Visiting Helsinki – A City Guide
Helsinki is a vibrant waterfront capital ringed by islands. Ice covers the sea in winter, while in summer the city basks in almost constant daylight. But life here isn’t all about seasons. Helsinki is also a youthful metropolis with a cutting-edge design scene and a deserved reputation for culinary excellence.
Helsinki: city layout
Helsinki is built on water. The city centre sits on a narrow peninsula surrounded by islands, and you’re never far from the sea. You can visit the islands thanks to an efficient network of ferries that run day and night. Many mainland sights are south of the main station, around Senate Square. West of the centre in Ruoholahti is the international ferry port, with connections to Estonia. The districts south of the centre are more residential, but also home to several parks and beaches. Areas north of the centre are more business-oriented.
What to see in Helsinki
Start a tour of Helsinki’s historic centre at Senate Square, which is ringed by grand neoclassical buildings including Helsinki Cathedral, the Senate, the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland. Don’t miss the Sederholm House, the oldest stone building in the city, in the southeast corner. The nearby Esplanade Park is the city’s green heart. At the east end of the park, in South Harbour, you can visit the stalls on Market Square, which sell traditional Finnish foods and treats, as well as handicrafts and souvenirs.
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Hotels in Helsinki
Helsinki offers a wide range of accommodation choices to suit all tastes and budgets, from luxury to shoestring. You can stay in large modern hotels oriented towards the needs of business travellers, or pick from short-stay apartments and design hotels that are perfect for a leisurely city break.
You’ll find most hotels in the city centre, south of the station and west of Senate Square. The bulk of the shops and many restaurants and sights are also here. The centre becomes quieter as you move west and south. Staying in a western suburb such as Ruoholahti leaves you close to several businesses and the international ferry terminal, and within a short tram or metro ride of the centre. North of the centre, the Pasila business district is convenient for visitors to Helsinki’s Convention Centre. You can also opt to stay out of the city, close to Vantaa Airport.
Eating Out in Helsinki
Helsinki’s restaurants have gained an international reputation by focusing on local ingredients such as wild berries (lingonberries and cloudberries) and fish (particularly salmon and herring). Influence from Lapland has popularised game such as elk and reindeer. To try local food, look for the “Helsinki Menu” fork logo in restaurant windows.
You’ll find a high concentration of upmarket and mid-range restaurants on the streets around Esplanade Park. For simpler fare head to Helsinki’s indoor market halls, where restaurant stalls sell traditional specialities. It’s a great way to discover local food culture at reasonable prices. In summer, the temporary outdoor eateries on Market Square are hugely popular with al fresco diners, while other stalls overflow with fresh strawberries and peas in their pods – two delicious, healthy seasonal snacks. You can also taste the catch of the day almost as soon as it is unloaded at the adjacent harbour.
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Shopping in Helsinki
Helsinki is a hotbed of modern Nordic design, which emphasises beauty, minimalism and functionality. You’ll find hundreds of small boutiques and designer stores in the city. For more down-to-earth bargains, there are also dozens of flea markets and antique stores. Finnish people rarely haggle over prices, even in markets.
Most high-street stores in the city centre are southwest of the main station. You may want to check out the flagship site of the Stockmann department store chain, or the Forum shopping centre, home to 120 outlets. Esplanadi Street is lined with designer boutiques, while Market Square is filled with food stalls. To discover where Helsinki is at in terms of cutting-edge fashions, accessories and other goods, head southwest of the centre to Design District Helsinki, an area of 25 streets with over 200 designer goods stores and art showrooms.
Top markets in Helsinki
Culture & Nightlife in Helsinki
Helsinki is bursting with galleries and cultural attractions, including the Helsinki City Museum’s several sites, which are all free to enter. After dark you’ll find a vast range of clubs and bars that offer something for everyone, no matter you’re looking for in terms of atmosphere and price.
For high culture, you might want to take in a concert at Finlandia Hall, home to the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. The bulk of the city’s bars and clubs are in the central area, around the main station and to the south and west of there. You’ll find another cluster of trendy bars, and pubs with a more local feel, in the former working-class district of Kallio, just north of the centre. This up-and-coming area is popular with students and young professionals alike, and the focus of the nightlife here is along the main street, Hämeentie.
Best museums in Helsinki
Visiting Helsinki with a Family
Helsinki offers a variety of activities and attractions to keep children of all ages entertained. The city is home to a large number of parks for little ones to let off steam, and there even beaches where everyone can make a splash in the Baltic when the weather is warmer.
Give your children an insight into Finnish folk history by heading north of the city centre to Seurasaari Open-Air Museum. You can explore traditional homes and buildings that were transferred here from all across the country, while guides dressed in national costumes regale you with colourful tales of the past. If you want to head out onto the water, take a ferry out to the sea fortress of Suomenlinna, which was built on several small interlinked islands near the city centre. When you’re done exploring and need a refreshing break there are also several child-friendly cafés here.
Best family attractions in Helsinki