If you are planning a Helsinki city break, you need to check out this Helsinki itinerary. We have included a blend of foodie treats, historical hits and even some time to chill out (….well, heat up) in a sauna. Here is how to see the very best of the city when you have 3 days in Helsinki.
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Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is a city of around 631,000 people but you would never know it. Yes, there are people but it never feels crowded, and it is probably down to how the city is spread out. Water surrounds the peninsular and islands that make up the city so many people are hidden away in pretty, isolated pockets of community. The way the city is integrated into the landscape makes Helsinki a very unique capital. Finland has been under the control of the Russians, the Swedes and only gained independence in 1917…but more about that later.
3 Days in Helsinki
Did you know that Finland has the highest rate of coffee consumption per capita in the whole world?! We are talking 8 or 9 cups a day, so you can be assured, there is great coffee to be had in Helsinki. One particularly popular local chain is Robert’s Coffee. There are several branches near our first stop on the day but the best is Robert’s Coffee Jugend at Pohjoisesplanadi 19. There are some lovely old leather chairs, great coffee, a good selection of sweet pastries and a Finnish breakfast classic, the Karelian Pie.
The Lutheran Cathedral (Helsingin Tuomiokirkko)
Standing on a hill, this neoclassical cathedral from 1852 is sure to capture your attention. It was constructed in honour of the Grand Duke of |Finland, Tzar Nicholas 1 of Russia. At the time, Helsinki fell within the Russian empire but when Finland gained independence in 1917 the unofficial name of St Nicholas’ Church was stripped.
Being a Lutheran church, the inside is quite plain. The green domes of the church are reflected in the arches of the cross shaped building. Each of the four corners has something to see (a painting or the organ but most of the white wall is left clear. Entrance is free so you can just pop your head in.
The square outside, Senate Square, is not your normal European square lined with sub-par touristy cafes. Instead, it is surrounded imposing, important buildings. On the west side you will see the University of Finland and National Library of Finland. On the east, is the Helsinki University Museum Arppeanum. In the centre is a grand statue of Alexander II. This is one of the city’s talking statues and y scanning a code, you will get a lovely little dramatic reading about the ruler.
Helsinki City Museum
For another quick diversion that is completely free, pop into the Helsinki City Museum. This spot is great for kids, with a whole section about Finnish family life (including a cool old school room). You” find examples of traditional houses and even a slightly creepy sauna mock up. There is a fun room descried as a time machine. As you pass around the room, the projection on the walls switches between a modern photo and beautiful old one, allowing you see how the city has changed.
With substantially more bling than the Lutheran Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral is striking inside and out. The red brick, green roof and golden onion domes stand out from the sky as it stands proud on top of the small hill. Gaze back across to the other cathedral as you’ll get a great view from here. Inside there is plenty to catch the eye from the icon screen to the shining frames on pictures around the walls.
Sun, Sea and Sauna at Löyly
No trip to Finland would be complete without a visit to the sauna. Sauna (pronounced s-ow-na) is an integral part of life, peoviding a space for both physical relaxation to detox, but also a moment of mindfulness. Many apartments even have their own! In Helsinki, there are a couple of public saunas but the most beautiful has got to be Löyly (pronounced a little like Lo-La).
Löyly has a restaurant and sun deck which are both rather lovely, but to really get involved you will want a sauna pass. This includes towel rental, use of a locker, shampoo and conditioner and even rental of a swimming costume if you didn’t bring one. You will have access to two saunas. The first is a traditional sauna, heated by wood and enhanced by ladling water onto the hot stones.
The second sauna is a smoke sauna. The surfaces are dark, as are the windows so watch your step. In the smoke sauna you feel halfway between gloriously toasty and the toast that you left in a tiny bit too long and had to scrape a little of the charred edge into the bin.
The sweeping wooden structure stretching out the the rippling seawater allowing visitors to take a dip. The water isn’t too bad in summer but it is almost literally Baltic for the rest of the year.
Top Tip: It is best to notice the “Don’t Jump” sign before you decide to plunge in or you might cuttin your foot on the rock….like a beautiful idiot I know.
