Updated: 09/12/2019 | September 12, 2019
Maybe they visit the cities in between, like Malmö and Gothenburg too.
But they often stop there.
Admittedly, Helsinki is off the standard “Scandinavian tourist trail.” The city never seems to be on the travel radar of most budget travelers I know. It’s a bit out of the way, and the city 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).
But Helsinki was surprisingly beautiful, it had good food, and the locals were lively and very friendly.
Helsinki deserves more visitors — but since the city isn’t cheap you can only really spend a few days here before you break the bank.
With that in mind, here are my suggestions on how to spend three days in Helsinki:
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 quite interesting to see the evolution of mail service from sleds and ships to a modern postal service.
There’s a lot of detail here about how it evolved under Swedish rule, then Russian, and then to modern Finnish.
Alaverstaanraitti 5, +358 03 5656 6966, postimuseo.fi/en. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-6pm. Admission is 13 EUR for adults and 6 EUR for children.
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 collection if you’re into that kind of thing.
Mannerheiminaukio 2, +358 29 450 0501, kiasma.fi/en. Open Tuesday from 10am-6pm, Wednesday-Friday from 10am-8:30pm, Saturdays from 10am-6pm, and Sundays from 10am-5pm. Admission is 15 EUR for adults and 13 EUR for students and seniors. For children under 18, admission is free. Admission is also free on the first Friday of the month.
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. 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.
Mannerheimintie 34, +358 29 5336000, kansallismuseo.fi/en/kansallismuseo. Open daily from 11am-6pm (closed Mondays in the winter). Admission is 12 EUR for adults, 9 EUR for students and seniors, and free for kids under 18.
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.
Tallberginkatu 1, +358 9 68663610, valokuvataiteenmuseo.fi/en. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 11am-6pm (8pm on Wednesdays). Admission is 10 EUR for adults and 5 EUR for students and seniors. Admission is free for kids under 18.
Sinebrychoff Art Museum
This museum is the only museum in the city that really focuses on older European paintings and portraits. While the bottom floor of the museum has a lot of photos and more modern works, as you walk through the old Sinebrychoff residence, the top floor has the older paintings.
Bulevardi 40, +358 29 4500460, sinebrychoffintaidemuseo.fi/en. Open Tuesday-Friday from 11am-6pm (8pm on Wednesdays) and 10am-5pm on weekends. Admission is 15 EUR for adults and 13 EUR for students and seniors. Admission is free for kids under 18.
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 to explain the history of modern finance. It offers up a detailed background and has some great exhibits. It was quite a learning experience and I highly recommend a visit.
Snellmaninkatu 2, +358 9 1832981, rahamuseo.fi/en.Open Tuesday-Friday from 11am-5pm (12pm-5pm on Wednesdays) and 11am-4pm on the weekend. Admission is free.
Right next to the bank museum is Helsinki’s giant cathedral. Built in the neoclassical style, 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 think it was one of the best in Scandinavia.
What makes the cathedral even more interesting is that it was built in the 19th century as a tribute to Czar Nicholas I (who was the Grand Duke of Finland at the time).
Unioninkatu 29, +358 9 23406120, helsinginseurakunnat.fi. Open daily from 9am-6pm. Admission is free.
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. It’s actually the largest Eastern Orthodox church in all of Western Europe. The interior is lavishly decorated too, with typical Eastern Orthodox icons.
Kanavakatu 1, +358 9 85646100. Open Tuesday-Friday from 9:30am-7pm, Saturday from 10am-3pm, and Sunday from 12pm-3pm. Closed during ceremonies. Admission is free.
Helsinki City Museum
Like the Finland history museum, the Helsinki version is excellent. 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.
Aleksanterinkatu 16, +358 9 31036630, helsinginkaupunginmuseo.fi/en. Open Mondays from 11am-5pm, Tuesday-Friday from 11am-7pm, and Saturday-Sunday from 11am-5pm. Admission is free.
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).
When 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 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.
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 it’s now a park and functioning residential area.
There are a lot of interesting buildings here (including six different museums), 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 walk around or have a picnic.
Suomenlinna Fort:+358 29 5338410, suomenlinna.fi/en. Open daily from 10am-6pm (limited hours in the winter, see website for details). Admission to the fort is free, though each of the six museums has its own charge.
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 it was to the 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.
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 EUR. I saved 15 EUR doing that, plus it includes discounts on some buffets and free city transportation. It wasn’t a lot, but saving 15 EUR is better than spending 15 EUR you didn’t have to!
Food: Food is expensive here. I never found anything cheaper than 5 EUR, and that was for a tiny lunch special. Mostly everything on the “cheap” side will be around 8-12 EUR (mostly pizza, kebab, and sandwich shops).
If you aren’t cooking your own meals, many restaurants offer a lunchtime buffet costing between 8-12 EUR. Stockmann supermarket also has a wide variety of pre-made cheap meals for around 6-8 EUR. If you want to go expensive, I suggest Aino for good Finnish food (try the reindeer).
I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel that three days was really enough time to truly see Helsinki. But that holds true for pretty much every city! But it is enough to see the highlights and get a feel for this unique — and often ignored — capital.
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.
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: 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.
Book Your Trip to Helsinki: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. I use them all the time. My favorite places to stay are:
- Julie Guesthouse – Clean, has comfy beds, and tons of space for hanging out.
- The So Hostel – This place has more of a hotel vibe, so come here for a comfortable and quiet stay.
- Kodchasri B&B – If you want a more luxurious stay, this affordable 4-star hotel has a pool, gym, and free WiFi.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!
Want More Information on Helsinki?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Helsinki for even more planning tips!