This February my friend and I traveled to Scandinavia and spent two days in Helsinki. Since we had a bucket list a mile long, our days were packed! There is so much to see in this city, but two days in Helsinki will give you a great taste. With this in mind, the travel guide provides you with the schedule we used to see in as much as possible in 48 hours. Not sure Helsinki is worth two days? Check out my three reasons blog post on why I think Helsinki should be on your travel bucket list.
Warning: This travel guide is 2,500 words and filled with details. Save the image below on your Pinterest account so you can make the most of two days in Helsinki, Finland!
Two Days in Helsinki Itinerary
- Settle in at the hotel and eat dinner
- Baana walking trail
Day One and Night Two
- Töölönlahti Bay
- Helsinki Central Station
- Ateneum Art Museum
- Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square
- Helsinki City Museum
- National Museum of Finland
- Market Square and Old Market Hall
- MS Silja Serenade
Basic Information about Finland
- Official Name: Republic of Finland
- Language: Finnish, Swedish, Sámi (English was widely spoken in Helsinki from my experience)
- Currency: Euros
- Capital: Helsinki
- Driving: right side of road
- Finns refer to Finland as “Suomi”
Our Hotel in Helsinki
We left New York City at 21:00 (9:00pm), so when we finally reached Helsinki, Finland we had been traveling for about 19 hours. Our room was at the Original Sokos Hotel Presidentii in the center of Helsinki. Originally the hotel was built for guests attending the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and was in the midst of a renovation when we arrived.
Each floor was redesigned to depict five Finnish phenomena coming to life: Sisu, Tranquility, Fairytale Forest, Midsummer, and Winter Storm. Our room was on Sisu, a Finnish word used to describe the stoic, tenacious, and hardy character of the Finn national identity. The decor in our room was gorgeous. Although we only had two days in Helsinki the luxury of the rooms made us want to stay here all day long.
Let’s Go: Eteläinen Rautatiekatu 400100, Helsinki
After Dinner Walk on the Baana
In our search for a place to eat and orient ourselves, we stumbled on Baana, a 7 metre (23 feet) deep chasm between city streets in downtown Helsinki. It’s a walking and cycling path allowing users to traverse the city center without being concerned with cars or traffic lights. Several staircases bring you to the pathway from the street. Converted in 2012, Baana originated as a disused railway line from the harbor. In spite of the time, there were many pedestrians, cyclists, and dog owners out for a stroll. I would highly recommend it if you are looking for a space for a post-dinner walk during your two days in Helsinki. It’s the perfect place if you are an urban geography nerd. If you have a bike in Helsinki, you can use this easy route to get downtown.
Graffiti art on Baana was unexpected. It was dark when we visited, so having the colorful murals to play against the light and dark, truly made the space welcoming and diminished any fears I had about walking in a dark underground space at night.
Let’s Go: 60° 10′ 20.65″ N, 24° 56′ 6.76″ E
Two Days in Helsinki, Two Sauna Nights
Finland is the land of a million saunas. Well actually 3.3 saunas and 5.4 million Finns. But who is counting?! When you spend two days in Helsinki, you need to spend some time in the sauna. Saunas are a large part of Finnish culture. In fact, prior to modern healthcare access, many Finnish women gave birth to their babies in saunas! I’m not sure if this is a saying or not, but sauna time is the best time.
The ideal way to relax and warm frozen February insides is with multiple löyly. Löyly is the soothing an exhilarating heat wave that occurs when you throw water over the rocks in a Finnish sauna. Sauna’s can be found all over the city. With two days in Helsinki, how many of the 8 public saunas might you try? I had really wanted to try Löyly, but to stay in budget we used the sauna in our hotel. Did we miss out of on the experience? In some way, perhaps. However I now have an appreciation for dry saunas that didn’t exist prior to February 2018. So I think löyly in the hotel worked its Finnish magic.
Americans, be forewarned: You’ll see butts in Finnish saunas. But fear not, they are separated by sex. As an American I assure you, even your most deep-seated Puritanical tendencies will emerge in a Finnish sauna. Sorry, two days in Helsinki’s saunas won’t change that.
Töölönlahti Bay is located north of the city center. With only two days in Helsinki I knew this HAD to be on our itinerary for day one. Why? Töölönlahti Bay freezes in the winter so you can walk on it! Maybe I am the only one who gets excited about this, but I know I am not the only person to walk across it. MyHelsinki’s Instagram account featured the frozen bay on it’s account several times. Besides, how often are you able to say you’ve walked on a frozen bay before? EXACTLY! According to the internet its even prettier in the summer (minus the whole walking-on-frozen-water part).
