One day in Helsinki
If you’re in Helsinki for a day, this is what I recommend you to do.
1. Sip some coffee in “tori”
Finns are known to be coffee lovers. As a matter of a fact, we drink the most coffee in the world. On a good day, it is best to start by having a morning cup of coffee, for example in the marketplace, usually called tori. In Finland, in the summer, coffee is enjoyed outdoors whenever possible.
In the marketplace, it’s also worth it to taste sweet and fresh Finnish strawberries and crunchy peas (yes, Finns eat their peas hard and fresh). Some true superfood! You can also have a taste of the berries that grow wild in Finland’s forests. The best marketplaces in Helsinki are in Hakaniemi, Hietalahti, and Töölöntori. All these you can reach comfortably with metro or tram. If you prefer to stay close to the center, check Kauppatori in front of the presidential palace.
A cup of coffee. (KUVA: TIMO HÄMÄLÄINEN)
2. Enjoy sauna
Can you visit Finland without going to a sauna? Usually not. If you’re in Helsinki for a day, you need to visit one! In recent years, the sauna culture in Helsinki has been booming, and the coastline of the city is dotted by ever better new saunas. Should we go to Löyly or Allas Seapool? There are many options to choose from.
If you’re searching a genuine, old-fashioned Finnish atmosphere you should also keep other alternatives in mind. Kallio and Vallila are a short tram ride away, and both areas have numerous saunas that were designed in the early 20th century as communal bathing places. Of these, at least the Kotiharjun sauna in Harjutori and the Sauna Hermanni on Hämeentie are open year-round.
Unique experiences are also offered by the swimming pool in Yrjönkatu(mostly gay-friendly), dating from 1928, and the Kulttuurisauna (Cultural Sauna) opened in 2013 among the bleak high-rises of Merihaka.
Remember that when you go to a sauna in Finland, usually you will be naked. The term sekasauna (mixed sauna) means that there are both men and women in the same sauna at the same time. If you see a sign saying “sekasauna”, you have been warned. Among the places where a mixed sauna is available is the Sompasauna, which is open around the clock.
3. Experience the easiest metro system in the world
Riding the metro in Helsinki is so easy that even children can do it. In this capital city of the world, you only need to know whether the orange train is going east or west.
The so-called West Metro from Helsinki to neighboring Espoo was opened in November 2017, after more than a decade of starting and stopping the project. You should understand that the locals are still excited about this new metro line of theirs.
East of Sörnäinen station, many of the metro tracks also run in the open, and the train windows offer a view of the surroundings of ordinary locals. The metro also runs both above and below the sea!
4. Eat the best potatoes and salmon in the world
In the summer, the marketplaces of Helsinki and all of Finland are the source for the best fresh potatoes in the world (no matter what the Swedes may claim). The Finns count the days to the time when small, newly harvested potatoes can be eaten boiled with a little butter, dill, and herring or salmon. Potatoes are in season right now! You must have some before you travel back home.
Also remember the salmon. Nowhere is the cream of salmon soup as good as here.
5. Take the obligatory architectural tour
For busy visitors, we can recommend the main railway station (by Saarinen) and the Senate Square area around the big white cathedral (by Engel). Aalto’s handiwork is not hard to find. He was the one who designed Finlandia Hall by the Töölö Bay, which was the function as the press center during the visit of President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin in summer 2018.
The outer walls of the building are interesting for a couple of reasons. You can easily start a conversation with a resident of Helsinki by asking how the marble slabs of Finlandia Hall are doing right now. To notice the other interesting detail, walk to the yard outside the Sinisen Huvilan Kahvila (Blue Villa’s Café) on the opposite side of the bay and find the spot where the tower of the National Museum looks like it penetrates the wall of Finlandia Hall.
If you have two days
1. Visit an island
Helsinki is a marine city, and its coast is full of magnificent islands that are easily accessed in the summer, for example by ferry from Kauppatori or Hakaniemi.
The best known of the islands is Suomenlinna, which is also the quickest to be filled with tourists in the morning. In the 1850s, the fortress was the backdrop for sea battles connected to the Crimean War. You can travel to the island easily and cheaply from Kauppatori. All it takes is the price of an internal ticket on Helsinki Regional Transport.
While waiting for the ferry, however, you are bound to learn one very Finnish custom: lining up. Finns are strict about their place in any line. Anyone who cuts in line will experience intense disapproval.
In recent years, the islands of Vallisaari and Isosaari with their natural beauty have also been opened to the public after being vacated by the Finnish army. The small island of Lonna is worth a visit, and a sauna is also available there (naturally enough). Even the busiest traveler has enough time to visit Uunisaari, just a stone’s throw from Kaivopuisto. Also worth a visit is Seurasaari, where you can become acquainted with the rustic Finland of the past.
