Helsinki Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Helsinki, the capital of Finland is a beautiful seaside city that offers plenty to see and do. Famous for its young and vibrant culture, and regarded as the party capital of Scandinavia, Helsinki holds many gems for travelers willing to make the trip north from the popular European tourist destinations.
Helsinki Travel Guide
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Temppeliaukio Kirkko is a very odd yet intriguing building. Designed in the 1960s, the church was built into solid rock. Its walls are granite and topped off with a hole in the rock that is covered by a metallic dome ceiling with more than 180 glass pieces. The glass was used to brighten the church via natural light coming through from above. A great spot for musical events, the church also has great acoustics.

Tuomkirkko is Helsinki’s cathedral and one of the greatest structures of architectural design in Helsinki. The neo-Classical style cathedral was built between 1830 and the early 1850s. The cathedral seats up to 1,300 and has zinc statues of the Apostles on the roof. The statues are the biggest zinc statues in the world. Visit here for a change in perspective on the religious architecture of Scandinavia.

The Suomenlinna sea fortress was built during the 1740s to protect Helsinki from regular attacks by Russia that hindered the city’s development. The Suomenlinna fortress was built on a group of 6 islands outside the harbor of the city. One of the largest sea fortresses in the world, Suomenlinna can be visited by boat and offers an array of museums, gardens, parks, cafes and restaurants to enjoy.

Esplanadi is a waterfront promenade that feels more Parisian than Finnish. To feel its full effect, grab a table at a café on the esplanade and indulge in some hot chocolate and a decadent pastry. This street and its park are best enjoyed during the summer when the sun is out and the trees have foliage.

The Sibelius Monument is a striking sculpture of the face of Finland’s most famous composer, along with 600 pipes that are arranged to resemble a giant organ. The Monument is situated in Sibelius Park.

Kauppatori is the market square located next to the Baltic Sea. Its surrounding harbor is one of Helsinki’s epicenters of commerce and life, and a veritable city landmark as a whole. This is where locals gather for the best produce, including fresh fish and Finnish specialties such as reindeer meat. Visitors can also shop for handmade jewelry, clothing and souvenirs from the waterside quays.

The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is a sanctuary of quietude in the midst of the lively urban life of Helsinki. This 300 meter square space is calm and warm, offering a fine retreat for visitors. Its thick wooden walls are made from Nordic spruce and designed to enhance the depth of silence within the church. The church features wooden benches and a fascinating altar that holds a thin metal cross and bowl.

A city of open spaces, green parks, historical buildings, fine architecture and many beautiful islands, linked by a maze of bridges, Helsinki makes for a perfect summertime retreat or a great weekend getaway. Helsinki is one of those international cities with a distinct and charming atmosphere, a metropolis with a particular finesse that makes it like no other place on earth.

1. Uspenskin Katedraali

The square towards the eastern end of Aleksanterinkatu in Helsinki is overlooked by the onion domes of the Uspenskin Katedraali, Helsinki’s Russian orthodox cathedral. Set upon a hillside on the Katajanokka peninsula that overlooks south harbor and the city, Uspenskin Katedraali is an eastern orthodox cathedral that is dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary.

A stunning example of Byzantine architecture, Uspenskin is the main cathedral of the Finnish Orthodox Church and is said to be the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe, although Finland is typically included in the Northern Europe region.

The cathedral was built in the Russian Byzantine style between 1862 and 1868, inspired by an older church constructed near Moscow during the 16th century. The bricks used were taken from a fortress that was destroyed during the 1854 Crimean War. The dome is supported by 4 monolithic granite pillars. In total, this cathedral has thirteen golden onions that represent the Christ and his 12 Apostles.

The church interior is beautiful and ornate. Inside the cathedral you will find a glitzy display of religious icons. At the back of the cathedral is a plaque in commemoration of Alexander II, the Russian emperor who was the Grand Duchy of Finland’s sovereign during the construction of the cathedral.

At the time of the cathedral’s construction, Finland was part of the Russian empire, and the architect who designed the church passed away before seeing his vision come to life.

