The bus always comes on time in Helsinki.
Businesses open when they say they will.
Pedestrians wait patiently to cross the street.
Life seems… predictable.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll see
that Helsinki is so much more than it appears to be.
Helsinki’s got a wild side
full of trendy hipsters
and a deserved aesthetic pride.
From doorknobs to dresses it’s all made with care,
Helsinki has arguably the best design anywhere.
The simplest of spaces are planned with intention
both form and function in every invention.
In winter the city may seem gray and dreary
but vibrant street art keeps it uplifting.
Helsinki is foodie heaven
no matter your flavor
Moroccan brunch, Hawaiian fusion
a slab of meat or a raw vegan treat.
Organic, farm to table
we might call that trendy
But eating what’s fresh and local
is typical in Helsinki.
Pop into a venue
for death metal or intellectual rapping
then see some white chicks
sing acapella soul while break dancing.
If you’re a man, you’re in luck,
the women will approach you
If you’re a woman, even better
the men won’t harass you.
Strangers may not smile when you walk by
but there’s a level of trust you can’t deny.
People may bundle in layers of heavy clothes
but get them in a sauna and they’ll gladly strip off their drawers.
Locals may seem conservative
perhaps a little shy
But they own their bodies and sexuality
without shame for being alive.
And in a world full of cities
that produce an excess of worthless fluff
It’s nice to know that somewhere
still knows what’s up.
It’s nice to know that somewhere
hasn’t yet lost touch.
an example for the rest of us.
How to Get to Helsinki
International flights connect Helsinki with cities all over the world. Icelandair makes regular trips from US destinations with a stopover in Iceland. Getting into the city from the airport is easy and inexpensive (5 euros) when you take the airport bus (615/620, runs every 15 minutes). The last stop in the train station in the city center.
From Stockholm, From Tallinn
How to Get Around Helsinki
3 euros for a ride, 8 euros for a day pass
Helsinki is rather compact and walkable, and it has an excellent public transportation system. Not surprisingly, most people don’t use cars at all. Nearly everywhere in the city can be accessed through the underground metro, bus, or tram. The metro may be the fastest, but my favorite is the tram because it seems the most convenient. All of the transport options operate on the honor system. Which means you don’t need to present a ticket, but if you’re caught by a patrol without one it’s an 80 euro fine. Taxis can be convenient when you’re in a hurry and usually cost around 15 euros to get around the city (9 euro surcharge).
Where to Stay in Helsinki
While small and rather manageable, it definitely pays off to book yourself in one of Helsinki’s more interesting and well located neighborhoods. My personal favorites include Kallio, the trendiest hipster neighborhood with many of the best restaurants, shops, and bars, and right in the city center near the famous white Cathedral. I highly recommend traveling like a local and first scoping out AirBnb for an apartment rental. They’re usually more affordable than hotels and you have way more space. Best of all, you’ve got your own kitchen.
Huge Hipster Apartment
130 euros per night, sleeps up to 7 people
My favorite thing about staying in an apartment instead of a hotel is how you can have a totally local experience. When I arrived at this apartment, in an ideal location right in the center of Kallio across from Hakanemi Market Hall, I was greeted at the door by the friend of the owner who offered me a glass of scotch. He already had about 10 and was waxing poetic on the social problems in Finland. The owner got off of his business call and we all sat together and talked about world travel and culture in Finland. I led them through a meditation and breathing exercise, and even did a smudging with my palo santo stick. It was probably the coolest, realest thing that’s happened to me since I touched down in Scandinavia. Not to mention the apartment is huge, totally awesome, and way cheaper than a hotel!
24 euros for dorm, 45 euros for single
Helsinki can be hard on a budget, but there are some youth hostels where you can get a decent deal, especially if you’re traveling solo. The most established and conveniently located, is Eurohostel, nearby the ferry lines and about a 20 minute walk to the city center. It’s also right in front of the tram line, which makes transportation quite easy. Rooms are basic, but include a daily morning sauna, which makes you feel super pampered.
Rooms start at 25 euros
This ultra modern hostel in walking distance of Kallio has nicely done rooms with lovely neighborhood views. They have a shared kitchen and clean bathrooms, and everything is contemporary and new. The vibe is more like a college dorm than a backpacker dorm, as many people are renting long term, which guarantees you a good night sleep. However, if you’re looking to meet other travelers and party, your better bet is to stay in their dorm downstairs. It’s a bit outside of the city center, but there are tram lines close by.
