Thanks in part to incentives by Finnair and Visit Finland more of Lapland Safaris‘ clients for the coming season will be taking the opportunity to spend some time in Helsinki before continuing their journey to Lapland. With this in mind we have put together a guide to getting the best out of your Helsinki stop-over, selecting some of the best attractions to visit.
Helsinki is a compact city, making it easy to get around. It is also friendly and relaxed, and was selected this year by Metropolis Magazine as the 3rd best city in the world to live in, and by The Economist as the 9th most liveable city. Getting to the capital from the airport takes between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on whether you catch the express bus, the regular bus, or the train. All of these will drop you off either in or outside Helsinki Central Railway Station, which is about as central as you can get.
Our first recommended stop is Senate Square where the magnificent white Lutheran Cathedral sits at the top of a set of steps overlooking the open square. Helsinki Cathedral was designed by architect Carl Ludwig Engel to be the centre-piece of his Empire-style downtown area, and was completed in 1852. Looking down from the cathedral, on the right is the main building of Helsinki University and on the left are the government buildings of the Senate. The centre of the square is occupied by a statue of Tsar Alexander II, and beyond that lie the buildings that now make up the Tori Quarters.
In the last few years the blocks on the southern side of Senate Square have been rebranded as the Tori Quarters (Torikorttelit). During Engel’s development of the square the facades of the original old stone houses dating from the Swedish period were rebuilt to conform to the neoclassical ideals of the new buildings, with the exception of Sederholm house, which now houses the City of Helsinki Museum and Children’s Corner. The other two historic buildings, Kiseleff House and Böck House, are currently home to a growing number of design boutiques, craft shops, cafés, and restaurants, including a new ‘design and art’ street and outdoor performance spaces.
Market Square & Hall
On the other side of the Tori Quarters you’ll find Helsinki’s beloved market square and the beautiful Kauppahalli, or Market Hall. As popular with locals as it is with visitors, the market is packed with booths and stalls that can be separated into three distinct categories. There are those that sell fresh fruit, berries, vegetables and fish; those that provide excellent traditional Finnish hot foods; and there are those selling traditional Finnish handicrafts and souvenirs, from reindeer skins to fridge magnets. Close by is the Old Market Hall which has been serving its customers since 1889. Designed by Gunnar Nyström, the vendors sell a variety of products from cheese, fish, shellfish, all manner of meats, vegetables, fruit cakes, herbs and spices. There are also a number of cosy cafés and small restaurants where you can sample some Finnish gourmet delicacies.
Allas Sea Pool & Skywheel Helsinki
On the other side of the Market Square, across a small footbridge, you’ll find the Finnair Skywheel and the Allas Sea Pool, a new spa complex that opened in September. Skywheel Helsinki is a 40m high observation wheel with a 360° view of downtown Helsinki, with the added bonus of having a VIP booth, and also a sauna booth! Just beneath it, the Allas Sea Pool combines year-round swimming and sauna experiences with great food and live events. The floating deck of Allas includes three pools: a large fresh water pool, a children’s pool, and a salt water pool that offers an authentic ice-swimming experience during the winter time.
Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral & Kanavaranta
Just around the corner from the Allas Sea Pool, situated on a hill overlooking the harbour, stands the magnificent Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral. Built between 1862 and 1868, Uspenski is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, and has a number of valuable and historical religious icons on display. Directly underneath you’ll find the quayside street of Kanavaranta which has become one of the trendiest new areas of Helsinki. Thanks to a number of recent openings, it now boasts a number of excellent restaurants (Holiday, Ravintola Sipuli, and Nokka), the Johan & Nystrom coffee house (arguably the best coffee in a city obsessed with the stuff), and the capital’s newest bar, and already one of its coolest, Sköne.
Suomenlinna (Suomenlinna Sea Fortress)
Definitely worth visiting is Suomenlinna, a series of islands at the edge of the harbour, which was once an impressive sea fortress, and which has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Today, Suomenlinna is home to around 850 residents, and has a number of museums, galleries, bars and restaurants, as well as hosting significant events like their annual Jazz Festival and Blues Festival. It is easily accessed by ferry from the Market Square (your tram ticket works for the ferry), and the journey takes around 15 minutes.
Ateneum Art Museum
Ateneum Art Museum, also known as the Finnish National Museum of Art, has the country’s largest (over 20 thousand paintings, graphics, drawings and sculptures from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) and oldest art collection. It is home to the best loved classic works of Finnish art, and presents parts of this excellent collection in various exhibitions alongside visiting exhibitions by world famous artists. The international collection includes works by van Gogh, de Goya, Cézanne, Chagall, Modigliani, Rodin, Delacroix and Munch. Ateneum is located opposite the Central Railway Station square, in a building designed by Theodor Höijer and completed in 1887.
One of the most visited tourist attractions in Helsinki, especially by our Asian friends, is the Sibelius Monument in the park named after, and dedicated to, Finland’s most famous composer. Unveiled in 1967, this massive piece of art is composed of over 600 pipes and weighs 24 tonnes, and was created by Eila Hiltunen. The title of the piece is ‘Passio Musicae’, and has a bust of the composer close by. The dimensions are impressive, it is 8.5m high, 10.5m wide, and 6.5m wide. Sibelius Park can be reached by taking the 24 bus, or the 2 and 8 trams.
Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church)
Once of the most original architectural constructions in the world, and the most popular in Finland, the Church of the Rock was finally constructed in 1969, long after two brothers studying architecture had submitted their designs to a competition. Temppeliaukio is fashioned inside a massive block of granite bedrock in the middle of what would be an otherwise ordinary residential square. The copper domed roof sits atop a circle of 180 slices of glass that separates it from the natural rock, and gives the interior a moody light. Inside the church the walls are rough hewn into the granite. There were plans to alter them but after an expert examined the interior’s acoustics he pronounced them perfect; ever since the church has hosted numerous musical performances, both religious and other, and is a very popular venue for concert goers.
Accommodation and Dining in Helsinki
If you’re staying overnight in Helsinki there is a huge choice of accommodation options, with countless hotels throughout the city. If you want to make your night in the capital special then there are a number of excellent boutique and design hotels to choose from. Helsinki is also packed with restaurants catering to every taste, with countless cultures represented, you can find the best of them listed in the Discovering Finland dining out section.