You’ll probably see some dissenting opinions when you Google, “Is Helsinki, Finland worth visiting?” And I see their point; it’s not a flashy city, nor is it particularly easy to understand. I think that’s what I loved so much about it – there were bright spots everywhere, but you had to look for them.
The first time I visited Finland, it was on a visit to Rovenemi in the far northern region of the country. What was supposed to be a quick overnight soon turned into a multi day trip because I fell in love with the area (and Finland in general).
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Is Helsinki worth visiting?
I really enjoyed Helsinki and would definitely consider it worth a visit. However, it’s not a flashy town with a cute city center and plenty of tourist activities. It would be easy to wander around the center of Helsinki and proclaim it boring, because the center is a little dull.
To really understand and get to know Helsinki, you’ll need to try some Finnish experiences while you’re there. Pop your head into a library, visit a museum, try a local restaurant, and ask a hip barista for advice. There are plenty of wonderful things to experience, but they’ll be hard to find if you’re not able to research them or simply ask around.
If you only have one day and just want to see a beautiful city, I’d recommend that you instead visit Tallinn. The Estonian capital has most of the trademarks of a cute European city, and you’ll probably find it easier to understand and navigate. Tallinn also has beautiful gardens and a charming town center that are both rather photogenic.
If you enjoy destinations that are a bit off the beaten path and you’re willing to do more of a deep dive to see what you can find, Helsinki will probably feel well worth a visit to you.
Helsinki is the capital of Finland, known for its innovative art, unique culture, and modern architecture. The city was originally founded in 1550 and served as a strategic military center for King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden. It was annexed by Russia for a period and ultimately declared its independence in 1917. If you’re interested in more Finnish history, this site has a great overview.
Today, Helsinki is a modern city that attracts about 500,000 visitors each year. Although it requires a bit more effort to understand than Dublin or London, Helsinki is a friendly place to visit, with great public transit that is quiet, easy to use, and efficient. You can spend several days exploring the more hidden parts of the city, from the fabulous restaurants to the artisan coffee shops to the beautiful Finnish Natural Library.
Finns love to spend time in nature and explore the nearby woodlands and archipelago. There are a number of national parks and green spaces near Helsinki, many of which you can easily visit without renting a car. If you visit the city, I’d strongly encourage you to dedicate at least half a day to exploring the nearby nature preserves and parks.
Do people in Helsinki speak English?
The national languages of Finland are Finnish and Swedish, but the locals seemed comfortable enough communicating in English. Although not everyone I met in Helsinki spoke English, we were able to communicate with a mix of helpful Finnish translators (bystanders who happened to speak English), Google Translate, and good old fashioned expressions and hand gestures. Younger Finns generally seemed to be fluent in English, at least well enough to carry a conversation.
How many days should you spend in Helsinki?
I’d recommend that you spend at least two days in Helsinki to see the basic outline of the city, then another day or two to explore the nearby natural areas.
In total, I spent about 6 full days in the Helsinki region and it felt that it was barely enough time. I camped for two days, explored the city and worked in the evenings for three days, and then spent one day in nearby Tallinn.
What’s the best time of year to visit Helsinki?
Springtime is generally the best time of year to visit Helsinki, when the weather is bright and sunny. I’d suggest that you plan a trip around late April and early May, when everyone is excited to get out into the sunshine and shake off the long winter. The rest of the summer and fall would also be perfectly fine times to visit Helsinki, but the weather might not be quite as beautiful as you’ll find in late spring.
The winter would be the least desirable time to visit Helsinki. The city is not a great place to see the northern lights, so you’ll probably need to book a tour that travels away from the city to see the phenomenon. You’d be better off heading closer to the Arctic Circle in Finland, or to nearby Sweden or Norway, if you’d like to see the northern lights.
Top things to do in Helsinki
From towering cathedrals to hidden cuisine to libraries straight out of a Wes Anderson film, here are some of the top things to do while you’re in Helsinki, Finland.
Explore the cathedrals
There are two cathedrals that tower over Helsinki, and they’re probably the most iconic landmarks in the city. The Helsinki Cathedral is a Lutheran church located in the Senate Square that was completed in 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. This neoclassical building is somewhat bare, reflecting a more reserved style.
By contrast, the far more ornately decorated Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral was completed in 1827 to accommodate the growing Orthodox population. Unlike the reserved style of the Helsinki Cathedral, the Uspenski Cathedral is decorated in gold and adorned in artwork. There was a theft in 2010 of an Orthodox icon – it has since been recovered.
You can visit both the Helsinki Cathedral and Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral for free. Note that you may be asked to make a voluntary donation.
Check out Market Square
One of the most memorable and iconic spots in Helsinki is Market Square. This area contains a covered and semi-covered market, complete with food stalls and vendors selling small gifts. Between the two areas, the indoor market is certainly more beautiful, with its wooden window panes and high ceilings.
Visitors often talk about having loved the food they tried from Market Square, so it could be a nice place to grab lunch. I’d personally wander around and maybe grab a pastry, then head on to other restaurants in the area. My favorite nearby lunch spot was Bruket Cafe & Catering, but I had plenty of fabulous food while I was in Helsinki.