Radisson Blu Royal
Rooms start around 100 euros
Ideally located, right in the city center in walking distance to everything, with reasonable rates and quality rooms. The luxury apartments even have their own terraces and saunas.
Rooms start at 170 euros
This small, boutique hotel, is meant to feel like home… if your home were incredibly well decorated anyway. All rooms are spacious and beautifully done, some have sea views. They have gourmet restaurants and a cozy lounge all onsite.
Where to Eat in Helsinki
Whether it’s local, ethnic, gourmet, or vegan, Helsinki has some of the best restaurants I’ve tasted in the entire world. Most places pride themselves on the high quality of their ingredients, and the way they elevate traditional recipes is inspiring. There’s tons of great restaurants to choose from, but here are my favorites.
$6 for smoothies and juice, Salad bar priced by weight, about $12 for a big lunch plate
Unless you live in Helsinki, or want to set yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment, don’t eat at Silvoplee. Ever. Because if you’re anything like me, it will be the only place you will want to eat at for the rest of your life. This endless salad bar of delicious vegetarian, mostly vegan and a good amount raw, has some of the brightest, freshest, most delicious flavors of anywhere I’ve ever eaten. Dozens of inventive dishes grace the salad bar daily, but my favorites were the homemade carrot sauerkraut (lots of probiotics!) and the curried cauliflower quinoa salad. They also have a great selection of superfood smoothies, juices, and raw desserts.
25 euros for all you can eat brunch, 18 euros for dinner entrees
Every Saturday and Sunday morning a line curves around the corner where Sandro’s sits. Dedicated locals wait patiently to grab a plate and devour the most epic brunch buffet I’ve ever experienced. Saturday’s it’s vegetarian heaven, with towers of fresh salads, fresh pressed shots of green juice, dry crisp sparkling wine, hot comforting main dishes, and an incredible array of dessert. Come Sundays experience the heart of Sandro’s, Marrakech Madness, with Moroccan inspired brunch. At night Sandro’s remains one of the hippest restaurants in town, with a fun and sexy candlelit ambience, killer cocktails, and delicious Moroccan fusion food.
11 euros for salad bar lunch
Owned by yogis, Om Nam is the latest vegetarian restaurant to hit the Helsinki scene. The lunchtime salad bar may be small, but don’t let that deceive you, it’s so good it’s more than enough. Shaved daikon with light as air ricotta and mint vinaigrette, nut and seed pesto spread with black bread, tahini tomato soup, and beetroot hummus are just a few of the incredible dishes I tasted here. The food is so good I insisted on having it as my last meal in Helsinki!
13 euros for lunch, 25 euros for dinner entrees
96 euros for a multi course tasting menu
If you splurge on one meal in Helsinki, make at the Michelin star awarded Ravintola Olo. Their tasting menus offer a truly Nordic culinary journey, employing cutting edge cooking techniques to classic Finnish ingredients and recipes. They are a prime example of New Nordic cuisine, the most revered trend in the global culinary scene.
10 euro apps, 35 euro entrees, 7 euro sides
Typically I’m a green smoothie kinda girl… but every now and then I do like to get a little carnivorous. I had the most incredible meal last night for my travel buddy A Journey of Wonders birthday at Grotesk Bar Ravintola. I was blown away by the quality of the food and service, and they really won me over by playing rap music. Standout dishes included the sea urchin “ceviche” with garlic aioli and the seared lamb shanks with port wine and crispy broccoli. Locally sourced, sustainably raised, and made with love.
59 euros for 4 course dinner, 89 euros for 8 course dinner
One of the most praised restaurants in Helsinki, Restaurant Ask serves carefully curated tasting menus using foraged ingredients, wild game, and organic produce. They highlight fresh, local Finnish ingredients, but artfully add their own contemporary touch. A great place to experience New Nordic cuisine.
What to Do in Helsinki in the Winter
It may be cold, at times really, really, really cold, but there’s no shortage of indoor and outdoor activities in Helsinki in the winter. Bundle up, and get ready to explore. If you plan to pack a lot into one day, consider getting a Helsinki Card, which offers free admission to most museums, free local transportation, and discounts at tons of restaurants, pools, and saunas.