Take a stroll beyond the cathedral to Katajanokka, a strip of land that extends between the harbors, and which boasts splendid Art Nouveau architecture. This is one of the most atmospheric places to take a walk around the city.

2. Temppeliaukio Kirkko

Situated in the Toolo neighborhood at the center of Helsinki, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko is a subterranean house of worship carved right out of natural bedrock, with the interior walls naturally created from the rock. Topped with a copper dome, the church resembles a half-buried spaceship from the outside.

Built between 1968 and 1969, Temppeliaukio Kirkko is a modern Lutheran church carved into the rock outcrops below. The church features a stunning 24 meter diameter roof that is covered in 22 kilometers of copper stripping. The sun shines in from above, illuminating its stunning interior of cavernous walls, birch pews and a modern pipe organ.

On all sides of the circular church are roughly hewn stone through which the rain water sometimes seeps, creating miniature waterfalls inside. A dome coated in copper covers the rock church, while a skylight is open in a belt below it to make the dome appear as if it is hovering. Natural light brightens the interiors as it streams in through 180 glass panes that connect the dome and the walls.

Despite its cave-like appearance, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko boasts marvelous acoustics, with the sound bouncing beautifully off the craggy stone. Due to the excellent acoustics resulting from the raw rock interior walls, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko is a popular venue for holding concerts. Further below the church is a Cold War-era air raid shelter that today serves as a parking lot.

The Temppeliaukio Kirkko church has a low-rise format and eco-sensitive design. The architects who designed the church were inspired by the shape of the Helsinki archipelago, and thereby selected a rocky outcrop that rises some 40 feet above street level for its location.

3. Kamppi Chapel of Silence

Scandinavian countries are renowned for minimalist and modern architecture and design, with designers incorporating generous amounts of natural wood materials into their designs. Helsinki’s Kamppi Chapel of Silence represents this pure Scandinavian design.

The Kamppi Chapel of Silence features a circular wooden structure that makes a bold architectural statement in one of the busiest areas of Helsinki. Constructed out of Finnish timber, the design shows sensibility in its use of local materials.

Opened in 2012, the chapel is a demonstration of how contemporary architecture at its best can inspire and fascinate people. The innovative design of this silent room has won the chapel several awards.

After walking around in Helsinki, you may be a little tired. But once you enter the Kamppi Chapel, you will feel instantly relaxed. The church is called the “Chapel of Silence” because once inside you are instructed to be silent and calm. The ultra modern chapel creates a tiny slice of heavenly silence in the midst of a sea of noise from a hectic Finnish shopping center.

A place for meditation with its plain minimalist form, visitors can go here for some calm reflection and introspection. The chapel has a large modern room with the energy of a meditation room in which you could easily spend hours. The alien-looking church offers much needed silence amid Helsinki’s bustle.

The chapel provides a place for quiet reflection amid one of the liveliest urban spaces of Finland. With its façade of curved wood, this little building flows well into the cityscape. At the same time, the interior space of the chapel has a gentle shape that embraces the visitor, shielding them from the bustle of the outside city life.

The round structure is singularly devoted to offering some peace and quiet, therefore no holy events are held here with the exception of prayer meetings. The entire space was designed to be calming, from its round walls to the spacious, high ceiling. The effect is so comforting; it’s almost womb-like.

The sacral space is calm, making the bustling neighborhood appear distant. Light touches down on its curved surface, while the feel of warm materials is what defines this space.

The inner walls of the chapel are constructed out of thick oiled planks of alder. The rest of the furniture is made out of solid wood. The facades are constructed from sawn horizontal finger jointed planks of spruce wood treated in pigmented transparent wax.

The interior décor has been kept spare with the natural warmth of the smooth wooden walls left clean and unadorned. The only objects inside this space are the futuristic altar, a simple candelabra and rows of basic, block-like pews. The chapel has no side windows. Instead, light falls in from above through an oval gap around the ceiling to create a sense of calm.

4. Taideteollisuusmuseo

Taideteollisuusmuseo is Finland’s national design and industrial art museum. A design-lover’s dream that specializes in design and craft arts, not only is the institution the first design museum of Scandinavia, but it is also one of the world’s oldest design museums.

