This post was original published in February 2018 and updated in January 2023 after a return visit.
Although not as well traveled as other Nordic capitals like Stockholm or Copenhagen, Finland's capital Helsinki is an underrated destination in northern Europe. I think there is plenty for a visitor to love about Helsinki. From the beautiful coastline and harbor to the world class design and amzing saunas, I enjoyed exploring Finland's capital over two days. Plus, Finland was named the happiest country in the world in 2022 by the world happiness report. Come and see what all the hype is about with a visit to Helsinki!
Helsinki feels like a city in the midst of transition. There is a construction boom going on, which is evident from all the cranes along the skyline. You’ll also notice gentrification in certain neighborhoods, and a general reinvestment in the local community. There seems to be a local pride, and Finnish people are opening up to share their culture with the world. Helsinki is likely to look a lot different over the next decade or so, which means now is an awesome time to visit.
Despite its relatively small size, Helsinki has plenty to offer. The stunning architecture will draw you in and delicious local cuisine will encourage you to linger longer. During my two days in Helsinki, I explored the city's main attractions, like the iconic Helsinki Cathedral and the bustling Old Market Hall. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler, this blog post will give all sorts of ideas about what to do, what to see and what to eat in Helsinki within just 48 hours.
How to Spend 2 Perfect Days in Helsinki
Morning: Sightseeing in Central Helsinki
I started my 2 days in Helsinki with a sightseeing tour of the main attractions. I had friends living in Helsinki at the time, so they were my local guides; but you could easily do this independently too. If you are arriving into Helsinki via the main train station, take note of the impressive Finnish Art Nouveau architecture. With its unique clock tower and elegant façade, this is a welcoming way to start your 48 hour visit to Helsinki.
Senate Square is a logical place to begin your central Helsinki walking tour. This is one of the few areas outside of Russia that still retains Russian Renaissance architecture. It is almost identical to the styles of St Petersburg's main square, just much smaller. The main attraction in Senate Square is the Helsinki Cathedral, which serves as the backdrop. In the center of the square is a statue of Alexander II, and the whole square is surrounded by Finnish parliament buildings.
From Senate Square, wander through the charming streets towards the iconic Uspenski Cathedral. Completed in 1868, this a stunning example of Eastern Orthodox architecture with a striking red brick exterior and golden onion domes. Perched on a hill overlooking the city's harbor, this is a great spot for a view over Helsinki. Inside, visitors are greeted with an impressive display of colorful frescoes, intricate mosaics, and ornate chandeliers that illuminate the grand nave.
Early Afternoon: South Harbor Waterfront
From Uspenski Cathedral, make your way towards the waterfront Market Square. This is one of the main working ports of Helsinki, so you are likely to see cruise ships and fishing boats in the harbor. There might even be a historic schooner ship there too! You’ll also notice a year round floating sauna with locals plunging into the cold water for a refreshing dip. Saunas are a really important part of Finnish culture (more on that below). The nearby Helsinki Ferris Wheel even has a sauna on it!
Not far from the waterfront is the ritziest part of Helsinki—Esplanade. You’ll find the city’s most luxurious hotels, restaurants and shops along this boulevard. During my visit, the street was still decked out in holiday lights and décor, which really added to the beauty of this area. It’s a short 15 minute walk to wander the whole stretch.
Grab lunch at the beautiful Vanha Kauppahalli, Helsinki's oldest and most beloved indoor market hall. Built in 1889, the hall has a rich history and a buzzing atmosphere with a picturesque interior. You can browse through 20 food and beverage stalls selling everything from fresh seafood and meat, to artisan breads and traditional Finnish sweets. We created a DIY picnic dinner with local favorites like smoked salmon, sheep's milk cheese, dense rye bread, dill honey mustard, and lingonberry jelly. Most of the vendors will let you sample their goodies before buying. My favorite thing we sampled here was smoked mackerel, a strong but enjoyable fish that is typically accompanied with bread and butter.
Late Afternoon: Suomenlinna
Located on Helsinki's archipelago, Suomenlinna is an 18th century former military fortress that has turned into a national park. It is the most visited tourist site in Helsinki, so make sure to budget a few hours to explore. I recommend going around sunset, which in the winter can be as early as 3pm. A ticket for the ferry is included with a Helsinki transit pass or you can purchase a round trip ticket for a few Euros. The boat leaves from the main ferry terminal on Market Square every 40 minutes, and you’ll see a large sign with all the times. It is a straightforward mid-day excursion.
