Thinking about traveling to Finland? How about some reasons to visit Helsinki? Not sure what the capital city has to offer? Honestly, before my friend and I booked our February trip to Scandinavia, I knew very little about Finland. In fact, much of what I thought I knew was incorrect. For instance, did you know Finland was the domain of both Sweden and Russia for much of the last 400 years? Finland only recently celebrated 100 years of independence on December 6, 2017.
Helsinki, the “Daughter of the Baltic,” is a modern city of design, culture, and the sea. The capital city lies in close proximity to other European capitals. Helsinki is a 2 hour ferry ride from Tallinn, Estonia, 250 miles (400 km) east of Stockholm, Sweden, and 240 miles (390 km) west of St. Petersburg, Russia. After brushing up on my geography, it’s no surprise that Helsinki has close historical ties with each of these cities.
Prior to our trip, Helsinki was not on my radar to visit, but it should be on yours! I’ve rounded up 3 reasons why Helsinki should be on your list to visit when you head to Scandinavia.
REASON #1: WALKABILITY
Helsinki is quite compact, so it was perfect for exploring on foot! I think walking around a city allows you to experience details of the streets, buildings, and people that you wouldn’t otherwise see. It creates another layer to your travels. Luckily, our hotel was within walking distance to many of the attractions that we wanted to see.
Outside the hotel was Norra Järnvägsgatan, a four-lane suspended road, with a set of stairs coming aboveground. It beckoned to us to explore even though it wasn’t on our list of “must-sees.” We stumbled on the highly trafficked Baana, a cycling/walking trail. The ingenuity of Baana allows users to traverse the city without being concerned about cars or traffic lights. A quick Google search explained it was converted 6 years ago from an old railway line spanning from the harbor. I marveled at this use of space, which also provided space for public art. I highly recommend it if you are looking for a space for a post-dinner walk.
Helsinki’s walkability gave us the freedom to see many other sites throughout the city. We walked on the frozen Töölönlahti Bay, which honestly, was a thrill. The bay is part of a city park filled with walking paths that pass Finlandia Hall (designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto), the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, and dozens of other landmarks.
Counting our steps, we headed up the stairs of the Helsinki Cathedral to catch a view of Senate Square and the harbor beyond. The cathedral is the one of the most visited places in the city but it’s gorgeous. You shouldn’t miss taking at least 20 minutes out of your day to take a look at this icon of Helsinki.
You won’t want to miss the fascinating statues, doorways, and street-scapes that you’ll witness as you traverse the capital city. Each tells a story of Helsinki’s past and present. If you want to see everywhere we walked to during our 2 day trip to Helsinki, check out my detailed travel guide.
REASON #2: STUNNING MUSEUMS
In Helsinki, there are so many museums where you can learn more about Finnish history and culture. We spent a morning at the Ateneum Art Museum, one of three within the Finnish National Gallery. Since we visited on the coattails of 100 years of independence, many of the exhibits we saw celebrated Finland. At the Ateneum, the Von Wright Brothers’ exhibit depicted the landscapes, portraits, and natural wonders of the country. Built prior to Finnish independence, the “palace of a million marks” is as beautiful as the collections it houses. The facade houses the statues and reliefs of classical artists, Finnish creatives, and the goddesses of the arts.
A visit to the free Helsinki City Museum explores memories and experiences of Helsinki citizens, highlighted in everyday objects and photographs. The museums consists of five buildings, one of which is Helsinki’s oldest stone building, the Sederholm House, from 1757. Although we weren’t traveling with kids, this would be the perfect museum for them because there are so many hands-on experiences.
We saved a little money when we visited The National Museum of Finland from 4:00-6:00pm (16:00-18:00) on a Friday afternoon for free. Honestly, we could have spent the entire day in this museum. The notable grey granite and cooper roof has stood the test of time, including bullets from the country’s civil war. The main entrance’s ceiling is infamous for its paintings of scenes from the Kalevala epic poem. The museum houses artifacts of Finnish history from prehistoric, early A.D., medieval, mid-19th century, independence, and modern times. I highly recommend it if you are a lover of museums on a cold day (or any day).
REASON #3: HELSINKI’S SEASIDE
When you travel to Helsinki, not only do you experience a modern city, but you also experience a city tied to the sea. The city has over 100 kilometers of shoreline and 315 islands. During our trip we went to the harbor to experience the outdoor Market Square. This market has been the center of trade for centuries and today both locals and tourists shop at the stands. The booths sell traditional market foods, handicrafts, and souvenirs. During October’s annual herring market, the square is even more popular.
From the harbor we ferried to the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of eight islands and a former Swedish, Russian, and Finnish military fortress on the Baltic Sea. Artist studios, museums, and 1,0000 people call the island chain home. Although some storefronts and museums close in the wintertime, we were able to visit the Suomenlinna Museum which showcases the history and restoration of the old garrison. The grounds of the islands are beautiful and their proximity to the expansive Baltic Sea create a vision of peaceful solitude in a city whose metro area boasts 1.4 million people. (Curious about how to see Soumenlinna Sea Fortress for yourself? Details about the ferry can be found on my travel guide.)
Maybe one of the best parts about Helsinki’s ties to the sea? You are closely connected to the capital cities of other countries. Tallinn, Estonia is a 2 hour ferry ride away. What better way to check out the Helsinki Christmas Market and the #1 Christmas Market in 2018 in Tallinn?! We didn’t have time to visit Estonia, but we did take an overnight ferry to Stockholm, Sweden; another city connected to the Daughter of the Baltic by way of the sea. It was an incredible way to experience the sea.
Looking for some more Helsinki love? I’ve written a detailed travel guide that will help you make your dreams of a Helsinki visit a reality.