Dinner – Naughty Brgr
For a great burger at a reasonable price, check out Naughty Brgr.
If you are a really tight budget, look out for Hesburger. This Finnish burger chain makes a pretty decent fast food meal for less than ten euros. The beef is recognisably so and the salad is fresh and tasty.
If you really want to splash out, book a table at SPIS. This modern Nordic restaurant doesn’t yet hold a Michelin star but it can only be a matter of time. The food is intricate, fresh and seasonal. You can have a wonderful quality tasting menu for €84 which isn’t bad at all when compared with other restaurants in Helsinki.
Lovely Libations at Liberty or Death
Alcohol is pretty pricy in Finland so it is worth spending wisely. The cocktails at Liberty of Death are definitely in the wise choice camp. The menu is full of grown up, well crafted concoctions with plenty of booze.
Fazer Café Kluuvikatu
Another morning, another coffee.
Fazer Cafe has been serving the people of Helsinki in this location for over 130 years. If you like a sweet treat for breakfast, this is the perfect spot! There are cheesecakes, tarts, parties and patisserie galore. The founder Karl Fazer trained to become a confectioner and then put his stamp on the city, producing some stellar cakes and sumptuous chocolates. Of course, there are some delicious savoury eats too, with open sandwiches ful of tasty seafood, cheese, ham and trendy avocado…not all together.
Oh, and it has lovely window designs so even if you don’t eat here, its still worth wandering past.
Mooch Around the Old Market Hall
On the waterfront, sits the Victorian red brick Old Market Hall. It has been open since 1889 and has been a great place for produce ever since. Inside there are stalls selling fresh meat and fish, cured sausages (including reindeer) dry goodies and baked treats. It is nice to have a wander round, to grab a snack or to cobble together a packed lunch. You will even find a stall to try the infamous coffee and cheese…yup, that’s right, coffee cheese dipped in coffee. Sounds crazy but it just might work.
Suomenlinna is a sea fortress located on an island at the mouth of the archipelago. It was completed in 1748 by the Swedish navy to protect the city from Russian expansion and has played an important part in Helsinki’s defence ever since. It has been used by Swedish, Finnish and Russian forces, right up until WWII. Today, it is still inhabited but since 1991 it has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is now a major tourist attraction. There are still around 800 residents living her with tourists outnumbering them daily but at last 2 to 1.
Getting to Suomenlinna
Getting to Suomenlinna is quite fun. It is reached by way of an HSL ferry that leaves from right in front of Korkein Oikeus (the Supreme Court) by the Kauppatori Market . The ride across takes around 15 minutes and is included with Helsinki Card or all day travel card. If you have neither of these, tickets can be purchased from the machines on the dock. We would advise getting there with a few minutes to spare as it can be busy.
Highlights of Suomenlinna
There is so much to see on Suomenlinna but as we only have 2 days in Helsinki, it would be good to hit the highlights with a little more speed than you might normally. We recommend checking out these best bits:
- Suomenlinna Church – This pretty white church was built in the 1850s to cater for the Russian soldiers living on the island at the time. However, when the country declared independence in 1918, its onion domes were demolished and it was converted in to a Lutheran church. Look out for the cannon fencing ad the main dome which doubles as a lighthouse.
- King’s Gate – Dating from 1752, this gate was constructed for King Adolf Frederick of Sweden when he came to inspect the island. It is a lovely place to sit and have a relaxed moment,
- Submarine Vesikko – A little more recent, the Vesikko submarine was first put to sea in 1933 and served until the end of WWII. It is now a small museum all about life on board. The ticket is purchased separately.
- Guns – There is a series of guns running along the south coast, standing in front of the fortress walls. These are old Russian cannons are up on high sand dunes and it is a nice stroll away from the crowds.
- Suomenlinna Museum – There are several museums on the island but the main Suomenlinna Museum is the most informative and broad reaching. Visitors will get a full overview of the island’s history through artefact’s, people’s first hand stories and Pictures galore. This is another seperate ticket.
- The Dry Dock – I know, a dry dock doesn’t sound so exciting but it quite impressive. it is Finalnd’s oldest and even if there isn’t a wooden ship being repaired here, just imagining one if still quite cool.