Situated at Korkeavuorenkatu in the center of Helsinki, the museum was founded in 1873 as a museum specializing in design. Its collections include a broad spectrum of industrial design objects, arts and crafts, with over 75,000 objects that date from the 19th century to the present day, including more than 40,000 drawings and drafts, and about 100,000 images.

There is a permanent exhibition here that displays Finnish applied art and design from the 19th century to the present day, alongside temporary exhibitions on selected design themes. Every year, the museum hosts a number of temporary exhibitions on themes that range from the history of design to presentations of recent phenomena and designers.

The building that houses the design museum was built in 1894 and the museum moved here in 1978. The ground floor houses the permanent exhibition that’s dedicated to the history and development of design in Finland. Two upper floors hold temporary exhibitions that represent the most distinct and important trends in contemporary design.

Inside the Classical façade of the imposing structure is a modern museum that is quite funky. Downstairs is a craft room that invites you to draw illustrations using crayons to add to its gallery. Throughout the exhibits, the walls have reminders of which hash tags to use on social media along with a host of interesting messages. You will see surreal outfits in the Finnish fashion exhibits.

The museum has a shop that features a broad range of Finnish and international design. The design museum shop carries classic Finnish design, as well as new items by young and emerging designers. Here you will find posters, postcards and other exhibition related items that complete the product selection. The shop also stocks an extensive range of international and Finnish design literature.

5. Suomenlinnan Lelumuseo

Established in 1985, the Suomenlinnan Lelumuseo is a tiny beautiful toy museum that sells genuine teddy bears, dolls and other souvenirs and postcards. The museum is housed inside a powder-colored wooden villa in Suomenlinna.

The toy museum presents old toys, the oldest of which date from the beginning of the 19th century. The private collection includes hundreds of old dolls, about 100 antique teddy bears, and other toys that are rich in history. The newest toys found here are from the 1960s. The toys in this collection are from Finland and therefore reflect the Finnish game tradition and culture.

The cozy private museum also has a shop that sells nostalgic souvenirs in the form of childish, happy and romantic items suited to the adult taste. The toy museum’s own production is represented in the form of postcards. Teddy Bear collectors can purchase high quality teddy bears here.

There’s a café that offers homemade delicacies baked on site. Be sure to try the Tahmatassu Chocolate Cake or the Commander Kovanko’s Apple Pie with Vanilla Sauce for which the toy museum is famous. There is also a wide selection of teas, special coffees and good old hot chocolate with whipped cream to enjoy. The charming little café has an outdoor terrace from which you can watch the ships sail by.

With regards to accessibility, there are some steps at the entrance and a wooden ramp can be erected to allow assisted entrance with a wheelchair. The inside of the museum is relatively wheelchair accessible. The premises are on one floor and the exhibition space has been equipped with seats on which you can sit and rest. One of the museum toilets is spacious enough to accommodate a wheelchair.

6. Sibeliuksen Puisto

The Sibeliuksen Puisto is a park that was designed to honor Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), the world famous Finnish composer. The park grounds are not manicured but maintained in a somewhat natural state. Old birch trees shade the park benches while rocky outcrops divide the landscape. The park was designed to reflect Finland’s rugged natural beauty, as inspired by Finlandia, Sibelius’ work.

At one side of the park is a monument to Finland’s most famous composer. Unveiled in 1967, the monument was designed by Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen and resembles organ pipes made from welded steel with a bust of the composer on one side. The monument is 8.5m high, 10.5m wide and 6.5m deep. It weighs 24 tons. The monument is easy to spot among the trees in the Sibeliuksen Puisto.

This abstract monument resembles a sound wave comprising of a cluster of organ pipes. The monument comprises of more than 600 steel pipes grouped unevenly together at varying heights, with the highest rising more than 27 feet into the sky.

The jagged monumental sculpture is a tribute to the composer, a genius whose music is believed to embody the soul of Finland. The composer is particularly famous for his set of 7 symphonies, the last of which was completed in 1920. In the artwork, Sibelius is depicted at the peak of his powers and career. The majesty of this work is a fitting homage to the artist.