After a 15 minute voyage, you'll arrive at the island. You can walk around the acres of trails and land that make up the fortress. There are museums, old churches, and tunnels that you can explore on your visit. It's fun to just wander around and see what you find!
The main attractions include the King’s Gate and the Suomenlinna Church, but what I enjoyed most about Suomenlinna was catching the sunset on the west side of the island. It was winter during my visit and sunsets are rare thanks to the near constant cloud cover, but it is nonetheless quite picturesque. There is also a micro-brewery, restaurants, and a small artist collective if you need to pop inside to warm up.
One of my favorite things about Finland is saunas. Taking a sauna is an important cultural ritual for Finns. It is something they do on a very regular basis. In fact, most Finns have a sauna at home! Going to a sauna is a must-do activity on any trip to Finland. If you aren’t familiar with the ritual and traditions of sauna culture, don’t worry – I’ve got you covered in my first timer’s guide to Finnish saunas. Plus if you are traveling in the winter like I did, you'll take any excuse to warm up.
There are plenty of cool and cultural places in Helsinki where you can experience different types of saunas. If this is your first time taking a sauna, I think the super modern and trendy Loyly sauna is an excellent choice. This is the most popular sauna with expats and foreigners in Helsinki, thanks in part due to the high quality restaurant and bar that is attached to the sauna. You’ll need to reserve a 2 hour time slot online ahead of time, and I recommend making the reservation several days ahead of time. It fills up, especially on the weekends.
Unlike more traditional saunas, this is a swimsuit-required sauna, so first timers won't feel uncomfortable. Make sure to pack a swimsuit and flip flops in your bag! While the high-end design lends to a “see-and-be-seen” kind of vibe, Loyly offers a relaxing experience. There are two types of saunas– traditional and smoke –which we alternated between. You can also cool off with a polar plunge into the Baltic Sea. End your first night in Helsinki with the most Finnish experience!
Morning: Brunch in Kallio
Like any good Nordic destination, coffee and pastry is an important staple in the morning routines of Finns. Start your second day in Helsinki slowly and leisurely at a cozy coffee shop or cafe. I think the Kallio neighborhood is a great choice, because there are lots of good options as well as a few nice opportunities for sightseeing afterwards. If you prefer another neighborhood, the Scandinavia Standard has a great write-up of the best coffee shops in Helsinki.
Natural light floods the multi-story IPI Kulmakuppila, and it has a cheerful atmosphere. Their medium roast filter coffee is great and the espresso is divine. The food menu features hearty options like organic porridge, sandwiches, and bagels. If you prefer takeaway, Kahvila Sävy is perfect. This casual spot has a rustic aesthetic with mismatched chairs and tables, which aligns well with its sustainable mentality. All to-go coffees are served in biodegradable packaging!
While in the area, take a peak at Kalio Lutheran Church. This beautiful church dates back to the 1950s and boasts a unique modernist design. With its striking circular shape and prominent bell tower, you’ll recognize it immediately. Meander on down the road until you reach Kanniston Leipomo where you can pick up a baked treat to accompany your takeaway coffee. We opted for a mixture of traditional Finnish baked goods like Karelian pasty (thin rye crust with a filling of porridge rice), as well as more regional favorites like a croissant and custard tart.
Early Afternoon: Museum Hopping
Get a whirlwind understanding of Finnish history and culture with a visit to one of the many museums sprinkled around Helsinki. Whether you’re excited by nature, history, or art, there is probably a museum in Helsinki for you! The National Library of Finland is a great option for history and culture lovers. The stunning interior is drool worthy. Another grammable museum in Helsinki is the Finnish Museum of Natural History, which curved white marble staircases to captivate the eye from any angle.
A few years ago, Helsinki was named the design capital of the world so I would probably recommend checking out at least an art or design museum. The Design Museum is one of the oldest design museums in the world and boasts an extensive collection of over 75,000 objects that span over 150 years of design history.
For art, the Ateneum Art Museum is a popular spot, thanks to its collection of 20,000 Finnish paintings, sculptures, and drawings. Finally, Kiasma covers modern contemporary Finnish art in what has to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Helsinki. The extremely contemporary architecture and curving white lines reminded me of the Guggenheim.
