Helsinki the Hidden Gem of Scandinavia

Sitting on the Steps with Helsinki Cathedral in the background.

Helsinki is off the beat track when it comes to the normal “Scandinavian tourist trail”. Most people traveling to Scandinavia head to Copenhagen, the Fjords of Norway, and Stockholm, and seem to skip over Helsinki.

To be honest I have never been so pleasantly surprised by a country and city, such as Helsinki. I used to be a travel snob. Wondering why people would go to certain destinations over more popular destinations such as Italy, or Spain.

I would meet people that would go to a city like Helsinki and simply wonder why? I used to search for the party city and a place where things were happening 24/7. Whereas in Helsinki I found a sense of calm relaxation that often escapes many of us on vacation. In my mind, Finland wasn’t a place people ever vacationed to and I waited a long time before I visited.

Sarah Fay on a ferry to Suemenlinna with Helsinki in the background.

I made the excuse it was too expensive to visit. Afterall, Finland also is the second most expensive country in the European Union, so you have to work really hard to fit it in on a backpacker budget! So, I didn’t bother.

Boy was I a fool back then.

Historic, quaint, with green space galore, and set along the waterfront, Helsinki is aesthetically pleasing and allows you to get away from the throngs of tourists that overrun much of Europe.

Coffee and Cinnamon Rolls or ‘korvapuusti‘ in Finnish!!!!

Did you know the Finns are the largest consumers of coffee in the world?

If you want good Coffee go to Finland! They know how to do coffee right. Actually, all of Scandinavia does. I loved the tradition of going for coffee and cinnamon rolls not because of my sweet tooth, but because the Finns know how to take time out of their day in order to relax and take time for themselves.

I am a coffee snob and I loved every coffee shop that I walked into in Helsinki. Some of my favorites:

  • Café Regata, basically it is a café that makes you think Christmas year-round. The coffee is local, the baked goods are delicious and the café is perfect for getting out of the city into nature. In the summer they offer canoe rentals, while in the winter you can go ice-skating and curl up next to a bonfire to watch the sunset.
  • Karl Frazer Café is amazing! It is not to be missed, as it is one of the largest corporations of the Finnish food industry- making some of the BEST chocolate in the world! They have the swankiest café with great deserts, coffee, and food if you want a light lunch. I literally brought bags of chocolate back home with me. I have only one bar left with me sitting in the fridge in Florida and I am savoring it, along with all my Helsinki memories.

Places to visit in Helsinki:

Explore the City of Design  

Helsinki is less about sightseeing, and more about experiences you have roaming around the streets and surroundings. There is not a particular highlight where tourists flock to in droves, like the Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace. But that is the charm of Helsinki.

With a local guide as provided by Free Tour Helsinki, you can get to see the main sites by foot and get a local’s perspective. Or for a price that won’t break the bank you could have a personal tour with a local tour guide.

Scandinavian Design at Helsinki University Library
Scandinavian Design at Helsinki University Library

Some Architectural Gems and Finnish Designers:

  • Senate Square/ Helsinki Cathedral- The lifetime work of Architect Carl Ludvig Engel surrounds Senate Square in Old Town Helsinki. A German Architect came at the request of the Tsar of Russia in the 1800s to design a city that would assert Russian power in Finland. While Carl died before the crown piece of his work was completed, he left a lasting footprint on Helsinki with his buildings.

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"You have to fight through some bad days to earn the best days of your life" #qotd … I am working hard to make my dreams a reality. This quote hit home for me. Here is to making my dreams a reality! 🇫🇮🇫🇮🇫🇮 📍Helsinki Cathedral is a common symbol of Helsinki and was actually the crown piece of Senate Square that was all designed by one architect- Carl Ludvig Engel, a Berlin architect. He came to Helsinki in the 1800s at the request of the Tsar of Russia to design a city that would establish Russian power in Finland. He lied to his wife saying he would move back after he finished a few buildings, but never left Helsinki. He also didn't live to see this building finnished. 😂 I am sure Engel didn't let the bad days get to him to create such wonderful works of Neoclassical architecture. … Double tap and show ❤️ if you agree with this quote! #travelsofsarahfay #myhelsinki #VisitFinland #helsinkicathedral

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  • Uspenski Cathedral- The perfect symbol of East meeting Western Europe is the largest Orthodox Church in Europe on one of the hills in Helsinki. Built in the 1860s in Byzantine Revival style it serves a reminder of the Russian influence in Finnish society over the centuries.

    Uspenski Cathedral, where East meets West. The largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe.
    Uspenski Cathedral, where East meets West. The largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe.
  • The Central Train Station– After arriving on a train from the airport, I knew there was something special about the train station in Helsinki. The pearl of the cities Art Nouveau buildings, it is Finland’s most visited building with 200,000 commuting daily. It is covered with Finnish Granite and features a giant clock tower and the pair of statues the “Lantern Carriers” by Emil Wikstrom.

    Central Train Station Helsinki the most visited building in Finland.
    Central Train Station Helsinki the most visited building in Finland.
  • Temppeliaukio Rock Cathedral- A church excavated into natural rock formations, yes please! Completed in 1969 it serves as an architectural wonder, place of worship, and great recitals since the acoustics are out of this world."<yoastmark
  • Löyly Sauna- Sarah Likes Saunas by the Seashore. Well I actually love Saunas now after traveling Scandinavia and the Baltics. I go everyday to the one at my gym. But this maybe the most beautifully designed sauna in the world. Do it the Finnish way. Hop into the Sauna, and then hop into the seaside sea pool! It is freezing no matter what time of the year you do it…. So just DO IT! If you do not want to go at it alone there is a tour so you can go in a group, 
Helsinki Port, Löyly Sauna and waterfront
Helsinki Port, Löyly Sauna and waterfront
  • Lasipalatsi- “Glass Palace” offers food, shopping, and a functionalistic building designed in the 1930s . What more could you ask for?
  • Maybe you heard of the famous architect and designer Alvar Aalto, and brands like Marimekko and Iittala. Marimekko was shot into the spotlight after Jacky Kennedy would sport her designs often.
  • Parliament – a pretty epic building home to the 200 seat parliament gathering in this impressive building built to embody 1920s Classicism.

