14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Helsinki
Helsinki (Swedish: Helsingfors) is the capital of Finland and its largest city. The urban area offers a variety of historical, cultural, and outdoor attractions to explore. Most of Helsinki proper sits on a granite peninsula on the north coast of the Gulf of Finland, facing the Baltic Sea. The peninsula has numerous offshore islands and rocky islets and many little coves and inlets. While generally a flat city, there are some significant hills scattered about with excellent views of the sea. Helsinki is a great city to explore on foot or on a bike. That said, it has a reliable and far-reaching public transportation system.King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden founded Helsinki in 1550 on a site northeast of the present center, at the mouth of the Vantaanjoki, as a rival to the trading town of Reval (now Tallinn). In 1808, the town was incorporated in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, of which Tsar Alexander I made it the capital in 1812. After a great fire destroyed a third of the town in 1808, Carl Ludwig Engel (1778-1840) was commissioned to rebuild it in 1816 in accordance with a plan by Johan Albrecht Ehrenström. Built in a Neoclassical style, the city center boasts wide handsome streets and boulevards and a large number of parks. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, a republic was proclaimed in Helsinki on December 6, 1917. In 1952, the Summer Olympics were held in Helsinki.
See also: Where to Stay in Helsinki
1 Mannerheimintie (Mannerheim Street)
From the end of Helsinki's Esplanade, the Mannerheimintie Street runs northwest from the Central Railway Station, across from the main post office. The Central Railway Station, built in 1919, is worth a visit as it is the finest building by renowned architect Eliel Saarinen with a 48-meter-high clock tower. It's also a great place for people watching. Nearby restaurants are all top quality, although trending toward the expensive. Next to the post office, is the equestrian statue of Marshal Mannerheim, perhaps the most important person in Finnish history. Right behind that is Kiasma, the astounding Museum of Contemporary Art. A walk along Mannerheimintie will take you past many of the main cultural sites mentioned below as well as the Parliament building, numerous shops, and some of the best restaurants in the city. The street also allows access to all the trams and buses that will take you anywhere in the city and even other areas of Finland.
2 Finnish National Museum of Art (Ateneum)
On the south side of Helsinki's Station Square is the National Museum of Art, usually known as the Ateneum after the name of the impressive Neoclassical building it occupies. The same building also houses the famed Finnish Academy of Art. Designed by Theodor Höijer and completed in 1887, the Ateneum holds Finland's finest art collection of historic works as well as contemporary art in a gallery of its own. The Finnish section of the museum includes works by A. Edelfelt (1854-1905), E. Järnefelt (1863-1937), P. Halonen (1865-1933), and A. Gallén-Kallela (1865-1935). Among works by foreign masters are Rembrandt's Monk Reading and Vincent van Gogh's Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, along with 650 other international works of art. In the sculpture hall are works by the Finnish sculptors V. Vallgren, W. Aaltonen, W. Runeberg, and S. Hildén. In front of the entrance is a bronze figure of Albert Edelfelt by V. Vallgren. Be sure to check the website as there are a large number of days throughout the year when entry is free.
Hours: Open Tues- Fri 10am to 6pm, Sat & Sun 11am to 5pm, closed Mondays.
Admission: Adults 12 €, students & seniors 10 €, children under 18 years free
Address: Kaivotaku 2, Helsinki
3 Finnish National Museum (Kansallismuseo)
At Mannerheimintie 34 is the National Museum (Kansallismuseo in Finnish). Founded in 1912 in a National Romantic style, the museum is easy to spot when heading north along the street as it is the only building on the left hand side with a tall spire. The Kansallismuseo contains a comprehensive collection of material on the culture and ethnography of Finland. Of note is the Finno-Ugrian collection with traditional costumes and everyday cultural objects. The prehistoric section is the largest permanent collection of archaeological materials in the country. Various displays also document the development of Finland from the middle ages through the Swedish and Russian empires and into a modern state. The entrance hall is decorated with fabulous ceiling frescoes inspired by the Kalevala, the national myth of Finland. The frescoes were painted by Akseli Gallén-Kallela, perhaps Finland's best artist. Opposite the National Museum, in a park, is the Municipal Museum.
