A relaxing 24-hours in Helsinki
Helsinki has long been the overlooked capital of the Nordics. Tourists flock to Stockholm for it's ABBA and viking history, to Oslo for its greenery and accessibility to the fjords, Copenhagen for it's grunge-side and coffeeshop-lined waterfront, and Reykjavík for it's thermal pools. Helsinki is the second biggest of the capitals, surpassed only by Stockholm, but is often passed because it is thought to be one of the same.
Finland is strikingly different from the other Nordic countries: the language, the architecture, the personality of the people. You can easily walk across the city within 30-40 minutes. There are museums and touristy sites, but the best thing to do is stroll around, wandering in and out of all of the famous design shops (Finnish design is well-known around the world and in 2012 Helsinki basked in the glory of winning the Design Capital of the World!).
It is easy to get around with a public transportation day-ticket which covers the metro, bus, and tram routes, plus the Suomenlinna ferry –- the famous fortress island, visible from the city centre. Coming to Helsinki is as smooth as can be: you can be from the airport to the central railway station within 30 minutes, without having to walk outside. In the summertime, there are yellow city-bikes for rent and ferries will take you out to some of the 330 nearby islands, where you can hike, sauna, or eat at a Finnish restaurant.
I personally think a 72-hour weekend would be perfect for a first time visit in Helsinki, but during the summer, a lot of people stop over during a 24-hour layover. It's definitely worth it -- since Helsinki is so compact, you can see a lot of the main sites and get a good idea of the city vibe in one day!
Here are my recommendations for 24-hours in Helsinki: a relaxed guide, which leaves room for wandering & strolling.
Breakfast at the Old Market Hall
We have three main market halls in Helsinki, but the market hall at the bottom of the Esplanade, lining the waterfront, is a great place for tourists to head. From the newly renovated brick building, you can see Suomenlinna, the ferris wheel (which has a sauna on it, look for the black one!), and the newly built, and loved, Allas sea pool. Within the market hall, you'll pass stalls with fishmongers selling herring, salmon, and other fishes from the rivers and sea, people peddling the local favorite, potatoes, and berries galore to make endless jams.
Inside, head to Story, a gem of Helsinki dining. I love the sunny space and endless light the area was designed for (okay, this is only applicable in the summer since we have zero light in the winter!). The cold smoked salmon & caviar egg scramble is a quite delicious introduction to Finnish cuisine.
Stroll along the Esplanade
From the market hall, take a walk up the Esplanade towards Mannerheimintie (Mannerheim Road; Mannerheim is probably the most beloved Finn in Finland, Sibelius is a close second!, for helping win independence from Russia). As soon as you get to the Esplanade, at the bottom, you will see Kappeli on your left. A restaurant that has been serving patrons for 140 years, it's a traditional meeting place for after work drinks, with the beautiful, dignified glass veranda keeping you warm.
In the middle of the Esplanade you will come across a statue of Runeberg, the national poet of Finland. He wrote a story which became the lyrics to the national anthem (it's pretty depressing sounding, but hey, that's the forwardness and unfiltered-ness of the Finns!). Directly under Runeberg is the Maiden of Finland, holding a table with the words of the Finnish national anthem. Throughout the month of February, you can buy a Runeberg torte all around the country: a pastry flavored with almonds and arrack (or rum), stuffed with raspberry jam, and topped with a sugar ring, it's insanely sweet. I can't stomach even looking at it, but Finns have crazy sweet tooths and it's tradition to eat one (or ten!) during the month of February.
Johan Ludvig Runeberg's wife was the one that first baked him the treat. They often were short on money and Rudeberg was sometimes a grumpy man with a mean sweet tooth (sounds like a good description of a Finnish man!), so Fredrika knew how to deal with him. She would take leftover bread crumbs from dinner the night before, add a pinch of punch (naturally, this has been changed to include alcohol as all good treats around the world), and topped with fruit from their garden. He loved it so much that it became part of his daily breakfast. February 5th is Runeberg day, but it's celebrated the entire month of February. (Yeah, it's dark and cold and we don't have much else to do during that month!).
