Helsinki is a bit off the normal “Scandinavian tourist trail.” Most people make it to Copenhagen or Stockholm and seem to skip over this beautiful city. Compared to its neighbors, Helsinki never seems to get the love it deserves. However, it should — it’s awesome. Historic, small, filled with green space, and set on the waterfront, Helsinki is an aesthetically pleasing city filled with friendly people and few tourists. It’s especially great if you love art and music as they have a ton of museums and a vibrant music scene here! I really enjoyed Helsinki. It’s hip (and it knows it and embraces it). Let this travel guide help you plan the perfect budget trip there!
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Helsinki
1. National Museum of Finland
2. Kaivopuisto Park
3. Helsinki Cathedral
4. Finnish Museum of Photography
5. Visit the Island of Suomenlinna
Other Things to See and Do
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1. Post Museum
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 then Finnish. Admission is 10 EUR for adults and 4 EUR for kids.
2. Museum of Contemporary Art
I can’t say I like contemporary art. I have never understood how sticking a shovel in cement or splashing 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. Tickets are 12 EUR for adults, and anyone under 18 enters for free. Best of all, the museum is free on the first Friday of every month!
3. Central Market
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).
4. 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. Adult admission is 12 EUR, and entry is free on the first Wednesday of the month from 5-8pm.
5. Punavuori Park
Right near the Sinebrychoff museum is a nice little residential park worth hanging out in. There are a lot of little coffee shops around, so you can grab a snack and just relax. After a day of walking around much of Helsinki, you’ll probably need it.
6. 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 information and great exhibits. It was quite a learning experience! Best of all, admission is free.
7. Uspenski Church
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 iconography.
8. 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. Admission is free, so you definitely shouldn’t miss it!
9. Esplanade Park
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.
10. 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, most lasting 1-2 hours and costing around 20 EUR. If you have a Helsinki card, most are 20% off.
11. Have fun at Linnanmäki
Just north of the city, this amusement park is a great place to visit if you’re traveling with kids (or if you just want to act like a kid yourself!). A day pass is 38 EUR, which gives you access to all the rides, including their famous wooden roller coaster. Entry to the park itself is actually free, so if you want to just visit and explore you can do that, too!