25 Nov There and back again: A city guide to Helsinki in a day
Helsinki is a compact, coastal Nordic capital that’s packed with surprising contemporary architecture as well as plenty of heritage. Whilst there’s bucketloads to discover here, it’s possible to get a good feel for this bustling city in just a day (powered by hot chocolate and the Finnish favourite, coffee).
I’ll be honest with you, I suspect Helsinki is probably best visited in the summer. The days are long, warm water laps at its shores and the Finns are keen to stay out and make the most of their beautiful city.
But I’ve never been one to turn down the chance to visit a new country, irrespective of the time of year. So I couldn’t resist the temptation to head across whilst I was in Tallinn last month, and so close to the capital of Finland. It was a chill October day and the ferry crossing had been a little hairy, but we were determined to make the most of this pocket-sized capital city under beautiful blue skies.
Autumn may not be the toastiest time to visit, but if you pull on your thermals and grab a hot chocolate you’ll find Helsinki is still a cosy Scandinavian city with lots to explore. Here’s my guide to packing plenty into just one day.
P.S. You can find out more about our stay in Tallinn, Estonia in A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital. It’s an absolute gem of a Baltic city.
Helsinki in a nutshell: An introduction
The Finnish capital is perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea and has been the administrative and educational centre for this modest nation for over a century. It’s a stones throw (well, a thirty mile stones throw) from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, it’s southern neighbour.
It’s a thriving business centre that’s peppered with contemporary architecture, elegant official buildings and sleek Art Deco apartments that are home to the friendly Finns who call this city home. There’s an abundance of green spaces as well as nautical nods along the waterfront areas. The skyline is low-rise and the centre compact – making it easy to explore on foot.
What not to miss in Helsinki
The churches and cathedrals of Helsinki are the undeniable attention grabbers. The oldest can been seen from the South Harbour the moment you arrive in the city, with their glistening onion domes glittering in the northern light. Their settings set them apart, as well as their colours.
Uspenski cathedral rises to the east of the South Harbour, punctuating the city skyline with its curves and vibrant colours. It’s the city’s only Russian Orthodox cathedral, and a delightfully exciting-looking creation. Perched above a little quayside, you’ll find a couple of enticing restaurants and cafes in the renovated brick warehouses below.
Only a skip and a jump away is Tuomiokirkko, the city’s Lutheran cathedral . Located atop a vast stone staircase that’d give Rocky something to get his teeth into, this cathedral couldn’t be more different. White, angular and somewhat restrained, it looks more like a parliamentary or governmental building than a place of worship, but it’s well worth a look just for the contrast if nothing else.
Historic churches aside, don’t miss the Church in the rock, one of Helsinki’s most delightful and surprising 20th century additions. Carved into a natural slab of granite, it’s a stunning circular building with a glass and copper roof that lets daylight flood in. I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea but I turned out to be very wrong, and I’d challenge anyone not to be impressed by this slice of natural beauty right in the heart of a cosmopolitan city.
Where to wander in Helsinki
If, like us, you arrive in Helsinki on the passenger ferry from Tallinn, you’ll find yourself right in the heart of things from the moment you step off the boat.
The Market Square faces on to the South Harbour and in summer is packed with stalls waiting to welcome visitors and locals. On a brisk October morning, there were a few determined grocers and coffee sellers huddled for warmth under their awnings but for the most part the square was empty – which meant we could enjoy the grand buildings that run along it’s edge. Have a good look around and then take a turn at the Havis Amanda – a huge turn-of-the-century statue of a mermaid (I presume that this is an oddly Scandinavian thing, as its vague reminiscent of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen). You’ll find yourself on Esplanadi, a wide boulevard that links the water with the central shopping area of the city. Strolling up the centre of Esplanadi reminded me of Paris, with pretty glasshouse cafes and neatly ordered tiers of trees lining the road.
Esplanadi takes you straight to the retail heart of Helsinki – the grand Stockmann department store and the scores of upmarket shopping streets that surround it. Hang a right and you’ll find yourself outside the vast Art Deco central rail station that sits slap bang in the centre of things. As grand architectural statements go, the station is one of Helsinki’s finest. Take a look inside at glamorous waiting rooms that’ll take you straight back in time to the heyday of rail travel, and marvel at the extraordinary place names on the departure boards.
The station is flagged by two areas that couldn’t be more different. To the east, there’s a mass of iridescent glass and steel where contemporary new buildings, including the Finlandia concert hall, have sprung up in the last few years. Whilst the construction work hasn’t yet finished, it’s quite a lively, vibrant area to stroll around with green open spaces stretching beyond it that were just out of reach in the short space of time we had. I rather enjoyed the contrast against the elegant old apartment buildings and churches beyond.
Take a wander to the west of the station and you’ll find yourself in the midst of Keskuspuisto Park, a swathe of greenery that runs down to the water. It’s a huge space that we only had time to scratch the surface of, but I’d definitely put aside a good chunk of time to explore if I return.
