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Insider's Helsinki

10 must things to do in Helsinki + 9 fun activities the locals enjoy

10 must things to do in Helsinki + 9 fun activities the locals enjoy

Whether you're in Helsinki for a quick pop-in or a longer stay, here's your complete “To do in Helsinki” list from a local insider.

Top 10 things to do in Helsinki to cover the 'must-dos'

1. Tick the main sights off your list 🗺️

Esplanadi park

Let's start from the touristic core of Helsinki: the Senate square (Senaatintori). Marvel at Helsinki's most iconic landmark, the Helsinki Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko). From here you take a very short walk to the Market Square (Kauppatori).

After looking at some local cuisine (which is mainly catered to tourists, mind you), you can take a lovely stroll down Esplanadi, a street promenade.

Walk down Mannerheimintie (Helsinki's main street) all the way to the Parliament House (Eduskuntatalo) and once you're here, pay a visit to our modern architectural pride, the Oodi library.

And if it's more walking you want (these are all located fairly close to each other so it's not really that much of a walk), wander on to the Rock Church (Temppeliaukion kirkko), another famous modern church in Helsinki.

Congrats, you've covered Helsinki must-sees!

2. Have a taste of island life in Suomenlinna 🏝️

Suomenlinna sea fortress is a historic landmark located on an island right off the Helsinki coast. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it's full of history.

But for the locals, it's mainly a beautiful picnic place. You can visit some sights on the island, but another good plan is to just pack a picnic (there's also a small grocery store on the island) and a swimsuit and have a lovely day outdoors.

There's no bridge or road to the island, but the good news is, you can access it by a ferry that's part of Helsinki's public transportation. All you need is a local ticket. After all, people live on Suomenlinna island.

If it's more fresh sea air your heart desires, go for a full-on island hopping tour and visit islands like Lonna, Pihlajasaari and Vallisaari.

3. Try sauna (or just have drinks in Löyly or Allas Sea Pool) 🧖

When in Finland, do as the Finns do. Did you know that 'sauna' is actually a Finnish word?

There are some great public saunas to choose from. More modern options include places like Löyly and Allas Sea Pool. The latter is, as its name suggests, a pool in the sea so on top of just a sauna visit, you can also have a swim in a heated pool.

More traditional public saunas include places like Kotiharjun sauna (in Kallio) and Kulttuurisauna (in Merihaka, between Kallio and Kruununhaka).

And if you're looking for a free sauna, Helsinki delivers. Sompasauna is a wonderful act of urban activism. It's a sauna (or nowadays three saunas) built by a group of volunteers. Since its birth over a decade ago, Sompasauna has grown more popular and has moved from its original location in Sompasaari (hence the name) to its current location in Verkkosaari (close to Kalasatama). It's a very basic, hippie style sauna. Free access, all genders welcome, swimsuit optional. Open always – if there's no fire in the stowe, just make one yourself.

If you don't feel like sweating in a steaming hot sauna with a bunch of strangers (it's lovely, really!), another great option is just to visit one of the sauna locations and enjoy some refreshments and views over the sea. Leave the sauna-going to others. Löyly or Allas Sea Pool would be great options.

4. Try out restaurants and cafés: salmon soup for lunch, coffee and cinnamon bun for dessert 🥣

Salmon soup and cinnamon buns in Café Sùccés
Salmon soup and cinnamon buns in Café Sùccés

Running from one tourist attraction to another is exhausting. Have a break, have some local food.

Try some traditional creamy salmon soup for lunch, followed by coffee and a cinnamon bun. Some good options are Café Engel, Café Esplanad or Café Sùccés.

You'll find an extensive list of the best cafés in Helsinki here.

5. Buy some Finnish design 🛍️

Leave the reindeer trinkets at the souvenir shop and buy some functional Finnish design. The beauty of Finnish design is that it's not decorative objects but everyday products that you can find in pretty much every Finnish household.

Marimekko, Iittala, Arabia, Artek – classic Finnish design brands that produce high-quality household goods. Clothes, dishware, glassware, accessories, even furniture. Get yourself a souvenir that you will actually use.

6. Visit a museum 🖼️

Museums in Helsinki
Museums in Helsinki

Perfect plan for a rainy day. There's a plethora of interesting museums to choose from but here are a few favorites from downtown Helsinki:

  • Ateneum, classical Finnish art with changing exhibitions (temporarily closed, will reopen in April 2023)
  • National Musem of Finland focusing on Finnish history
  • Kiasma, museum of contemporary art that often featrues fun exhbitions to visit with kids
  • Amos Rex, this newcomer opened in 2018 and focuses on modern art

7. Take a break in one of our many parks 🌳

This plan is better suited for the warmer summer months. Helsinki is filled with green and even in downtown Helsinki you have many parks, big and small, to choose from.

