No one in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass, welcome. This is the slogan on an image I received multiple times when telling friends and family I was visiting Helsinki in November. Not much of a badass though, it was only the first weekend in November and the temperature teetered between 0 and 2 degrees Celsius – cold, but manageable.
Over the course of four days, I clocked over 70,500 steps, partly owed to the close proximity of the AirB&B to the centre. So here’s how I spent four days in the city, to give you an idea about how you can make the most out of your visit.
Getting from the airport to Helsinki
There really is no point considering anything other than the train, as for just under €5, direct access from the terminal and a forty-minute journey you’ll make it to Helsingin päärautatieasema (Helsinki Central Station).
Where we stayed in Helsinki
This is hands down one of, if not the best, AirB&B I have ever had the pleasure of staying in. A short 18 minute walk from the train station and roughly 15 minutes to the centre. Not only was the apartment so tastefully decorated, but it came with its own private sauna!
The apartment sleeps four, and between two of us the total cost for three nights and four days was £337.50 (correct November 2019).
The host Edith’s father met us on arrival to the apartment, Edith had left instructional sheets on the table detailing how to work the sauna, dishwasher and sofa bed.
It’s clear Edith takes great pride in her accommodation, and quite rightly so as the entire process was seamless. Since the next guests weren’t due until two days later, they kindly allowed us to check out when we needed to depart later in the day.
Friday, Day One
A (very) early morning flight meant a second, almost third breakfast. There was really only one place for it – a slice of the infamous Napolean cake at Finlands’s oldest patisserie and bakery – Café Ekberg. Serving up buns, pastries and bread since 1985, you can top for a coffee and a cake in the cafe or grab and go from the bakery.
I’d heard Helsinki was home to some fabulous libraries, but I didn’t realise just how many. The Rikhardinkatu Library was the first of three libraries we visited throughout the trip. Until 1986, it was considered to be the main public library of Helsinki.
Like many of Helsinki’s libraries, the atmosphere will be dead silent and you’ll genuinely find locals studying, reading or just enjoying a peaceful moment. The spiral staircase is the star of the show at this library.
Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli)
Gracing the harbourside since 1889. Vanha Kauppahalli, or Old Market Hall, is today home to 25 stalls offering everything from fish, chocolate, and coffee. It’s here you’ll find local delicacies such as Salmiak, reindeer or even bear. It’s also the perfect place to try the much loved Salmon Soup. The market hall is closed on Sundays.
Helsinki’s Chapel of Silence (Kamppi Chapel)
Located in one of the busiest parts of the city, if not the country, the Kamppi Chapel is a sanctuary offering a place of calm and serenity. It’s free to enter, but photography and noise is of course forbidden. An oddity – sure! But the employees at the chapel are there to help anyone who may need it regardless of where they are from.
Modern art is not an area of high interest to me, but this museum of contemporary art was free to enter on the day we visited so we thought what the heck? I enjoyed the Moco Museum in Amsterdam so decided to give it a chance. All I can say is, unless you can appreciate modern art I’d skip this altogether.
Note: The museum was free to enter on the first Friday of every month during the time of our visit.
Helsinki Central Library Oodi
Two libraries in one day? Call me Belle! The Oodi Helsinki Central Library is one of my favourite places to have visited and I wish I had longer to enjoy it. Less like a library, and more like a communal living room I was in awe of this creative space.
If you can dodge safely passed the skateboarded outside, you’ll be rewarded with three floors of book heaven (100,000 books), 3D printing, meeting spaces, gaming sessions, coffee and urban workshops.
The library is open Monday to Friday until 10pm, and weekends until 8pm.
Top tip: head up to the third floor to enjoy the views from the ‘Citizens’ Balcony’.
Dinner at Hietalahti Market Hall
We decided to delve into local life with a visit to the Hietalahti Market Hall for dinner. Said to be lesser known to visitors, the 115-year-old is vintage, cosy and reasonably priced. The indoor food hall houses thirteen stalls selling sushi, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, and more. It bears more resemblance to a food hall, where we opted for noodles and dumplings.
Day Two, Saturday
Whether you grew up with the Moomins or not, you can’t escape the marshmallow hippopotamus family so you may as well embrace it. The much-loved characters are a centre of pride for Finland, as the Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson enjoyed an upbringing in Helsinki.
Moomin shops are available throughout the city, but for something a little more exctigin I’d recommend a coffee and a cake in the Moomin café (Mumin Kaffe). Plus – it’s seconds away from the walking tour meeting point.
Free Walking Tour
Having lived in Helsinki for over six years, our Glaswegian guide Michael gave an unique insight and perspective to the capital. Over two hours we visited key sights such as the Havis Amanda Statue, Senate Square, Helsinki Cathedral, The House of Estates, Old Harbor Area, Uspenski Cathedral and the Traditional Market Square. Could I have visited each of these sights on my own? Sure! But I wouldn’t have had an insight into the culture, history and events that shaped the country. Nor would I have direct access to a ‘local’ whom provided excellent recommendations.
Restaurant Yes Yes Yes
I’ll admit, this restaurant was booked for its aesthetic over anything else. But it was less than five minutes walk to the AirB&B and on the route from the end of the walking tour to our destination afterwards. Restaurant Yes Yes Yes! is a vegetarian restaurant offering small plates.