Lastly, make sure you put some time aside to meander around the little island of Katajanokka (just to the east of Market Square), home to Uspenski cathedral and dozens of pretty brick townhouses and little pockets of greenery. We spotted some great looking bars and eateries we would have investigated if we had more time.
Food and drink in Helsinki
Now, regular readers of this blog might realise that this is somewhat of a reoccurring theme, but I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to explore the market halls of this city (and get a feel for the local food) even if I wasn’t here for long. Fortunately, they didn’t disappoint, and both proved worth of investigation and indulgence.
Hakaniemi Market Hall is where Helsinki locals shop, and is home to butchers, bakers, grocers and every type of food purveyor you could imagine. It’s not so glamorous but it is authentic and packed with high quality produce that’ll set your mouth watering. The hall is about to undergo a major renovation project (winter 2017) that’ll see the current traders move into sleek and modern premises next door for a year whilst the building is renovated to it’s former glory. It’ll be one to watch once the project is complete.
Alternatively, try the Old Market Hall on the waterfront for more of a gourmet experience. Another beautiful brick building, this market has been restored to it’s former glory and is home to upmarket delicatessens, coffee shops and little restaurants. It manages to be charming and approachable in spite of the slightly eye-watering prices – but you’ll still be able to pick up a hot chocolate and cinnamon bun from Roberts Coffee and have change from a €10 note. It’s worth stopping in here just to admire the architecture and marvel at the old photographs on the wall.
We managed to do my favourite thing at lunchtime in Helsinki – genuinely stumble across a really great little cafe we’d not researched in advance. The slightly curiously-named and delightfully unassuming Espresso Edge is a gem of a place, tucked away mostly below street level. Cosy, fragrant with coffee and brimming with homemade food, it was everything I was hoping for. Plus, they have giant pickles. I’m not really sure why, but they were tasty.
We went for the lunchtime soup and sandwich combo (they pick the soup, you pick the sandwich), with a warming coffee on the side, and I can’t recommend it enough if you find yourself near Keskuspuisto Park. In a country that has somewhat of a reputation for being on the pricey side, this deliciousness set us back just €10 each, which I thought was rather good value for money.
So there you have it, a pocket-sized guide to a pocket-sized city. We might not have picked a time of year to see Helsinki at its best, but it still tried its hardest to charm us – and it succeeded. For architecture lovers there’s a lot to fall in love with, and there’s a vibrant food scene to get your teeth into.
We might not have had the time to try all that Helsinki has to offer (I’d still like to explore Suomenlinnan, the huge sea fortress at the entrance to the city’s harbour) but what we did do told us we’d be happy to go back. It’s also a fantastic contrast to the fairytale turrets, hip coffee shops and breweries of Tallinn – a contrast that strangely helped me to love both a little more.
Have you ever been to Helsinki? And better still, do you have any tips in case I make a return visit?
The practical bit: Helsinki
You’ll be pleased to know that Helsinki is both easy to get to and easy to get around.
Getting there from Tallinn
There’s two ways to reach Helsinki from Tallinn. The first is on the fast foot passenger-only ferry route operated by Linda Lines Express to Helsinki’s South Harbour. The second is to travel as a foot passenger on the Silja Lines Tallink car ferry that departs from a slightly different terminal another 5-10 minutes walk away in Tallinn, and travels to the West Harbour on arrival.
Here’s the interesting bit. The Express route is slightly quicker (one hour and 40 minutes) and in theory ideal for day trips. However, if like us you’re travelling out of season, it’s a less reliable service as the smaller boats are easily put out of action by a few breakers out at sea. We happily made our way to Helsinki only to find that all return crossings for the rest of the day had been cancelled due to impending high winds. It wasn’t ideal.
It transpires that this happens relatively often, and so the staff were extremely helpful in offering us a refund on our return crossing and letting us know which other ferry companies would be running routes to Tallinn later that day. What we learned – big boats can handle waves, so big boats run all the time, all year. And so for an extra 20 minutes crossing time, and potentially a few more Euros (depending on your crossing and how far ahead you book), it might just be worth opting for Tallink instead.
As a happy aside, travelling on the car ferry meant travelling through the, dare I say it, more glamorous new travel terminal in Helsinki’s West Harbour. It’s also a much livelier boat with an eccentric supermarket (tinned bear anyone?) and a selection of restaurants, cafes and bars that help to pass the time pretty well. If I had to choose again, I’d most definitely opt for this boat.
Getting around Helsinki
Helsinki is a very walkable city. Less than 20 minutes strolling will take you from the waterside to the Central Station, and most places of interest aren’t much more than 15-20 minutes from either of these. For longer journeys, to escape inclement weather or to put your feet up for a moment – take a tram. These seem to run absolutely everywhere in the city, connecting all the transport hubs and residential districts. Tickets cost €2,50 (or pick up a day travelcard for €8) and can be picked up from machines at most tram stops. We found the tram was the easiest way to get down to the West Harbour.