  • Esplanadi, the main park promenade, in the very center of the city
  • Kaivopuisto at the seashore
  • Tähtitorninmäki in Ullanlinna
  • Sinebrychoff park in Punavuori
  • Eiranranta or Eira beach, right at the seashore in Eira district
  • Vanha kirkkopuisto or colloquially “Plague park” (Ruttopuisto) in Kamppi

8. Check out Sibelius monument and have a coffee break in Café Regatta ☕

Sibelius monument in Helsinki

Leave the bustling city center behind and pay a little visit to Töölö. Visit the Sibelius Park (honoring our most famous composer, Jean Sibelius) and take a silly picture of your head stuck up in one of the organ pipes of the Sibelius Monument. I know you want to.

And afterward, reward yourself with a coffee and a cinnamon bun or a sugary doughnut in the quirky Café Regatta. Bear in mind, this is a fully al fresco café so in wintertime wear thick layers. Or you can defrost your fingers and nose by the café's open fire.

Café Regatta in the winter

9. Enjoy bird's-eye views over Helsinki in a rooftop bar 🐦

Enjoy the sunset in one of Helsinki's rooftop bars. The Ateljee Bar in Hotel Torni is a Helsinki icon. Quite pricey, but it comes with a view and a touch of history.

Other good options include Sokos Hotel Vaakuna right across from the Central Railway Station, rooftop bar in Stockmann (the department store) and Hotel Clarion, one of the tallest buildings in Helsinki.

10. Take a day trip 🚌

Day trip in Tallinn
Day trip in Tallinn

There's a lot of things to do in Helsinki but if you want to expand your horizons beyond the capital, go for a day trip.

  • Porvoo, a quaint little town a 30-minute bus ride away
  • Tallinn in Estonia, just a 2-hour ferry ride away
  • Ainola, the artsy home of Aino and Jean Sibelius, in Järvenpää
  • Nuuksio national park in Espoo (it can be reached by public transportation)
Nuuksio national park
Nuuksio national park

Fun things to do in Helsinki – beyond your typical tourist activities

Regatta SUP and kayak rental

Alright, we've covered the typical tourist must-dos. Now, enjoy Helsinki like a local and try some of these fun activities.

1. Swim in the sea 🏖️

In the summertime, try one of our beaches. There are plenty of options to choose from. Just don't expect mile-long white sandy beaches with crystal clear water.

Hietaniemi beach is probably the most well-known and most popular – also very central and quite large. Eiranranta is also convenient if you're staying in downtown Helsinki.

Some of my other favorites include:

For the more upscale taste, go for a dip in Allas Sea Pool. They have a heated seawater pool so you can enjoy a swim also in the colder months.

And speaking of colder months… In the winter, the more brave-hearted will enjoy a swim in an ice hole either in a lake or in the sea. This is truly an experience. Not for everybody's taste but there are people who swear the health benefits, like improved blood circulation, work like magic.

If you're a first-timer, choose a place with a sauna because you will want to warm up before and after the swim. Kuusijärvi in Vantaa is a popular option that comes with a traditional smoke sauna.

If you're a true polar bear at heart, you can enjoy your winter swims in places without any extra comforts. Here you can find a list of places suitable for winter swimming.

2. Rent a kayak or a paddleboard (SUP) 🛶

And even more water-based activities! We do live by the sea.

Rent a kayak or a paddleboard either in Töölö by Café Regatta, Mustikkamaa or Töölönlahti.

Töölönlahti is very central but not my personal favorite. The bay is very closed which means the water can get a bit icky. This only matters if you're renting a SUP board and want to take a dip or accidentally fall off the board.

3. Catch a movie 📽️

Korjaamo in helsinki

Not the most original plan, I know. But! Don't settle for the big cinema chains and blockbusters you can see everywhere. Go for a small theater with a lot of character.

And you're in luck because in Finland we subtitle most of our movies so you can see films in their original language.

Try one of these smaller theaters:

  • Kino Regina in the Oodi library. Movies from all genres but usually not the newest productions.
  • Cinema Orion. Old art deco charm in this movie theater opened to the public back in 1928. Both newer and older films.
  • Kino Korjaamo. A small theater in Töölö. Limited selection, but usually newer movies.
  • Riviera in Kallio. Riviera is very trendy and very popular – you might have to book your tickets well in advance. The theater is quite small.
  • Kino Engel. A small cozy theater right next to the Senate Square. Newer movies but emphasis on a bit more indie or international cinema than American blockbusters.
  • Engel Kesäkino – outdoors summer cinema. Kino Engel's summer cinema is open only during summer. It's set up in the courtyard of an old building so the atmosphere is very charming. Perfect for a date.

