When Dan and I were invited to a wedding in Finland, how could we say no? I wouldn't necessarily say that Finland was on the top of my list of countries I most wanted to visit, but it seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore another Scandinavian country and scratch a huge land mass off our map.
The wedding took place at a cabin over the weekend in Nuuksio National Park, about a 40 minute drive from Helsinki. We landed in Helsinki late on Thursday night and only had one full day to explore the city on Friday. We woke up early and toured nonstop into the evening because we didn't want to miss any of the major sites. We were exhausted from packing it all in. For this post, I've broken up our itinerary over the course of two days, but if you are only in Helsinki for one day, you can definitely make it work.
Finland is known as one of the design capitals of the world. Did you know that the company, Fiskars, that makes those orange scissors, is Finnish? The ball and bubble chairs, stackable end tables, and the Nokia car and cell phones are all Finnish as well. And let's not forget Angry Birds. Most of all, the Fins are famous for inventing sauna and boy do they know how to do it right.
Finland was once ruled by Sweden and Russia. The country actually has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, which is evident by the street signs that feature both names. Major monuments also have two names. Generally, any Fin under 30 also speaks English (or at least that's what our Finnish friends told us). If you're there during the summer months, you'll be amazing by the nearly 24 hour sunlight.
The modern city of Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is pretty small and can be visited in one to two days. The city sits in southern Finland and is the most populous area in the country. It is filled with beautiful churches, museums, and a wonderful market with local crafts and produce. I have included some thoughts on how to incorporate Helsinki into a larger European trip in the TBP Insider Tips section below. Continue reading to learn about our favorite parts of the city: the Rock Church, Suomenlinna, and the Design District.
What to See by Day
Day 1: Churches and Suomenlinna
Spend the morning exploring the city's streets while stopping in the beautiful eclectic churches. Then head to the island fort of Suomenlinna in the afternoon.
+ Enjoy Finnish pastries for breakfast at Kahvila Marocco
From your accommodation, walk to Kahvila Marocco (Café Marocco) for coffee and a pastry...or two. They actually have filtered coffee in Finland! Grab a mug and make your own coffee from the bar. Make sure to have a korvapuustit, a Finnish cinnamon roll made with cardamom. This café is supposed to have one of the best in the city!
+ After breakfast, walk to your first church: Temppeliaukio Church
Temppeliaukio Church, commonly known as the Rock Church, was the coolest church we've ever seen! It's built into a huge boulder in the middle of the city. Finished in 1969, the dome is lined with copper and the walls are rugged exposed rock. If you only want to see one church in the city, you must visit the Rock Church.
+ If you need a second coffee, stop at Cafetoria Roastery down the street
Cafetoria Roastery reminds me of the fancy coffee shops in SF. They have great pour over!
+ Walk down to Kamppi and visit the Kamppi Chapel
Kamppi is one of the large shopping areas in Helsinki. Walk through the square to the large egg looking building on the far side. Enter the Kamppi Chapel, the Chapel of Silence, for a respite from the bustling city with a few moments of silence. Admire the gorgeous Finnish alder wood on the walls and ash wood furniture.
+ Then cross over the main street, Mannerheimintie, to the Kluuvi neighborhood, before continuing onto the Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square
Along the walk through Kluuvi, pass by the beautiful train station and walk into one of the major shopping malls. Maybe stop into a Marimekko to browse (or buy) the famous quirky printed clothing and home furnishings. Then head to the Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square. The Cathedral is an Evangelic Lutheran church from the 19th century. Walk up the stairs from Senate Square to admire the view. This area is the oldest in the city!
+ To complete your morning, head to the Uspenski Cathedral
Walk up to the Uspenski Cathedral, a 19th century Eastern orthodox cathedral. The building most notably represents the Russian impact on the city. I loved the brick exterior with the contrasting copper domes that have now oxidized.
+ From Uspenski, walk down to Market Square and sample the local produce, breads, fish, and baked goods.
If you're in Helsinki during the warmer months, you can buy food from the market to bring over to Suomenlinna for a picnic. You can also simply taste what's in season and wander the various stalls.
+ For the afternoon, take a ferry to Suomenlinna from Market Square
Suomenlinna, the Sea Fortress, is a group of islands off Helsinki that served as a fort during Swedish and Russian rule as well as Finnish independence. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. On beautiful days, you'll find not only tourists, but local Fins exercising and picnicking. Unfortunately, Dan and I had to rush through the fort in an hour. We'd suggest spending at least two hours on the island, if not longer to enjoy lunch and relax in a park. You can also go to the Suomenlinna Brewery, a recommendation from our friends. There are clearly marked signs and trails you can follow in addition to free guided tours. We followed the main Blue Route that takes visitors through all highlights of the site. Do not miss visiting Suomenlinna! There are really interesting Hobbit-like bunkers and hugh cannons facing Russia, now Estonia, that once served as defensive weapons.
Day 2: Finnish Design and Museums
Wander through the Design District and visit the museums dedicated to the country's greatest architecture and design inventions.
+ After breakfast, walk down to the water and wander through Esplanadi
Esplanadi is a beautiful promenade with a park and concert stage. The park is located in the high rent district of the city. Window shop at the luxury stores as you head down to the park.
+ Next, make your way to the Design District
As I said before, Finland prides itself on its rich design history. It's safe to say that Finland is still producing some of the most creative and innovative designers in the world. Take your time walking through the Design District and maybe indulge yourself a bit. You're allowed to bring home a souvenir (or 5) for yourself, right? Sadly, We were pressesd for time and had to rush through this area.
