How to Spend Three Days in Helsinki

By Nomadic Matt | Published September 26th, 2011

Helsinki seems to be off the normal “Scandinavian tourist trail.” Most people I know 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:

Day 1

Post Museum
The Helsinki Post Museum is a great place to visit
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 said, 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
The National Museum of Finland is a great sightseeing spot
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. But 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.

Punavuori Park
Punavuori Park in Helsinki, Finland is worth a visit
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.

Day 2

Bank of Finland Museum
The Bank of Finland Museum in Helsinki is a great place to visit
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.

Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki Cathedral is a very iconic must-see building in Finland
Right next to the bank museum is Helsinki’s giant cathedral. It towers over the surrounding square and inspired a few “wows.” 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.

Uspenski Church
Uspenski Church in Helsinki, Finland
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 lavishly decorated too, with typical Eastern Orthodox icons.

Helsinki City Museum
Like the Finland history museum, the Helsinki version is an excellent museum. There are plenty of descriptions, and great exhibits and photos. It’s the third-best city museum I’ve come across in Europe after the Amsterdam and Barcelona museums. You shouldn’t miss it.

Central Market
The Central Market in Helsinki, Finland is a great place to visit
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 know 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).

Esplanade Park
The Esplanade Park in Helsinki, Finland is so natural and serene
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.

Kaivopuisto Park
This huge park located down at the southeast end of Helsinki is a good way to end the day. During the summer, residents and tourists 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.

Day 3

Visit the Island of Suomenlinna
The island of Soumenlinna is great to visit when in Helsinki, Finland
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 it’s now 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
A photo of the boats in the water near Helsinki, Finland
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 10am and comes back at around 5pm. There’s 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’d do with my time.

Budgeting in Helsinki
Like most Scandinavian cities, Helsinki isn’t cheap. (Though thanks to being on the euro, it’s cheaper than its neighbors.) If you’re looking to save money, I first recommend getting a Helsinki card. There’s a lot to see here, and paying eight euros per museum will add up. I got a 48-hour Helsinki card for 45 euros. I saved 15 euros, plus iscounts on some buffets and free city transportation are included. 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 five 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. 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 five or six 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’s still worth a visit (especially if you’re in the area, as it’s 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 two nights. The hosts were amazing. The rest of the time I was at Eurohostel. They gave me a private room right near the central market and are part of Hostelling International.

comments 20 Comments

Cal

The church and cathedral look amazing. Central Market vaguely reminds me of Hyde Park in Sydney.

Petri

Pretty good choices for a few days, as a local I can say that I haven’t been in most of them :)

During the week and outside of the holiday month (July, not August like in central Europe) a lunch is pretty good value. The lunch benefit voucher many companies give to their employees has a value from 6.80e to 9.00e and most restaurants have a matching lunch offerings. Sometimes they’re buffet, sometimes a short menu. Even the better restaurants will have a very affordable lunch offering, for example at the high end the two-Michelin starred Chez Dominique has been ranked as the best two star lunch for it’s value (from Wed to Fri).

The park by the shoreline, between Kaivopuisto and Carousel restaurant, is being finished and should be very good strolling area.

I usually hate all the crap sold to tourists but last weekend we walked through the recently renovated Kiseleff-Sunn house, on the other side of the square next to the Cathedral. Even as a local I was seriously impressed by the stores there. The souvenirs were pretty good, for example the best collection of anything related to Saunas I’ve seen anywhere. I recently purchased new pillows to our sauna and that store had about five times more selection than I had found. Also the eatable and drinkable souvenirs were something that I would like to bring home as something exotic. Much more useful than a plastic reindeer. Patisserie Teemu & Markus is also worth the goodies.

Helsinki can be affordable but it takes some effort to find the cheaper options. We don’t get as much budget backpackers as Copenhagen or Stockholm, and the ever increasing russian tourists are also happy to spend money.

NomadicMatt

I think that now Finnair is offering a lot more flights deals to the country, you’ll see a lot more tourists.

I remember eating at a restaurant where the menus had the names of the Kalevala’s characters… Curiously enough, it was not a touristy place, but a very nice -and not cheap, but not expensive either- place where many locals were having dinner. It was fantastic, I am so sorry not to remember the name but it was very close to Uspenski Chruch, and surely the name has something to do with the Kalevala

This is a great post! I especially liked that you noted how to budget when visiting Helsinki.

