There seems to be a notion that Helsinki is boring, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. For me, Helsinki will always be special because it’s where it all began for us. It makes a great extended weekend trip, although the coffee there wasn’t to my taste. I found the city to be vibrant, but surprisingly most restaurants only offered filter coffee, and we had to go to Greek or Italian restaurants for our daily cappuccino. Finns prefer a light roast and drip coffee. They also held the title of the biggest coffee consumers in the world before losing it in 2020. However, several cafes have recently opened up, making it easier to get your daily cuppa.
SkyWheel Helsinki and Market Square
The Castle of Finland
Helsinki is home to Suomenlinna, or the “Castle of Finland,” a sea-fortress located southeast of Helsinki. Inscribed in 1991 as a world heritage site, it’s definitely worth a visit. I recommend planning for the whole day. During summer, guided tours in English are available every day, while during winter, they’re only available on weekends. When we visited in September, we went on a weekday and were unable to get a guided tour. However, just walking around the fort and through the maze-like tunnels was an adventure. This fort served three different realms, defending Sweden, Russia, and Finland at different times during its history. The imposing military fortress is impressive and has a unique shape since it was built across eight islands, five of which are connected via bridges.
There is a wonderful 360-degree virtual tour as well as an online guide to Suomenlinna on the internet. The 360-degree tour allows you to traverse Suomenlinna in winter. The tour can be found here and the guide here.
Helsinki also has a vibrant art scene. When we visited in 2017, there was a lot going on to celebrate 100 years of freedom. Finland declared independence from the Russian Empire on December 6, 1917. To celebrate, the Helsinki Symphony hosted concerts featuring Finnish composers. It was sublime.
Finnish Orchestral Favorites at the Alexander Theatre
Walking around Helsinki, you’ll come across several interesting buildings that are actually churches. Their minimalist designs enhance the spirituality of these places of worship, and I encourage visitors to take a seat and experience the calming atmosphere. The cityscape is scattered with interesting sculptures, beautiful fountains and art. As we walked around, we came across several colorful seals. They were scattered around the city to raise awareness about the Baltic Sea and the need to protect it.
One consequence of having a small population is that English movies aren’t dubbed. So going to the cinema as a tourist is completely possible. There’s also an English cinema that plays old movies. We saw Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” at Orion. The building that houses the cinema is really beautiful. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s considered to be “a jewel of the art-deco age.” The ambiance there is fantastic. If you’re in the city, try to catch a movie there.
The Colorful Seals of Helsinki Spreading Awareness
And of course, if you visit, don’t forget to get something from Marimekko. Some other interesting souvenirs include reindeer meat, lingonberry and cloudberry jam, Moomin souvenirs, kuksa cups, Fazer chocolates, Finnlandia Vodka, among other products. You can also visit one of the open-air flea markets to buy a truly unique souvenir.
So, there you have it. Helsinki is a vibrant, cultural city with lots to offer. There is nothing boring about it! Although the city has excellent public transport, I would recommend walking everywhere. That way you can really experience this beautiful city and enjoy all of the public art on display. Another reason to visit is the Helsinki Biennial. The very first Helsinki Biennial was held in 2021 on the island of Vallisaari. Organized by the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), the second edition will take place this summer. I can only hope that you enjoy visiting Helsinki as much as we did.