+ Visit the Design and Architecture Museums
The Design Museum was truly fascinating. There are so many everyday objects that I take for granted without thinking about their origin. Turns out some of my favorite tools and styles of furniture were designed in Finland. Who knew? Maybe you did... Make sure to see if there are any special exhibitions. The designer of the Bubble Chair, Eero Aarnio, was being featured and his work was displayed on automated robot stands. We had a lot of fun walking around the floor taking boomerangs of the objects as they followed us. After the Design Museum, go to the Architecture Museum. We had to miss it, but please go and let me know what you think.
+ End your day with a drink at Ateljée Bar for sweeping views of the city
Go to Ateljée Bar at Hotel Torni for the best views of the city.
Where and What to Eat
We were moving quickly and did not get a chance to have any major meals in Helsinki. Here is a list of restaurants recommended by our local friends as well as a few cute spots we wanted to try.
> Skiffer in the Design District off Esplanade for gourmet pizza
> Sandro in Kallio for Mediterranean is supposed to be fantastic
> Hoku for Asian fusion
> Rodolfo for Italian. We were told the cheese and bacon pasta is the best on the menu.
> Picnic is a great chain around the city for a quick lunch
> Anton & Anton is a cute market in Töölö to grab food for a picnic or coffee and a pastry for breakfast. It was right around the corner from our Airbnb.
> Check out this list of markets and food halls in addition to Market Square.
Now in terms of Finnish foods you must try. Here's the rundown:
Cloudberries look like orange raspberries except they're not sweet. They are considered a delicacy because they are handpicked and mostly grows in the wild in Lapland, the northernmost part of the country in the Arctic Circle. You can find them at one of the markets.
+ Karelian Pies
Karelian Pies are a rye crust pastry with a rice, egg, and butter filling. They are typically served with more butter spread on top. We were lucky to try a friend's grandmother's homemade Karelian Pies...I mean what can I say?
+ Korvapuusti (cinnamon roll), rye bread, and dallaspulla (vanilla pastry)
Korvapuusti are traditional Finnish cinnamon rolls made with cardamom. They are not overly sweet, but so so good. Finnish rye break is exceptional and sweet! Then of course there's the dallaspulla, a vanilla pastry, that we discovered at Kahvila Marocco. It was by far our favorite!
I don't even like licorice, unless it's cherry or strawberry Twizzlers. But you must try Finnish licorice! They have sweet and salty falvors. Go into a market and grab a few kinds to try.
+ Long drink
A Finnish Long Drink is a canned mix of gin and grapefruit juice. They brought me back to my college days of Vodka Fresca.
Where to Stay
You really can't go wrong staying anywhere downtown in Helsinki. We only needed accommodation for one night and this studio Airbnb was perfect! It was extremely cozy and made us feel right at home. We weren't directly in the business district, but more of a neighborhood, which we prefer. Additional neighborhoods to consider are: Kallio, Töölö, Punavuori, and Ullanlinna.
Summer like a Finn
The Finns truly know how to do summer. It's typical for families or friends to own or rent cabins on a lake for the summer. Their days consist of fishing and hiking while nights are for grilling and sauna.
We were lucky to summer as locals for our friend's wedding. They rented a cabin in Nuuksio National Park, a 40 minute drive from Helsinki. Villa Paratisii really was paradise, except for the mosquitoes...they were pretty vicious. We hiked, cooked, saunaed, and swam in the lake.
Now, let me tell you about this magical sauna experience because it's nothing like we have in the States. Traditional Finnish saunas have wood burning stoves in the sauna itself to heat the room creating a beautiful smoky smell and clean heat. We were told that creating a perfect sauna temperature is an art. Temperatures can reach 100 °C (212 °F)! It's hot, but actually feels great. Sauna goes like this: spend 15 minutes in the heat with a drink, then jump in the cool lake, and repeat for a few hours. Yes, a few hours! You create steam in the sauna by throwing water onto the stove. You can also collect birch branches to create something that resembles a broom to smack each other. It sounds strange, but smells lovely and is supposed to be beneficial for circulation. And of course you're in your birthday suit. Have you tried it? Would love to hear of others' experiences. It's definitely one of the most "native" experiences I've had.
If you're looking for time in the outdoors, you should rent a car or take a bus and head up to Nuuksio. You could spend half or a full day hiking in the woods and swimming in the lakes.
TBP Insider Tips
> It's not surprising that Finland is at the forefront of new technology for payments. Set up Apple Pay on your phone to use contactless . It's accepted at most restaurants and retailers. If not, make sure to have a credit card with a chip. Their internet must be much faster because the transaction goes through in about a second compared to almost forever in the States.
> I would suggest visiting Finland with Sweden and possibly Norway and Denmark depending on the length of trip you're planning. You could also go during the winter and head up to Lapland to see the Northern Lights. You may catch a glimpse of Santa if you're lucky. Another idea is to visit Tallinn, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia.
> You can take the train from the airport, but we used the Finnair Bus. The bus was easy and convenient and dropped us right outside our Airbnb. It even has wifi and accepts contactless!
> During the summer months, there are a few ferries that run to Suomenlinna. The cheapest option is the HSL ferry (public transportation) that drops off and picks up at the main pier on the island. You can also take a private service that has multiple drop offs/pick ups. If you are pressed for time, you can take the HSL ferry to the north side of the island and the JT-Line back from King's Gate. If not, purchase the round trip HSL ferry (5 euro) and take a different route back across the island.
> The city is building a swimming pool in the harbor near the Finnair Skywheel. You can also reserve the Skysauna for an hour. Why not enjoy amazing views of the archipelago while experiencing sauna? Sounds like a very cool opportunity. Please check both out for me! This area could also be great for a drink overlooking the water.
> Discounted tickets are available if you purchase the Design and Architecture Museum together (12 euro).
> If you would like to try sauna, Kulttuurisauna is open to the public. Note that it is by gender, so may not be great for couples.