Hours: Open Tues-Sun 11am to 6pm, closed Mondays.
Admission: Adults 8€, students and seniors 7€, children under 18 free
Address: Mannerheimintie 34, 00100 Helsinki
4 Finlandia Hall
North of the Municipal Museum in Helsinki, on the shores of Töölö Bay (Töölönlahti), is the Finlandia Hall, a concert and convention hall designed by Alvar Aalto and built in 1971 with a white facade of Carrara marble. The marble is also used on the inside of the structure. Details appear in hardwoods and ceramics. The main concert auditorium is a stunning site and is famous for its acoustics. Another standout feature is the wide Venetian staircase that leads from the ground floor to both the main auditorium and chamber music hall. The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was signed here in July 1975. To the north of the hall is an excellent park (home to large chess boards and chess pieces), and beyond this again is the new Finnish National Opera House, inaugurated in November 1993 with a performance of the opera "Kullervo" by the Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. Check the website for frequent updates on events, prices, and openings.
Address: Mannerheimintie 13 e, 00100 Helsinki
5 Helsinki Olympic Stadium
To the north of the Finlandia Hall, at the top of the Töölönlahti lake is the old Trade Fair Hall, and beyond this the Olympic Stadium (1938), with a 72-meter-high tower from which there is a magnificent view of the city - and an elevator. Finland was awarded the Olympics prior to the advent of World War II and the Soviet invasion of the country. Cancelled during the fighting, the Olympics were finally held in Helsinki in 1952. Inside the stadium is the Finnish Sport Museum, and in front of the entrance is a statue of the great Finnish Olympic runner, Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973). To the east is the Swimming Stadium, and to the north, the Ice Stadium. Beyond the lawn, in front of the Swimming Stadium lies the Municipal Park, a sea of blossoms in the summer and a perfect place for a picnic. The Swimming Stadium is open to visitors in the summer with excellent facilities.
Hours: The tower is open Mon-Fri 9am to 9pm, Sat & Sun 9am to 6pm
Admission: Adults 5€, children 2€, children under 6 years free
Address: SF-00250 Helsinki
6 Central Park (Keskuspuisto)
Helsinki's Central Park (Keskuspuisto) is a massive park right in the middle of the city. Covering more than 10 square kilometers, the park begins at the Olympic Stadium near Töölönlahti Bay and stretches north into the community of Vantaa at the Paloheinä forest where there is a wide cross-country skiing area. The park is more wild woodland than manicured garden. It's loaded with bike and walking trails and other activity areas. The idea for the park was proposed by architect Bertel Jung in 1911 and grew over the following decades. It was finally codified and included in the master planning for the city in 1978.
7 Linnanmäki Amusement Park
To the east of Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, beyond the railroad line, is the Linnanmäki amusement park, with a water tower, a switchback, and a giant wheel. Along with the nearby Television Tower, it forms a striking vision on Helsinki's skyline. The park opened in 1950 and has continually renovated and improved the rides, shows, shops, and restaurants. Prices and entry times vary throughout the year and change frequently so be sure to check the website for the most up-to-date information.
Address: Tivolikuja 1, FI00510 Helsinki
8 Hietaniemi Area
Down the coast, south and east from the main railway station are the Rowing Stadium from the 1952 Olympics, kayak and canoe rentals, and the beautiful sandy beach of Hietaniemi. Next to this are several open fields frequently used as soccer parks, several restaurants, and a public sauna. Beyond this lies the fascinating and park-like Hietaniemi cemetery with a cross on its highest point commemorating the fallen heroes of the republic. Here, too, Marshal Mannerheim (1867-1951) is buried. Near the entrance are the graves of the politicians Risto Ryti, Väinö Tanner, T. M. Kivimäki, and E. Linkomies, who - as a condition of the 1944 armistice - were tried by a Finnish court for their political activities during the war and were given prison sentences, later commuted. A section of the cemetery is dedicated to the Jewish population of the city.
