Having friends from various countries is definitely an advantage of spending time living abroad. One of my very good friends hails from Helsinki so I’ve visited Finland a couple of times to see her. Of all the lovely experiences this capital has to offer, I’ve whittled it down to 5 of my favourite things. So if you’re wondering what to do in Helsinki, here are my suggestions.
What to do in Helsinki: Go to a Finnish lake
With a grand total of 187,888 lakes dotted around Finland, you just have to give at least one a visit. I spent a lovely few days in a cabin on the lake ‘Iso Salasjärvi’, eating, drinking, playing games and relaxing with the mosquitos in the peace and quiet of the Finnish countryside. The almost complete absence of noise and people made it feel like it was just us and nature. Unfortunately, there was a little less nature left in the lake once we tried our hands at fishing. The Finns were used to this quiet pastime, but it was my first (and probably last) experience of it. Slowly creaking across the water in a rowing boat was much more my style. Although anything where I don’t have to pull a hook out of a cold fish, is much more my style.
What to do in Helsinki: Do sauna Finnish style
In Finland, the sauna is a big deal. Like, a huge deal. I had only tried sitting in a sauna once before, in a tiny wooden room in a swimming pool. I felt exactly as I imagine a chicken might feel when cooking in an oven (especially if said chicken is wearing an ill-fitting one-piece and sweating profusely). Sauna in Suomi is an entirely different experience. They do things properly over there, often with an outdoor sauna house heated by an old-timey wood fire. Not to mention the fact that they go totally and completely naked. To the introverted English person, this may sound like the worst thing since unsliced bread, but to the Finnish people, it’s normal. They seem to have a healthy complacency when it comes to nudity, which just doesn’t exist where I’m from. The lack of any material barriers seems to render any emotional ones non-existent as well. I’ve been told that a sauna is where friends feel they can go and talk about anything, even the most personal topics.
To experience a seemingly vital part of Finnish culture properly and, of course, just for a bit of fun, I did Finnish sauna style. The tradition is to sit and talk and drink until you can bear (see what I did there?) the sweltering heat no more. Then, you run to the nearby lake in the buff and have a refreshing swim, after which the cycle begins again. One thing I’ve learned for the next time: beer cans get HOT in the sauna. Decant drinks into a cup before entering. You’re welcome.
What to do in Helsinki: Go shopping
Finland’s most well-known brand is probably ‘Marimekko‘. Its bold prints and primary colours have made it iconic. If you’re looking for a shop where you can buy dresses in the same fabric as your bathroom towels, then look no further. The striking patterns emanate 60′s style yet have managed to remain relevant since the company’s inception in 1951.
A more modern Finnish designer is Minna Parikka. She launched her brand in 2005 and designs zany shoes, currently sporting a cute little rabbit ears design. I am desperate for a pair. Go and have a peek at her flagship store in Helsinki, but be careful not to drool on the shoes.
I couldn’t talk about shopping in Helsinki without a quick mention of The Market Square at the South Harbour. Three seasons out of four (that pesky winter snow is mighty inconvenient), you can head down to this bustling market and try or buy some delicious Finnish food, fruit or vegetables, and hand-crafted souvenirs. The sweet peas are by far the best I have ever tasted and are a perfect snack for an on-the-go tourist.
What to do in Helsinki: Visit Suomenlinna
Suomenlinna is a sea fortress spanning 6 islands. Being a former military base, there is plenty of history to discover. You can explore the museums there, or simply by walking around the fortress. Despite this, Suomenlinna is by no means stilted in time but is actually rather vibrant as there are thousands of tourists every year. The fort is easily accessible by a short ride on the ferry (15-20 minutes), leaving The Market Square. On a warm summer’s day, it’s the perfect place for a lazy waterside picnic and a walk.
Many people choose to have the beautiful Suomenlinna as the backdrop for their wedding photos or their actual wedding or reception. During my visit, I saw many wedding guests wandering around in the sultry heat in their fancy dresses and suits – a wonderful sight to behold!
Suomenlinna has lots of sweet little cafés, shops and artists studios, as well as an open-air theatre during the summer. There is plenty to do (or to not do, if you prefer to just laze on the beach), so it’s an ideal place for a day trip out of mainland Helsinki.
What to do in Helsinki: Get your groove on outdoors
Helsinki has numerous outdoor music venues. Perhaps the most longstanding is Kaisaniemi Park, with its first large open-air concert being organised in the early 1970s. Groovy, huh? Kaisaniemi hosts some large outdoor concerts, most notably the one scheduled for Helsinki Day in June, free and attended by tens of thousands of people.
For smaller outdoor concerts, there’s the lovely Esplanadi Puisto, where you can attend free open-air performances during the summer, including the Jazz-Espa concert series on weekdays throughout July. To be in the stunning surroundings one finds in these parks whilst enjoying live music in the summer sun is a beautiful experience not to be missed.