For a country that invented the concept of saunas, Finland is often criminally overlooked on European visits. The capital city of Helsinki is full of rich culture, gorgeous architecture, and unique experiences not easily found in other parts of the continent. Additionally, the city is relatively small, making it easily accessible by foot or via the convenient metro. Given the northerly latitude, pack warm clothes and dress accordingly as you check out these highlights in this Nordic must-stop.
Kamppi’s central location makes it an ideal place to base your journey. Consider a stay at Hotel Torni. In addition to funky art deco and art nouveau rooms, the bathrooms of Ateljee Bar on the 12th floor famously offer a sweeping view of the Helsinki skyline. As the hotel used to be the tallest building in the city, it was also once the vantage point to spot incoming Soviet bombers during World War II. The creatively inclined should also make the short walk nearby to the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM). Owned by the people of Helsinki, the vibrant space isn’t merely confined to the mesmerizing halls containing exhibits ranging from contemporary to avant-garde. HAM considers itself to cover the entire city, with more than 500 sculptures scattered throughout waiting to be discovered by intrepid travelers. See how many you can find on your own, using HAM’s website to search for art near you, book a guided tour in English, or follow the “Questions Of Life,” one of several themed sculpture trails. The artistic sensibilities kick into overdrive when HAM hosts the Helsinki Biennial, happening every other year and transforming mainland Helsinki and nearby Vallisaari Island into a smorgasbord of electrifying open-air art installations. Standing over the daily bustle of Kamppi also lies an odd, alien-seeming building known only as the “Chapel Of Silence.” Visitors inside can enjoy a quiet respite within the sleek wooden walls, rounded with an ultra-modern aesthetic that blocks out the neighborhood’s noise.
Just north of Kampii in the Töölö district lies another architectural marvel in the earthen Temppeliaukio Church. Known as the “Church Of The Rock,” the bizarre building was constructed directly into the surrounding granite, giving the interior an otherworldly feel. A quick metro ride west lies memorable hikes on the island of Seurasaari, doubling as a forested open-air museum covering the history of rustic Finnish architecture. For a fun afternoon of thrills, head east to Linnanmäki amusement park, the oldest of its kind in Finland and home to 40 exciting rides. Halloween fans should visit the park in September when it gets a spooky makeover during iik! Week. A little to the west of the park lies the lush halls of Helsinki’s Winter Garden, a greenhouse home to one of the finest collections of exotic plants in the Nordics. The scenery changes depending on the season, but if you visit around the holidays, be sure to witness the garden’s dazzling transformation into a bright sea of holiday colors. Finally, to upend your conceptions about Scandinavia completely, head west to Hietaranta Beach, an honest-to-goodness sandy shore teeming with locals during the warmer months. Helsinki’s location on the 60th parallel (a mere six degrees shy of the Arctic Circle) gives it incredibly long daylight hours in the summer, and as the beach faces west, this is also one of the best places to watch the sunset in the entire city. With a warm beverage in hand, consider grabbing a seat in the sand and watching the sky slowly change color as the sun gently crosses the horizon in the late evening.
Located north of downtown, Kallio has recently adopted a reputation as Finland’s coolest neighborhood, filled with streets lined with fun dive bars, trendy vintage shops, and adorable vegan eateries. For a fun, audio-centric trip through time, check out the vintage record players, antique guitars, old clothes, and good tunes filling Kallio Retro And Vintage Audio. Grab a coffee from the cozy Musta Kissa (Finnish for “Black Cat”), and head east towards the quirky Suvilahti Graffiti Wall, a former industrial area filled with strange artistic contraptions and enchanting walls of lively art. A little north lies the Alppipuisto park, an inviting green space that offers frequent open-air concerts in the warmer months and a hilltop with spectacular views of explosive Finnish colors in autumn. Stroll down Vaasankatu and grab drinks and some authentic Finnish cuisine from Kustaa Vaasa, or have a bite from one of the many food trucks gathered in the Vaasanpuistikko plaza at the end of the street. Consider ending the day on Hämeentie, an energetic thoroughfare filled with fun eateries, cute shops, and wild nightlife. Grab some delicious vegan food from Onda, then head around the corner to Kaiku, an old factory building now converted into a spirited DJ space renowned as one of Helsinki’s premier dance spots for electronic music.
Downtown Helsinki and Suomenlinna
The wide cobblestone streets of downtown are rich with historic architecture, notably in the ornate Helsinki Cathedral. A neoclassical structure built in the 19th century, the storied structure is adorned with colorful domes and rests within a large open square ripe for Instagram moments. Head a little south to the bustling Kauppatori market, the largest of its kind in the city. Explore the maze of stalls, try some fresh food from around the world, or browse the selection of local handmade souvenirs. Slightly west of Kauppatori in the famed Helsinki Design District lies the Helsinki Design Museum, a sprawling modernist structure dating back to the 19th century that houses nearly a quarter million wacky creative images, objects, and drawings. Heading east from Kauppatori is the popular SkyWheel Ferris wheel on the waterfront, offering fantastic views of downtown and the surrounding shoreline. After the ride, hop on the neighboring ferry for a quick trip to Suomenlinna fortress (“Castle of Finland” in English), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Constructed in the 18th century in response to Russian expansionism, Suomenlinna covers six islands and offers a museum, cute restaurants and coffee shops, and funky lodgings via the Hostel Suomenlinna. Grab a latte from the charming Café Piper and walk the many trails packed with historical marvels like the imposing King’s Gate or find a perch to sit and observe the gentle sea.
Explore the seasons within Helsinki’s enchanting parks
Every neighborhood in Helsinki contains a wealth of amazingly walkable parks ripe for stimulating hikes and people-watching. Finland is also home to several national parks and has an incredible law on the books called “Everyman’s Rights.” The law allows Finnish residents and visitors free access to the countryside anywhere in the country, and it is perfectly legal to fish, forage, and otherwise explore the land respectfully. A little east of Kallio lies the island of Mustikkamaa, connected to the city via footbridges and home to several crisp, leafy trails and lovely waterfront views. On Helsinki’s southern tip, the massive Kaivopuisto Park offers frequent live music in summer, delightful ice skating in winter, flowery trails in spring, and loads of fall color in autumn. To the north, many peculiar art installations await discovery within the wooded paths of Sibelius Park. Consider also a day trip to Nuuksio and Sipoonkorpi National Parks right outside the city, with miles of peaceful forested trails and crystalline lakes waiting to be experienced, and, if you stick around in the evening, a chance to glimpse the famed Northern Lights.
Book a sauna
If you do nothing else, a sauna is an absolute must-have experience while in Finland. As the country invented the practice, you won’t find a more authentically Finnish activity while in the country. While it is widespread for houses, apartments, hotels, and hostels to all feature saunas, head to Löyly for a truly compelling experience. Concealed within a striking wooden modernist structure on the southern edge of town, Löyly has three superheated sauna rooms, covering both the traditional Finnish style and chimney-less smoke versions. The intimate space also contains a cozy bar, a gourmet restaurant, communal fireplaces, and an attractive balcony overlooking the Baltic Sea. If you need a solution to jet lag, do as the Finns do and alternate the hot sauna with quick dips into the often frigid Baltic waters. For something more unconventional, head slightly east of Kallio and check out the unorthodox Sompasauna on the water’s edge. For a great time, make some colorful new Finnish friends while checking out the peculiar wooden shack housing this free, 24/7, self-service, volunteer-run, and nudity-friendly sauna surrounded by offbeat art and often frequented by quirky locals.
John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.