After a 3 day stopover in Iceland, I made my way to Helsinki, Finland! However, I only had about 2 days in the city, since I had planned to take a ferry over to Estonia for a day trip. If you only have a few days in Helsinki as well, read on for some ideas for how to spend your time!
Before we dive in, I’d like to note that my schedule was all over the place. I arrived in Helsinki on a late Saturday afternoon, went to Estonia all day on Monday, and then flew out of Finland the following Tuesday. So, to save you the headache, I’m going to write this itinerary as if I did everything consecutively, and list each attraction in the approximate order that I visited them.
Table of Contents
- 1 Day 1
- 2 Day 2
- 3 Honorable Mention: Museums
Getting Settled In
Good news: getting to Helsinki from the airport is really straightforward. After you deplane at Helsinki airport, follow the signage to get to the main train terminal. There, you can buy a ticket valid for 1.5 – 2 hours and hop onto a train into the city. The whole journey will probably take about 30-40 minutes, but it’s the cheapest option for sure.
For accommodations, Helsinki has quite a few options ranging from hostels to hotels. I chose to stay at The Yard Hostel, and it honestly made all the difference in my overall experience. As I mentioned, my schedule felt all over the place (with too little sleep). But, whenever I was at the hostel, I felt like I could truly relax!
The Yard Hostel is centrally located in a quiet shopping plaza off of the bustling streets, and the environment was as chill as can be. When I arrived and walked upstairs, there were just a few people in the spacious common room (whereas other hostels I’ve stayed at were overflowing with people) and I felt like I could finally exhale.
After settling into my room – a 6-bed girls dorm – I was pleased to see that there were large, lockable pull-out draws for storing our valuables. Bonus points for extra security! There was also a couch in the middle of our room with some books and a small lamp in case anyone decided to read by the windows.
The overall vibe of the hostel was very calm, laid-back, and independent. Reception is only there during daylight hours, and although a lot of travelers that I met were solo like me, they were largely doing their own things. That said: if you want to find a group to socialize or go out with, it’s very possible! I was able to do that during my first night in town. But, more on that later…
The last things that I want to note about the Yard are their super-comfy beds and the free breakfast, tea, and coffee. I’m a notoriously light sleeper, but I fell asleep instantly (and stayed asleep) all three nights that I stayed there! Amazing. Additionally, it was lovely to wake up – at a decent time – knowing that a supply of coffee, tea, fruit, muesli, cereal + milk, bread + butter, and jams were all waiting for me at no extra cost. This was super helpful on Sunday and Tuesday morning, when I just wanted to eat quickly and hit the road.
Overall, this place is definitely worth checking out if you want safe, clean, and modern accommodations at an affordable price. Plus, it helps that it was voted the Best Hostel in Finland for 2018. 🙂
Temppeliaukio a.k.a. The Rock Church
After you get settled in, I recommend heading over to the famous “Rock Church” of Temppeliaukio in Helsinki – especially if you’re just in town for a weekend. In my case, the church happened to have very restricted hours the following Sunday due to a special event. So I had no choice but to run over there to have about an hour to explore.
Temppeliaukio was just under 20 minutes walking-distance from The Yard, so if you’re staying in central Helsinki then you should be able to have a pleasant walk there as well. Otherwise, a tram, bus, or train can take you there just as easily!
The church itself is pretty intriguing, because it truly was sculpted from bedrock. Inside, you can see where natural structure meets manmade material, and the acoustics are fantastic. As you explore, be sure to stay quiet and respectful since the church is used for rehearsals and services. Also, head up to the second level to get an even better vantage point!
Kallio: Nightlife and Hipster Spots
Depending on what time you head to Temppeliaukio, consider checking out the “hipster” area of Kallio next. If you manage to go earlier in the day, you may be able to hit up some of the local shops. Or, if you’re like me and get there after 4pm, almost everything will be closed (on the weekend, at least). Regardless, Kallio is definitely a must-do for one thing: the nightlife.
Kallio has a ton of places to check out, but our group (from the hostel) chose to head to two bars that night. The first was called Siltanen, and it’s home to a more chill “lounge” atmosphere – with house music. This place is good for if you want to have a drink, dance a little bit, and talk to people.
Kaiku, on the other hand, was my personal favorite and not as conducive to talking. I loved Kaiku because it was a club that had multiple rooms with different kinds of music. One was dark, played steady house music, and had laser lights throughout the night; while another had hip hop and Latin hits, and was lit up in red. If you need a break from dancing, fear not: around these two rooms are more laidback bar areas, where you can order drinks and chat with people more easily. Overall, Kaiku was a great choice for the night and I was very pleased that we chose to go.
Relax and Recharge
If you’re having a true night out in Helsinki, you likely won’t get to bed until around 5am – like I did. If that’s the case, let yourself sleep in and recover a little bit!
In my case, I woke up around 10 or 11am to catch breakfast at the Yard; and then went back to sleep for a little bit longer. The biggest thing on my list that day was Suomenlinna, so I figured I had time to kill. In retrospect, I would recommend heading out no later than 1 or 2pm…instead of 4pm, like I did. I’ll explain why in a little bit.