Have lunch at Bruket Cafe & Catering
I was blown away by the food in Helsinki in general, but the lunch at Bruket Cafe & Catering was easily one of the best meals I’ve had on the road. The little spot is set in an area that resembles an upscale hotel lobby (I do not think it is actually a hotel). They serve set lunch menus that rotate each day, including both a meat and vegetarian option.
I went to Bruket twice while I was in Helsinki, once for a baked potato loaded with a creamy smoked tofu sauce and again for a falafel bowl. The lunch is a set price (13€ per person when I visited) and includes an entree, soup, bread, and coffee or tea. I’m sure they serve coffee and other treats, but from my experience and reading reviews, lunch is really the star of the show here.
Browse the stacks at The National Library of Finland
I wasn’t particularly excited to visit the National Library of Finland, but I’m so, so glad I did! This library was beautiful and charming and quirky. This library is free to visit, and there was a small museum downstairs dedicated to Finnish academic culture.
The building is beautiful, inside and out. When you first walk in, you’re greeted with a grand entryway that looks like it might have inspired the iconic library in Beauty and the Beast. Beyond the entryway are the stacks, and even a glance into the room will make you want to find the perfect book and spend the rest of the day reading in your own private nook.
Despite being a gorgeous building with incredible architecture (and free to visit, to boot!), this is not on most tourist’s radars. As a result, it’s a quiet and peaceful spot in the middle of Helsinki that’s definitely worth a visit.
Visit a sauna
A quick story about Finnish saunas: when I first arrived in Roveniemi, Finland, I was beside myself to learn that our little studio apartment had its own private sauna. After talking to people and reading a bit more about Finnish culture, I learned that this is very normal in this nordic country. In fact, there are more saunas than cars in Finland!
Sadly, our beautiful rental flat in Helsinki did not include a personal sauna, so I wasn’t able to try one in the city. I did visit a popular public sauna in nearby Vantaa: Cafe Kuusijärvi. If you only have a few hours to get out of Helsinki, you could join a tour that includes a hike in Sipoonkorpi National Park and a visit to the traditional smoke sauna at Cafe Kuusijärvi.
Have a coffee
Finland is known for its coffee culture and for drinking more coffee per capita than any other country in the world. However, most Finns prefer to drink coffee at work or at home, so there may be fewer cafes than you might expect for a population of coffee enthusiasts.
Although there may be fewer artisan coffee shops than, say, Philadelphia, the ones you’ll find in Helsinki are definitely worth a visit. My favorite coffee was from Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo (the name is Finnish for “Helsinki Coffee Roaster”), and I specifically visited their location in the Teurastamo Market. In addition to having wonderful espresso, I found the space to be bright and airy and welcoming.
Get into nature
Finns love to spend time outside, so it’s worth building a day of hiking or even camping into your itinerary. There are several national parks near Helsinki, the two most popular of which are Nuuksio National Park and Sipoonkorpi National Park. If you’re visiting without a car, you can reach Nuuksio National Park by public transit in about an hour.
You could also join a guided tour through the Helsinki archipelago. A tour would be a great option if you’re nervous about exploring a national park alone or if you’d rather have a local guide teach you a bit about the area.
Where to camp
Read the posted rules when you arrive, but it seemed like camping was allowed anywhere a fire pit was established in the national parks. The fire pits were well stocked with wood and even had matches in some spots, so you can easily start a fire. Many of the campsites also had composting toilets, as there is no running water.
In the areas I visited, there were shelters adjacent to the fire pits. These shelters would keep you dry, but there is no protection from insects and mosquitos.
Try an Original Long Drink
If you’re in the residential areas of Helsinki for any length of time, you’re almost certain to notice the Original Long Drinks in their retro blue and white pinstriped cans. These drinks are reminiscent of soda, but also contain gin (unless you buy the 0% ABV version, which is also tasty). They come in a variety of flavors like raspberry and lemon, but I preferred the originals.
You’ll find Original Long Drinks at basically any grocery store in Helsinki (and probably even in nearby Sweden, if you keep an eye out). They come in regular and large cans.
Check out the hip Teurastamo Market
A barista at one of the hip coffee shops in Helsinki recommended the Teurastamo Market, a small yet hip spot known for its coffee, distillery, and restaurants. Built on the grounds of a 1933 former slaughterhouse, the Teurastamo Market was opened in 2012.
As mentioned above, I ordered a coffee from Kahvipaahtimo, and it was one of my favorites in the city. At a shop next door, I tried a fabulous saffron gelato from Jädelino, which was among the best gelato I’ve ever had. The Helsinki Distilling Company was also recommended to me, but they weren’t open when I visited so I had to skip it.
On a warm, sunny day there is an abundance of seating available, and I saw a few people typing away on laptops on a weekday afternoon when I visited. If you were planning to work remotely for a few hours, this would be a great spot.
