Nestled along the shores of the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is a city that effortlessly marries modernity with tradition and has many great attractions. It’s a place that blurs the lines between cutting-edge design and traces of ancient heritage and blends Nordic, European, and Russian influences.
Having a stopover in Helsinki seems to be a very popular thing, but we thought that was not nearly enough time to properly appreciate and get to know the city, so instead we stayed for 4 days. In Helsinki, attractions and activities center around design and architecture, nature, and Finnish culture. But Helsinki hosts a myriad of experiences that make it such an interesting destination.
We did our research on the ground and came up with this Helsinki itinerary. It includes only the best places to see in Helsinki so you can make the most of your visit.
Helsinki Best Things to Do Itinerary
Day 1: Exploring the City Center
Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral
There is a reason why Helsinki Cathedral is a widespread symbol of Finland – it’s the main focal point along the Helsinki skyline, and it’s a masterpiece and one of the best Helsinki attractions. Located in Senate Square, it is the most recognizable landmark in Helsinki, often referred to as the ‘While Cathedral’. Originally constructed in 1852 in honor of Nicholas I, the Russian Tsar, it was later renamed to Helsinki Cathedral in 1917 when Finland became independent from the Russian Empire. The Cathedral, elevated by the steps leading up to it, looks like it’s glowing, especially on a clear day. After visiting the Cathedral, stay in the majestic Senate Square to admire the neoclassical architecture, other significant buildings, and the statue of Alexander II in the center of the square.
Esplanade and a Finnish Lunch
From the Senate Square, make your way to Esplanade, one of Helsinki’s best parks and the local favorite hangout spot. This picturesque park, affectionately referred to as ‘Espa’ by locals, is designed like a hall, lined with trees and flowerbeds. The park connects two streets, filled with high-end shops, boutiques, and cafes. The area is collectively known as the Design District. Here, you will find everything from fashion and home furnishings to jewelry and Finnish-made souvenirs. You will even spot a unique contemporary chapel called Kamppi Chapel, built with a minimalist wooden interior resembling a cocoon and intended for silent reflection.
Hopefully, you work up an appetite strolling through the park and discovering the essence of Finnish style because, at the Market Square end of the park, you’ll find Kappeli, one of Helsinki’s most historic restaurants. It was built in 1867, featuring stunning glass facades that resemble a greenhouse, and remains a popular meeting place to this day. On the inside, you’ll find art decorating the walls, contributing to an exquisite atmosphere to soak in as you enjoy traditional Finnish dishes and seasonal local ingredients.
Hot Tip: If you become enamored with Finnish style while exploring Design District, make sure to venture into the Design Museum. A former school, this museum has permanent exhibitions devoted to the history of Finnish design that spans many aspects, so it will be an interesting experience for all.
The Uspenski Cathedral
Perched up on a hill, it’s impossible not to notice this Orthodox Cathedral. It took nine years to design and complete the construction of the Uspenski Cathedral, and it was finally consecrated in 1868. Today, it is one of Helsinki’s most popular attractions and one the largest Orthodox Cathedrals in Western Europe, boasting all of the classic features like the golden cupolas and red brick exterior.
Traditional Meal in Style
For dinner, make your way back to Senate Square to enjoy a traditional Finnish meal in style. Dining at Savotta restaurant is an experience rather than just a meal. Not only has the menu been designed to conserve food traditions, but the restaurant’s interior is also inspired by Finnish history, rural life, and logging. The décor, down to the floor planks, has been sourced from old Finnish homes and logging sites from all over Finland. And you can enjoy iconic Finnish dishes with a view over the Senate Square, just make sure to reserve a table in advance.
Hietaniemi Cemetery is the final resting place of many heads of state and other dignitaries and is culturally and historically the most important cemetery, not only in Helsinki but also in the whole of Finland. It was a beautiful place to take morning walks, which we did a couple of times.
Day 2: Cultural Immersion
Helsinki Central Library Oodi
Libraries frequently make it to our itineraries, especially when they are historic or distinct in architecture, but Library Oodi is different. While it is visually striking, Oodi is a truly cool place to just hang out. Posing itself as a living room for all of Helsinki to enjoy, people gather here to work, create, learn, relax, and socialize. Not only is this library stocked with books, other reading material, a business center, and comfy seating, but it also has 3D printers, sewing machines, studios with filming equipment, and so much more. Open 7 days a week, Oodi is a proper hub for creators and an inspiration center.