2. Have a swim in the sea
A swim in the Baltic Sea is possible on a trip to an island or on one of Helsinki’s numerous swimming beaches. The biggest and best-known of these is probably Hietaniemi, colloquially known as Hietsu.
3. Drink the tap water, eat some ice cream
It is safe to drink tap water anywhere in Finland. Isn’t it unbelievable that when you take a shower, you are using water good enough to drink! It’s a thing of wonder to us Finns too. In the heat of July, it is useful to carry a water bottle of your own, which is easy to refill anywhere.
In the summer, Finns also eat a lot of ice cream. However, they eat it in the winter too, as a matter of fact. Finns eat the most ice cream in Europe: approximately 13 liters per person annually. If you buy a scoop of ice cream in the vicinity of Kauppatori and Esplanadi, keep in mind that the seagulls of Helsinki are also addicted to ice cream. They are shameless enough to snatch it directly from your hand.
4. Have a moment of silence in a library
A couple of days will be enough for visitors to note that Finns are a pretty quiet bunch. Compared to most of the world’s capital cities, Helsinki is extremely quiet by any standard. If it seems difficult, however, to find silence, a tourist can go to a place where silence is required.
One option is to go to a library. (Finns are the most active users of public libraries in the world, and the new Oodi central library is right now being built in the heart of Helsinki, close to the Finnish Parliament.) Among other libraries, you can pay a visit to the National Library, the Kaisa library of the University of Helsinki, the Rikhardinkatu library or the recently renovated Kallio library. The atmosphere in them captures something essential about the Finnish soul.
5. Tour the bars in Kallio
The old working-class district of Kallio is full of bars and people. By Finnish standards, “full” means that every street has at least one bar and at least one other person besides yourself. Kallio is the most densely populated area in Helsinki and all of Finland. The number of bars there is substantial. To find the right place, you do not need TripAdvisor or Google. Just walk around.
6. Have a snack at the snagari
If your night in Kallio turns out to be a long one, it pays to get some additional energy, meaning fat and salt, at a street food stall (snagari in the local vernacular). If there is a line in front of one, do not cut it whatever you do. That is absolutely the worst thing you can do to a Finn. If cut it anyway, as a consequence you will draw upon yourself the wrath of a drunk Finn – which will not subside quickly.
If you have three days
1. Visit a garden
Allotment gardens are green oases close to the bustle of the city. Helsinki has nine community gardens, of which the ones in Vallila, Kumpula, and Ruskeasuo are an easy tram ride away. The last of these, established in 1918, is the oldest in the city. In the past, the gardens safeguarded food production for city residents when times were tough.
The land of the gardens is owned by the city, which rents out plots of 250–500 square meters to residents for growing fruit and vegetables. The gardens are blooming in July, and with their cute little cottages they are a great setting for a short break.
2. Wash a carpet
If you did not bring a carpet of your own, at least go and watch others wash them. The traditional way is to wash them with water and Mäntysuopa, a soap made from pine oil that is based on a Finnish innovation and can also be used to repel plant lice in gardens.
There are several carpet-washing spots in Helsinki. By the sea, for instance, there are ones in Merihaka and in Merisatama at the southern tip of the city. According to current knowledge, it is a bit questionable environmentally, however, to wash carpets in natural bodies of water. If you do not want to add to the pollution of the Baltic Sea, you can watch others washing their carpets, with a beer if you wish. In Pukinmäki, there is a carpet-washing spot built on dry land.
The carpets are spread on tables, wetted, lathered with soap, and scrubbed with a root brush. They are then rinsed and hung out to dry.
3. Go to the forest
In the middle of Helsinki, there is Keskuspuisto (Central Park), where residents gladly spend their time. It is often said that Finns have a special relationship with their forests. In the Central Park, it is easy to join in by walking or riding a yellow city bike. In the middle of the park, you can have a surprising encounter with a city rabbit, fox, owl, or even boar.
The vast Nuuksio national park is a little more than 30 minutes away from the capital. You can get in a real wilderness mood there. If you have no time for more, grill some sausage at the campfire site at Haukkalampi. At the same time, you can admire the grand rock and lake vistas.
Buy some Finnish sausage to take with you. Sininen lenkki is a type of grilled sausage that is practically a traditional delicacy. Finns are apt to remark that it is also suitable for vegetarians, as meat plays such a small role in it.
4. Charm the locals by saying kippis!
You could have learned this toast already on your first day, but you can say it when toasting Helsinki and Finnishness just as well on your third night. It is worth a visit to go to movie director Aki Kaurismäki’s Kafe Moskva with its tangible evocation of the Soviet Union, and its exact opposite, the Ateljee Bar of the Hotel Torni, whose glass-walled ladies’ room has an incomparable view of Helsinki.
If you want a traditional Finnish drink besides coffee and clean tap water, order a lonkero (a tall glass of gray beverage) or a jaloviina (a shot glass worth of golden liquid). Some restaurants have even come up with a way of combining these two.