Sweat in a Sauna
Sauna culture is easily my favorite thing about Finland. Nearly every local grew up going to sauna, most apartments have their own private saunas, and many people use the sauna daily. Some people have even been born in the sauna. In the winter it’s a spectacular way to warm up, sweat, relax, and detox. Most hotels have saunas, but for a more local experience I highly recommend visiting a neighborhood sauna. My favorite, one very popular with locals, is Kotiharjun Sauna in Kallio. It’s a more traditional wood burning sauna, and you’ll get the chance to sit outside in the snow and sip on a cold beer with some half naked old Finnish men. Also worth checking out is an excursion to the Finnish Sauna Society for a traditional sauna with ice dipping.
Shop Local Designers
Helsinki has been named one of the top Hipster cities in the world, among cities like Williamsburg in New York, and has also been awarded the honor of being the design capitol of the world. Sustainable design is huge in Helsinki, and there are shops selling eco friendly products everywhere. Check out eco and repurposed clothing and accessories at Globe Hope, Urban Story, and Ekolo. Kallio has some of the best vintage/second hand shops, be sure to check out Frida Marina, Olo Huone, Fargo, and Fox and Rabbit.
Take a Moment of Silence
Admittedly, I usually get burned out on cities quickly. I find the traffic, people, and buildings all too stimulating for my jungle girl soul. I have a feeling I’m not alone. This is why I love the Kamppi Chapel, also known as the Chapel of Silence. This contemporary space feels soft and womb like, swaddling its visitors in silence and peace. People from all walks of life and belief systems are welcome to seek refuge in the space of calm. I wish every city had one of these!
Scope Out the Café Culture
Much to my surprise, Helsinki reminded me more of Seattle (my hometown) than anywhere I’ve ever been. A big part of this was the strong café culture that lives there. Sipping on something strong, fair trade, and organic, over deep conversations with a friend or reading a great book, seems to be part of the daily routine as much in Helsinki as it is in Seattle. The moment I pop into a café, I feel right at home. Some of my favorite spots in Helsinki include Bergga, a very hip spot in Kallio with a salad bar, warm buffet lunch, excellent homemade ginger beer, and great music, Mbar downtown with a social scene and often live music, and Freese, which serves globally renowned coffee by an award winning barista, with strong berry notes, a unique and very Finnish flavor.
Warm up With a Coffee and a Slapped Ear
Cold wind bit my face as I walked along the highway in Helsinki. The sea lay beyond me, a white frozen mass, bleeding into the opaque sky. A little red house appeared in bold contrast. I walked past the outdoor fire, stepped into the kitschy wood cabin, and ordered myself the most popular treat in Finland. The cardomom scented pastry Korvapuusti, literally translates to “slapped ears”, and tastes like the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had in my life. Worth the cold walk. Get your own with a hot coffee, and sit on a reindeer hide by the fire, at Cafe Regatta.
Wander in the Snow in Suomenlinna
When you need an escape from the city, head to the nearby island Suomenlinna, which is beautifully deserted in the winter. Now a UNESCO Heritage site, Suomenlinna was once an important naval base. Today you can wander the old stone walls, learn about Finnish history, and walk along the coastline for some gorgeous views.
Hide out in a Museum
While with the right clothing you can certainly enjoy being outdoors in Helsinki in the winter, darkness and rain will likely send you indoors early in the afternoon. Museums are the perfect rainy day activity, and Helsinki has many. My top recommendations include The Finnish National Gallery with a vast collection of classic Finnish art, the Design Museum where you can see collections of 75,000 different design objects, The Museum of Contemporary Art with new cutting edge exhibitions, and the National Museum of Finland where you can discover the history of Finnish history starting way back in prehistoric times.
Swim Naked at a Public Pool
There’s a first time for everything, and at the famous Yrj0nkatu Swimming Hall, I checked naked public pool swimming off my list. They have special days for men and for women, so you can freely don your birthday suit while making laps. Even better, strap a floatie around your waist and try water running with the naked older Finnish ladies. They also have several saunas to enjoy after you’ve had your pool fix.
Nibble at Hakanemi Market
My favorite way to get to know any city is first through its market. I hear that in the summer months, all of Helsinki turns into one big market. Fortunately, in the winter months, Hakanemi Market Hall in Kallio still boasts fresh, local produce, traditional smoked and pickled fish, foraged mushrooms, and all kinds of goodies. For my fellow Seattleites, it’s like a mini Pike Place Market.
A huge thank you to Visit Helsinki (the local tourism board) and my local friends (old and new) for showing me the best of the city, and to the hotels and restaurants who sponsored my stay. My gratitude is overflowing. <3 As always, all opinions and recommendations are my own.