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What to Do in Helsinki in One Day: My Favourite Sights and Activities in the City

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If you’re wondering what to do in Helsinki in one day (or two) then keep reading, but first of all a little background information about how I actually ended up in Helsinki over Easter in the first place….

Stu and I were meant to be travelling to Mexico over the Easter holidays.  Weather-wise March and April are the best months of the year to visit the country, and it helped that – due to Easter falling so late this year – I could book just over two weeks of annual leave and incorporate three (yes, three) bank holidays into this period.  It was a win win situation!

Unfortunately, having a self-employed boyfriend does have its drawbacks though, as he can only travel between major projects, and the current one (which is now finally nearing completion) was running behind schedule by around a month.  Of course, I could’ve travelled to Mexico alone, but that would’ve been a bit unfair considering that Stu really wanted to go.  So we postponed the trip.  But because Stu was going to be working all over Easter and I had four days off work, I wasn’t about to waste them by sitting at home on my own catching up on housework.

So I hatched a plan for a short (up to a week) solo trip away.  Now I don’t know whether it was as a result of Brexit looming ever closer or whether flight prices over Easter have just gone up a heck of a lot since last year, but I was struggling to find anywhere I could actually afford to fly to over the Easter holidays.  Well, actually that’s a lie:  I could afford an outbound flight.  But unless I wanted to take out a second mortgage (no, wait I don’t actually have a mortgage!) I couldn’t return to the UK until May.  After extensive research and planning, I was left with two options.

April nearly saw me hiking along the remote southwestern coast of Portugal, but due to return flights to Faro shooting up in price by over £100 just as I was about to book, the option I ended up with was a double city break – exploring both Helsinki and Tallinn, with three nights in each.  It was a trip that I’d featured on my 2019 travel wish list, so I actually felt quite pleased that this was the option I ultimately rooted for.

Helsinki and Tallinn are just a two hour ferry apart so – if you have the time – it makes sense to combine the two in a single trip.

I had exactly two days in Helsinki, but I spent half of the first day over on the island of Suomenlinna and the other half wandering around a couple of neighbourhoods I wasn’t particularly enamored with.  So you could actually fit the  majority of my two-day itinerary into just one (long) day.

Where should I stay in Helsinki?

Once I’d found some flights that I could afford and on the dates and on the times that worked for me (I use Skyscanner for all my flight searches), my next mission was to find somewhere to stay.  Because I booked my trip fairly last minute (4th April for a stay on the 19th), I’m guessing I didn’t have the range of options available to me that I would’ve done had I booked earlier.  But, that said, I honestly couldn’t fault the Helsinki hostel I chose (location and everything else), and would happily stay there again if I ever find myself in the city in the future.

I chose a hostel rather than an apartment primarily because – in light of how expensive food and drink are in Helsinki – I wanted an inclusive breakfast.  Breakfast at the Yard Concept Hostel was a help yourself/buffet-style affair, consisting of a variety of different cereals, toast, several spreads, freshly brewed coffee, tea and juice.  I even got free Easter eggs with it on Easter Sunday.  I ate enough to set me up for the whole day, so that I only actually needed to purchase one meal each day.

The staff here were amazing.  Because I was arriving after midnight, they made sure that I’d got all the correct entry codes to get into the hostel and my key card and a welcome note was waiting for me inside a box on reception.  They also answered all my questions with willingness and enthusiasm, and had so much useful information on hand (including a full print out of all Helsinki’s attractions and their opening times over the Easter bank holiday).

All the guests at the hostel seemed to obey the “keep noise down to a minimum after 11pm” rule and despite the hostel being located on a street lined with bars and restaurants, once you were inside there was zero noise from outside.

I also loved that it’s a really small hostel, has a welcoming and relaxing common lounge area, and the wifi was some of the fastest I’ve experienced in recent years.  I could quite easily upload over 100 photos in a matter of minutes.  It was better than my wifi speeds at home!

The Yard has both dorms and private rooms available with shared bathrooms.  Prices start from €30 for a bed in a dorm.

