Although not as well traveled as other Scandinavian capitals like Stockholm or Copenhagen, Finland’s capital Helsinki is a city on the rise. The city is in the midst of a construction boom, gentrification and reinvestment in the local community — this is a city that is likely to look a lot different over the next decade or so. Now is an awesome time to visit Helsinki to see the change in action!
During my 1 week trip to Finland, my husband and I visited two of our American friends who were living in Helsinki at the time. Now if you asked our friends, they wouldn’t take much pride in their new home city, saying it is a let-down in comparison to other places in Europe. But I think there is plenty for a visitor to love about Helsinki, and I enjoyed exploring Finland’s capital over the 2 days that we were there.
Here are my recommendations for spending 48 hours in Helsinki, Finland.
Helsinki has a fairly compact central area as well as copious public transit options to ensure that it is easy to get anywhere you want to visit during your short 48 hour stay! The public transportation options in Helsinki are robust, including a subway, buses, streetcar and public bicycles, so if you’re not excited about walking, there are plenty of other timely ways to sightsee! This is especially nice during the blistering cold winters, so you never have to spend too much time standing outside.
We started our walking tour of Helsinki at the Kalio Lutheran Church and then made our way down to Senate Square and harbor. Senate Square is one of the few areas outside of Russia that still retains Russian Renaissance architecture. It is actually an almost identical replica to the styles of St Petersburg’s main square, just much smaller. The central figure of 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.
Make your way down the hill to the south where you will reach the waterfront Market Square. This is one of the main working ports of Helsinki, so you are likely to see cruise ships in the harbor. There is even a ferry that you can take to Russia without a Russian visa. If you’re interested in adding on a few days to your Finland itinerary with a visit to St. Petersburg, learn more about that here!
From Market Square, you can get a nice view of the Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral to the north, the Helsinki Ferris wheel which, fun fact, has a sauna on it (!!), and a traditional Finnish schooner ship which is permanently docked in the Market Square harbor. A delicious local food market sits at the end of the waterfront, where you can sample more local cuisine if you’re hungry. We tried a few Finnish cheeses and cured meats, and marveled at the cans of bear meat that you could buy. We didn’t sample those but we’ve heard it is a gamey meat with a strong flavor.
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 the main boulevard housed in colorful and ornate buildings. During my visit, the street was still decked out in holiday lights and decor, which really added to the beauty of this area. With lots of boutiques and cafes, you could easily spend hours wandering this area, but the ubiquity of good restaurants makes Esplanade a great place to grab lunch before your next stop on the 48 hour tour of Helsinki.
Located just a 15 minute ferry from the Helsinki shores on Finland’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! You can hop on the ferry with your transit pass (it’s included in the ticket price!) or you can purchase a round trip ticket for a few Euros. The ferry leaves from the main ferry terminal near Market Square every 40 minutes, so this is a straightforward mid-day excursion.
Once you arrive to the island, you’ll be able to 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. There is also a micro-brewery, restaurants, and a small artist collective. It’s fun to just wander around and see what you find! The main attractions include the King’s Gate, the Suomenlinna Church and Rantakasarmi, 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 if you do catch one it will be at the ripe ‘ol hour of 3:30pm.
Considered the design neighborhood of Helsinki right now, Punavuori is a great place to shop, grab dinner and drinks after your day adventuring through Helsinki’s history. It is popular area with the hipster type, so naturally I loved it right away! Punavuori is easily accessed from Market Square after your ferry returns from Suomenlinna by hopping on the street car or taking a bus. Helsinki is going through a construction boom right now, and this area may look a lot different in a few years, but some of the businesses that I enjoyed in this area include:
Punavuori also happens to be a part of the city that has a strongest culinary scene, making it a good spot to explore for nightlife. For food, a little south of the heart of the neighborhood is Baskeri & Basso. This trendy spot has a Parisian supper club vibe in an industrial-chic space with a diverse small plates menu. Another option that I loved was Farang, which is a little north of the heart of the neighborhood. This pan-Asian fusion restaurant is swanky with delicious cocktails and interesting flavor combinations. For more laid-back spots that also double as bars, consider staying in the heart of the neighborhood. If you like pizza and cool music, a great spot to try is Putte’s Bar near City Park on the east side of the neighborhood. BrewDog is a laid-back spot for microbrews, including some from Helsinki.
Morning: Coffee & Food Culture
Like any good Nordic destination, coffee is an important staple in the morning routines of Finns, so you will want to start your second day on your 48 hour visit to Helsinki at a coffee shop. I wasted no time indulging myself on caffeine and sweets! Good Life Coffee was just around the corner from our friend’s apartment and is an adorably hip and tiny little coffee shop serving up some seriously delicious espresso. Meander on down the road until you reach Kanniston Leipomo where you can pick up a baked treat to accompany your 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.
Continue walking further down Siltasaarenkatu street until you reach the Hakaniemi Market Hall. Housed in a traditional market building (at least for the time being until the new one is finished in 2018), Hakaniemi is full of local food. We created a DIY picnic dinner with local favorites like smoked salmon and mackerel, 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.
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 another great option for history and culture lovers. The stunning interior is drool worthy and well-worth the ‘gram. Another grammable museum in Helsinki is the Finnish Museum of Natural History which has wrapping white marble staircases to entrance 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, since it was one of the most well-known parts of modern life in Finland. For art, the Ateneum Art Museum is a popular visit, thanks to its collection of over 20,000 Finnish paintings, sculptures, and drawings. The Kiasma is another great option, covering modern contemporary Finnish art in what has to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Helsinki. Its extremely contemporary architecture and curving white lines reminded me of the Guggenheim.
One of my favorite experiences while traveling in Finland was learning about the culture of taking saunas. Sauna is a major part of Finnish culture and it is a must-do activity on any trip to Finland. 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 spots in Helsinki where you can experience different types of saunas but we went to the super modern and trendy Loyly sauna in west Helsinki. This is the most popular sauna with expats and foreigners in the city thanks in part due to the high quality restaurant and bar that it is attached to the sauna. The high-end and modern design lends to a see-and-be-seen vibe, but it is truly a relaxing experience. This is a clothed sauna so first times won’t feel uncomfortable. Make sure to pack a swimsuit! We alternated between the traditional and smoke saunas with a jump into the Baltic Sea in between. What a way to end your last night in Helsinki — with the most Finnish experience. You’ll be relaxed for whatever adventures lie ahead!
Cover photo by Tapio Haaja, 2nd photo by Paul Theodor Oja, 2nd to last photo courtesy of Creative Commons. All other photos by Traverse. This post was originally published in May 2018 and updated in February 2020.
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