Explore by the Harbor
In order to get to Suomenlinna, you’ll have to catch a ferry from the harbor (click here for a schedule of the current ferry times). To get to the harbor, you can choose to take a tram or simply have a nice walk through town (about 15 minutes).
If you choose to walk, be sure to stop by Senate Square and the market along the harbor-front. Around the spacious Senate Square, you can find the Helsinki Cathedral (the big white building that is arguably most prominent), the Government Palace, part of the University of Helsinki, and the National Library of Finland. Although I didn’t venture into any of these buildings, the square is great for some nice pictures with the cathedral as a backdrop. In the wintertime, you can also find Christmas markets on Senate Square!
Once you get to the harbor, be sure to leave some time to peruse the stalls set up along the harbor-front. Some boast souvenirs, others have hot drinks and plenty of food for sale. I was pressed for time, so I went to the first stall that looked good and ordered hot chocolate and a fried fish and chips meal. One thing that I didn’t realize – but was pleasantly surprised to discover – was that the fish wasn’t cod, but rather salmon! It also came with a plethora of toppings on it that somehow all complemented each other very well. The salmon tasted delicious, and it was the perfect finger-food to munch on after I boarded the ferry for Suomenlinna and watched Helsinki fade into the distance.
Suomenlinna: World Heritage Site
In case the name is new to you, Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s just a short ferry ride away from Helsinki. The island started purely as a maritime fortress, but it is now comprised of museums, shops, residents, and more.
Exploring Suomenlinna is something that can be an all-day activity, depending on what time you arrive and what you plan to see. If you go earlier in the day, you’ll have a much better chance of exploring the museums and shops. If you’re visiting on the weekend, beware that many shops will close by 4 or 4:30pm. If this happens, it’s still pretty cool to wander around some of the fortress ruins – if you give yourself enough time, you can even have a nice walk to the south end of the island, where the King’s Gate is located.
The good news is, even if you get to Suomenlinna later in the day, there are ferries that leave the island until about 1 or 2am. I did not realize this before I left, so I had a moment of panic and thought that the evening ferries would be the last to leave the island.
This led me to race back up the island, and even go off of the marked paths. PLEASE don’t do this! I came across a patch of ice that could’ve very well left me injured if I had worse luck. Instead, I was fortunate enough to simply slip and fall on my butt, sliding down to a less icy patch of ground that led me back to the main road. In summary: don’t try to take shortcuts on Suomenlinna, especially in the winter.
Moral of this story is: give yourself at least a few hours to explore Suomenlinna, and don’t leave for the island any later than 1pm, if possible. You can thank me later when you get to experience way more than I did!
Evening Sauna: Löyly or Allas Sea Pool
Now, with the plan of going to Suomenlinna earlier, ideally you would end your day with a nice Finnish sauna experience, right? If that’s your plan, be sure to make a sauna reservation at least a day in advance.
Based on the reviews that I’ve seen (and my original plans for that day), I recommend heading to Löyly or Allas Sea Pool. I unfortunately did not plan ahead, and missed out on doing a sauna altogether. I figured that Löyly – my top choice – would have had reservations available later on a Sunday evening, but I was wrong, and they were all booked!
Allas Sea Pool ended up being right on the same harbor where the Suomenlinna ferries came in, but I hadn’t planned on going there; and by the time I got back to the hostel to grab a swimsuit and towel, I would have had to rush back to try and catch a last-minute reservation due to their earlier closing time.
Moral of this story is: when in Finland, make the time (and plans) to sauna! I definitely regret not being able to do that, so it will be first on my list the next time I’m in Finland.
Authentic Finnish Dinner at Savotta
Although my sauna dream did not become a reality, I did manage to have a cozy dinner that night. After doing some research on authentic but affordable options that were walking distance to the hostel, I ended up heading to Ravintola Savotta.
If you’re on a budget and want to experience Finnish food, there may be cheaper options in the daytime. But for a sit-down dinner in the local area, Savotta will likely be one of your best bets.
You can choose from a preset menu with hand-picked courses, or order from their a la carte menu if your appetite isn’t that big. It appears that they change their menu periodically, but when I visited Savotta I chose a fish sampler platter and a dill-icious (so sorry) salmon soup that came with rye bread and butter.
Something to be aware of for the fish sampler: some of the fish appeared to be pickled, cured, or possibly undercooked – a “smoked” texture, so to speak. I liked nearly everything I tried, but it’s good to know what you’re getting into!
Overall, the atmosphere was intimate and incredibly relaxing. The waitresses also appeared to be dressed in traditional Finnish costume, so that was a lovely touch to the experience.
Honorable Mention: Museums
Although I didn’t have time to fully experience any of the museums before leaving Helsinki (sad face), I wanted to include them in this post for your consideration. Finland has a ton of museums, so there are plenty of choices depending on your taste:
- Post Museum
- Museum of Contemporary Art
- National Museum of Finland
- Finnish Museum of Photography
- Sinebrychoff Art Museum
- Bank of Finland Museum
- Helsinki City Museum
So, are you planning a trip to Finland soon? What are your must-do items when you only have a short time in a city? Let me know in the comments!
Disclaimer: My 3-night stay in Helsinki was provided to me by The Yard Hostel in exchange for blog content. All opinions are 100% my own!