Check prices and availability at the Yard Concept Hostel here

If you’d rather have a private bathroom or a bit more of your own space, my advice would be to base yourself in the same sort of area.  I stayed central, just five minutes’ walk from the train station, and pretty much everywhere I wanted to get to was within easy walking distance (the farthest I walked was 2.5 kilometres to the Sibelius Monument).

You’ll find a lot of the city’s budget accommodation on Katajanokka Island.  You wouldn’t know it was an island as you just have to cross a bridge to get to it and it is fairly close to central Helsinki (1.3 kilometres from the Central Railway Station), but there’s absolutely nothing there!  Apart from being conveniently located to catch the ferry to Tallinn, I honestly cannot see any other benefits of staying there.  I had previously reserved a room at the Euro Hostel (which is located on Katajanokka), but – although the hostel itself looked great – I’m so glad I paid an extra €15 to stay where I did.

Personally I loved the Töölo/Kampi and Punavuori neighbourhoods, but bear in mind that if you stay in either of these you’ll be farther away from attractions on the opposite sides of the city.  So, whilst they would be perfect bases for a longer stay, I’d stay central for a shorter stay.

What to Do in Helsinki in One Day

I’m sharing my itinerary for the second day I spent in the city, because, like I said earlier, I do feel I wasted most of the afternoon of my first day wandering around neighbourhoods I ended up not loving.  But, I did make it over to Suomenlinna and that was worthwhile, so I’ll be adding that on to the day two itinerary at the end of this post.

Obviously, this itinerary won’t be to everyone’s taste; it is after all what I personally chose to do, based on my own interests.  So you may want to adapt it a little, but at least it will give you a good idea of how much it’s possible to see and do in a day.  Some of you may prefer to spend more time looking around Helsinki’s many museums than I did.  But it was a gorgeously sunny day outside when I visited, so the last thing I wanted to do was spend hours cooped up inside.  But I did try to include a good mix of sights and activities in my itinerary, and chose to finish the day relaxing in one of the city’s saunas – true Finnish style (apart from the nakedness).

So, without further ado, here’s my itinerary for what to do in Helsinki in one day (together with an interactive route map).

1 | Sibelius Monument

Start the day early, there’s a big day of sightseeing ahead of you.  I had breakfast at the hostel at 08:00 hours and was on the road before 09:00. The Sibelius Monument is approximately 2.5 kilometres from central Helsinki so it will take you a good 30 minutes to get there, more with photo stops.  You will pass the Parliament House and National Museum of Finland on route.

Parliament House, Helsinki

National Museum of Finland

It’s actually a lovely walk to the monument, through the peaceful, leafy Töölö district.  Töölö is primarily a residential neighbourhood that developed back in the 1920s in response to the city’s rapid population growth.  There’s an abundance of parks here and the largest of these, Sibelius Park, is where you’ll find the monument of the same name.

Sibelius Monument, Helsinki

The Sibelius Monument was designed by artist Eila Hiltunen, in honour of Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).  It was unveiled  on the 7 September 1967 (you can see the inscription carved into one of the pipes), and was received with some confusion by local residents, because back in 1967 abstract art wasn’t really a thing.

However, the Sibelius Monument is now one of Helsinki’s most popular attractions, and is the primary reason tourists travel to this part of the city. It features 600 steel pipes, weighing 24 metric tonnes, that have been welded together individually and hand textured by the artist.

Sibelius Monument, Helsinki

Now I don’t know whether this is always the case but I arrived at the monument at around 09:30 hours on Easter Sunday and had the whole place to myself.  Which is more than I can say about the next place on my itinerary.

2 | Café Regatta

Around 200 metres south west of the Sibelius Monument you’ll find the cutest café in the whole of Helsinki.  Originally built in 1887 as a shed for the storage of fishnets, the little red wooden hut now houses Cafe Regatta, and has been open to the public since 2002.

I guess people linger here longer than they do at the Sibelius Monument, which is why it fills up so quickly.  It’s also ridiculously small inside (there’s only about three or four tables).  Fortunately though, there is an abundance of seating outside, and you couldn’t ask for a lovelier location – right on the water’s edge and surrounded by parkland.