The monument was erected to embody the spirit of the music of Sibelius. However, its abstract form caused numerous critics to say that it didn’t honor the composer directly. As such, a big bust of Sibelius was added to the base of the monument such that viewers would not be confused.

The monument glitters in the warm rays of the Helsinki sun, as the trees in the surrounding park reflect off the different lengths of the silvery pipes. The organ pipes were intended to give a sense of the composer’s prodigious musical achievements through a memorable and striking sculpture.

The choice of material was fortunate as almost four decades after it’s unveiling, the monument has shown no signs of aging, corrosion or stress. Its silvery pipes reflect the changing seasons and light, while echoing bird songs, sighing in the sea breeze and furiously resonating in a storm.

The piece is made unique by its special diversity, in that it permits the viewer to enter it, which serves to enhance the echoes and sounds generated by the structure. Viewed from further away, the form blends in with the rugged rocks and woods. All in all, the monument offers a visual expression of how the music of Sibelius depicts nature.

Photographers can walk around and under the pipes and view the holes from beneath, or capture the monument’s beauty from every corner. Don’t be afraid to stoop, lean and lay down to get your perfect angle when photographing this odd monument.

Adjacent to these organ pipes is the silvery head of Sibelius that’s set in stone with 2 artistic splashes of silver next to it. The visage of Sibelius is striking as it glistens in the sun. In the shaping of Sibelius face, the sculptor chose to depict him in his creative age, and not as the familiar elderly man and national icon the Finnish people were used to.

Also worth a visit is the cemetery nearby which neighbors the Sibelius Park and serves as the final resting place of some famous Finns. These graves are nestled peacefully within a tranquil peninsula that’s filled with trees. Bands of small squirrels dance across these graves as they chase food morsels fallen from the trees above.

Over the decades, Sibelius Park has been the venue of numerous special events, although the artist has sought to protect the original nature of the site, resisting any form of commercialization.

The Sibelius Monument became the greatest artistic achievement for Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen. Regarded as one of Finland’s most remarkable memorials, the position of Hiltunen’s piece in Finnish sculptural art remains truly iconic.

7. Kauppatori

Helsinki’s most famous and international market, Kauppatori is a central square in Finland, and one of Helsinki’s most famous market places. The market offers great food, excellent views and an outstanding atmosphere. Since the 18th century, locals and visitors have gathered at Kauppatori to enjoy the sea air and fine food. They have traded goods and swapped stories.

Situated on the shoreline at the eastern end of Esplanadi, Kauppatori is bustling with activity from spring to autumn as vendors sell fresh Finnish food and souvenirs. There are also numerous outdoor cafes at the square. Along the esplanade are more historical buildings, restaurants and shops.

But there’s so much more than just excellent food at this main city market. Tourists in search of souvenirs will find plenty to browse here. Whatever your taste, there is literally something for everyone at Kauppatori.

Kauppatori is the venue at which locals come to find a fresh and cheap lunch of freshly caught salmon, tasty berries, delicious reindeer salami and local mushrooms. Some of the best foods in Helsinki can be found at Kauppatori. Baked goods are just a few of the items sold here on a daily basis, and these include Finnish donuts and meat pastries.

Kauppatori hosts Helsinki’s famous open-air market with great shopping opportunities. The booths here sell everything from traditional dishes and snacks to handicrafts and souvenirs. The area is a unique mix of farmers’ market, flea market and craft show.

The booths are swathed with cheerful orange-colored fabric, with each offering something different. The bright orange cloth-covered stalls offer a much needed pick-me-up during winter and sheer delight under the gentle summer sun of Helsinki.

A windfall of vibrant vegetables and other produce are welcomed each day into crates and baskets. The season’s most stunning flowers overflow in their pots, while local artisans showcase their talents, making it a suitable spot for visitors to pick up original gifts.

The outrageously fresh ingredients before you are great for planning a picnic or making a week’s worth of meals if you have the time. Do not leave Helsinki without tasting the local bounty at Kauppatori, the rainbow of produce will win you over. You are guaranteed to dream about it once you leave.

Helsinki’s old market hall is situated beside the market square and hosts some 30 specialty shops that offer sweets, cheeses, seafood and coffee beans. A great souvenir idea would be to choose something from the wide range of tinned foods available for sale here.

