Is Helsinki worth visiting?
The capital of Finland may not be the oldest, largest or most famous city in Europe, but it does have quite a few notable attractions and charms.
But, is it worth visiting Helsinki as a standalone trip or as part of a wider Finland itinerary?
I spent 24 hours there to find out!
Is Helsinki worth visiting?
I do think Helsinki’s worth visiting, but I probably wouldn’t visit just to see the city.
There’s enough to do for a day or two, and it’s in proximity to some of Finland’s epic nature.
Plus, it’s just over the sea from Tallinn and the Baltic region of Europe (IMO, Europe’s best hidden gem).
Let’s take a look at some of the best reasons to visit Helsinki, to help you decide whether to plan a trip there!
Reasons to visit Helsinki
Here are my top reasons to visit Helsinki, the capital city of Finland.
Helsinki’s position between East and West means that been subject to rather a lot of interesting history over the centuries!
Founded in 1550 by King Gustav I of Sweden, Helsinki was initially a small fishing and trading village. The city’s strategic location, however, soon elevated its importance.
In 1748, the construction of the Suomenlinna fortress began, under Swedish rule, to counter Russian naval power in the Baltic Sea.
Helsinki remained relatively small until the late 18th century when it was ravaged by a fire.
The rebuilding of Helsinki was directed by Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, with neoclassical designs by the German architect Carl Ludvig Engel.
In 1809, as a result of the Finnish War, Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Empire, and in 1812, Tsar Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki to reduce Swedish influence.
This change sparked rapid growth and development.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Helsinki continued to grow and industrialise.
The city played a central role during Finland’s struggle for independence from Russia, which was achieved in 1917.
Following independence, Helsinki underwent further expansion and modernization, becoming the cultural and political centre of Finland.
Helsinki was heavily fortified during World War II but managed to avoid significant destruction. In the post-war era, the city expanded further and modernized, becoming the vibrant, cosmopolitan capital it is today, known for its design, technology, and high standard of living.
So, while the history’s not as long and fascinating as other places in Europe, there’s still enough to sink your teeth into here!
A few notable attractions and museums
While Helsinki doesn’t have tonnes of things to do, there are a few attractions and museums that are worth a visit.
The most prominent landmark is Helsinki Cathedral (sometimes known as “the IKEA church”) which is a Evangelical Lutheran cathedral that dates back to 1830. It overlooks Senate Square, where some of the best neoclassical architecture of the city sits (this is also where Helsinki has its Christmas market).
The red-bricked Uspenski Cathedral is a cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Finland and is also worth a visit.
Helsinki’s rich cultural scene is also evident in its museums, including the National Museum of Finland and the Ateneum Art Museum, which offer deep dives into Finnish history and art. You can also visit the National Library of Finland which dates back to 1840 and has a gorgeous interior.
The Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is another of Helsinki’s highlights. You need to take a boat here (included in an AB travel card) and it’s home to a foreboding fortress with Swedish and Russian history.
For a truly Finnish experience, you can’t miss the Allas Sea Pools – more on them below!
Lovely nature not far from the city
Helsinki’s proximity to the Baltic Sea and Finland’s nature is another great reason to visit; you can base yourself here and take day trips out to the surrounding areas.
Surrounded by the Baltic Sea, Helsinki boasts an extensive archipelago, with over 300 islands.
Islands like Suomenlinna, Pihlajasaari, and Vallisaari are just a short ferry ride away and are ideal for day trips.
The city itself is interspersed with numerous parks and green spaces.
Central Park (Keskuspuisto), stretching over 10 kilometres from the city centre to the northern outskirts, is a vast area of woodland and trails, ideal for hiking, cycling, and in winter, cross-country skiing.
The beauty of Helsinki’s nature is that it’s accessible year-round!
Fantastic Nordic cafe vibes
Helsinki’s café culture is a standout aspect of the city, embodying the essence of Nordic charm and cosiness.
Finland is the most coffee-drinking nation in the world, and a favourite activity for Helsinki locals is to find the cosiest cafe possible, grab a hot cup of coffee and a cardamom bun and watch the world go by!
When in Rome, eh?
My favourite cafe is Johan & Nyström – there are a few dotted around Helsinki, but the Kanavaranta branch was especially cosy when I visited (plus, they served possibly the best cardamom bun I’ve ever had).
Heart of sauna culture
Another way to warm up from the cold is a traditional Finnish sauna!
Finns take their saunas very seriously, so it’s unsurprising that Helsinki is so deeply rooted in the heart of sauna culture.
Saunas hold a sacred place in Finnish culture, and this is vividly reflected in Helsinki.
The traditional Finnish sauna is typically a wooden room heated by a stove, where water is thrown on hot stones to produce steam, known as löyly.
One of the most iconic public saunas in Helsinki is Allas Sea Pools, an architectural marvel located along the waterfront. You can step into one of the saunas and then dunk straight into the Baltic Sea (even in winter!).