You can read more about movie theaters in Helsinki here.

4. Get your head spinning in Linnanmäki amusement park 🎢

Located just a few kilometers away from the city center, you can reach the Linnanmäki amusement park by foot or public transport. The park is open in the summer season but it has some theme weeks in the autumn too, such as Light Festival and Halloween week in October.

Enjoy a ride on the original wooden roller coaster (it's been renovated and remodeled, don't worry), gorge on cotton candy and just spend a lovely day outside.

If you're not into the rides, you're in luck: entrance to the park is free. This is great news for parents who maybe only want to buy tickets for their more adventurous kids.

5. Challenge the heights in an adventure park 🧗

If roller coasters aren't your kind of fun, maybe 'adventure park' is. It's a park, in the woods, with tracks and trails built high up in the trees that you need to make through. You hang onto ropes (in a harness) as you make your way through the trails that vary in difficulty levels.

This is a fun activity that doesn't require special skill or athleticism. Challenge yourself and have fun in the treetops!

6. Walk around Vanhankaupunginkoski and pet sheep in Lammassaari 🐑

Vanhankaupunginkoski and Lammassaari are located close to the Arabia neighborhood, and they provide a lovely setting for a Sunday stroll.

Vanhankaupunginkoski is a park around the area where the Vantaa river flows into the sea, so it's a bay-like environment. At the heart of Vanhankaupunginkoski is an old dam (which, according to current plans, will be demolished at some point) and a bridge that crosses the river and leads to the starting point of the trail and boardwalk leading to Lammassaari (Sheep island).

The name of the island is quite accurate: in the summertime, sheep roam free in Lammassaari. Technically, the sheep pasture in Kuusiluoto, which is a smaller part of Lammassaari.

The island isn't bursting with sheep, so you might look for them. But if you do find them, don't scare them. Petting is allowed, feeding is not.

💡 Insider tip! If you've made it all the way here and you like Finnish design, pay a visit to the Iittala & Arabia Design Centre in the Arabia shopping mall.

7. Treasure hunt at flea markets and second-hand shops 🔎

Helsinki Flea Market

One of my personal favorites in Helsinki: second-hand shopping.

You'll find both the more upscale vintage stores and the more traditional, at times a bit scruffy, self-service flea markets. I love the latter – no nonsense, nothing fancy and if you're willing to do a bit of digging, you can come across some true gems.

Some self-service flea markets in Helsinki:

  • Kaivarin Kanuuna
  • Moody Monday
  • Relove
  • Punavuoren patina
  • Metka
  • Helsinki Flea Market
  • UFF

My true love are 'live' flea markets. They're often held outdoors (in the summertime) and resemble something like car boot sales or garage sales. Unlike self-service flea markets, here you can bargain and haggle! Not too aggressively though, that's not part of the Finnish market etiquette.

  • Hietalahti flea market is a classic open air flea market that takes place in the Hietalahti market square. My issue with this one is that there can be quite a lot of 'professional' salespeople who collect things to resell. I usually make my best finds from just regular folk selling their own used stuff.
  • Dallapé park flea market is a self organizing flea market in Kallio. Every summer Sunday, weather allowing. Some pros here too, but also plenty of (young) people selling their clothes, accessories, household items and other trinkets. Especially young women, so if you're in that demographic, you'll likely find something to take home.

8. Visit a local market and have a coffee or torikahvit 🍩

Swedes can have their fika, we have torikahvit. It literally means 'market coffee' and it's the simple act of having coffee, served in a paper cup, at an open-air market and often accompanied by a cinnamon bun, doughnut or some other baked good.

Traditional torikahvit doesn't come with hoity-toity specialty coffee, only drip. Don't be surprised if most people around you are 70+.

Try some torikahvit in Hietalahden tori, Hakaniemen tori or Töölöntori.

9. Unwind in the Keskuspuisto park 🌲

Keskuspuisto park in Helsinki
Keskuspuisto park in Helsinki

Park is a relative concept. Keskuspuisto translates to 'Central park' but don't be fooled to picture something like New York's more famous namesake.

The way I see it, Keskuspuisto is a forest with housekeeping. There are dirt roads crossing the forest, dog parks, outdoor basketball courts and other infrastructure, but the overall vibe is very woods-y.

Keskuspuisto is very large, stretching almost from Töölö to Vantaa (the neighboring city of Helsinki). People use it to commute to work by bike but also just for recreation.

If you want to unwind in a natural environment without leaving the city, enjoy a walk or run in Keskuspuisto.



I'm Ella, your local insider in Helsinki. In this blog I share my best tips to make sure everyone gets to enjoy Helsinki to the fullest.

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Insider's Helsinki

Insider's Helsinki