Shoppers can also purchase fresh bread, fish, meat, vegetables and great tasting berries from the old market hall. Or you could just go for a tasty lunch of reindeer salami a bit of coffee or breakfast munkki, a type of Finnish donut. This is a popular meeting spot for Helsinki’s food aficionados.

During the summer months, it’s pleasant to sit at one of the outdoor cafés taking in the sun. But even in the middle of winter, hot drinks are available everywhere. There is a heated café tent in which you can sit comfortably and sip some steaming hot coffee on the coldest winter day.

Kauppatori is situated right by the sea and thanks to its central location; it is the site of numerous festivals including the Helsinki Herring Festival and Vappu, the Finnish Walpurgis Night. On the first Friday of every month the square has a tradition of displaying old American cars. But the height of Kauppatori’s popularity comes in early October when the annual Helsinki herring market begins.

Tourists who wish to purchase a classic keepsake or unique souvenir item will find numerous options at Kauppatori. Skilled artisans peddle their works at the numerous stalls, while others overflow with custom jewelry. Souvenir hunters can find hats, gloves, knitted sweaters, and lots of carved kitchenware.

8. Suomenlinna Fortress

The Finnish castle began as a fortress built by the Swedes in 1748 in their war against Russia to serve as a stronghold. In 1808, the Russians took the fortress over and modified it with their own constructions. The government of Finland took the castle over in 1918.

Situated on the islands off the southern coast of Helsinki, Suomenlinna castle is a sea fortress that served as a base for the archipelago fleet and was built when Finland was a part of the Swedish kingdom.

The fortress has scary tunnels that are very dark so be sure to bring a flashlight with you to explore them. The tunnels were used during the Russo-Swedish war. The castle gates are made of strong stone, and inside are open-air museums with nice documentaries of the island’s history.

Along with the King’s Gate, the cannons of Suomenlinna are its most famous symbol. Cannons from the Russian era can still be seen on the sandbanks.

You can only access the castle by ferry. The relaxing 30 minute ferry ride offers magnificent views of Helsinki, as well as the stretching seas. The ferry will make stops at specific spots to enable tourists to take pictures and enjoy the stunning views of the surroundings.

The surrounding areas also offer some attractions. Built in 1854, the Suomenlinna Church is exceptional in that it also serves as a lighthouse for sea and air traffic, a function that’s shared by only 2 other churches in Finland. There are also outdoor theaters, and a small isolated village with trendy restaurants that offer local cuisines.

Different parts of the 6 islands offer various atmospheres. Whether you seek a cheerful weekend with friends, a tranquil evening jog or stroll, the diverse locations and routes across the islands make all this possible.

Escape the bustle of the city into a park-like environment with an ocean view. Buy a picnic lunch at the Kauppatori market square as you wait for the ferry to depart. There are also a number of restaurants and cafés on Suomenlinna.

During the summer when the nights are warm, it is possible to stay on Suomenlinna until late at night. The last ferry of the day departs from Suomenlinna at 2 o’clock in the morning.

9. Esplanadi

A promenade for tourists and a spot to relax for city residents, Esplanadi is situated at the very heart of Helsinki. Esplanadi is a wide tree-lined boulevard set across a mishmash of tramlines from the harbor. Its lively green space begins from the harbor onto the Swedish Theater. There are a number of coffee shops and a beautiful park which is always full of people during the summer months.

Planned during the 1820s, the park’s central alley is planted with old limes. Many of the trees you will see have been growing here since the 1840s. Just taking a look at the beautiful old trees will tell you the age of the park and so much more.

Regarded as one of the most beautiful places in Helsinki, Esplanadi is an attractive street on which taking a walk is a great pleasure. It’s also a splendid place during the warmer months where you can sit outside with a glass of wine and watch city life go by.

This is a popular place for rest or taking a walk among tourists and locals of Helsinki. During the day, Finns and tourists gather for picnics on the grass, and at night, the area sparkles with lights from the bars and cafes that line the park. The park also hosts popular events and celebrations including the Marimekko Fashion Show every June, a midsummer event which features folk music and dancing.