I didn’t visit the Allas Sea Pools on my trip to Helsinki because I used the sauna at my hotel (VALO Hotel and Work) but if I had a bit longer I definitely would have!
Can visit Tallinn too
While Helsinki’s not overwhelmingly full of attractions, one of the huge perks of visiting is that you can take a side trip to Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia.
Tallinn is a fantastic place for a city break, with a stunning Medieval old town and plenty of museums and attractions.
While you could easily spend two or three days in Tallinn, it’s a small enough city that you can feel like you’ve got a good sense for it on just a day trip (or stay in Tallinn and take a day trip to Helsinki – accommodation is cheaper in Estonia!).
The boat trip from Helsinki to Tallinn takes just two hours and it’s a spacious, contemporary ship. I could have spent all day on it (but I do love a boat!).
I would recommend booking boat tickets in advance as they do sell out.
Good jumping point for the rest of Finland
Helsinki is an excellent starting point for exploring the rest of the country, and if you’re visiting other parts of Finland I would say that yes, Helsinki is worth visiting.
For example, if you’re heading up to Rovameni, the heart of Finnish Lapland (and the home of Santa!), you can take the Santa Claus Express sleeper train between the cities.
Helsinki is also within reach of other major cities like Tampere, Turku, and Oulu.
Tampere is known for its industrial heritage and vibrant cultural scene, while Turku, the oldest city in Finland, offers a glimpse into the country’s historical roots.
To the north, you’ll find the Finnish Lakeland, an area dotted with thousands of lakes and forests, ideal for activities like canoeing, fishing, and hiking.
The Finnish archipelago, accessible from Helsinki, is another highlight. It’s one of the largest archipelagos in the world, offering beautiful coastal scenery, outdoor activities and a chance to experience a tranquil island lifestyle.
Ease of travel
Helsinki is a very easy city to visit. Nearly everyone speaks fluent English, it has excellent public transport links and it’s very safe. Plus, flights connect the airport with destinations around Europe and elsewhere in the world.
Considerations for visiting Helsinki
So why might Helsinki not be ideal for a city break? Here are a few reasons.
The weather can be a deterrent for some visitors.
The winters are long and cold, with short daylight hours, often accompanied by snow and freezing temperatures. When I visited, it was -6C – warmer than it was in Tallinn, but still very cold!
This can make outdoor activities much less comfortable – although, with a few layers and plenty of indoor stops, it’s usually manageable.
Summers, while milder, can be unpredictable with fluctuating temperatures and occasional rain. Some days in summer certainly are nice, but they’re never guaranteed.
Visiting Helsinki can be very pricey – it’s one of the most expensive cities in Europe.
The high cost of living impacts various aspects of a trip, including accommodation, dining and activities.
Hotels and other forms of accommodation in Helsinki tend to be on the pricier side, especially during peak tourist seasons.
Even budget options might not offer the same value for money as in other European cities.
Dining out can also strain your wallet, as food and drink prices in Helsinki’s restaurants and cafes are generally high too.
Additionally, entrance fees to various attractions and museums in Helsinki can add up.
While there are options for free activities and sights, many of the city’s popular attractions charge admission fees.
Plus, public transport is efficient and widespread, and I found it comparable to London prices.
Not a huge amount to do
One of the potential drawbacks of visiting Helsinki, especially for those used to more bustling metropolises, is the perception that there isn’t a vast array of activities or major tourist attractions.
Compared to larger European capitals, Helsinki’s more subdued and laid-back atmosphere might seem like there’s not as much to do, particularly if you’re looking for a packed itinerary of famous sights and landmarks.
That said, part of Helsinki’s charm is in simplicity – a few hours spent in a cosy cafe, walks around the harbour, a trip to the sauna – if you fancy a more chilled out city break, Helsinki could be idea.
My opinion? Helsinki may not be worth visiting as a standalone city break
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting at all!
It depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to visit somewhere more relaxed for a couple of days and slowly tick off its attractions, Helsinki could be worth visiting.
But, if you only have limited trips in a year and want to go to a fascinating city where you can pack in tonnes of attractions, I’d recommend heading elsewhere OR adding some extra destinations onto your Helsinki trip.
For example, I’d highly recommend combining both Helsinki and Tallinn into the same trip or using Finland’s excellent train links to explore more of the country from its capital.
So yes, do spend a day or two in Helsinki, but don’t expect it to be the most action-packed, bucket-list city you’ve ever been to!
Now you know whether to visit Helsinki!
Hopefully, this blog post has helped you with your trip planning! I enjoyed my 24 hours in Helsinki, but I wouldn’t return just to visit the city alone. I do, however, plan on returning (hopefully next year!) to take the Santa Claus Express up to Lapland.
Want to find out more about Helsinki? Take a look at my YouTube video!