Cafe Regatta, Helsinki

Cafe Regatta, Helsinki

3| Temppeliaukion Kirkko (Rock Church)

Head back towards central Helsinki and in the southern part of the Töölö neighbourhood you’ll find one of Helsinki’s most unusual churches – Temppeliaukion Kirkko.  It’s one that you could quite easily miss if you were to walk past without the knowledge that it was there, because this church has been excavated directly into solid rock and is therefore more or less hidden, save for its copper-covered dome roof.

Designed by architects brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969, Helsinki’s Rock Church is one of the city’s most popular attractions, seeing approximately 500,000 visitors every year.  It’s also used as a concert venue due to its fantastic acoustics.

Top tip: Visit when the sun is shining, because the way the light floods through the 180 vertical glass window panes that connect the dome and granite wall really is spectacular.  Admission is €3.

Temppeliaukion Kirkko (Rock Church), Helsinki

Rock Church, Helsinki

4 | Kaisaniemi Botanical Gardens

This is a bit of a diversion from the route (primarily because I’d intended to visit the day beforehand when I was in the area, but ran out of time), but due to the fact that central Helsinki is relatively compact, it won’t add too much distance to your journey.  You’ll also pass a few notable sights on the way – namely the Central Railway Station (whose striking art nouveau design you’ll either love or hate), Finnish National Theatre, statue of Finnish author, Aleksis Kivi, Kiasma modern art gallery, Helsinki Music Centre and the rather surreal Song Trees sculpture.

Aleksis Kivi statue, Song Trees sculpture and Helsinki Central Railway Station

Entrance to the outdoor gardens is free, but if you want to have a look inside the glasshouses, you need to pay the €10 entrance fee.   There are 10 different rooms inside the glasshouses, each one dedicated to a particular region of the world or a specific kind of environment (desert, rainforest, wetlands etc).

If you know me well, it won’t come as a surprise to you that my favourite was the Desert Room (307).

Cactii, Helsinki's Botanical Garden

Botanical Gardens, Helsinki

Botanical Garden, Helsinki

There are over 800 different species of plants inside the glasshouses and another 2000-odd in the grounds, so if you’re passionate about botany you could quite easily spend all day here, but I limited myself to an hour in order to ensure that I ticked off everything on my itinerary.

5 | Kamppi Chapel

Also known as the “Chapel of Silence,” Kamppi Chapel was designed to offer the city’s residents a place in which they could take a moment of quiet reflection in one of the busiest areas in Helsinki – Narinkkatori Square.

Kamppi Chapel, Helsinki

No photographs are permitted inside.  Whilst rules like this normally frustrate me, due to the chapel’s diminutive size, I can understand how the constant clicking of shutter buttons would distract from the main purpose of the chapel’s construction.  However, if you’re curious to know what the interior looks like, imagine yourself inside a mini version of Noah’s Ark without the animals.  It’s boat-shaped and everything is made of wood.

Also in Narinkkatori Square, you’ll find this unusual sculpture, which doubles up as a chill-out area for youths and adults and a cool playground for kids.

Quirky architecture in Helsinki

6 | Moomin Café

I absolutely adore visiting quirky cafés when I travel, so as soon as I discovered there was a Moomin Café in Helsinki I knew I had to go.  In fact, it was one of the first things that got added to my itinerary.

Moomin Cafe, Helsinki

As well as lusting after those beautiful green walls (interior decor goals), I had a coffee out of a Moomin mug, enjoyed the tastiest cinnamon bun I’ve ever eaten, and snapped photograph after photograph of the Moomin characters that were scattered around the cafe.

I was never a huge Moomin fan as a child but I think I might become one as an adult 😉

Moomin Cafe , Helsinki (2)

The cafe is open from 10:00-18:00 hours every day.  There is also an attached shop, which in my opinion is better than the official Moomin shop.

7| Design Museum

Normally I’m not a big one for museums (especially when the weather is so gloriously sunny outside), but I am interested in art and design, so I decided that if I visited any museum in Helsinki, it would be the Design Museum.  Bearing in mind that a lot of the city’s attractions were closing at 16:00-17:00 hours (I was visiting over the Easter bank holiday), I was pleasantly surprised to find the Design Museum still open when I walked past.  So I took that as a sign and paid my (not cheap) €14 admission fee to enter.

