance at the National Theatre
Next we move onto Finland’s flagship performance space – the National Theatre – which is also located in an impressive and beautiful building.
Lying in the heart of the city, like many of the things to do in Helsinki, it’s easy to walk to this one, in fact, you might even stumble upon it as you wander through the compact centre.
Opposite the main railway station, the theatre’s permanent home here was established in 1902, and the development of the theatre – the first official Finnish speaking theatre in the world – runs in tandem with the history of the country.
Initially, the theatre developed as a space of resistance, away from the Swedish speaking elite during the time of the Russian Empire, to give prominence to a cultural movement that eventually lead to Finnish independence in 1917.
With performances still regularly staged here, the theatre has now expanded to include 4 stages and an eclectic programme of touring as well as national productions.
#7 Marvel at the Central Library
Known as the Oodi, Helsinki’s Central Library is very much a modern living library, with plenty of spaces to meet friends, create art and work.
Situated facing the Finnish Parliament, its location is intended to symbolise the relationship between the government and citizens.
Again, it boasts some very cool architecture, is open daily and has 2 lovely cafes, as well as an impressive 100,000 books, making visiting here definitely one of the most iconic things to do in Helsinki.
#8 Pass by Parliament House
And opposite the Oodi, as I mentioned, is the home of the Finnish Parliament.
Unsurprisingly, this incredibly official-looking building is the heart of the nation’s political life and was inaugurated in 1931.
The building has five floors and was built in a style combining Neoclassicism with modernism.
Most important to see if you head here is the Main Lobby, the State Hall and the Session Hall.
#9 People Watch in Senate Square
Situated in the oldest part of Helsinki, Senate Square is a large public space at the foot of the Helsinki Cathedral.
The Square has been here since 1812, before that this space was a graveyard!
Now it houses the offices of the Prime Minister of Finland.
When I visited in December, there was a lovely Christmas tree in the centre of the square and it’s a peaceful place to stand and people watch… if it’s not minus 20!
#10 Climb up to the Helsinki Cathedral
And sitting above the square as I mentioned, up a large flight of stairs, is the Helsinki Cathedral.
Definitely one of the top things to do in this city, visiting here is a must, as this is probably the most recognisable landmark in Finland.
Built between 1830 and 1852, the Cathedral was constructed in a neoclassical style and is highly distinguishable thanks to its tall, green dome.
The Cathedral is open daily and admission is free, although a €5 is encouraged.
#10 Find the Rock Church
And now onto a very different sort of religious building, the Rock Church in Helsinki, also known as Temppeliaukio Church, was built in 1969, right into the rock face.
Architecturally it’s very interesting and is well worth the €4 entrance fee.
#11 Sit in the Chapel of Silence
Another more modern religious building, although not one connected to any faith, the Chapel of Silence is a place of quiet contemplation.
It’s free to enter and a beautiful spot to sit peacefully.
The cylindrical wooden structure is very distinct and the small, simple design is intended to make it open to all.
#13 Don’t Miss St John’s Church
Built in the Gothic Revival style, this huge stone church is pretty impressive and shouldn’t be missed on your list of things to do in Helsinki.
Built between 1888 and 1891, it is the biggest Lutheran church in the capital.
The twin towers are 74m tall and the church seats 2,600 people.
With excellent acoustics, it is perfect for hosting big concerts and events, which it sometimes does.
#14 See the Uspenski Cathedral
An Orthodox Church built in the instantly recognisable style, the Uspenski Cathedral is located near the ferry terminal in Helsinki and was designed by a Russian architect.
Immediately standing out, as it’s very different from many of the other buildings in the city, it’s well worth a visit and is open every day except Monday.
#15 See a Statue
And now we move on to seeing some of Helsinki’s famous statues, which certainly add another historic dimension to this list of the top things to do here.
With so many to choose from, it’s perhaps that of Havis Amanda and the equestrian statue of Marshal Mannerheim that are most famous.
#16 Shop at Market Square
And once you’re done with all the sightseeing, it’s time for a bit of shopping, or at least a spot of lunch.
The Market Square, which sits right next to the ferry terminal in Helsinki, was alive with festive stallholders when I visited, and seems like it would be pretty thriving at most times of the year.
Just a few minutes walk away, the Vanha Kauppahalli, a traditional, 19th-century indoor food market, offers lots of unique Finnish specialities and is a great spot to head for lunch.
