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Discover the best things to do in Helsinki that will introduce you to the humorous culture, forward-thinking innovation, and outside-obsessed mindset that frequently see Finland crowned the happiest country in the world.

As soon as you set foot in Finland’s laid-back and walkable capital city, you’ll soon see why the Finns have plenty to smile about. Eye-pleasing architecture is abundant, quaint cafés are plentiful, wellness is a way of life, and seafood is as fresh as can be. Then there are the 300-odd tranquil islands scattered across the Gulf of Finland, begging to be admired from an unhurried ferry, or on foot.

From experiencing Finland’s signature saunas and spotting landmark statues to exploring design museums, domed cathedrals, and decommissioned military bases, these are the best things to do in Helsinki to find your inner Finn.

Marvel at the Maritime Fortress

Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress, one of the best things to do in Helsinki

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Helsinki’s archipelago is the city’s crown jewels. Consisting of approximately 330, mainly wooded islands, each one dazzles like rough-cut emeralds scattered across the Gulf of Finland. However, six islands host something special: the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress.

Visiting Suomenlinna won’t just take you on a tour of Helsinki’s former defenses, but the site also shares the stories of those who came and conquered.

It was the Swedish who initially constructed the fortress (then named Sveaborg) over more than 50 years from 1748. Later, in 1808, the Russians took control of these islands, followed by Helsinki proper the following year.

Nowadays, with the fortress firmly under Finnish control, you’ll be greeted by a tranquil UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exploring Suomenlinna’s Blue Route, a one-mile north-to-south walking trail, is one of the best things to do in Helsinki to introduce yourself to part of the city’s impressive archipelago.

Street view of Great Courtyard, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Great Courtyard, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Alongside walking among the 18th-century Great Courtyard, remaining bastions, and other turf-roofed structures, there are half a dozen museums recounting the fortress’ tales, from artillery relics to submarine living.

Not that history is Suomenlinna’s only appeal. Relax on one of the wave-lapped beaches or squint across at the other islets from a café terrace to lap up the local island life. Some 800 residents now call these fortress-forming islands home.

Sample Seafood on Market Square

Market Square, one of the best things to do in Helsinki

Market Square

Kauppatori, Helsinki’s waterfront Market Square has been an important trading space since the late 19th century, although local fishermen were hawking their catch here long before that.

Fronted by the South Harbor with its fishers and ferries coming and going, and backed by City Hall and the Presidential Palace (sadly not open to the public), the market is a perfect spot for a people-watching sojourn.

Seafood at a market in Finland


While the days of row-upon-row of fresh produce stalls are long gone, you’ll still find a clutch of booths selling traditional and touristy handicrafts and souvenirs, such as reindeer-themed toys and woolen mittens, alongside Finland’s famously foraged wild berries. Yet it’s the seafood that’s really worth sticking around for.

Whether sitting on the water’s edge, boats bobbing within arm’s reach, or cozying up in one of the heated tents, there’s no better setting to sample Finnish specialties. Order pickled Baltic herring on rye bread, or Lohikeitto, a dill-heavy salmon soup, for a typical lunch.

Read: European Food Guide

Tour the Cathedrals

Helsinki Cathedral, one of the best things to do in Helsinki

Helsinki Cathedral

Dominating Senate Square and the city’s skyline, the soaring green-domed neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral is one of Finland’s most recognizable sights.

At first glance, the imposing colonnades that flank all sides of the all-white, symmetrical edifice make it easy to mistake for a presidential building.

Climbing up the equally attention-commanding staircase, you’re able to cross the threshold to the more simplistic interior. It’s well worth consulting the cathedral’s concert schedule ahead of your visit; the organ recitals are particularly rousing.

Beautiful exterior of Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Across the city, the largest orthodox church in Europe, Uspenski Cathedral, provides a second striking religious monument. The red brick structure, crowned with a golden bulbous dome, is a marvel.

Step inside and you’ll encounter a stark contrast to the city’s main cathedral, with jaw-dropping chandeliers and intricate mosaics providing show-stopping decor.

Explore Helsinki’s Art Scene

Exterior of the Ateneum Museum


Playful and sarcastic, contemporary and curious, or classical and regal? Helsinki’s art scene punches well above the city’s relatively compact size. Stringing together a couple of galleries or art museums is one of the best things to do in Helsinki to see Finnish artistic flair through the ages.

For classical pieces from the 18th century onwards, the Finnish National Gallery’s Ateneum should be your first port of call, even if only for the magnificent and grand neo-Renaissance architecture.