Finnish Sauna at Löyly
A quick dash back to the apartment to change into our swimwear, and it was off to our first sauna experience. Since Finland is home to over 3 million saunas, this seemed like a good place to start – besides our private apartment one of course! Reservation is recommended as it was fully booked when we arrived. I’ve written about my experience in more detail here.
Check out my beginner’s guide to Helsinki’s saunas here.
Traditional Dinner at Savotta
While the market halls and coffee shops are lovely, I knew I wanted to try something a little more traditional and splash out a bit. Offering up views of the Cathedral, Savotta Restaurant offers real Finnish food using only Finnish ingredients.
The décor takes its inspiration from Finnish forests and lakes, which matches the restaurant name as Savotta means a logging site.
While the staff are in traditional dress, the décor is very simple but cosy the food is magnificent. You can choose from the pre-selected set menu, or make your own choice from the menu. I opted for Reindeer and Elk Sausage and it was absolutely delicious.
Ateljee Rooftop Bar
Helsinki doesn’t have much of a skyline, so the tallest building is Hotel Torni. A historical hotel dating back to the 1930s, it today offers magnificent panoramic views from its rooftop bar. Entrance is free, accessed from the lift to the highest floor and then a short walk up a very narrow metal staircase. The rooftop bar is incredibly small, but head out to the terrace for some stellar views.
Sunday, Day Three
We didn’t account for the fact that on Sundays the majority of places don’t open until midday or are closed, so I was treated to a lie-in and enjoyed some time in a coffee shop.
Suomenlinna is a UNESCO world heritage site and sea fortress accessed via a ferry from Market Square – a day ticket is under 5 euros. During winter, the only available English-guided tour of Suomenlinna was at 1:30pm, so we headed over early to reach the meeting place and have a little wander around before the tour.
The tour lasted an hour and cost 11 euros. Access to Suomenlinna is free of charge, but some of the museums do require a separate entrance fee.
You’re free to navigate Suomenlinna yourself, but be mindful that there are approximately 800 inhabitants living on the island. The inhabitants of the island are usually from Helsinki, and upon making an application for residence are chosen randomly through a lottery selection.
Allas Sea Pool
Of course it was a given that I’d try as many of the saunas as possible! The Allas Sea Pool is directly next to the ferry port, and a great excuse to rest from your visit to Suomenlinna. The charge is 14 € that provides access to the saunas and three pools. Bear in mind that the saunas are separated so there will be nudity.
The best part about the Allas Sea Pool is just that, the sea pool. Using UV-filtered sea water that is not heated, take an icy dip after your sauna for a true experience.
I’ve written about my experience in more detail here.
Hard Rock Cafe Helsinki
Shaken to the core after braving a dip, we rounded off the evening at Hard Rock Café. Before you start screaming authenticity – allow me to explain.
Some people collect magnets, some patches and others keyrings. I myself collect those tacky I heart t-shirts to document my travels that will later be made into a blanket. My travel companion Michelle opted for the same, but rather than the I heart t-shirts, likened the idea of Hard Rock Café tshirts. And because the t-shirts weren’t pricey enough, we also set a rule that it didn’t count if we hadn’t eaten there… we always order the fajitas. It’s a random tradition, but we like it so there.
Unfortunately, Helsinki Hard Rock Cafe closed in January 2023.
Monday, Day Four
Temppeliaukion Church (Church of the Rock)
With an evening flight we decided to head a bit further afield. So we jumped on the tram bound for Puu-Vallila. On the way, we made a quick stop to the Temppeliaukion Church. Nicknamed the church of the rock as it’s built directly into the natural granite rock. The church is a Lutheran church that makes up the majority religious group in Helsinki. It’s €3 to enter. Lutheran is a form of Protestantism based on the teachings of 16th-century German reformer, Martin Luther. A quick gander around and it was back on the tram bound for our next stop.
Wooden House District (Puu-Vallila)
Designed for the working classes during 1910s and 1920s, Puu-Valila is a network of wooden houses that offer a glimpse into historic Helsinki. In certain streets, there is a stark contrast between modern apartment complexes and wooden housing. You’ll also notice that some have metal roofs – apparently, they are left untouched for one winter to allow the metal to oxidize, when they are eventually painted with tar paint. After a short stroll among the colour facades, warm up at the Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo Coffee Shop.
It was back on the tram and over to the Sibelius Monument – a memorial to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. A short walk through the aptly named Sibelius Park and you’ll soon notice the glistening structure. Made up of 600 steel pipes, reaching 27 feet in the air, the monument is said to resemble a soundwave. The clusters of organ pipes were designed by Eila Hiltunen.
Before you retrace your tracks to the tram line, don’t miss a visit to Café Regatta just a few steps away. Shaped like a traditional red cottage, this cute café was once a fishnet shed next to the villa for the famous coffee family, Paulig. Hardly larger than a sauna – with an outdoor toilet of a similar size – kick back with a hot drink and a cinnamon bun or slice of blueberry pie.
National Library of Finland
We didn’t arrive early enough to visit the National Library of Finland on the first day, and since it’s closed on weekends we snuck in a visit as our time in Helsinki came to an end. The oldest and largest scholarly library in Finland is free to enter, but luggage and coats must be stowed in the provided lockers. Everyone is welcome to use the space, and you should visit to ogle at the extensive architecture, but you’ll need to do it in utter silence.
One final hurrah with a spot of shopping, you’ll find the usual high-street stores we’re accustomed to back home – H&M, Zara, and Lush. A quick slurp of soup in the market hall and it was off to the airport to bid farewell to the Land of the Thousand Lakes.