Let’s Go: 00250 Helsinki
Helsinki Central Station
Helsinki Central Station, Helsingin päärautatieasema, in the Kluuvi district of Helsinki, is the main station for commuter and long-distance rail in the city. The station is huge! Good thing, because this is the most-visited building in Finland. There is a large shopping center located inside, in addition to the trains you expect. In the evening the station is packed to the brim with commuters. It’s worth checking out this 1919 building if you are into architecture.
With two days in Helsinki, you can use rail lines at the Helsinki Central Station to get back and forth to the airport. Or you can use the station to connect to many other areas of Finland, including an overnight train to Lapland. You can even use the train to travel to Moscow or St. Petersburg, Russia.
Let’s Go: Asema-aukio, 00100 Helsinki
Ateneum Art Museum
One of the three buildings that make up the Finnish National Gallery, sits across from Helsinki Central Station. The Ateneum Art Museum boasts beautiful pieces of artwork among it’s architecturally stunning space. Completed in 1887, it originally housed multiple art schools/societies (to the reluctance of those involved), and as such the inscription above the door reads “through unity small things do grow.” You can read more about the exhibits on my blog. I love art museums, so if I had more than two days in Helsinki, I would have visited all three collections in the Finnish National Gallery.
Let’s Go: Kaivokatu 2, 00100 Helsinki
- Cost: 17€; free for children under 18
- Hours: Closed Mondays; Tuesday and Friday 10:00-18:00; Wednesday and Thursday 10:00-20:00; Saturday and Sunday 10:00-17:00.
Neoclassical buildings are my favorite style of architecture. Senate Square is dominated by four buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel: Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland. It was particularly hard to miss the Russian influence in the statue of Czar Alexander II in the center of Senate Square. According to what I have read, it became part of silent protests against decrees made by Czar Nicholas II, where Finns would place flowers at the base of the statue, calling for a return to the policies of Alexander II.
The stairs are particularly steep and I held on the railing the entire way up and down. Once you are on top, you might experience vertigo, so watch your step! Whether it’s two days in Helsinki or more, you should check out the Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square. Lots of tourists visit here (and in December, this is where the Christmas Market is set up), but it’s completely worth it.
Let’s Go: Senate Square, 00170 Helsinki
- Cost: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9:00-18:00 (to go inside Helsinki Cathedral)
Helsinki City Museum
Located in the oldest house in Helsinki, completed in 1757, the Helsinki City Museum focuses on the everyday life of the citizens of the city. The museum is really kid-friendly and there were lots of families enjoying the activities. I liked seeing the heirlooms of the families from an earlier period in Helsinki’s story. This museum is definitely worth a visit if you are looking to learn more about the city itself and see items that were in people’s homes at the turn of the 20th century.
Let’s Go: Aleksanterinkatu 16 00170 Helsinki
- Cost: Free
- Hours: Monday-Friday 11:00-19:00; Saturday and Sunday 11:00-17:00
National Museum of Finland
Looking to learn about Finland from prehistoric times to the 19th century? This is the place! Each floor and exhibit allows you to get rich in your understanding of Finland. We opted to go on Friday evening from 16:00-18:00 because the admission fee was waived. However, one could easily spend four hours gazing at the artifacts from each period in Finnish history. We happened to travel to Helsinki just 2 months after the country celebrated 100 years of independence, so all museums we visited were celebrating through temporary exhibits.
Let’s Go: Mannerheimintie 34, Helsinki
- Cost: 12€; free for children under 18; free on Fridays from 16:00-18:00
- Hours: Closed Monday; Tuesday-Sunday 11:00–18:00; Wednesday 11:00-20:00
Market Square & Old Market Hall
Experience the South Harbor at Market Square, the most famous market in Finland and a center of trade for hundreds of years. This an outdoor space where vendors set up tents to sell their wares, which vary depending on the time of year. In February there were lots of hats, scarves, and even reindeer hide gloves. If you are looking to find a special souvenir for yourself or someone else that supports local craftspeople, this is a great place to check out. Even in the winter the scene was lively at the market, so it’s definitely a must to check out and peruse for a little bit.
