Discover how to spend a day in Helsinki

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Helsinki skyline photo

Despite being a prominent feature on happiness indexes and a regular must-visit destination from bloggers and travel sites, Helsinki still remains an overlooked Baltic cruise destination. Overshadowed by the likes of St Petersburg, Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen, the capital city of Finland is a real treasure that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Few places on Earth can offer a natural landscape with a cutting-edge metropolitan city quite like Helsinki, as Jenni Pöyry, Communications and Media Relations at My Helsinki, says: “Helsinki is a city of contrasts; the hidden gem of the North. Helsinki is a city where urban life and beautiful nature combines. It’s also a very compact and functional city which makes it also possible to explore within a short amount of time.”

But what if you haven’t got long to spend in the city? If you are tight for time on your Baltic cruise holiday but you really want to make the most of it, here is our guide on how to spend a day in Helsinki.

Go to a sauna

Saunas are a big deal in Finland. In a country that has a population of just 5.5 million people, there are more than 3.5 million saunas. No visit to Finland, nor Helsinki is really complete without steaming yourself, which has proven to relieve stress, cleanse the skin, flush out any unwanted toxins, burn calories, fight illness and much more. They are everywhere. Want to enjoy a steam while you tuck into a burger? Then head to the world’s first-ever fast-food sauna.

You’ll meet some Fins who head to a sauna six times a week, whereas a massive 99 per cent of the population use them at least once a week. In Britain you may only be presented with the chance to steam yourself after the gym or if you are on a spa break, meaning that this activity is quite alien to us. But when in Rome, or rather Helsinki, you must give it a go.

It is a typically Finnish experience, but when you only have a day or less to spend in Helsinki, you don’t want to waste your time trying to find a good sauna. Jenni Pöyry of My Helsinki had a couple of recommendations for those visiting the city: “Of course, when in Finland, you need to experience the true sauna culture. The best places in Helsinki for that are design saunas called Löyly, Kotiharjun Sauna or Allas Sea Pool. At Allas Sea Pool they also have heated outdoor pools.”

If you are invited to enjoy a sauna with someone then you should be honoured, and you’d better have a good reason to turn it down. Fins even say that the majority of their most important decisions are made in a sauna rather than in meetings.

You’re likely to be rushed off of your feet as you try and absorb as much of Helsinki as possible during your visit, and a sauna is the best chance to decompress and relieve the stresses of the day. A calm environment, coloured lighting, aromatic fragrances and tranquil music will leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Temppeliaukio Church

Temppeliaukio Church

In an unassuming residential square in the Töölö neighbourhood of Helsinki sits a surreal, movie-prop like building. From above it appears to be a machine, or an underground spaceship from a sci-fi movie is trying to break through the Earth’s crust. But in reality, it is the stunning Temppeliaukio Church, or Rock Church. Easily one of the top 10 attractions in Helsinki, you don’t have to be religious to appreciate how unique this building is.

Free to visit – though donations are welcome – the church has become one of the main attractions in Helsinki since its completion in 1969. The entire structure is built into the very heart of Helsinki, with falls of rock and a domed copper ceiling making the entire church appear environmental and natural.

READ ALSO: Lesser-known cruise destinations

The Sibelius Monument

Helsinki has a long list of unusual, thought-provoking and stand-out attractions. Sitting comfortably amongst them in the Sibelius Monument. Created in honour of national composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), it was the work of sculptor Eila Huitman whose design won a two-stage competition in 1961.

Consisting of 600 acid-proof stainless-steel tubes, varying in diameter and length, the jagged monument resembles a soundwave. The design aimed to embody the spirit of Sibelius’ music, though it did receive some criticism from those who believed the composer should be directly honoured. It can be found in Sibelius Park and perfectly reflects Helsinki’s brilliant influence on architecture, art and design across the world. On a quiet day, you can hear the sculpture echo bird song, as the pipes reflect the changes in the seasons.

Senate Square

senate square and Helsinki Cathedral

Consisting of four main buildings: Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the University of Helsinki’s main building and the National Library of Finland, Senate Square is a must for anyone spending a day in Helsinki. Here you can tick off sights that are on many people’s bucket lists for the city, as you explore brilliant examples of Neoclassical architecture in all their grandeur.

Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840), the buildings encircle Senate Square itself, which has become a major gathering point for tourists and locals alike, as it is situated in the heart of downtown Helsinki. If you are interested in seeing some of the best attractions in Helsinki, this is the place to be.

Helsink Cathedral

Towering down on the square is the iconic Helsinki Cathedral. This is a major landmark for anyone arriving in the city on their Baltic cruise and is easily distinguishable from the port. Previously called St. Nicholas Church in tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who was then Grand Duke of Finland, it is free to enter and reflects a significant part of the history of Finland.