Food is ridiculously expensive in Finland but lunch menus can be good value. Especially if you find an all-you-can-eat buffet. Dinners are much pricier so if you have to choose, make lunch the main meal! There’s another market square in Hakaniemi (take the metro to Hakaniemi and you can’t miss it) that’s less touristy and cheaper than the market square by the harbour, and it also has a great food hall for fresh produce.

NomadicMatt

The all you can eat places are the best food value in Finland.

Loraine Bishop

Loved the photos. Thanks for bringing back memories. Eight years ago I celebrate my 45th birthday by waking up in St. Petersburgh, Russia, and going to bed that evening in Helsinki, Finland. I’m looking at one of my travel photos here in my office where I am pointing at the Sibelius Monument, one of the first abstract monuments in Finland.

Michelle

Cool photos! I’d definitely like to go to Finland sometime soon. Have some friends there I’d like to see!

Ray

The zoo! Don’t forget the zoo! I went there years ago with my parents around this time of year. Very nice weather considering. I remember walking through the market as well.

But…..zoo?

George

Are there any photos of your apartment? I wish you did upload some, I am going to Helsinki and have no idea where to stay so I thought if your accommodation was worth it (and safe, most importantly) then I would love to stay there too. I have never used Roomorama but have heard of them over Twitter. Seems like they have a new concept about How Not To Be A Tourist too. I just did a quick google search on that and found out it’s by them. Pretty cool stuff! So, where do you recommend I stay in Helsinki this December?

NomadicMatt

It varies as the host has to accept you also. I stayed at some place outside the city. Host and his wife were really nice. Finns are nice in general.

Hanna

Thanks for this post, it´s nice to see Helsinki being promoted in a positive way, since we Finns aren´t really the best in marketing. That´s one reason why other Scandinavian countries get more international attention. Eating in Helsinki really isn´t cheap. If you´re looking for a budget meal but nothing fancy you may try out the university student restaurants called “unicafe” which are all around the center. The prices are 5 euros and up without a Finnish student card. Some small restaurants where you won´t usually spot other tourists can be found in “Punavuori” which is the hip neighborhood near Punavuori Park.

John

Looks like an amazing place to visit and great tips on how to budget. Like George I have never used roomorama but they keep popping up everywhere and seems to be an amazing service. I will be looking into them on my next travels for sure. Thanks for sharing!

It’s possible to find falafel in pita for 5-6 euros, and meals in Wrong Noodle Bard are quite cheap, especially for vegetarians. There’s also an awesome bakery at railway station, we often buy bread and pastry there for our Helsinki trips.

I’d recommend visiting Nuuksio national park. It’s about 40 minutes away from Helsinki and it’s perfect for 1-2 day hiking – there’re marked trails, beautiful scenery of lakes, cliffs and forests, places for camping etc.

I’ve spent 2 years in Finland already and didn’t know about the photography museum! Thanks for telling :)

Gabriel

I’ll be visiting Helsinki at the end of the year and will take up your awesome tips! I tried looking on roomorama.com and they have a great variety. How did you choose your property? It looks like an extremely user-friendly process. Would you recommend visiting any neighbouring cities?

Very nice selection of things to see in Helsinki!

There are, of course, many more museums worth visiting. E.g. Ateneum Art museum for Finnish art (next to the central railway station) could be interesting for anyone with some interest in art history – just like the Design museum.

I think I have never bought anything in the central market place – the Hakaniemi market place is much better for anyone buying groceries :)

Great info, Matt. Glad to see you went in the few weeks it is actually warm here.

I saw you mention getting to Tallinn to save money. Granted, Finland rivals Zurich in terms of expense, but Tallinn is rather pricey as well, I think. It’s really becoming an adjunct of Finland. Riga is the best value in the Baltics, I think, and far more interesting.

Finland to me is a place to explore nature further north in the summer. Personally, I find Norway better, but perhaps Finland can compete as well. However, both Finland and Estonia seem severely limited as far as tourists go. Only reason to go to Estonia is to start a zero tax corporation. ;)

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