18 Awesome Things to Do in Helsinki For First-Timers

Steve Cummings

Helsinki, Finland

We think that Helsinki doesn't get visited or talked about as much as a lot of capital cities, but it's a city that deserves more love than it gets, and we might even go as far as calling it one of Europe's best-kept secrets.

Like the other Nordic capitals, Helsinki is safe but expensive. However, we like visiting here, and we will now go through some of the best things to do in Helsinki.

1. Take a Free Walking Tour

walking tour
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We recommend taking a free walking tour if you have just arrived. It's a great way to tour Helsinki with a local. There are plenty of companies that run these free walking tours. All you have to do is give a tip at the end, which is perfectly fair.

If a free walking tour isn't for you, plenty of companies also do paid walking tours, but they will cost you about the same as what you would pay in tips for the free one.

2. Sea Fortress Suomenlinna

Sea Fortress Suomenlinna
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Sea Fortress Suomenlinna comes highly recommended as one of the best things to see in Helsinki. 

To get there, you take a ferry, which is an adventure. These leave about every 45 minutes, costing you about $8. 

There's plenty to do once you get to the island (actually, four smaller islands). You can walk around the old fortresses, check out a military museum, and enjoy some fantastic views of Helsinki. It's surprising how much time you can spend there so I recommend spending half a day there.

The main highlight is the Sea Fort, which used to be a military fort but is now a big park. 

There's a museum, a church, a beach, a bar, and a shop (but things are a bit pricey there). Just walking around the island is a lot of fun. It's perfect if the weather is nice.

3. Visit The Sauna at Löyly

Sauna at Löyly
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We only just found out how popular saunas were in Finland when we visited. Almost every house and hotel in Finland has one, and most Finnish people will visit a sauna most days. It's just part of the culture. It's one of the more unique things to do in Finland, but it's an everyday experience for the locals.

One Finnish sauna experience we think you should try is the one over at Löyly. It's right on the sea's edge, so when you get too hot, you can step outside and jump right into the sea (if you are brave enough).

Unlike some saunas, this one is a mixed sex, which means you won't be allowed in naked, so make sure you bring your swimsuit!

4. Temppeliaukio Church

Temppeliaukio Church
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Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki is one of the best things to see in Finland. 

How it's designed makes it unique, as it is not what you'd usually expect from a church. It is made with stone, unfinished concrete, wood, glass, and a copper roof. 

The acoustics inside the church are fantastic. If you can, try to listen to a concert, performance, or just the church organ. The sound in there is something special. 

This church is an excellent example of Finnish architecture that thinks outside the box.

5. Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral
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Helsinki Cathedral is a building you can't miss as it's pretty high up above the docks and market area. It's also a very famous building from the song by Darude called Sandstorm, which was a massive hit in the 90's. There is a famous scene of him sitting outside on the steps, and people often sit here to recreate this.

People are often disappointed when they go inside because it's not decorated like other cathedrals with lots of mosaics, but this is because it's a Lutheran cathedral. 

They ask for a 5 Euro donation to enter, and you can only pay by card. We recommend just admiring it from the outside as there are nicer buildings to see inside in Helsinki.

6. Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli)

Old Market Hall, or Vanha Kauppahalli, is a great indoor spot for shopping and eating, and it is located right near the cathedral we just mentioned above.

It's only quite a small market and doesn't have a communal seating area like many other European markets. However, it's still an excellent place to try something different and taste some real Finnish food, such as reindeer, salmon soup, or Skagen shrimp toast.

It's also a great place to buy souvenirs to take back home. We recommend Lingonberry jam or the smoked reindeer pate as these are things you can only find in a few places. Put this on your list as one of the best places to eat in Helsinki.

7. Seurasaari Island and Open-Air Museum

Seurasaari Island
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Seurasaari Island and Open-Air Museum is one of the top things to do in Helsinki, maybe even better than Suomenlinna Island if we had to choose. 

The island is filled with beautiful pine trees, and the air feels fresh and crisp. It's a nice place to walk around and learn about Finland and its way of life.

There's a small fee to go inside some buildings, such as churches and farmhouses, but we think it's worth it. The staff inside are very knowledgeable and friendly. They're ready to answer all your questions and even share stories about the building, the island, and Finnish history and culture. 

The birds and squirrels on this island are tame, so don't be surprised if a bird lands on your head or squirrels come right up to you and feed out of your hand.

Just be ready for mosquitoes in the summer months!

8. Uspenskin Cathedral

Uspenskin Cathedral
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Uspenskin Cathedral in Helsinki is a beautiful place to visit. The cathedral was built using recycled bricks because of budget limits, but the interior of this one is better than the Helsinki Cathedral. 

The inside is stunning, with shiny decor, impressive artwork and design, and fabulous Cyrillic/Russian writing.

What people like about the cathedral is that it's high up, so you get the best views of Helsinki from up here. From here, you can see incredible views over the Baltic Sea and the rest of the city.

The cathedral looks impressive in red against Helsinki's skyline, especially at night. 