9 Rock Church
North of the Hietaniemi area along Fredrikinkatu is Helsinki's Rock Church, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in the late 1960s. The underground interior of the church was carved out of and built directly into the ancient solid rock of the Helsinki peninsula. The inside is bathed in a glorious natural light that enters through the glazed dome. It has a shallow circular dome (13 meters high) of copper sheeting and glass borne on concrete ribs. The church is also used as a concert hall due to its excellent acoustics created by the rough, unworked rock surfaces of the interior.
Admission: Free, except during concerts
Address: Lutherinkatu 3, 00100 Helsinki
10 Market Square
The Market Square (Kauppatori) is the main planned and paved square in central Helsinki. It is one of the best-known outdoor markets in northern Europe. Bordering the Baltic Sea, at the eastern end of the Esplanadi, the market runs from spring to fall. It is full of stands selling Finnish foods, flowers, and tourist souvenirs as well as a few outdoor cafés. Visitors should watch their food carefully, the seagulls at the market are large and brazen and will pluck food from unsuspecting diners. In October, the famous herring market takes place, and masses of American cars meet at the square every May 1st.
The fortified islands of Suomenlinna (Swedish: Sveaborg) are a part of Helsinki, which seems remote, but is in fact easy to reach by ferry (same ticket as for buses and trams). It is well worth the 20-minute ferry ride. The fortress of Sveaborg (Swedish Castle) dominates the island. It was built in the mid 18th century to bar Russian access to the Baltic. During the Swedish-Russian war of 1808-09, it fell to the Russians, who thereafter enlarged and strengthened it. In 1918, it passed into Finnish hands and was given the Finnish name of Suomenlinna (Finnish Castle). During the 1950s and 1960s, it was handed over by the military to the civilian authorities, and since then has been restored and converted for cultural and recreational use. It is now included in UNESCO's list of world heritage monuments and is a museum, a park, and an arts venue. The area is open most of the year but hours and ferry access vary, so be sure to visit the website for the latest information.
12 Gallen-Kallela Museum
Akseli Gallen-Kallela is perhaps Finland's most important and certainly most impressive painter. The Gallen-Kallela house was built in 1911-13. Better known as Tarvaspää, the house was opened to the public as the Gallen-Kallela Museum in 1961. It contains a permanent exhibition of Gallen-Kallela's own paintings, graphics, and tools. An excellent café is located on site as well as a fine little store. The Gallen-Kallela Museum is located on the beautiful shore of Laajalahti Bay in the eastern part of Helsinki, about ten kilometers from the center. It can be reached by car or by the walking and bike path from Munkkiniemi in Helsinki and Ruukinranta in Espoo.
Hours: Open May 15 through August 31, 11am to 6pm; Sept 1 through May 14, Tues-Sat, 11am to 4pm; Sundays 11am to 5pm.
Admission: Adults 8€, seniors 6€, students and unemployed people 4€, under 18 free
Address: Gallen-Kallelan tie 27, FIN-02600 Espoo
East of the city center is the island of Seurasaari (Swedish: Fölisö), which is linked with the mainland by a footbridge. It has an interesting open-air museum with old peasant houses, a church from Kiruna (1686), and other timber buildings. This is the place to learn how Finns lived long ago, before the modern era. Nearby, at Meilahti 7, is an old timber house now occupied by the Friends of Finnish Handicrafts, with an exhibition of rye carpets and other traditional textiles. Visitors can watch the weavers at work.