After the statue, on the right, you will see Cafe Esplanad, the oldest cafe in Helsinki. I'm actually not positive if that's true because many people have told me conflicting things, but we are going with it for the purpose of an exciting 24-hours in Helsinki! You can't go wrong at the Cafe with their amazingly large korvapuusti's, my absolute favorite Finnish pastry there is.
At the end of the Esplanad you will see the large white, modernist building which is the Swedish National Theatre. Turn right, on Mannerheimtie where all the trams will be carrying people past, then turn right again down Aleksanterinkatu. This is the main shopping street of Helsinki, where tourists and locals alike flock to. You will see the giant department store Stockmann, which has been a famed Finnish company since 1862, then up a bit further on the right you will see Marimekko, an international design brand also from Finland. Every home has at least one thing Marimekko in it, so pick up some napkins or a pillow cover if you want to give a little Finnish spin to your home!
Walk down the length of Aleksanterinkatu, browsing through stores and coffee shops on your way to Senate Square. Senate Square is the iconic Helsinki scene -- there you will see the famed white church, the Helsinki Cathedral. Carl Ludvig Engel was a German born architect having trouble finding work in war torn Europe during the Napoleonic years. In 1816, he was appointed architect of the reconstruction committee for Helsinki and stayed in Finland for the rest of his life. Practically the entire city was planned by Engel, within 25 years he had designed and completed around 30 public buildings in the city. The first building that was completed was the main wing of the Senate in 1822. A year later, the main building of Helsinki University was inaugurated -- it's gorgeous inside if you want to walk up the stairs and walk through! The famed University Library was completed a year after his death, but is often thought of as his most beautiful building. The spiraling white stairs within the library are probably one of the most Instagrammed spots in Helsinki! His biggest project though was the Lutheran Cathedral, dominating the square, which he worked on from 1818 until 1840. In the center of the square you will notice a statue -- at further glance you will notice that it is of the Russian Czar, Alexander II. It was erected in 1894 in honor of his reestablishment of the Diet of Finland in 1863 and the reforms that increased Finland's autonomy. The figures surrounding the emperor's feet represent law, culture, and peasants. During the Russification of Finland from the end of the 19th century until independence in 1917, the statue became a symbol of quiet resistance against Nicholas II, with Finns leaving flowers at the foot of the statue of his grandfather, who was known in Finland at the time as "the good czar".
A side note since I keep mentioning wars, if you're interested in history, is that the Molotov cocktail became famous through Finland's war efforts against Russia in 1939 (it was invented during the Spanish Civil War, but was "revamped" and gained its name from the Winter War). Finland was quite a poor country at the time and fighting against Russia, which had a military 5 times its strength. Finland used the homemade grenade as a cheap way to fight -- it is known as "the poor man's grenade" for a reason! Russia bombed Helsinki and Finland tried to denounce Russia and bring awareness to the international community (to get assistance) by telling what Russia was doing. Russia counteracted by saying that they were doing humanitarian work and just dropping "bread baskets". So, the bombs the Russians were dropping became known as the Molotov Baskets, named after the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, and the grenades the Finns sent back became known as Molotov Cocktails, so that the Russians could have a drink to go with their bread!
At this point you might be hungry again...
If you want something slightly different from the ordinary, head to Juuri for local tapas (known as sapas here). Their website states that they serve "Finnish cuisine with attitude", and it lives up to that motto! If you want more traditional, look towards Savoy, which is a timeless Finnish restaurant with a bee & herb garden and interior design by our loved Alvar Aalto. If you want something cheaper and altogether different from all of these options, head back to the waterfront where we were this morning and grab a salmon soup & rye bread from one of the many stalls lining the sea. Just be on the lookout for seagulls who love to swoop in!
After lunch, either head to Suomenlinna or let's take a stroll through a museum exhibition and the Design District shops!