Food on Suomeblinna
There are several cafes and restaurants on the island. We chose to picnic at King’s Gate with bits picked up at the market but if you want a prepared meal we suggest Viaporin Deli & Café for a relaxed lunch of salads, sandwiches and the beer brewed on the island. It os right by the jetty so easy to grab something to eat before you leave or even to takeaway and munch o the boat back. We also like Pizzeria Nikolai which is only open during in the summer, allowing you munch on decent pizza in the ramparts or out in the sun.
When you arrive back into town, take a quick walk along the waterfront for a quick spin on the SkyWheel.
There are few cities around the world with big wheels so this may not be a novelty for you. However, not only is there a wonderful view from the top of this one but it has the Most Finnish addition…a sauna pod!
A normal ride costs €12 takes 12 minutes (with 3 or 4 rotations). The trip in the Original SkySauna is €240 for an hour (which also include showers, towels, 2 drinks and access to a terrace with a hot tub). You can book for 1 – 4 people for the same price. Lastly, check out the pod sponsored by Veuve Clicquot. A 30 minute experience in the pod which features a glass floor, leather seats and music, and includes a bottle of Veuve is €195 for up to 4 people.
If you enjoyed (or skipped) Löyly, then take some time to relax at Allas Sea Pool. This complex, right here on the harbour, features saunas and fresh and seawater pools.
The outdoor pools are heated, overlook the water and are open to the sky. Combined with a huge platform on the roof, Allas is perfect for sunbathing in summer and moonlight swims in winter. €18 gets you 10 hours of access.
For a pre-dinner bevvie, grab a drink at this bar boat. The boat is a lighthouse boat built in the 1880s and feels rather charming. The upper deck gives a lovely view of the water and up to Upenski Cathedral. If it is cold or rainy, the back of the lower deck is a surprisingly cosy place to curl up with a drink. Drinks are not the most exciting but you can grab a beer for €5 (that’s pretty cheap for Finland) and the Aperol Spritz was well made.
If you cross the bridge weighed down with love locks and follow the bay, you can take a lovely 15-minute stroll along the huge icebreaker ships. Just before you reach the boats, there is an interesting information board all about them. These mammoth ships keep the waterways passable during the cold months. (They are not awkward office bonding games as I first thought when Mr Fluskey said we need to see icebreakers!)
For a slice of traditional Finnish cuisine, opt for dinner at Savotta Rivantola. This stalwart on Senate Square serves all the classics; reindeer roasts, arctic char and elk. Expect hearty fare with lots of sweet berry additions. The drinks are averagely priced with one or two wines for less that €8 and some interesting Finnish Schnapps. The later on you visit, the better, as the view of the Cathedral is enhanced by the lights that give it a lovely glow. You can also ask to sit in the snug downstairs.
Jungle Juice Bar
Another homegrown chain, Jungle Juice Bar has been taking over Helsinki since 2010. They specialise in not just tasty juices but protein smoothies, veggie smoothies and the freshest ingredients. Grab a seabuckthorn shot for a morning kick that you won’t find outside of Scandinavia/Russia. Alternatively, they have super creamy avocado-based green smoothies that will fill you up until lunch. The branch in the mall at Kaivokatu 8 has seats so you don’t have to grab and go if you don’t want.
Hop on tram 2, 4 or 10 and then head directly west through Sibelius Park. This will lead you to an unusual sculpture that celebrates one of Finland’s most famous sons. Johan Julius Christian Sibelius is a famous composer who created stunning classical works, many of which were used to inspire those fighting for Finnish independence. The structure that celebrates his work was very controversial when it was first unveiled in 1967. Made up of over 600 metal pipes, the abstract work gives nods to both organ pipes and musical scales.
Heading south along the main coast road for a minute or two, you will spy a little red hut. This adorable spot is Cafe Regatta which sits on a mini headland of its own. They do a decent cup of coffee and excellent baked goods all year. In summer, you can rent paddle boards or kayaks and explore the waters around it. Don’t miss the cinammon buns and, if you are here at the right time, grilling your own sausages over the fire.