    Helsinki Parliament Building
    Helsinki Parliament Building

 

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Head over to Suomenlinna Fortress, an 18th century sea fortress linked between 6 islands. The fort may not be in use, but about 750 people still call it home. The fort was established by the Swedes in 1748 to counter Russians efforts to expand in Europe. In order to live on the islands there is an application process and the citizens have to be able to contribute skills that are beneficial for the upkeep of Suomenlinna.

The journey took about 25 minutes and was great to get a view of the surrounding archipelago of Helsinki. The views from the water were great. It was amazing that the day pass for public transit also included the ferry to Suomenlinna fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Suomenlinna is a symbol of freedom, it was named Sveaborg, or “Castle of Finland” in 1918 after Finland gained Independence.

The islands has a few museums, a school, restaurants, and even a submarine you can tour on the island that served in the Second World War.

How to get to Suomenlinna Fortress

After exploring the market square Kauppatori across from the Presidential Palace, look out for a ticket machine on the pier. The ferry ride then leaves frequently to the island and saves you money avoiding the tourist trap boats since locals use these ferries every day. The ferry ride to Suomenlinna takes about 20 minutes. Remember to check when the last ferry of the night leaves, as you will get stuck if you miss it!

Exploring Suomenlinna with people from The Yard Hostel
Exploring Suomenlinna with people from The Yard Hostel

Karaoke

Finnish people are funny they don’t like to interact with strangers much. However, when they finish work they get straight to the nearest karaoke bar and boy do they know how to Karaoke. If you do not believe me check out the Finnish Nightmares Facebook page.

I suck at singing, but I love Karaoke! So, I fit right in. They have many ways you can karaoke, you can karaoke on a tram, you can karaoke in a sauna, you can even karaoke, and if that is not enough for you maybe try to compete in the Karaoke World Championships!

All I can say is Karaoke is where the Finns truly shine.

Places to Eat in Helsinki

Sample Traditional Finnish Food

There are a few reasons why I love Finnish Food. What you eat is often based on the seasons. If it is winter you will expect to eat reindeer stew, salmon soup, or a meat and potatoes type dish. Obviously to keep you warm in the rough winters. If you find yourself in Finland in the summer expect to eat fish, berries, and fresh simple food that is light. I came in the fall so I was able to experience a bit of both types of meals.

There is one thing that is definitely something to consider when in Finland, your budget. Many restaurants do not have any meals that are lower than 20 euros, so here are two places as recommended by locals for you to peruse a more budget friendly meal that will leave your stomach happy and full!

 

  • Hakaniemi Market Hall 

I found this gem on the free walking tour and went back everyday that I was in Helsinki. It was the best if you want to try traditional Finnish Food and have a filling meal on a budget.

Here you can go to many food stalls and try the popular Soppakeitto Tapaste’s Salmon Soup. This will only cost you 10 Euros. However, it will be the largest bowl of soup you have seen in your life.

You should also definitely try the ‘Karelian pasty‘, which is a pastry with a thin rye crust and a filling of rice. It’s not my favourite, but very traditional in Finland! I got one for 1 euro and it definitely warms you up on a cold morning.

  • Cella

    15 Flemingsgatan, 00500 Helsinki, Finland, – Kallio District

A cozy little family restaurant in the Kallio District established in 1969. Kallio is the hip part of town, formerly a worker’s district it is now filled with coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. However, Cella sticks to it’s roots by still having some of the most affordable fare in Helsinki.

Try the Cella’s favorite dishes. I loved the Beef Brisket, and tried some of the Sauteed reindeer on a friend’s plate. All together the most entrees were under 20 euros and everyone of the 6 people I went to dinner with that night loved it.

Helsinki Card

On a budget and wanting to squeeze in as much as you can into your trip to Helsinki. The Helsinki City Card will give you free city transportation trams, buses, as well as the ferry to Suomenlinna. Also, the card provides free entry to major sights and museums with many discounts to shops, dining, etc. In the summer there is a Hop on Hop off bus and canal tour included. While in the winter you can enjoy a Panorama Bus tour for free. Thus, this is the best deal in town and is around $55 USD for the 24-hour pass.

Presidential Palace of Finland

Where to stay?

Most people like to be close to the action, if this describes you then stay at The Yard Hostel. It is super central and decently priced. The hostel was literally a ten-minute walk to Senate Square, less than 5 minutes to the train station, and surrounded by Karaoke bars if you want to give it a go.

Ferry to Tallin for a day trip from Helsinki

If that is not enough to keep you busy then take a ferry over to Tallinn, Estonia that takes 2.5 hours each way for 25 euros round trip if you book in advance. However, I went to Tallinn for five days and loved it! So I would not rush Estonia if I were you. But the option is always there if you want it.

A beautiful ferry ride in the Port of Helsinki on a sunny day.
A beautiful ferry ride in the Port of Helsinki

Helsinki gave me memories, experiences, and surprised the hell out of me. It was the place in Scandinavia I could truly relax and take it all in. Above all, the city is not too busy, gets travelers with interesting stories, and is beautiful to explore regardless of the season. Helsinki, Finland was a vacation from my vacation!

 So, your turn– have you ever been to Helsinki or to a place that was unexpectedly knocked your socks off? Tell me all about it!

Helsinki A Gem of Scandinavia: A City Guide

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