Helsinki at its most charming, Esplanadi is one of the country’s most important landmarks, a place where culture and history mix in a fabulous combination that makes visitors feel isolated from the rest of the world. Take a stroll on the Esplanadi, a grassy park and cobblestone walkways bordered by 2 avenues at the heart of the city.

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Esplanadi is also remarkable for its diverse monuments. Some notable ones include the monument to Finnish poet Johan Ludwig Runeberg from 1885, which features a female Muse holding a scroll with the Finnish national anthem in her hand. Another monument worth a peek is that dedicated to Eino Leino, a famous poet and journalist. Also check out the Tale and Truth sculptural group, a monument to Saharias Topelius, a prominent Finnish tale-writer.

Another point of interest at the center of Esplanadi Park is the Kapelli Café Brasserie which was originally built in 1837 and functioned as a rendezvous for artists and “high society gentlemen.” The restaurant with terrace was built in 1867. Opposite the restaurant is the Espa Summer Theater whose open stage hosts various events every day in summer.

A place of constant tranquility, Esplanadi resembles a safe haven where you can be at peace with your thoughts. In the early morning, the park is fresh and decorated with singing birds that provide live free concerts to all who visit. In the evening, a soft breeze blows through the park enabling you to have the entire boulevard all to yourself.

Visit here to relax and have an ice-cream away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the live performances of street musicians who play a variety of instruments.

Or head over to the Espa Summer Theater at which a whole new world of art will open right in front of you. Everything here is so cultural and wonderful. The Theater hosts a number of summer performances and shows to fill you evenings with joy.

10. Tuomiokirkko

During the early years of the 19th century, Finland was held by Russia as a Grand Duchy. And as such, much of the architecture of Helsinki traces its beginnings to St. Petersburg. Nowhere is this more evident than in the architectural design of the Tuomiokirkko.

Tuomiokirkko is the beautiful and historically significant Helsinki cathedral, a Lutheran church that is a famous symbol of the city. Set high atop a hill in Senate Square, the church boasts a neo-Classical edifice, a Classical dome and Corinthian columns that are the very prototype of numerous buildings around the world.

Designed during the 19th century as part of the Empire-style of downtown Helsinki, the cathedral served as a landmark for those arriving by sea. The church is today actively used as a place of worship, as well as a concert hall. At Christmas, a children’s choir sings at the church.

The Tuomiokirkko church was built between the years 1830 and 1852 to replace an earlier church dating from 1727. Formerly known as St. Nicholas Church, Tuomiokirkko became a cathedral in 1959. The seating capacity of the church is 1300.

The church building has a Greek cruciform shape, taking on the plan of a cross with equal length arms. The Greek domes give a beautiful cap to the white Greek-style façade of the building. The effect is made even better as the church is situated at the peak of a small hill in the city. This hill is surmounted by 50 brown brick steps that offer great views as well as add a wonderful color base to the structure.

Tuomiokirkko also features an original neo-Classical design that was altered by adding 4 small towers and 2 side buildings, of which one is a chapel and the other is a belfry. The façade was constructed out of neo-Classical pilasters, while the exterior walls are decorated in reliefs that depict the life of the Christ. The belfry inside one of the towers makes for a great short side-excursion while viewing the interior.

The cathedral’s central dome is supported by corner pillars and rises to a height of 80 meters above sea level. Natural light falls into its interiors from numerous directions. On the roof are statues of the Apostles constructed out of zinc, which comprise the biggest and most unique set of zinc sculptures in the world. The 3 meter tall sculptures are found in the gables above the pillars.

The altarpiece was painted during the 1880s. There are statues of angels on both sides of the pulpit and altarpiece. The pulpit features decorative sculptures of Swedish origin, while its wooden surface is covered with plaster and painted to mimic marble.

The interior of the Tuomiokirkko has been renovated extensively in recent years, making it well worth a visit as well. One section that received the most renovation is the Crypt, which is also the most interesting aspect of the interior. In stark contrast to the austere, bright white décor of the rest of the church’s interior, the Crypt is a low-lit resting place that offers a peaceful albeit eerie ambience. The Crypt serves as a venue for concerts and exhibitions.

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