Late Afternoon: Shopping in Punavuori
Considered the design neighborhood of Helsinki, Punavuori is a great place to shop and explore. Window shopping around here is awesome! It is a popular area with the hipster type, so naturally I loved it right away. Moko Market & Cafe is a coffee roastery and cafe attached to a home decor store with a colorful and cheerful aesthetic. For a nostalgic experience, Roobertin Herkku is a charming candy store where you can find quirky Finnish sweets. PaperShop is a well-curated card and paper store filled with locally sourced goods. Finally, Lokal is a design forward gallery which will give you a good idea of what modern Finnish home decor and art looks like.
As a lover of vintage and secondhand, it shouldn't be surprising that I hunted down the best secondhand shops in Helsinki. Relove Secondhand & Café Freda is a unique concept store that brings coffee culture and vintage shopping together in one cool place. Ranging from designer pieces to contemporary styles, Relove has a lovely selection that is perfectly curated. For bargain hunters, UFF Vintage Bulevardi is incredible. The racks are stocked with diverse pieces, sorted by item type. The prices are affordable, and they often run sales or BOGO events. I got 4 great items for 15 euros!
Evening: Dinner & Drinks
Punavuori also happens to be the Helsinki neighborhood with the best restaurants, making it a good area to explore at night. For fine dining, you can choose from numerous high-end restaurants serving up traditional Finnish cuisine and international favorites. Baskeri & Basso is a trendy spot in an industrial-chic space. It offers a diverse small plates menu with international inspiration. Another option that I loved was Farang, a swanky pan-Asian fusion restaurant with delicious cocktails and interesting flavor combinations.
After dinner, grab a drink at one of the city's cool bars or pubs. Many of them serve locally brewed craft beer, such as BrewDog. This laid-back spot has microbrews, including some from Helsinki. If you like pizza and cool music, a great spot to try is Putte’s Bar near City Park on the east side of Punavuori.
Day 3: Bonus Day Trip!
If you're looking for a quick escape from Helsinki (or to add another country to your list), consider taking a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia. Just a two-hour ferry ride away, Tallinn is a beautiful medieval city that's perfect for a day of exploration. We loved our overnight trip to Tallinn, and I’ve even written a separate post with all of my Tallinn suggestions!
You can start your day by wandering through the city's winding cobblestone streets, taking in the beautiful architecture and historic landmarks, such as the 14th-century Town Hall and the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. One of the highlights of a day trip to Tallinn is exploring the city's many shops and cafes, shopping local boutiques selling handmade crafts and souvenirs. Whether you're interested in history, culture, or simply enjoying a change of scenery, a day trip to Tallinn from Helsinki is a fantastic way to experience the best of both worlds.
Where to Eat in Helsinki
While you might not think of Helsinki as a foodie destination in the Nordics, there are plenty of delicious restaurants, food halls, and drink options. From traditional Finnish cuisine to international dishes, Helsinki has something to offer any intrepid foodie. I was pleasantly surprised by how well we ate in Helsinki. I summarized all my favorite Helsinki restaurants in a separate blog post. Whether you're a foodie looking for the latest gastronomic trends or a traveler in search of authentic local cuisine, you can rest assured you’ll be eating well during your 2 days in Helsinki.
How to Get Around in Helsinki
Helsinki has a fairly compact central area as well as copious public transit options that makes it easy to get anywhere in Helsinki during your 48 hour visit! For arrival from the airport, there is an express train from the airport to the main station, which takes about 30 minutes. Once in the city, public transportation options include buses, streetcars and public bicycles. If you’re not excited about walking, there are plenty of other timely ways to get around! This is especially nice during the blistering cold winters, so you never have to spend too much time standing outside.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
There are lots of nice accommodation options in Helsinki. During my first visit, I stayed with friends who lived here, but I’ve returned several times since, trying a new hotel each time. With an exceptional location and good price point, Solo Sokos Hotel is a stylish option in the heart of the city. It has clean lines, neutral tones, and modern furnishings, making you feel right at home. I was obsessed with the subtle seagull wallpaper in my room. Plus the breakfast is top-notch.
If you’re looking for a neighborhood experience, I really liked Glo Art Hotel in Punavuori. The stylish hotel has a distinctive design, with each room and public space decorated in original artwork and furnishings. The lobby’s barrel ceilings are painted in frescos, giving you a ‘wow’ moment right when you arrive. Rooms were well-equipped and quite comfortable.
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