City Guide: Helsinki, Finland

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July 10, 2013 by juicefong

I’ve previously had the pleasure of enjoying the Scandinavian summer in Iceland, Norway and Sweden. This year, following a friend’s wedding in Oxford the last week of June, I decided to take up the same mission in Helsinki. It’s no secret that my fascination with Finland also stems from the U.S. education community’s drooling over the Finnish education system, but I can definitely stand by my statement that Helsinki is a fine place to visit in the summer. I’d give it three full, yet leisurely days in Helsinki and plan for more if you want to do daytrips northward in Finnland or otherwise. My selling points:

  •  Perfect, I mean perfect weather. 70˚-75˚ and clear with a very light sea breeze to cool you off. T-shirt and shorts weather from morning until night.
  •  A city that doesn’t require a car! We walked and biked our whole time there—not even one taxi did we take. Trams abound but we didn’t even use them either. Not coincidentally, there seems to be zero car traffic in the city center.
  •  A beautiful city full of beautiful architecture and sleek Scandinavian design.
  •  The Baltic Sea! The center of the city is surrounded by water on three sides and Helsinki is amidst an archipelago. The land is very well connected to its beautiful natural surround.
  •  18 hours of sunlight each day, and it never really gets dark. Sun comes up around 4am in July and “sets” around 10:30pm. It makes for long, leisurely days and a relaxing culture.

What to do:

• Walking tour: Explore the city center on foot! There is much to see between architecture, the harbors, the sea, parks, cafes, restaurants and many great shops—all of it is within walking distance. The Finns have a great eye for design and there’s lots to see in the Design District. Note that most stores are closed on Sundays, and general operating hours are 11-6.

• Suomenlinna – spend a half day on this four-island sea fortress that originally protected Russian territory. While it has the old canons and much of the fortress intact, it also has many cafés and restaurants to have a drink or some lunch, and has the natural beauty that makes up these four islands. I came for the fortress but ended up loving the views. Catch the 5-Euro, 10-minute ferry ride at the eastern harbor.

• Picnic! There are so many great little parks all around Helsinki and the locals really know how to sunbathe and enjoy their long summer days. Go to a grocery store and grab some salmon, baguettes, cheese or the like and choose from the dozens of great spots to pull up for an outdoor picnic, lunch or dinner. It’s a BYOB situation as well—no open container laws means we regularly saw the Finns popping Champagne bottles.

• Rent bikes – Our hotel (GLO Art Hotel) rented them for €5/day and I hear other hotels offer something similar. There are bike shops around, too. After breakfast go out for a ride to catch the attractions further afield: Olympic Stadium, Temppeliaukio church, Sibelius Monument. Then cruise the shoreline and head over to Seurasaari where there is an outdoor museum of historic Finnish culture, but the scenery and beautiful nature walks on the island are worth it enough.

• Tallinn, Estonia — Three full days in the city should be enough to give you a good feel. There are a number of great day-trip options within reach of Helsinki. We went for Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. It’s a 100-minute ferry ride and the last boat back on Linda Lines (€39 roundtrip) left Tallinn at 9pm. Beautiful old town with well-preserved Medieval architecture and unique traditions. Many dining and shopping options—you can sleep in and still enjoy Tallinn.

Where to eat some good traditional Finnish cuisine:

  • Tori – closest thing to a Brooklyn, hipster eatery that I saw. Delicious food, moderately priced. Traditional Finnish. €15/person.
  • Juuri – high end traditional Finnish. Casual but refined. They have sapas (like tapas) and some main courses. Probably €50/person.
  • Sea Horse – another traditional Finnish recommended by many locals. €20/person

Where to drink, a couple joints to get you started:

• Llamas bar – Mexican-themed bar that also has swings at the bar…and a sign that says “Como te llamas?”

• Liberty or Death – speakeasy cocktail place with American Revolution-themed drinks.

Where we stayed:

GLO Art Hotel in the Design District (there are several GLO hotels in Helsinki). Convenient location, had bike rental for €5/day. We paid €125/night for triple occupancy, breakfast included. Seemed to be many other comparable and attractive options in the city center.

2 thoughts on “City Guide: Helsinki, Finland

  1. Well written brother – makes me want to make Helsinki my first ever non-N. American travel.

    What’s next on the travel docket?

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