#17 Brave the Allas Sea Pool
And also by the ferry harbour is the wonderful Allas Sea Pool – a safe swimming zone filled by the tide.
There’s a heated pool as well, but it was the brave / mad people I saw swimming in the freezing ocean water here, with snow all around them, that really blew my mind!
The photos I snapped from this spot were also great… did I mention parts of the sea were frozen? Yes, that’s how cold it was!
#18 Take a Trip to an Island
And then from the ferry terminal, you can take a quick trip to one of the many islands that lie just off Helsinki’s coastline.
Probably the most famous is Suomenlinna, whose fortress became UNESCO listed in 1991.
Just a short ferry ride away (also great for giving views back over the city), this journey is covered by a Helsinki public transport ticket. Learn more about passes you can buy to use the trams and buses in the city, including to the airport here.
There’s a lovely 1.5km trail you can walk around the island that gives some stunning views over the ocean.
#19 Hit up the Shopping Street
And after coming back from the island, it’s time to unwind, so why not head to one of Helsinki’s main historical streets – Aleksanterinkatu – to check out the shops or stop in a lovely café and warm up.
Just me then!
When I was in Helsinki, I literally had to stop in a café every hour just to get my core temperature back up again!
Trust me, a lot of coffee was drunk!
#20 Grab a Coffee at Fazer
And talking about cafés, you can’t miss this gem.
Something of an icon in Finland, heading to Fazer to sit down with a warm cup of something is definitely one of the best things to do in Helsinki.
They also have an amazing array of Finnish chocolates if you’re in the mood for some souvenir buying.
Because yes, the Finns certainly seem to love their sweet stuff!
#21 Day Trip to Porvoo
And last but not least on this list of the best things to do in Helsinki, if you have an extra day in this city it’s well worth taking a short trip to the nearby town of Porvoo.
Thought to be one of the oldest towns in Finland, this quaint, cobbled gem is most famous for its brightly coloured wooden buildings and the Medieval charm it oozes.
Top Helsinki Suburbs to Visit
- Kallio – a boho area known for its Finnish saunas
- Vallila – a northern district famous for its wooden houses and historic colourful homes dating from the early 1900s
- Punavuori – part of the Design District, this trendy area is renowned for its arty vibes and vibrant foodie / craft beer scene
- Ullanlinna – another trendy area known for its parks and flashy properties, the most famous street here – Huvilakatu – is one of the city’s most picturesque
Top Helsinki Tours to Enjoy
- Nuuksio National Park: Half-Day Trip from Helsinki
- Helsinki Half-Day City Tour
- Return Day Trip Ferry Ticket to Tallinn
- 90-minute Helsinki Canal Sightseeing Boat Trip
Helsinki Mini Travel Guide
When to Visit Helsinki?
In my opinion, the best time to visit Finland is definitely during the winter months between December and February, this is when you’ll see the most beautiful snow coverage and get this winter wonderland at its most scenic.
For the full festive experience, you should visit Finland during December when the snow has begun, otherwise, consider January or February for cheaper winter rates, albeit with lower temperatures.
How to Travel To Helsinki?
Direct flights with numerous airlines, including Finnair, arrive into Helsinki’s airport from London and many other major European cities.
From the best deals on all flights, I highly suggest checking out Skyscanner.
Otherwise, there are regular ferries from Estonia and Sweden to Finland too.
Alternatively, you can also take an organised tour to Helsinki that includes transport, as well as a heap of guided activities in Finland’s beautiful capital. Check out these fantastic options for more info.
How Long to Spend in Helsinki?
2 days is enough to see all the main attractions in Helsinki.
There are also a number of great day trips you can enjoy if you have longer.
How to Get Around Helsinki?
You can use Uber in Helsinki to get around, but it pays to know that the city centre is quite compact and easy to navigate on foot.
Public transport is also excellent in Helsinki – including to and from the airport – with an easy-to-use tram, train and bus network.
Learn more, including about travel day passes, here.
Where to Stay in Helsinki?
5 Top Packing Items for a Helsinki Winter Trip
Learn more in this article I wrote all about what to pack for a winter trip to Finland.
Travel Insurance for Finland
World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while travelling and claim online from anywhere in the world.
Alternatively, if you’re a long-term traveller, digital nomad or frequent remote worker seeking travel health cover, check out Safetywing’s Nomad Insurance policies.
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So there you have it, my list of the top 21 things to do in Helsinki.
What did you enjoy doing in this city?
Please let fellow travellers know your recommendations by dropping them into the comments box below…