Helsinki seems to be off the normal “Scandinavian tourist trail.” Most people I know always seem to make it to Copenhagen or Stockholm (or sometimes Oslo if they can afford it), but they stop there. Helsinki never seems to be on the travel radar of most budget travelers I know. I’m not sure why. I guess Helsinki just doesn’t get the raving press that other places do.
Which is a shame, because Helsinki was a pleasant surprise for me.
Like most people, I simply passed through here on the way to somewhere cheaper (Tallin, Estonia). Helsinki was beautiful, had good food, and the locals were lively and very friendly. But on a budget, you can only really spend a few days here.
So with only a few days, here are my suggestions on how to spend them:
This museum showcases the history of the postal service in Finland. It may sound like a truly boring museum, but I thought it was actually interesting to see the evolution of mail service from sleds and ships to modern postal service. There’s a lot of detail here about how it evolved through Swedish rule, then Russian, and to modern Finnish.
Museum of Contemporary Art
I can’t say I like contemporary art. I have never understood how sticking a shovel in cement or slashing paint on canvas is “Art.” Give me the classic Impressionists or Dutch masters and I’m a happy guy. But contemporary art? No thanks. That being said, however, this museum is right up the street from the Post Museum, and from what I’ve been told, it has a great contemporary art collection if you’re into that kind of thing.
National Museum of Finland
I’ll admit that I’m a snob when it comes to history museums. I was a history major in school, and I get annoyed when museums lack descriptions or leave gaps in the story. However, I was really impressed with the National Museum of Finland. It has a large collection of artifacts, does a good job of providing lots of detail, moves the story along chronologically, and everything has a decent description so you know what you are looking at. I highly recommend this museum. It’s fantastic.
Finnish Museum of Photography
The photography museum is located on the far western edge of town, a bit removed from the center. It’s worth the walk, though, as it houses a strong collection that focuses mostly on Finnish artists.
Sinebrychoff Art Museum
This museum houses a lot of old paintings and portraits. It’s the only museum in the city that really focuses on old European art. The bottom floor of the museum has a lot of photos and more modern works, while the top floor has the older paintings that you see as you walk through the old Sinebrychoff residence.
Right near the Sinebrychoff museum is a nice little residential park worth hanging out at. There are a lot of little coffee shops around so you can grab a snack and just relax. After a day of walking around so much of Helsinki, you’ll probably need it.
Bank of Finland Museum
This museum was one of the coolest museums I’ve seen in a long time. While it does a good job describing the history of money in Finland, what it really does is well is describe the history of finance and modern finance. It offers up detailed background and great exhibits. It was quite a learning experience.
Right next to the bank museum is Helsinki’s giant cathedral. It towers over the surrounding square and inspired a few “wow’s.” You won’t walk away thinking this is one of the greatest cathedrals in Europe, but I did walk away thinking it was one of the best in Scandinavia.
This large red church is hard to miss, as it sits on a hill overlooking the city. This Eastern Orthodox Church is massive and very impressive with its large domes and gold crosses. The interior is very well decorated, too, with typical Eastern Orthodox icons.
Helsinki City Museum
Like the Finland history museum, the Helsinki version is just as good. There are plenty of descriptions, and great exhibits and photos. I would say it is the third best city museum I’ve come across in Europe after the Amsterdam and Barcelona museums. You shouldn’t miss it.
Right down by the harbor is a market where you can do lots of souvenir shopping, eat some local food, and buy fresh vegetables (and lots of fresh berries in the summer). This place is usually swarming with tourists, but I heard enough Finnish there to make me realize it isn’t a complete tourist trap. There’s also a covered portion of the market where you can find pastries, fish, meat, and cheese. Eat at the Soup Kitchen if you’re hungry (have the seafood soup).
Heading from Central Market down Pohjoisesplanadi Street, this park seemed like a popular place to spend a lunch hour (though in winter it might not be so great). This long park is a good place to relax; there are a number of street musicians around, and a few eateries nearby.
This huge park located down at the southeast end of Helsinki is a good way to end the day. During the summer, residents and tourist alike flock to this park to hang out, play sports, have a picnic, and take in the amazing view of the harbor. During the winter, the largest hill in the park is a favored slope for tobogganing. On Vappu day (May 1st), Kaivopuisto is packed with tens of thousands of Helsinkians, who come to picnic with friends and family, listen to loud music, and consume lots of alcoholic beverages.
Visit the Island of Suomenlinna
You can spend half a day walking around this old bastion fort. It was first constructed by the Swedes in 1748 as a defense against the Russians. And when the Russians took over Helsinki in 1808, they used it as a garrison. It was eventually taken over by Finland in 1918, and now is a park and functioning residential area.
There are a lot of interesting buildings here, a lovely walking tour, and some out-of-the-way beaches and parks. Lots of Finns come here to hang out during the summer and relax. I think it’s a perfect place to spend half a day walking around, or having a picnic.
Visit the Harbor Islands
If you don’t spend a whole day hanging out and lounging around Suomenlinna, take a tour around some of the other islands in the harbor to get an idea about how important the harbor was to local lifestyle in the past. There are a ton of tours to choose from, and if you have a Helsinki card, most are 20% off.
I didn’t feel that three days was really enough time to truly see Helsinki. In the summer, Helsinki is best experienced through its outdoor areas, but with only three days, I know I missed out on a lot. If you can squeeze in more time here, I highly recommend visiting Porvoo, which is a day trip outside the city. The ferry leaves at 10 a.m. and comes back at around 5. There is an artist community there.
Note: You’re probably thinking – this is a pretty touristy guide. You’re right. With such little time and such great parks and informative museums in Helsinki, there wasn’t much time to do other things. Of course, if you have locals to show you around, follow them. But if you don’t, then this is what I would do with my time.
Budgeting in Helsinki
Like most Scandinavian cities, Helsinki isn’t cheap. (Though thanks to it being on the Euro, it’s cheaper than its neighbors.) If you are looking to save money, I first recommend getting a Helsinki card. There’s a lot to see here, and paying 8 Euros per museum will add up. I got a 48-hour Helsinki card for 45 Euros. I saved 15 Euros, plus included are discounts on some buffets and free city transportation. It wasn’t a lot but saving 15 Euros is better than spending 15 Euros you didn’t have to.
Food is expensive here. I never found anything cheaper than 5 Euros, and that was for a tiny lunch special. Mostly everything on the “cheap” side will be around 8-9 Euros (mostly pizza, kebab, and sandwich shops), if you aren’t cooking your own meals. During the lunch hour, many restaurants offer a lunchtime buffet costing between 8 and 10 Euros. Stockmann supermarket also has a wide variety of pre-made cheap meals for around 5 or 6 Euros. If you want to go expensive, I suggest Aino for good Finnish food (try the reindeer).
Helsinki doesn’t get all the press that other Scandinavian cities receive, but it is still worth a visit (especially if you are in the area, as it is only an hour from Tallinn, Estonia and an overnight ferry ride from Stockholm). And I guarantee with the itinerary above, you’ll make the most of your time there.
Note: After failing miserably at finding a Couchsurfing host, Roomorama was awesome enough to find me an apartment in the city for 2 nights. The hosts were amazing. The rest of the time I was at Eurohostel. They gave me private room right near the central market and are part of Hostelling International.