Design Museum, Helsinki

Design Museum, Helsinki

And I’m so glad I did.  I found the museum – which documents the history of Finnish design – absolutely fascinating.  You’ll find industrial design, fashion and graphic design all covered here, and the museum also hosts international touring exhibitions on Finnish art and design.  It was founded way back in 1873 and has been operating from its current premises (a suitably striking building designed by Gustaf Nyström) since 1978.

When I visited there was also a photography exhibition by Osma Harvilahti (a Paris-based photographer) down in the basement, which I loved!

Photography Exhibition, Design Museum, Helsinki

Current opening hours can be found here.

8 | Observatory Hill Park

One of the oldest parks in Helsinki, Obseravtory Park (or Observatory Hill, as it’s also known due to its elevated position) is located just south of the city’s Design District.  The hill itself is actually quite famous, because up until the 1700s it used to be the place where signal fires were lit to warn of danger approaching the city.  Nowadays it’s just a nice park for relaxing in and wandering around.

Observatory Hill Park, Helsinki

I mainly came for the views but you’ll also find the Helsinki Observatory located here.  There’s an attached visitor centre where you can learn all about astronomy and the history of the observatory itself.

9 | Kaivopuisto Park

As the final destination on my itinerary today was the Löyly Sauna, from Observatory Hill Park my options were either to take the shortest route through the Ullanlinna neighbourhood or to take a leisurely long walk through Helsinki’s largest park, and then to follow the coastline around to Löyly.  I chose the latter.

Coastal views between Kaivopuisto Park and Loyly Sauna, Helsinki

10 | Löyly Sauna

Seeing as though I knew this was going to be a full-on day of sightseeing, I wanted to finish the day with a relaxing sauna.  I chose Löyly for a number of reasons – its commitment to sustainable business and green construction, seafront location and fantastic customer reviews – but primarily because the saunas here are mixed so it’s compulsory to wear a swimming costume.  Hey, what can I say?  I’m British.  I’m not comfortable with public nakedness 😉

Loyly Sauna, Helsinki

Unfortunately though, lady luck wasn’t shining on me when I arrived at Löyly at around 18:30 hours: the staff informed me that they were fully booked for the rest of the evening.  It had never occurred to me that I may need to book in advance, and the girl at my hostel hadn’t mentioned it when we spoke about Löyly the previous day.  Maybe I was just unlucky, but my advice – considering how far the sauna is from central Helsinki (around two kilometres) – would be to ensure that you make a reservation.  I was absolutely gutted that I’d missed out on this typically Finnish experience (as well as the fact that my legs ached from all the walking, and a sauna and swim would have been the perfect cure) and I was off to Tallinn the next morning, so that was my one and only opportunity to indulge.

I consoled myself by spending what would have been my €19 entrance fee on a bowl of traditional Finnish salmon soup and a large glass of orange juice in Löyly’s attached restaurant.  Although there was a bit of a wait for my soup, it was exactly what I needed as well as being utterly delicious!

Finnish salmon soup, Loyly restaurant, Helsinki

You can check Löyly’s current opening times here.

So there you have it: a comprehensive summary of what to do in Helsinki in one day.  If you fancy checking out Helsinki’s bar scene on your way home,  I bookmarked the following establishments which are concentrated around the same sort of area in the Punavuori neighbourhood:

  • Birri.  Microbrewery that brews three of its own beers on site and also stocks a fantastic range of Finnish-only craft beers. Find it at: Fredrinkinkatu 22
  • Bier-Bier. Housed inside a former bank dating from 1893 and offering a huge selection of over 100 craft beers, 20 ciders and 20 carefully chosen wines.  Find it at: Erottajankatu 13
  • Liberty or Death. Small, vintage-furnished speakeasy serving inventive cocktails made from seasonal fruit, rare spirits, and various different herbs and spices.  Find it at: Errotajankatu 5

What to Do in Helsinki in Two Days

1| Suomenlinna

If you have an extra day in the city, I’d recommend spending the morning over on Suomenlinna.  Suomenlinna is Helsinki’s 18th century sea fortress. It’s located on a small island off the south eastern coast of the city and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  There are all manor of museums to explore here, as well as former bunkers, fortress walls and Finland’s only remaining WWII submarine (which I failed to get a decent shot of; you’ll have to take my word for it!)