Hours: Open June-Aug, Mon-Sun, 11am to 5pm
Admission: Adults 8€; students, seniors over 65 years, military, and groups 6€; children 7-17 years 2,50 €; families (2 adults and 1-4 children) 18€; under 7 free
Address: FI-00250 Helsinki
14 Senate Square
Aleksanterinkatu leads into Helsinki's imposing Senate Square with a bronze statue of Tsar Alexander at its center. Sightseers will find a number of tourist attractions here. From the Market Square in Helsinki, a street between the President's Palace and the Guard House leads into Aleksanterinkatu. Along this street to the left are numerous buildings recalling centuries of Finnish history. At the end of Aleksanterinkatu on the right, is the House of the Nobility. Opposite are the premises of the Finnish Literary Society, and the Government Palace near here on the right was formerly the Senate of the Grand Duchy of Finland. In the staircase hall, which is the entrance from Senate Square, the Russian Governor-General, Nikolay Bobrikov, was assassinated in 1904. On the left side of the street stands the bluish-gray Sederholm House, the oldest stone building in Helsinki. On the north side of Helsinki's Senate Square, a broad flight of steps leads up to the Lutheran Cathedral standing 10 meters above the square on a granite crag. The cathedral was begun in 1830 to the design of C. L. Engel and completed in 1852 in a different style. Finally, on the west side of Helsinki's Senate Square is the University, built by Engel in 1828-32. The University Library contains some 1.5 million volumes, 2,000 manuscripts, and the largest collection of Slavonic works in the West. The Finnish Museum of Natural History is located at The University of Helsinki. It contains about seven million specimens.
Where to Stay in Helsinki for Sightseeing
If you're visiting Helsinki for the first time and want to see some of the city's top sights, the best area to stay is in the city center, near Mannerheimintie ((Mannerheim Street). Here, you'll find attractions such as Central Railway Station, the Parliament building, Finlandia Hall, and many shops and restaurants. Below are some highly-rated hotels in and near the city center:
- Luxury Hotels: In the heart of the city, a short walk from the harbor as well as fabulous shops and restaurants, Hotel Haven sports a sleek, elegant aesthetic and a fire-warmed lobby. Also within walking distance to the city's main sights, the pet-friendly and eco-friendly Hotel Indigo Helsinki - Boulevard is a popular luxury option, with local artwork, a spa, and bikes for touring the city. Next door to Helsinki's Central Railway Station, the pet-friendly Holiday Inn Helsinki City Centre scores an A-plus for its convenient location a hop, skip, and a jump from Mannerheimintie and Finlandia Hall. The airport shuttle bus stops right near the hotel.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Close to major transport hubs in the city center, Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel, Helsinki is at the top end of the mid-range hotels, with comfy rooms, a sauna, and fitness center. The boutique Hotel Rivoli Jardin sits in a quiet location close to all the downtown attractions and offers a choice of bright and airy guest rooms, studios, and one- and two-bedroom apartments with fully equipped kitchens. Some rooms come with a sauna at Hotel Helka, which has a handy location in the city center within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and attractions.
- Budget Hotels: Hotelli Finn, with clean, simple rooms, gets kudos for its central location steps away from the shopping district, while the Kongressikoti Hotel is behind the Helsinki Cathedral in the heart of the city and lies a short stroll from the train station. About three kilometers away from the city center but near bus and tram stops, the eco-friendly Ava Hotel offers standard rooms, studios, apartments, and a sauna.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Helsinki
A sightseeing tour is a great way to see all the city highlights without the hassle of driving and finding your way around. Instead, you can relax and look at the sights while you learn about the history and culture of the city from an interesting audio commentary. Below are some fun sightseeing tours and travel tips that will save you time and money:
- See the Sights by Bus: A fun and flexible way to see all the city sights is the Helsinki Shore Excursion: Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Tour. Climb aboard the open-top double-decker bus, and choose between 15 different stops, including Rock Church and Helsinki Olympic Stadium, and hop on and off at your favorite attractions. The ticket is valid for 24 hours and includes audio commentary and free Wi-Fi.