National Museum of Finland
Heading back inland, it is a 20-30 minute walk to the National Museum of Finland. The galleries trace Finland’s history from back in the stone age to people’s hopes for the future. The exhibitions are interesting and some are pleasingly interactive. Don’t forget to take in the beautiful fresco ceiling by Akseli Gallen-Kallela in the central hall. These are free to see so even if you don’t have time/don’t want to see the rest of the museum, they are worth a peep.
A most unusual blend of warm natural wood and extremely natural rock come together in the UFO like Temppeliaukion Church, The design by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen is so unique. The church, completed in 1961 is carved into a large section of rock in Helsinki giving it the nickname “The Church of the Rock”. The round copper roof sits above a big skylight which fills the interior with light. You can visit with a ticket or, even better, come during a concert tore ally enjoy the space. The rock walls are great for acoustics!
For a unique and fun way to see a little more of Helsinki, hop aboard the SparaKoff Pub Tram. Visitors climb aboard at a stop just outside Helsinki’s main train station. The ticket costs €12 and the journey takes around 45 minutes. The tram traverses the streets of Helsinki between here, the waterfront and down to the area near Loyly. You are able to purchase drinks on board, including beer, Lonkero, and bottles of wine. Don’t worry about spillages, there are handy cup holders to help keep your drinks upright. It is a relaxed and delightful way to take in the city from street level.
For something a little less traditional, but no less delicious, Hill’s Dumplings is a wonderful spot for dinner. it is great value and you will find plenty of options to suit all tastes. You can get steamed, boiled and fried dumplings, bao buns and delicious fried chicken. Plus, the cocktails aren’t eye-wateringly expensive at around €11. If it is sunny, the outdoor seating is quite nice but upstairs is dark and very cozy when the temperature drops.
If you are thinking of visiting spending 3 days in Helsinki, here is some onformati9on you might like to know.
- Plugs – Plugs are two round pin European plugs using 220v.
- Currency – Finland uses the Euro.
- Arriving by Sea – Ferry arrivals (like the Eckero line between Helsinki and Tallinn, or Mannheim/Stockholm) come into the shiny Port of Helsinki. There is a tram station here so it is very easy to get into town by hopping on the 7 or 9. The centre is also walkable but if you have bags, or if you are staying a little further north, the tram is much better.
- Arriving by Air – Planes arrive from all over the world to the main Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. The building is full of simple but beautiful Finnish design. Finnair is the national carrier but nboth large full service and budget airlines all use the same terminal. Helsinki Airport is 11 miles/17km kilometres from town. A taxi is the quickest but most expensive (20 mins / €45). Our favourite way to get into town is the I and P trains which are much cheaper, especially if there are fewer of you. They run every 10 minutes (30 mins / €10). Finally, you can catch the 600 bus (40 mins / €6.80).
- Getting Around Helsinki – You will not need a car in Helsinki, the public transport is great. There is an extensive tram network which covers much of the city. You can purchase tickets from the HSL app (which is a nice, easy way to do it) or from the ticket machines at the stops. You can also do this for the buses which carve across the island between the tram lines. There is a small metro system which is nice for escaping the city or the cold but isn’t that useful. Purchasing an HSL day pass will give you 24 hour access to the trams, buses, metro and boat to Suomenlinna. If you visit in the summer, you can hire city bikes in a similar scheme to many cities around the world, picking up and dropping off at specific stations.
- The Helsinki Card – The Helsinki Card is a city sightseeing card which can be purchased for 1-3 days. It offers free or discounted admission to lots of attractions in the city. Free entry includes the Rock Church and National Museum of Finland, the hop on hop off bus and Suomenlinna Island. It also includes free transport on the days you are using it so getting between attractions is easy.
Final Thoughts for Your 3 Days in Helsinki City Break
Helsinki is an enigmatic city, full of hidden gems. Little beaches hidden in the craggy coast, cool speakeasies tucked into quiet corners and a little streak of rebellion just under the surface. You could easily spend a week getting to know the city but 3 days in Helsinki will be a great start!