Old Market Hall and Market Square
The Market Hall and Square located next to it are the oldest and most popular indoor and outdoor markets in Finland. The building of the Old Market Hall alone is worth admiration. It also secures the best location right in front of the sea. Paired with foodie delights, that is a winning combination. This is the best place to try unusual Finnish delicacies. You can try things such as reindeer and elk meat and enjoy a lunch with stunning views in one of Helsinki’s best attractions.
Church in the Rock
Officially known as Temppeliaukio Church, this landmark is a true architectural marvel. Built directly into solid rock and topped with a copper dome, the church surprisingly instills a serene atmosphere. Perhaps that is due to the abundance of natural light that filters in through the glazed dome, making the area feel open and airy. It’s a tranquil and contemplative space where you can do a bit of reflection. You will enjoy the perfect acoustics if you happen to catch a concert here during your stay.
Experience a Finnish Sauna
Saunas are deeply ingrained in Finnish history and culture. Although we’ve tried our fair share of saunas by this point in our world tour, we couldn’t pass up experiencing some Finnish löyly. This word directly translates to ‘steam’, but indirectly means ‘spirit of life’. This is why in Finnish culture, saunas are considered as holy as churches. There are plenty of public saunas to participate in this ritual, but we decided to visit Löyly Helsinki. It is a modern seaside sauna that has access to the sea. It has a restaurant with sweeping views, and is an architectural delight in and of itself.
Day 3: Monuments, Nature and Treats
Central Railway Station
Start your day with a visit to Helsinki Central Railway Station before crowds form. Once you see the station even from afar, you understand why it’s such a popular tourist attraction. It made BBC’s list of the most beautiful train stations in the world in 2013. The station has also become the symbol of the entire railway network in Finland, and its image adorns marketing collateral. Apart from the iconic clock tower, our favorite features were the two giant statues on each side of the entrance, called “The Lantern Bearers”. Their lanterns actually light up come nighttime, so try to return to the station later in the day to experience the beauty.
Located in Sibelius Park and dedicated to a Finnish composer, the eponymous monument, made up of over 600 hollow steel pipes, is one of the most unique attractions in Helsinki. The monument was designed to convey the essence of Sibelius’s music by shape and sound. The creative engineering allows the hollow pipes to make melodies when the wind blows. And aside from its significance, the structure is simply stunning as well.
Indulge at Iconic Cafes in Helsinki
Just outside Sibelius Park, you will find the coziest and most popular café in Helsinki – Regatta Cafe. Having warm drinks at a red cottage by the sea after a walk in the park sounds like the perfect recipe to us. There is even a fire pit! Grab a freshly baked pastry and a hot chocolate, and soak in the atmosphere for as long as you please.
But leave enough time to stop by Fazer Cafe. No visit to Helsinki, Finland is complete without a taste of Fazer chocolate. First opened in 1891, it has become an institution. Chances are you will probably have some without knowing. But to dive into the world of Fazer proper, visit the flagship Fazer Cafe. Satisfy your sweet tooth cravings and take a photo with the retro sign outside the café.
Day 4: Island Hopping
Soumenlinna Sea Fortress
Only a 10-minute ferry ride from Market Square, you will find Suomenlinna. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Helsinki’s most treasured attractions. It’s an 18th-century sea fortress built by the Swedish occupants of Finland. It is colossal in size, and boasts well-preserved fortifications, tunnels, and barracks. Not only do you get to learn about Finland’s maritime history, but also capture spectacular views over the Gulf and Helsinki in the distance.
Seurasaari Open Air Museum
Located on an island in the Baltic Sea, this open-air museum offers a glimpse into Finnish heritage and culture. Disembarking on this island feels like stepping back in time. There are old-world farmhouses to admire, and churches and windmills. These feature traditional building techniques used in villages back in the day. Visiting Seurasaari allows you to gain a deeper understanding of Finland’s rural heritage and the daily lives of its people.
A very popular day trip from Helsinki, Finland is actually taking a ferry over to Tallinn. It is the capital of Estonia since it’s only two hours away. Tallinn was the next destination on our world tour, where we spent 5 nights. If you are looking for recommendations in that amazing city, we’ve got you covered.
As for Finland, since we didn’t get the chance to travel north to Lapland. We will be back again to experience the northern lights and the winter magic in Helsinki, Finland.
Best Time to Visit Helsinki, Finland
We have linked a great website to this button showing the weather for this location by the month. Click below to be taken to Weather-and-Climate.com.