Let’s Go: Eteläsatama, 00170 Helsinki
- Hours: Monday-Saturday 8:00-16:00; Sunday 10:00-17:00
Beside Market Square is Old Market Hall. Constructed in 1888, the Vanha Kaupphalli, was home to 120 stalls of meat products, eggs, butter, cheese and garden produce. It enjoyed tremendous popularity as Finland quickly industrialized at the turn of the 20th century. However from 1939 to 1954, more than a decade of food scarcity played a major role in the lives of the Finnish people and operations of the hall were threatened. Today Old Market hall is home to 25 vendors selling coffee, bread, gluten-free items, alcohol, meat, cheese, and even Vietnamese food.
Let’s Go: Eteläranta 00130 Helsinki
- Hours: Monday-Saturday, 8:00-18:00
- Parking: available next to Old Market Hall
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress
Suomenlinna is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Finland. Situated on a group of islands, I knew part of my two days in Helsinki had to include a visit. Added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1991, the site is a unique example of military architecture of its era. Suomenlinna is a bastion fortress with an irregular shape. Since its construction in the 1748 the flags of three domains have flown: Sweden, Russia, and Finland. Today the 7 islands are home to restored fortifications, museums, art galleries and studios, conference facilities, restaurants and cafes, and 800 residents.
I am not keen on military history, but forts have always fascinated me. Maybe it’s the construction method or materials, but Suomenlinna had me hooked the instant I learned about it. The grounds of the heritage site are vast and the views of the Gulf of Finland are stunning from the sea wall.
Since it was winter when we visited quite a few sites on the islands were not open. One-hour guided walking tours are available each day from June to August, in several languages. During other months walking tours are guided on the weekends in Russian and English.
Since we wanted to learn more about the fortress, my friend and I visited the Suomenlinna Museum. The main museums tells the story of the fortress from its days as a Swedish fortification, to its surrender to the Russian Empire, to its annexation by Finland in 1918. Five additional museums call the islands home including those devoted to a Finnish submarine, military history, toys, and smuggling.
While many of the restaurants and cafes are open year round, we did not stop at any. If I ever visit again, I will make time for the Suomenlinna Brewery. Its located in the pink Russian-era Jetty Barracks beside the ferry quay. If visiting in the summer, Pizzeria Nikolai sounds like an intriguing venue: “visitors can choose to sit inside the labyrinthine fortress or outside on the sun-drenched terrace.”
Let’s Go: Suomenlinna Sea Fortress
The only way to get to Suomenlinna at any point of the year is by way of the Helsinki Regional Transit Authority (HSL) ferry. The ferry runs regularly and departs from the east side of the Market Square, opposite the Presidential Palace. Tickets must be purchased before boarding from the ticket machine on the departure pier. In the summer, you’ll find a booth at the Market Square for HSL ferry tickets. You can also ferry to Suomenlinna in the summer by way of JT-Line Waterbus. Ticketing and departure are from Market Sqaure. You cannot use HSL tickets on the JT-Line Waterbus service.
We had a little bit of a hard time finding the departure pier and the ticket kiosks, so I’ve included a map and photo of the kiosks. The ticket “storefront” (Ferry Terminal Kauppatori on map) was open, so we were able to go inside to warm up before the ferry arrived. The ferry ride is about 15-20 minutes long.
When you are on Suomenlinna a blue marked route across the fortress grounds takes in all the key sites. A slightly more accessible route allows visitors to bypass the steep hills and uneven section of the main “blue” route. However, all visitors should take care as the walls and earth works that stretch over several kilometers are not fitted with barriers.
- HSL Ferry Cost: 5€ for 12 hour valid ferry ticket
- Ferry Schedule
MS Silja Serenade
Our two days in Helsinki ended with an overnight cruise on the Silja Serenade. Prior to departure, I had never been on a cruise ship before. I was seriously concerned about getting seasick because I tend to have motion sickness when on boats. However I packed and wore acupressure wrist bands and didn’t have any issues.
We stayed in B-Class cabins, which were more than adequate since we were on the ship for such a short time. Had we booked the experience on our own, I think I would have reserved C-Class cabins because they are about 20€ cheaper. Both B-Class and C-Class cabins on the Silja Serende can fit up to 4 people. Which at 99€ or 116€/ night isn’t a terrible price to pay.
Not only did it save precious daylight hours with perfectly timed ride to Stockholm, Sweden (17:00-10:00), but the views were incredible! The scene of an ice-filled Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea are something I will always remember. Sitting in a hot tub on the upper deck and looking up at the stars wasn’t so bad either!
I hope your two days in Helsinki are as jam-packed with memories as ours was. Pin the image below to your Pinterest board so you too can become a Child of the Baltic. Was there something I missed that you would recommend to others? Did you check out Pizzeria Nikolai or Suomenlinna Brewery? Comments below!