Day trip to Tallinn
You could visit Tallinn, Estonia as its own destination, but it’s also possible to go for a day trip from Helsinki. This medieval town offers charming street views of the old town, beautiful and sprawling parks, and fabulous food. While the medieval center is a much more traditional tourist destination, you can easily take the tram to some of the cooler, more modern neighborhoods.
You can take a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn; the journey takes about 2.5 hours each way. These are large, international ferries that carry people and cars across the border. So, be sure to bring your passport and arrive at least 45 minutes before your departure time (the gates close 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time).
Where to stay in Helsinki
I’d recommend that you choose an accommodation in the Kallio neighborhood, a hip and interesting part of town. I stayed very close to IPI Kulmakuppila (area code is 00530 if you want to find it on the map) and would absolutely choose this spot again. This apartment in the heart of Killio would be a great choice, both for comfort and location.
There aren’t many traditional hotels in/near the Kallio neighborhood, so most of the rentals will be apartments or Airbnbs. If you prefer more traditional hotels, I’d recommend that you stay at the beautiful and modern Folks Hotel Konepaja. Although it’s a bit further from the city center, most of the main attractions in Helsinki are easily accessible by foot or the public transit system.
Getting around Helsinki
You shouldn’t have any trouble navigating Helsinki; it’s easy to get around on foot or by using public transportation. The trams in particular are safe, quiet, and generally punctual, and bus services are available as well. There’s no need to rent a car in Helsinki unless you’re leaving to explore the outlying areas.
The public transit tickets are zoned, meaning you’ll have to know if you’re traveling between zones and, if so, which ones. I’d recommend that you download the HSL app, which includes the ability to calculate the zones for you. You can buy your tickets directly in the app, just be sure to activate your ticket before you get on the tram or bus to avoid getting fined.
FAQs: Is Helsinki worth visiting?
Here are the answers to some of the top questions that travelers ask about Helsinki.
Are there places to work in Helsinki as a digital nomad?
Yes, there is a culture of working on laptops in Helsinki and you’ll often see young Finns working from coffee shops. This was a nice change from Ireland, where I live, where this practice is more rare. One of the best cafes to work from is IPI Kulmakuppila, a coffee shop that is bright and airy with big tables.
Helsinki also has a few coworking spaces, including MOW or MotherShip of Work. This trendy coworking space offers day passes if you’re just passing through Helsinki, or memberships for those planning to stay a while.
Is Helsinki walkable?
Yes, Helsinki is definitely a walkable city. There are large sidewalks with plenty of crosswalks, making it rather easy to navigate this European capital. Anywhere you can’t easily walk, you can usually reach by tram or bus.
Is Helsinki expensive?
Helsinki is not a particularly cheap destination, nor is it exorbitantly priced. Expect to find western European prices in Helsinki. Prices are high without being shocking, like you might find in Sweden, but instead comparable to what you might see in, say, Ireland or Scotland.
I would estimate that the prices in Helsinki were comparable to those you’d find in Dublin, but perhaps inflated by about 5%. Helsinki is much cheaper than London, especially because the transportation costs are only a fraction of what you’d pay for the Tube or National Rail Service.
Is Helsinki safe?
In general, Helsinki felt very safe and secure. Locals seemed to feel at ease everywhere they went, and there was a very low level of stress throughout the city. In fact, this is one of my favorite things about visiting Finland in general: there’s a level of calm that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in my life.
No city is completely safe, so I would still encourage you to watch your belongings, avoid walking alone at night, and to lock your doors. Even if Finland’s crime rate is low, it’s not zero – so take care to avoid being a target.
Is Helsinki safe for solo female travelers?
I traveled to Helsinki with my partner, so I can’t speak from personal experience. I can say, however, that Helsinki felt particularly safe to me. I generally feel very comfortable and secure navigating Ireland alone, but Helsinki felt even safer to me.
During the day, it was common to see small children (like younger than 10 years old) navigating the city alone or with a friend. They would often board the tram, ride to their stop, and exit without anyone batting an eye.
I would encourage you to take all of the standard precautions, but I don’t think you’re likely to feel uneasy in the Finnish capital.
What is the currency in Finland?
Finland’s national currency is the euro, unlike many of its Scandinavian neighbors. You can easily take out cash from the ATMs and banks in the city, if needed. Most of the city seemed to be either cashless or at least offered the option to pay by card, so I wouldn’t take out many euros unless you know you’ll be able to use them.
Final thoughts: Is Helsinki worth visiting?
I loved Helsinki when I visited, and I would definitely say that it’s worth a stop when you’re in that region of Europe. However, I’d warn you not to plan to sightsee much while you’re there – it’s not really that type of city. Helsinki does not have an impressive or even particularly nice old downtown.If cute, historic downtowns are essential for you, I’d recommend that instead visit the nearby city of Tallinn.
Instead of sightseeing from the street level, you’ll want to try to experience Helsinki by visiting the spots the locals love and treasure. With a few exceptions, most of the interesting parts of the city were inside buildings or behind closed doors. Even the National Library of Finland would be easy to walk past without giving it a second thought.
In short: yes, Helsinki is worth visiting, but you’ll have to dig a little to find the magic.