- See the Sights by Boat: If you have limited time and want to see the city from a different perspective, consider the Helsinki Sightseeing Canal Cruise. Sit back and relax on this 1.5-hour cruise as you glide past picturesque islands and icebreaker ships and see attractions like the World Heritage-listed Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress and Degerö Canal. The cruise includes an informative onboard commentary and free Wi-Fi.
- Save Money: If you prefer to travel around the city independently to visit some of the top attractions, the Helsinki Card will save you time and money. Valid for 24, 48, or 72 hours, the card gives you free unlimited public transport in the city; admission to more than 50 attractions, including the Ateneum Art Museum and Suomenlinna Fortress; an audio city guide; and discounts for select tours, shops, and restaurants. You can also upgrade to the Helsinki Card Region, which includes public transport throughout the entire metropolitan area.
Day Trips from Helsinki
Hvitträsk, built between 1901 and 1903 of logs and natural stone, was a home and studio for the architectural team of Eliel Saarinen and Armas Lindgren. It also served as the boyhood home of world famous architect Eero Saarinen, who became well known in the United States. Hvitträsk is surrounded by a beautiful English-style garden on the shore of Lake Vitträsk. Located just 30 kilometers west of Helsinki, Hvittrask is easily reached by bus.
Hours: Vary depending on the season, closed Jan-Feb
Admission: Adults 6,50€; students, senior citizens over 65 years, conscripts, and groups 5€; children 7-17 years 2,50€; family ticket (2 adults and 1-4 children)15€; under 7 free
Address: Hvitträskintie 166, FI-02440 LUOMA
Ainola was the home of the world-famous composer Jean Sibelius and his wife Aino. Located on the shores of the stunning Lake Tuusula in Järvenpää, about ten kilometers north of Helsinki, it was constructed in 1904 in a classic timber style typical of the architect, Lars Sonck. The house was built on the lake to give the genius peace to create, while still being close enough to access important events in the nation's capital. After Sibelius and his wife died, their family sold the house to the state. It was well preserved, and a museum foundation was established to maintain it.
Hours: Open May to Sept, Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm; closed Mondays and Midsummer Eve
Admission: adults 8€, students 4€, children 7-16 years 2€, under 7 free
Hämeenlinna is located on Lake Vanajavesi, 100 kilometers north of Helsinki, and is easily accessible by both bus and train. A relatively small city, Hämeenlinna is one of the oldest settlements in Finland and sits at the heart of the historic province of Häme. There has been a city here since the early Viking Age, and the medieval Häme Castle is located here. It was built in the late 13th century by the Swedes who were then competing with both the Danes and the Russians for access to the resources of Finland. The city is a lovely place to visit. It is known for its excellent schools, the birthplace of Jean Sibelius, and the location of Finland's first railway line.
On the other side of the bay from Seurasaari, near Helsinki, is the garden city of Tapiola, now part of Espoo. For those fascinated by experimental urban planning ideas from the post-war era, this is a must. Built in the 1950s as a model example of modern town planning, the town now has the feel of a Star Trek set. To the northeast, on the Otaniemi peninsula, is the University of Technology, with Dipoli, the unconventionally designed Students' Union. The new center for cultural activities was designed by architect, Arto Sipinen, and was opened in 1989. There are a number of specialty shops available as well as sports facilities.
A beautiful seaside town, 130 kilometers west of Helsinki, Hanko is a bilingual beach-blessed port town of about 10,000 people. Because of its location, Hanko has been contested for more than a thousand years. The Swedes and the Russians fought several battles here in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1809, the Russians took over several Swedish forts. The town itself wasn't officially founded until the 1870s and later served as a key transit point for Finns leaving for the United States during the starvation times. The Finns and the Russians fought a very bloody battle here in 1941. The architecture of the town speaks to its history with a mix of Swedish and Russian styles. It's full of excellent cafés and restaurants.