9. Esplanadi Park

Esplanadi Park
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Helsinki isn't a busy city compared to others, but this esplanade is a peaceful place to walk through, with many benches where you can sit, watch people, and get a break from the main city.

The park is one of the best free things to do in Helsinki, as it's perfect for a picnic, watching people, or playing (if you have kids). It's clean, safe, and well looked after. 

There are shops and restaurants on both sides of the park, and during the summer, there are vendors selling drinks, hot food, and ice cream.

10. Ateneum 

Ateneum
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Ateneum is one of the leading art museums in Helsinki, right across from the train station. 

It's a must-visit place if you're interested in “classical” art. While it mainly features Finnish artists, there are also works by internationally famous artists. The special exhibition of Albert Edelfelt, a well-known Finnish painter from the late 19th to early 20th century, is a highlight.

The staff are friendly and know a lot about the art, the tickets are reasonably priced, and the whole place has a lovely atmosphere. 

Also, if you buy a general museum card, you can get into any museum in Finland for free, which we love at the Frugal Expat.

11. Helsinki Central Railway Station

Helsinki Central Railway Station, designed by the famous architect Eliel Saarinen, is a fantastic-looking building and is one of the best things to see in Helsinki.

Known for its solid granite walls, distinctive clock tower, and statues by the main entrance, it's often ranked as one of the world's most beautiful railway stations. 

The interior is stunning, with high ceilings in the main halls. Two of these halls now have places to eat – an Italian restaurant and, interestingly, a Burger King, and this might be the fanciest Burger King you'll ever see.

One interesting fact about the station is that it is a waiting room built initially for the Czar of Russia, and the Finnish president now uses it to welcome official guests. Finding it can be challenging, but see if you can.

12. The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum in Helsinki should be on your list of things to do with kids in Helsinki.

The museum may be small, but it has interesting displays. Kids around 8 and 5 will find it perfect with popular exhibits, including the dinosaur skeletons and the mammoths.

Inside, they've managed to fit a lot of animal displays into a small space without making it feel too crowded. It's a perfect place for kids to learn and explore.

The museum is just a short walk from the Central Railway Station and bus stops, making it easy to get to. 

13. The National Museum of Finland

The National Museum of Finland is the go-to place to understand Finland. 

Starting in the basement, the museum takes you through the country's prehistory, showing how it developed after the Ice Age and into the modern day. 

Moving up the floors, you'll learn about Finland's religion, art, politics, wars, and people over the last century. We recommend using the free audio guides to get the most out of your visit.

If you have a Helsinki card, admission is free. 

14. The National Library of Finland

The National Library of Finland is beautiful, especially if you love books and architecture, featuring gorgeous frescoes. You can easily spend an hour or more just walking around, taking photos, and admiring the beautiful architecture. 

This library is extensive, with 7-8 levels with a cafe downstairs.

Put this on your list of free things to do in Helsinki, as there's no charge to get in.

15. Linnanmäki Amusement Park

Linnanmäki Amusement Park.001
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Linnanmäki Amusement Park in Helsinki should be at the top of your list of things to do with families in Helsinki.

The park itself is clean and easy to get around. One thing that people like about this park is that there are no lines for the rides, as it's never too busy.

The Taiga coaster, an Intamin LSM Blitz coaster, is a highlight and is ranked as one of the best coasters in Europe.

What's unique about Linnanmäki is that a child welfare charity organization runs it. This means that all the profits the park makes, after covering its expenses, go towards child welfare work. 

16. Helsinki Zoo

Helsinki Zoo, also known as Korkeasaari Zoo, is one of the cool things to do in Helsinki.

It's located on an island close to the city center and is open all year round. This zoo is the biggest in Finland and has over 150 animal species. The zoo has been around since 1889, making it one of the oldest zoos in the world. 

Today, it's run as a non-profit foundation. The main goal of the zoo is to help protect endangered species and biodiversity. 

Every time someone visits, they're supporting this vital work. Besides looking after the animals in the zoo, they also work on saving species in their natural homes and run a Wildlife Hospital for wild animals that are hurt or don't have a parent.

17. Taproom Helsinki

Taproom Helsinki is the best place for beer in Helsinki. They offer 24 beers on tap, plus a variety of bottles and cans at reasonable prices.

They also do an excellent job of pairing wines with food, offering a fine dining experience but a more relaxed, everyday feel. Their pizza menu is also really popular.

If you lived nearby, it's a place you'd want to visit every week. 

18. Ravintola Kuu 

Ravintola Kuu in Helsinki is highly rated as one of the best restaurants in Helsinki, and if you don't believe us, then check out the fantastic reviews on Trip Advisor.

The menu has a lot of traditional dishes, like Venison tartar, and the reindeer dish, which comes with creme and sauce, is terrific. 

The atmosphere in the restaurant is cozy and welcoming.

The prices are fair, especially considering the food quality and the excellent service. Even when the restaurant is busy, you won't feel rushed.

Final Thoughts

Helsinki is the least visited of the Nordic capitals, but after reading our list of the best things to do in Helsinki, you will realize there's so much to do here.

Is there anything we have missed from the list that we must add? Let us know in the comments below.

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