Helsinki is said to be the most populous city in Finland. It’s also a city with a wide variety of tourist attractions, some of them so unusual, you’ll have no choice but to squeeze it into your very first visit to the Finnish capital. To have the best trip, I created a list of the top 10 things to do in Helsinki.
Helsinki is a city of several museums, churches, architectural specimens, an established amusement park & many islands that lie south of it. The top things to do in Helsinki include visiting an underground church from the last century to seeing a modern, no-frills chapel from this century, exploring a sea fortress just outside the capital city, to checking out public art and experiencing a steam bath, Finnish style.
1. See Helsinki Cathedral up close
One of Helsinki’s most important landmarks is Helsingin Tuosmiokirkko or the Helsinki Cathedral. Situated in the heart of the city, the cathedral is a white, imposing structure with a big green dome & four smaller ones. It was built in a neoclassical style, having tall columns & plain walls. Go closer to the building and you will see 12 figures on the roof of the Cathedral, those of the 12 apostles symbolically guarding the city from their high positions.
Helsinki Cathedral was inspired by St. Isaac Cathedral of Saint Petersburg and was built in honor of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, the Grand Duke of Finland. As such, it was called Saint Nicholas Cathedral until Finland gained independence.
Not only is this Lutheran church one of the most visited landmarks in Helsinki, but it’s also one of the first few structures that stand out of the cityscape when you arrive via water, thanks to its being located near the harbor. Entry into the cathedral is free of charge but the visiting time largely depends on the timing of the services. In summer, visitors can also visit Cafe Krypta, a cafeteria in the cathedral’s crypt. It often hosts exhibitions, too.
2. Experience calm & quiet Kamppi Chapel
If Helsinki Cathedral is a reminder of the city’s history, bang in the middle of it is a chapel that is a symbol of modern Helsinki. Kamppi Chapel, also called the Chapel of Silence, is another very recognizable landmark. This contemporary structure is built of wood and looks like a ship in busy Narinkka Square.
Built in 2012 as part of the World Design Capital project, the Kamppi Chapel is meant to be a welcoming meditative space for people of all faiths. No services or religious events are known to take place here. It’s a quiet, minimalistic retreat where one can go spend a few minutes of silence.
3. Walk into an underground church
Temppeliaukion is yet another church, another one of those unique things to do in Helsinki that you cannot miss on your visit to the capital of Finland. One of the reasons for it being called unique is that it was built by quarrying into a bed of rock, making it a subterranean building.
This partly-underground church also has interesting architecture to go with it. It’s crowned by a copper dome for a roof and at the base of the dome is a broad circular skylight through which natural light pours into the stone church. Otherwise, this one is a regular Lutheran place-of-worship with services and all. It’s open to visitors as well.
4.Take a boat to a Suomenlinna
Undeniably among the top 5 things to do in Helsinki is Finland’s sea fortress, Suomenlinna. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Helsinki. Suomenlinna stretches across 8 islands lying southeast of the present-day capital city. It was constructed by the Swedes to protect the mainland from Russian invasion. Later it ended up being used by the Russians themselves. Much later it was used by the Finns to protect their homeland.
If you take a ferry from the mainland, you get to see several kilometers of wall, some cannons, and a whole community of people living within the fort area. This sea fortress is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is open to the public all year round with additional waterway transportation in the summer months.
5. Photograph Sibelius Monument
Yet another interesting thing to do in Helsinki is to see the Sibelius Monument, an art installation erected in honor of celebrated Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was designed by Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen.
At the monument is a structure made of several hundreds of steel pipes put together to denote organ pipes making a sound wave. And beside this modern sculpture is a bust of the composer.
6. Spend some time at Esplanadi
Better known as Espa, as the locals like to call it, Esplanadi is a city park that gives Helsinki some greenery in the middle of its urbanness. It’s well-landscaped with trees & flowering plants and has been attracting people to it since 1818.
Espa’s been home to one of Helsinki’s oldest restaurants and also to the city’s very first museum buildings. These days it also has a stage that draws performers and audiences to its greenery making it a popular area.
7. Pick up some local food at Market Square
Also popular is the square that lies east of Esplanadi. This is Market Square, an open-air market where you can go to see local life, pick up fresh berries or other fruits. It’s also the most ideal place to find local food that’s also pocket friendly.
While a portion of the market is dedicated to food, yet another part of it deals with the wares you can take back as gifts. In fall there’s a herring market here, and once a month there’s a Friday event, which is an exhibition of old American cars.
From Market Square it’s also easy to get to the Presidential Palace or catch your ferry to Suomenlinna & other islands near Helsinki. Vanha Kauppahalli, Helsinki’s old market hall is also not very far from here.
8. Tour Helsinki’s Design District
Finland and its capital are known for their leadership in modern design, so one of the best things to do in Helsinki is to visit it’s design district to see several shops, museums, and art galleries that showcase the city’s love and signature style in terms of design.
The Design District is actually a set of neighborhoods along 20-something streets selling everything from antiques to artwork & textile to glassware & furniture. It’s a great place to shop and window shop. You could also visit the design museum to learn about and understand the history & evolution of Finnish design.
9. See Finland from another perspective
The capital of Finland has more attractions than you can fit into your trip. You’ll need a few visits to see all that the city and its surroundings have to show. One way to see it all or a good part of it in just a few minutes is to book yourself into a Flying Cinema Tour of Helsinki.
Here, you put on some 3D glasses and let the cinema take you to several attractions in and around the capital through audio, video, movement, and even wind & snow coming your way, all while you are buckled to your seats.
10. Try a Finnish Sauna
With so much to see & do in Helsinki, you might want to end your day with a Finnish Sauna. Finland has a thriving Sauna culture that must be experienced when you’re visiting this Nordic nation.
Helsinki’s traditional saunas are in wooden buildings where you sweat it out in the steam and then make your way to a cold pool or cold seawater and then return to the steam bath. Helsinki has several private and public saunas, some of them with separate sessions for men and women, while others are unisex saunas.