Suomenlinna, Helsinki (2)

Suomenlinna, Helsinki

Suomenlinna, Helsinki

Ferries run every 15-30 minutes from Kauppatori (the central market square) and the journey takes approximately 20 minutes.  Tickets are available from the self-service machines located there and a return fare is €5.  You can view the HSL ferry schedule to Suomenlinna here.

2 | Karl Fazer Cafe

You may choose to stop on Suomenlinna for coffee or lunch.  But if you decide you’d rather be back in central Helsinki, in preparation for an afternoon of sightseeing in the city then Karl Fazer is very close to Kauppatori.  It’s a bit of an institution in Helsinki and has been in business since 1891.

They serve some delectable cakes and Smørrebrød (Scandinavian open sandwich), as well as the confectionary that the Karl Fazer brand are famous for.

Smørrebrød, Karl Fazer cafe, Helsinki

After lunch, my advice would be to tick a few of the following sights and attractions off your list.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit most of these, due to having a very uninspiring wander around the neighbourhoods of Katajanokka and Kallio instead.

I’d read that Kallio was Helsinki’s creative district, which is why I’d headed there as one of my first ports of call.  However, I felt far more creatively inspired by the neighbourhoods of Kamppi, Töölö and Punavuori than I did by Kallio.  Maybe I was just unlucky, but I couldn’t find any of the public sculptures, cool art-filled cafes, vintage shops, and repurposed industrial venues that Lonely Planet spoke about in the Pocket Helsinki guidebook.

  • Hakaniemen Kauppahalli.  This was one of the places I did enjoy in Kallio.  The traditional-style Finnish food market hall contains over 50 stalls.  It’s a lovely place to browse even if you don’t plan on buying anything.
  • Kotiharjun Sauna.  If you don’t mind getting naked then this sauna will give you a more authentically Finnish experience.  Kotiharjun dates back to 1928.  It’s also €6 cheaper than Löyly.
  • Tennispalatsi.  Also in Kallio and somewhere I’d planned to make it to, Tennispalatsi is a cultural centre that houses Helsinki’s contemporary art museum (HAM), as well as a cinema, cafes, restaurants and speciality shops.
  • Tuomiokirkko.  I can’t actually believe I missed this one, considering that it’s located slap bang in middle of central Helsinki. This is Helsinki’s cathedral – a neoclassical masterpiece from architect CL Engel.
  • Sky Wheel.  This is probably the only noteworthy site located on Katajanokka (aside from nearby Uspenskin Katedraali – red brick cathedral) and offers fantastic panoramic views of Helsinki and its islands from a height of up to 40 metres. Tickets are €12 (reduced to €10 with the Helsinki card)
  • Oodi.  The morning after I arrived in Helsinki I asked the helpful girl on reception what she would recommend in her city.  I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to see and do during my two days, but I’m always interested to hear what the locals enjoy.  Without hesitation she said “Oodi” – the Central library.  I probably would not have ventured inside had it not come up in conversation, but it is in fact an incredible building (both inside and out), and I loved photographing the spiral staircase with its 381 painted words – an art installation entitled ‘Dedication.’
  • Seurasaaren Ulkomuseo.  I actually had this on my original itinerary, until I realised that it’s 5.5 kilometres northwest of the city.  But the outdoor museum filled with historic wooden buildings looks absolutely delightful, and you’ll even find guides dressed in traditional costume.  Bus number 24 stops outside.
  • Porvoo.  Located 50 kilometres from Helsinki and easily accessible by bus, Porvoo is the second oldest city in Finland.  It’s famous for its colourful wooden houses and cobblestone streets, and inspires photographers around the world.  Get Your Guide run a 5-hour tour to Porvoo from Helsinki, which will not only get you there and back with zero hassles, it will also give you a bit of history about the place.

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10 Wonderful Things to do in Helsinki, Finland in One Day _ Gallop Around The Globe

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