There’s a sizable collection of works by some of Finland’s most prominent artists, such as Helene Schjerfbeck’s modernist pieces and Albert Edelfelt’s realism. These sit alongside international masters, including Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh, making it easy to spend a full day exploring the exquisite halls.

Exterior of the Kiasma Museum

Kiasma Museum

If contemporary art is calling, venture to the Kiasma Museum, a secondary outpost of the National Gallery. With an ever-changing display of innovative Finnish works, both commissioned and curated, you’ll likely be drawn into a more humorous or thought-provoking side of local creatives as you explore the futuristic space.

Linger in Impressive Libraries

Unique architecture of Oodi Library

Oodi Library

Bibliophiles are in for a real treat in Helsinki, with a handful of gorgeous libraries to visit, though two, which contrast the classical and contemporary nature of the city, really stand out.

Oodi Library, the city’s newest, opened in 2018 to celebrate 101 years since Finland’s independence. Fronted by a sweeping wave of spruce timber, which doubles as an inviting terrace, the library’s best asset is the upper floor’s wide windows which flood the community space with light.

For something a little more traditional, take a peek inside the National Library of Finland, located on Senate Square. Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, one of the most prolific architects of Helsinki’s neoclassical center, the interior is arresting, with stucco marble columns soaring to the frescoed domes.

Sauna & Swim

Aerial view of Löyly sauna


The Finns have been perfecting their sauna culture for thousands of years and one of the best things to do in Helsinki is to partake in this local wellness and cleansing tradition.

Originally, Helsinki’s saunas were born from a lack of private bathrooms, leading to a rapid growth of public bathhouses in the late 1800s. Nowadays, you’ll still find a few of the neighborhood saunas still in use, alongside some trendy options.

Löyly is one of the most distinctive of this new generation of saunas and one of the few where you can choose to enter in a bathing suit. Traditionally, Finns sauna without clothes, men and women together. The unique design of the timber and pine waterfront sauna and combined restaurant has seen Löyly awarded numerous architectural accolades.

If you’d prefer a more traditional option, with the chance to follow the Finns’ lead by cold plunging into the Baltic Sea, the public Kulttuurisauna provides a low-key and serene alternative.

Make Time for Coffee

Coffee and cinnamon roll on a table


Considering the local penchant for taking a dip in chilly waters, it’s unsurprising that the Finns are some of Europe’s biggest coffee drinkers. To keep the population caffeinated at all times, you’ll find quaint coffee houses on seemingly all corners of this modern city.

Take a moment to partake in the local pastime and pause for a caffeinated cup best enjoyed with a slice of Mustikkapiirakka (blueberry pie) or a Korvapuusti (cinnamon roll).

To upgrade your coffee experience, head to one of the two outposts of Helsinki Coffee Roastery in Vallila or Teurastamo. Renowned for their home-roasted quality beans, the pair’s cozy and quirky-decorated spaces are ideal for watching the world go by, especially if you snag a window or terrace seat.

Visit Contemporary Churches

Exterior of Temppeliaukio Church

Temppeliaukio Church

The dome of Helsinki Cathedral might dominate the city’s skyline, yet it’s far from being Helsinki’s most unusual place of worship. You’ll find a few more fascinating religious buildings dotting the city, from the once onion-domed, former Russian Orthodox church in Suomenlinna to the curious, curved, and contemporary wooden Kamppi Chapel.

Still, it’s the Lutheran Temppeliaukio that arguably takes the accolade for Helsinki’s most unique church. The brainchild of architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, this circular and somewhat controversial church opened in 1969.

View inside Temppeliaukio Church

Temppeliaukio Church

Carved from in-situ bedrock and topped with a glass and copper ceiling which acts both as a skylight and, sometimes, a purposefully water-leaking design decision, this church is a welcome break from the typical European churches of old.

Celebrated for its soulful acoustics, the cavernous-yet-airy space regularly hosts classical concerts. Though it’s just as magical when enjoying some tranquil contemplation.

Ramble Around “Rural” Life

View of the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum

Seurasaari Open-Air Museum

There’s no need to stray far from Helsinki for an introduction to Finland’s countryside and timeless rural traditions. The Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, preserving traditional wooden buildings from across the country, is just a couple of miles west of the city center.

Spread across an inner island, reachable by crossing a pretty pedestrian wooden bridge built in the late 19th century, forested Seurasaari is a serene spot for bird spotting and shoreline strolls.

Since 1909, it’s also housed a bucolic array of wooden buildings, some of which are 400 years old. These have been reconstructed on the island to preserve Finland’s heritage.