READ ALSO: Must-visit Tsarist palaces in St. Petersburg

Vanha Kauppahalli

The Old Market Hall, or Vanha Kauppahalli, has been to go-to for local produce since 1889. Cheeses, fish, vegetables, cakes, spices, fruit and so much more are available from the vendors, making it a must for any food lovers.

This is the place to get a real taste of Helsinki, and Finland, as you sample not only the gastronomy of the area but also get a flavour of how the locals live – and have lived for over a century.

During the 19th century, much of the groceries available to the people of Helsinki were available from outdoor markets and stalls, but with a desire to improve food hygiene, the first indoor hall in Helsinki was built in 1888. It opened to the public a year later and presented 120 stalls and six shops to the hungry and curious.

Head to Suomenlinna

Suomenlinna in Helsinki

Shaped by three historic eras as it defended Sweden, then Russia and finally Finland, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most unique historic experiences in Finland. With museums, restaurants, events and tours, Suomenlinna is accessible year-round by a short ferry ride from the Market Square.

This might seem like a bit of an effort for anyone who has just a day in Finland, but it is something that Arzo Nayel, the writer and editor of Arzo Travels, wouldn’t hesitate to recommend: If you just have a couple of hours in Helsinki, I definitely recommend visiting Suomenlinna Sea Fortress.

“The island is a beautiful UNESCO heritage site and if you are at the Helsinki waterfront you can just hop on a boat and visit this beautiful island which is full of history.

“Don´t worry - even if you are not interested in history, you will enjoy it. Cafes, lush meadows, beautiful views and these cute “Hobbit“ houses make this place very special and thus, it is my top recommendation for a short Helsinki trip.”

The history of this island dates back to 1747 when the Swedish parliament made the decision to build a fortress and naval base in Helsinki. It later succumbed to the Russians, who, in May 1808 took control of the fortress and all of its ships and equipment. The Fins had to wait until 1918 to get their hands back on it, following their declaration of independence.

But what if it rains in Helsinki?

You are going to have to consider the rain if you are looking to book a Baltic cruise. But you do not have to let it spoil your trip, you merely have to know where to go in Helsinki when it rains. Of course, you have the covered market, but what else can you do?

A rainy day is the perfect opportunity to explore the Uspenski & Lutheran Cathedrals, Church in the Rock, the National Museum of Finland and the Design Museum.

Another rainy-day activity is a visit to the Helsinki Olympic Tower. Standing at 72.71 metres, it is the same distance covered by the javelin that was thrown by Matti Jarvinen that saw him win a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics. Here you can see amazing views of the city, as well as a look at the Sports Museum of Finland.

Try a Korvapuusti

Korvapuusti rolls

There are so many brilliant dishes and foods that you should try while in Helsinki, and Korvapuusti is among the very best. This is Finland’s equivalent to the croissant; a sweet, flaky pastry enjoyed with a coffee.

Translated, Korvapuusti means “slap in the face”, or simply a cinnamon roll. When you only have a few hours in Helsinki, it can be tempting to rush around in order to fit everything in. Well, stop, relax, and sit down in one of the many coffee shops and have a hot Korvapuusti. You won’t regret it.

Where to eat for authentic Finnish cuisine

One of the highlights of any cruise holiday is trying the local cuisine. In Helsinki, you are fortunate enough to have a great array of restaurants and cafes providing both traditional dishes and modern interpretations. Here are a couple of spots to consider:

Olo

Bringing traditional Nordic cuisine into the 21st century is Olo. Situated in the heart of Helsinki, Olo transforms raw materials from the north into gourmet dishes. With a menu that flows with the yearly natural cycle in Scandinavia, you will only taste the freshest, most seasonal ingredients on offer. Holder of a Michelin Star since 2011, you can choose from ‘The Journey’ (a nine-course tasting menu) or ‘a Shorter Way’ (a six-course tasting menu), flaunting a plethora of edible riches.

Café Ekberg

If you are pressed for time and need to satisfy your sweet tooth, then why not visit Finland’s oldest bakery? At Ekberg Café, along the lively Boulevard, you can enjoy tucking into some delicious cakes and pastries or enjoy a Korvapuusti along with a coffee.

What to do in Helsinki

  • Go to a sauna
  • Temppeliaukio Church
  • The Sibelius Monument
  • Senate Square & Helsinki Cathedral
  • Vanha Kauppahalli
  • Head to Suomenlinna
  • Try a Korvapuusti

Helsinki is a city with enough entertainment to keep anyone occupied for weeks. But thanks to the accessibility of the Finnish capital, you can have a really fulfilling time when you only have a day to spend there during your cruise to the Baltics.