Scandinavia’s northernmost capital city is elegantly sprawled around its Baltic Sea waterfront on a peninsula scalloped by inlets and scattered with rocky skerries. Today Helsinki is one of the most incredible cities in Europe, with a pounding modern heart, buzzing seaside restaurants and bars, innovative contemporary architecture, fashion-forward shopping streets and an edgy nightlife. That it also manages to be one of the world’s friendliest cities, with many sights easily walkable, makes this pocket-sized capital all the more charming. In this article, I am listing the best places to visit in Helsinki in 2 days time.
Book into your hotel and head off into the night to experience Helsinki downtime; the first stop has to be cocktails at Ateljee on the top floor of Hotel Torni, where you’ll be greeted with panoramic views over the city. Then, splash out on supper at sleek New Nordic Olo, a Michelin-starred restaurant. Read on to find out what to visit during your stay in Helsinki.
Day One: Explore Helsinki’s historic heart
Places to visit in Helsinki: Senaatintori
Get the lie of the land with a self-guided audio tour of Helsinki’s compact city centre starting from the Neo-Classical Senaatintori (Senate Square). Then it’s time to take a table at the square’s elegant Café Engel for a typically Finnish breakfast of great coffee, rolls, cheese, boiled eggs and ham before picking up a Helsinki Card, which gives free admission to most museums and Suomenlinna Sea Fortress as well as free travel on public transport.
Senaatintori is also home to the Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral) and lined with aristocratic burghers’ houses, the magnificent colonnaded and soft-yellow Senate Building and the domed university library. German architect Carl Ludvig Engel built much of imperial St Petersburg and swathes of Tallinn – was responsible for creating both the square and its surrounding civic pomp in the mid-19th century. Today Senaatintori is Helsinki’s most popular meeting place, where crowds congregate on the cathedral’s steps to contemplate life under the beady eye of a vast Russian-built marble statue of Tsar Alexander II.
The cathedral at Senate Square
The cathedral itself is approached via a broad sweep of steps, sparkling white and sedately Neo-Renaissance in style; it’s topped with five coppery-green-stained onion domes and is a landmark visible all over the city. Completed in 1852 by Engel, its elaborate colonnaded portico contrasts starkly with the fresh, plain interior typical of Scandinavian Lutheran churches. The only note decoration is the gold embossed on the great organ and pulpit; all else is serene and unadorned. Martin Luther’s statue stands sternly in the central aisle.
Places to visit in Helsinki: Mannerheimintie
Find your way into Engel’s lovely little Trinity Church, tucked behind the cathedral, for some elaborate gold icons of Jesus and the Madonna. Head towards Mannerheimintie to scope out the Presidential Palace – once again the work of Carl Ludwig Engel and briefly home to Tsar Nicholas I, the City Hall, which is a hotchpotch of Neo-classical design and 20th-century modernism, and the contemporary waterfront-architecture of Finlandia Hall and gleaming glass of Musiikkitalo (Helsinki Music Centre). If there’s not a service in progress, visit the intriguing underground Temppeliaukio Rock Church, circular and hewn out of the rock by avant-garde design team Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969. Inside, the raw rock walls dripping with condensation and the granite altar is illuminated through 180 skylights – concerts here are a rare treat as the acoustics are second to none.
Places to visit in Helsinki: Museum of Contemporary Art
Lunch on a reindeer kebab bought from a street stall before immersing yourself in the artworks at Kiasma on Mannerheiminaukio. Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in a striking gallery that combines sweeping curves and sharp angles and was designed by American architect Steven Holl in 1998. Inside, the five-story collection spans out from the swirling central staircase and covers an ever-changing display of Pop Art, Minimalism and American Realism and exhibitions of dramatic Finnish and Russian paintings and installations from the 1960s onwards.
Places to visit in Helsinki: Enjoy a sauna
Saunas have played their part in Finnish culture for thousands of years. There were once more than 100 in Helsinki – today, just three original bathhouses survive. So work off the day’s sightseeing rigours with an invigorating back scrub and sweat it out on the upper benches at Kotiharjun sauna (towels and massages available), which opened its doors in 1928 city’s last wood-heated public sauna.
Day Two: Sea, Suomenlinna and shopping
Places to visit in Helsinki: Suomenlinna
Enjoy a breakfast treat of korvapuustit (cinnamon buns) at any food stall on Kauppatori (Market Square) before jumping aboard a cruise boat to sail past the rocky skerries forested islets of the glittering Gulf of Finland to Suomenlinna. Suomenlinna has the world’s largest maritime fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by Finland’s Swedish conquerors and completed in 1772 to defend their eastern frontier against Russia. The 250-year-old fortress is one of Finland’s most popular tourist destinations and definitely one of the top places to visit in Helsinki. Still, yet nearly a thousand people live among the straggle of ramparts and barracks. You should not miss the dry dock and the Ehrensvärd Museum, stuffed to the gunnels with maritime paintings, furniture and model ships. The Suomenlinna Museum has a permanent exhibition on the construction of the fortress. It describes daily life in the garrison town through paintings and letters.
Places to visit in Helsinki: The market
Back on dry land, the buzzing waterfront square of Kauppatori is fronted by massive Empire-style buildings and lined with cafés, pubs and bars; locals and tourists drift in to sit under stripy awnings and gossip over street snacks of cured salmon on rye bread. Pick a bar to sample a Finnish Olvi beer and admire the views of the ornate, red brick and copper-domed Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral before diving into the arts and crafts market that takes over the square most days. However, some prices can be wince-inducing; it’s just the place to buy reindeer skins, hunting knives, fur hats for winter, and locally flavoured vodkas. And as an added bonus, the stately red brick market hall of Vanha Kauppahalli is now an upmarket deli, full of stalls selling organic produce from Leipäjuusto cheese to reindeer burgers.
Round off a Helsinki weekend by joining the locals in a promenade down Esplanadi, the tree-lined walk tucked just north of the Design District and laid out in 1831. Here you’ll discover quality boutiques selling porcelain, jewellery, ceramics and hand-woven rugs with bright rustic patterns. A gently boisterous atmosphere makes this the perfect place to stroll among imposing statues of the Finnish great and good before stopping off for a last coffee and cinnamon pastry in Restaurant Kappeli. At more than 100 years old, this is one of the city’s best-loved and most traditional eating houses.