Ferry to Suomenlinna
Your ticket is included in your Helsinki daily transport ticket and kids under 7 travel free. The ferry leaves from the area in between the Old Market Hall and the Allas sea pool -- you will see a sign for it and if you're there during the summer, you can't miss the line of tourists! Ferries usually leave every 20 minutes, but check when you get on the island when they come back because you don't want to get stuck overnight! Or, maybe you do, they do have some great coffee shops and cute stores.
Suomenlinna was a military fortress that stands out not only for its architecture, but for the fact that it served three realms: Danish, Swedish, and Russian. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with centuries-old artilleries and defensive walls.
HAM & the Design District
The Helsinki Art Museum, located in the old Olympic tennis hall, has a hidden gem of Helsinki: a free exhibition on Tove Jansson and her world of Moomins. The Moomin family surrounds childhoods in Finland, but they aren't the prim and proper, with nothing going wrong, figures that you see in childhood books in other parts of the world. The Moomins drink, find themselves in real life situations, and enjoy life! They are a family of all-white creatures with large white snouts, making people think they are hippopotamuses, but don't go calling them that in Finland!
After visiting the Moomin exhibit, head to the Design District to stroll in and out of shops. Lokal, Common, Samuji, Pino, and Nibe are all some of my favorite spots -- the final one being a great bookshop! If you're in need for a coffee or tea, Andante is one of the top stops in Helsinki, in my opinion.
You didn't think you could come to Finland and get out of a sauna experience, did you?! The sauna (pronounced "sauw-na", not "sah-na") is definitely an experience for foreigners heading to one for the first time. Because see, the thing is, you are supposed to go stark naked. Nowadays, they have a lot of saunas that are separated for men and women, and more and more, we are seeing saunas where people can wear bathing suits (what is this nonsense?!). And the sauna is hot. If it's below 75 or 80 celsius, there will be a lot of grumbling and complaining going on. For my Fahrenheit friends, that's between 167-176. Oh, and remember, water is constantly being thrown on (this is called a "löyly") to make steam rise, and, to make you, cough your lungs out. Usually you take rounds of sauna and in between, jump in the ice cold sea or take the most shockingly cold shower you can manage. Drink a cold beer or lonkerro with your newfound friends, then head back in!
There are many different levels of sauna to visit in Helsinki, so it's up to you how...traditional you feel comfortable with. If you want all out nudity, cold beer, loud Finnish, and ice cold water, head to the volunteer-run Sompasauna. This is my favorite public sauna in Helsinki because I love the atmosphere here. Everyone is joyous, excited to talk to each other (not a common thing in Finland!), and I've always seen people be extremely friendly and open with foreigners. If you want a more traditional sauna that is separated, head to Arla in Kallio. It's one of the oldest saunas in Helsinki, founded in 1929, and one of the only three remaining public saunas heated by natural gas and wood. They also have extremely cheap beer you can buy! If you're looking for some beautiful design, visit the newer Löyly. Located on the sea, the building is more like a stunning sculpture. The building is heated with district heating and the electricity is produced with water and wind power; the building is also the first FSC-certified building in Finland and the second within the Nordics.
Time for another Helsinki meal
You can head to Grön, which is often voted the number one restaurant in Finland -- plant based food with a Nordic flare, it's always a delicious tasting, yet light dish, to keep you feeling ready to keep exploring! If you didn't choose traditional Finnish for lunch and want to get your fix for dinner, head to the Anthony Bourdain recommended Saaga. The interior itself is a reason to visit, with wooden lined walls and intricate antler chandeliers lighting your plate.
Nightcapper at the Torni Hotel
Everyone loves the Torni Hotel, the drinks are expensive (but hey, where are they not in Helsinki), but the view is fabulous. You can go up to the top just for the view, but you might as well try some Napue Finnish gin while you're up there!
And of course, let me know if you're in Helsinki and want any more recommendations! I love giving tips and/or showing people around our lovely little city!