Helsinki in January: when the invitation hit my inbox, I felt shivers all over my body. Wasn’t it going to be extremely cold? And maybe a bit boring? I couldn’t have been more wrong. Helsinki is a great city for a city trip, and the weather wasn’t as cold as I expected! There’s all sorts of attractions and things to do to keep you busy in Helsinki during your city trip. I’m sharing my 11 highlights with you!
Attractions in Helsinki:
Most cities have one building which dominates the skyline or the view of a city – in Helsinki it’s the cathedral. You can see the big, white building from miles away, which gives it some sort of godly vibe. It’s an evangelical Lutheran church and the bishop of Helsinki is seated here. The neoclassical building was built in the middle of the nineteenth century and you can visit it free of charge.
At the bottom of the cathedral’s stairs you’ll find Senate Square, which is the center of the city. Though not a lot happens here, it’s located in between buildings with beautiful architecture. In the middle of the square you’ll find a statue of Alexander II.
Finland has tight bonds with Russia (as you can tell by the statue at the Senate Square) and this cathedral. The Russian-orthodox Oespenski Cathedral is the biggest of its kind in Northern and Western Europe. The church was built just a few decades after the Helsinki Cathedral and is located on top of a hill – just like the other cathedral. You can visit this church too, but unfortunately it was closed when I was there.
The harbour is an important and central part of the center of Helsinki. Some boats in the harbour are even functioning as a restaurant! The market square of Helsinki is located in the harbour as well. During the winter it’s a bit desolated, but during summer it’s supposedly quite busy and you’ll be able to find all sorts of market stalls here.
Old Market Hall
When you’re visiting the harbour you’ll also find an amazing food hall: the Old Market Hall. It feels like you go back in time a hundred years when you enter this market hall. You can find all sorts of delicacies or grab a cup of coffee with your friends.
If you want to go shopping, make sure you go to Aleksanterinkatu (great Scrabble word). Here you’ll find all the big chains, but also some smaller or local shops.
If you go on a lot of city trips, at some point you’ll feel like all churches look the same. But you’ll immediately know this isn’t true when you see the Temppeliaukio Church. This church is more like a bunker, carved from a rock. The church is located a bit outside of the city center, in the middle of a residential area, which you wouldn’t expect at all. You’ll have to pay a few euros (I believe it was €4) in order to have a look inside. They’ve made great use of the rocks and other natural materials, which creates a great contrast with the copper-coloured organ and purple chairs. I felt so calm and peaceful just sitting here. I think I enjoyed the peace and quiet for at least half an hour, just overthinking different things in silence.
Kamppi Chapel of Silence
Speaking of overthinking things in silence: you can also visit the Kamppi Chapel of Silence. It’s some sort of copper-coloured cilinder located in the heart of Helsinki, just a few minutes from the central station. What’s interesting is that there’s no church services here – everyone just walks inside for a moment of reflection or, if they want to, prayer.
If you exit Helsinki’s train station (which is beautifully designed as well) you’ll immediately bump into the Ateneum. This art museum has the biggest collection of classical art in all of Finland, so if you like that kind of art it’s definitely a must visit! The building stands out because of its classical looks, and dates back to 1887.
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit this monument (it’s even further away from the center than the Temppeliaukio Church), which is really a bummer because I really like monuments with this kind of abstract style. Really tasteful. You can find the monument in the Sibelius park – it’s an ode to composer Jean Sibelius. He lived from 1865 to 1957.
Of course you can’t visit Helsinki without visiting a sauna: one of the most substantial parts of the Finnish culture. I’ve even been told there’s more saunas than people in Finland. I can see why: they even managed to overturn a cynical sauna-hater (me). It’s just so relaxing, and it feels healthy! I even jumped into the ice cold water of the Baltic sea while there was snow on the ground… OHMYGOD, that really was a bucket list experience! And I would do it again in a heartbeat! Löyly is the hippest sauna in Helsinki, and with it’s beautiful modern design I can clearly see why. I can highly recommend this! Photos by TravelDave.
Cooking class at Helsinki Culinary Institute
Have you ever wanted to learn how to cook Finnish? You can at the Helsinki Culinary Institute. The best part is that you’re allowed to eat everything afterwards ;-). We made a tasty carpaccio of reindeer meat, and as a main course a delicious fish meal. They also put me in charge of the crackers (I mean, not a lot can go wrong there) and I think I made so many Helsinki had enough food for months to come.
Happy Guide Helsinki
As a last tip I can highly recommend the food tour by Happy Guide Helsinki. With a name like that the expectations were high, but I can confirm both the group and the tour guide had a great time. I got to taste a lot of traditional meals and snacks, so make sure to go on an empty stomach! If you’re not that much into food tours, you can also pick one of their many other tours.
Hotels in Helsinki
Since I stayed about a week in Helsinki I managed to try out a few different hotels. Most of my days I spent in Forenom Aparthotel (below). I actually thought it was more of a hotel room than an apartment, but the good thing is you have your own fridge, glasses and cutlery, so it’s easy to prepare your own breakfast. The room was big, clean and comfortable. The central location was a big plus: all the places I wanted to go were only a 10 minute walk away. It’s perfect if you’re on a budget.
Friends of mine stayed at Klaus K and Lilla Roberts, and though they both absolutely loved it, I didn’t go there. I did go to the Clarion hotel, which was amazing! It’s a bit further away from the center but believe me – if you’re enjoying a cocktail in the sky bar, or looking at the beautiful view with Helsinki’s skyline, you’ll thank your lucky stars for staying here. You can even swim on the sixteenth floor while enjoying the view of the city. Excuse me! If I ever come back to Helsinki, I’ll definitely be staying here.
Prices in Finland:
The prices in Finland weren’t as bad as I expected. I had Oslo/Norway as a reference, but that turned out to be unjustified. Finland has about the same prices as Amsterdam (just a tiny bit more expensive than The Netherlands, but not a lot). Alcohol is quite expensive, but the prices for hotel rooms and food weren’t bad at all.
Weather in Helsinki:
The weather in Helsinki was quite alright for January. If you’re not so lucky, temperatures can go down to minus twenty, but it’s quite unusual when that happens. When I was there (for about a week) the coldest temperature was -2. There wasn’t a lot of snow. During summer the weather’s apparently really great, if I have to believe my Finnish friends! Just make sure to pack a few thermic shirts and leggings and you’ll be just fine.
What are you favourite things to do in Helsinki?
I was in Finland as part of NBE Finland, and got to try out the food experiences as part of the StopOver Day program. This program shows you all the fun things you can do when you have a few hours to spend during your stopover in Helsinki with your Finnair flight.