Ambling around the collection of nearly 90 cottages, farmsteads, and even a 17th-century church, you’ll soon discover the varying architectural styles from the south to north, deep inside the Arctic Circle.

Admire the Archipelago

Waterfront view of Helsinki


Hopping onboard a ferry or tour boat to see more of Helsinki’s islands is one of the best things to do in Helsinki on a summer’s day. With a gentle breeze from the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland’s waters sparkling under the sunlight, and the 300-plus islands peppering picturesque panoramas, there is truly no better place to be than out on the open deck.

Helsinki’s shoreline stretches for some 80 miles and beyond the fortress islands, you’ll be treated to views of untouched islets, densely-forested coastline peppered with colorful summer villas, or the shaded Degerö Canal.

Onboard many of the boat excursions, you’ll hear more about Helsinki’s maritime history, with seafaring stories and anecdotes shared by the crew as you flit between the larger inhabited islands and more remote outposts.

Uncover Helsinki’s History

Finland’s fight for freedom and independence was long fought, and, as the nation’s capital, Helsinki hosts plenty of museums to uncover the stories that have shaped modern-day Finland.

A fantastic place to start is the small but informative Helsinki City Museum. The two permanent exhibitions focus on Helsinki’s story, with panoramic photo panels of then and now, a reconstructed 1950s home, and interactive experiences which help share historic moments in entertaining ways.

Snack and Shop in Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall)

Exterior of Vanha Kauppahalli

Vanha Kauppahalli

The instantly recognizable russet-and-beige patterned brick facade of Vanha Kauppahalli, Helsinki’s original 1889 market hall is just a short stroll from open-air Market Square.

If the Baltic breeze isn’t on side for an al fresco seafood feast, dip inside for some delicious dishes instead. No matter if you’re craving a divinely dill-heavy seafood chowder at Soup&More or flavor-packed meatballs and lingonberries at Story café, you’ll be greeted by a cheery welcome across the countertops.

Prefer a picnic? You’ll find plenty of traditional traders in individual wooden-paneled stands happy to furnish you with a Finnish feast of sturgeon caviar and smoked reindeer, or tangy Turunmaa cheeses and cloudberry jam.

Relax in Espa

Waterfront view of Espa


Moments from Market Square ​​Esplanade Park, or Espa to the locals is the perfect place to pause from sightseeing. Pick from one of the restaurant’s terraces, people-watch from a bench, or enjoy your sunny day picnic soundtracked by local buskers.

Providing a green lung to Helsinki’s Downtown, the well-manicured park is adorned with pretty flower beds, water features, and overlooking it all, a statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the lyricist of Finland’s national anthem. ​​

Esplanade is especially lively in the summer when the Espa Stage hosts various daytime and evening concerts.

Discover Nordic Design

Majestic exterior of the Design Museum in Helsinki

Design Museum

Finland’s design credentials are numerous. The country’s contributions to the world span technology inventions such as Nokia to the forward-thinking furniture of Helsinki-founded Artek. It’s little surprise that this European capital is a UNESCO City of Design.

One of the best things to do in Helsinki to learn more about Finnish ingenuity is to visit the Design Museum with its 70,000-strong collection.

As you’d expect, technology plays a major part in the museum’s experience. Interactive elements help bring some of Finland’s most famous contributions to the world, such as the first-ever web browser or the popular video game Angry Birds to life.

For a more tactile and retail-focused look at Finnish design, spend a little time browsing and shopping for souvenirs at the Helsinki Design District. This compact quarter begins in the Kaartinkaupunki neighborhood.

Here, you’ll find collaborative boutiques selling ethical fashion, artisanal stores producing textiles utilizing Finnish materials, and Sami knitting patterns. Look out, too, for ceramics or glass products from long-standing and locally loved Arabia.

See the Sibelius Monument

Popular Sibelius Monument in Helsinki

Sibelius Monument

Taking center stage in Sibelius Park, named in memory of Jean Sibelius, one of Finland’s most famous orchestral composers, the Sibelius Monument is Helsinki’s most striking sculpture.

The work of Eila Hiltunen, the monument depicts the links between Sibelius’ music and nature via a cluster of 600-odd steel pipes arranged to resemble organ pipes. A bust of the composer is perched on a rock overlooking the installation.

After walking around the unique design, step underneath the tubes. On a breezy day, the serene park will be soundtracked by their low humming as the wind blows.

Senate Square, one of the best things to do in Helsinki

Senate Square

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