The only big city in a country deeply rooted in nature, Helsinki, the Finnish capital, is surrounded by more than 300 islands, 60 miles of coastline, and is one-third green space and parks. It’s fairly young looking for a European city, with mostly modern or Art Nouveau buildings, few from before 1812 exist, when it was named the capital. English is widely spoken, and there’s an excellent transit system with trams, buses and subways. Cruise ships can arrive in South Harbour, Hernesaari or Melkii terminals, all a half-hour walk, at most, from the city center, or five to 15 minutes by public transit or taxi.
Here are 11 of the best things to do in Helsinki.
Everyone seems to be looking for a more authentic experience when it comes to traveling that doesn’t involve taking a bus tour and wearing headphones. In Helsinki, you can not only explore like a local, but you can explore with a local. Day with a Local is a company that allows you to book a personal tour guide for the day. You’ll likely have about eight hours in port, and through such a tour, your day will be a combination of Helsinki highlights and local life, all customized according to your interests. Your local guide will meet you at the cruise port, and you will discuss some of your interests and places you want to see, and then you’re off.
This is not a typical church and is hands-down the absolute must-see in Helsinki. Completed in 1969, this ultramodern Rock Church is a masterpiece of modern Finnish architecture, built into solid bedrock with rock as its main walls and ribbed-glass windows tucked between the rock and the huge copper dome of ceiling. The ribbed windows allow rays of sunshine to enter the belowground structure. Concerts often take place here because of the great acoustics from the cooper roof.
The Rock Church is located in the heart of Helsinki in the Toolo district and is easy to get to by cab or walking.
This classic Finnish tradition is so popular that business, government cabinet meetings and even concerts have occurred in saunas for guests clad only in towels. Apartment buildings and companies often have them for residents and employees. When you’re at a sauna, hit yourself lightly with birch branches, then follow the dry heat with a cold shower or a jump into a lake to stimulate blood circulation; it’s the Finnish way, bracing and refreshing.
Rent a towel at Kotiharjun Sauna, a public wood-burning sauna built in 1928, where separate saunas for men and women, and private saunas for families or small groups, are available.
This bustling open-air market in South Harbour, the heart of central Helsinki, has stalls filled with seasonal produce (luscious strawberries, blueberries and lingonberries in summer), handicrafts, flowers and snacks all for sale. Ferries leave here for nearby islands, some with bus combinations — good to know if you want to explore any of the islands. The city’s oldest indoor market hall, Vanha Kauppahalli, is just next door and has many food vendors and eateries. It’s a popular place with locals.
Flat with many bike lanes and about 60 miles of coastline, Helsinki is ideal for biking. Helsinki Cityride offers guided bike tours that stop at major sights, as well as walking and kayak tours (cruise passengers get 10 percent off the ticket price). For example, you can cycle to Seurasaaren Open-Air Museum, passing Kaivopuisto Park with Suomenlinna Fortress views; Sibelius Park, where a monument consisting of 600 steel pipes honors Finland’s greatest composer; and the onion-domed red-brick Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral and white Lutheran Cathedral.
This open-air folk museum features 17th- to 20th-century wooden farmhouses, mansions and everything in between from all over Finland. It’s free to walk around Seurasaari Island, a lovely forested island linked to the mainland by a white wooden footbridge. Admission is charged to go inside the buildings to see traditionally costumed guides demonstrate crafts. The island also has a café (reindeer pie, anyone?), a park and beaches (bathing suits required Wednesday and Sunday; otherwise, wear your birthday suit).
The Open-Air Museum of Seurasaari is a 15-minute bus ride northwest of city center.
This massive maritime fortress is Helsinki’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1748 across eight small islands and helped to defend Sweden first, then Russia, then Finland after its independence in 1917 (officially transferred to Finland in 1918). Hiking trails (on a clear day from the island’s highest point, you can see Estonia, a mere 50 miles away) and six museums are also here. You’ll see everything from a World War II submarine, to a history museum about the fortress and its restoration, to a toy museum featuring thousands of vintage dolls, teddy bears and playthings from the early 19th century on. And there is no admission fee.
Suomenlinna Fortress is a mere 15-minute ferry ride from Market Square.
The home of composer Jean Sibelius, most famous for Finlandia, a symphonic piece inspired by Finland’s Kalevala poetry epic, is just outside Järvenpää on Lake Tuusula, west of Helsinki. His piano, study with lake view, sauna designed by his wife, Aino, and family furniture are preserved in the rural home where he lived for 53 years. Homes of other artists and writers that were part of Finland’s national Romantic movement are nearby.
A frequent port excursion, Ainola is about a half-hour drive from Helsinki, and buses to Järvenpää depart from Kamppi Bus Station if you want to explore on your own.
This zoo has many cold-climate animals, from snow leopards and brown bears to seals and Himalayan blue sheep. Be sure to see the tiger cubs born in May 2016 and walk among the peacocks. It’s on Korkeasaari island, where you can also picnic and admire the city and archipelago view (a great viewpoint: the rocks behind the monkey house). Small kids can also dig in the “dinosaur pit” for bones.
You can easily get to the zoo by taking a ferry or bus from Market Square.
Finland is known for simple modern design and innovation, from Marimekko’s colorful, often flower-patterned textiles and clothing and Alvar Aalto’s architecture and interior design to Iittala glassware and the wildly popular video game Angry Birds. Head to Punavuori, the Design District, southwest of Market Square, for trendy boutiques, design shops, galleries, the Design Museum and its lovely main street, Bulevardi.
The charming historic town of Porvoo is one of Finland’s most delightful and a popular port excursion. It is filled with craft boutiques, antique shops, galleries and merchants’ homes. The town has been an important trading port since the 14th century, and it’s where Finland was handed over from Sweden to Russia in 1809.
Porvoo is a one-hour bus ride east from Helsinki’s Kamppi bus station; buses leave every half hour.