While many tourists will have been sampling the delights of northern Finland’s Lapland region this festive season, the south boasts a pearl of its own – Helsinki.
Helsinki is a city that differentiates itself from the norm. There are no skyscrapers like those that can be found in most major capitals, and the skyline makes it look like a grand town more than a metropolitan area.
But its lack of size should not be a deterrent, because the Finnish city still has plenty to offer. From its Olympic heritage to its Scandinavian influence, there is a lot to see and do.
There is, however, the small matter of it being quite an expensive country. So much so that we were told that some locals actually go to Tallinn, 80 kilometres away across the Baltic Sea, just to do their shopping.
But follow this guide to get more bang for your buck.
There are likely only two ways that you’re getting to Helsinki – and that’s by air or by boat.
Norwegian have flights from London Gatwick over the next six months starting at £98 return, but most other flights to the Finnish capital don’t come with such budget-friendly price tags.
And even if road is the route of entry, Lux Express have cheap coaches from St Petersburg, and Tallinn to St Petersburg is another route in their portfolio, giving seasickness sufferers a work-around.
Where to stay
Hotelli Finn is one of the few low-cost hotels in the city, floating around the £80-£90 mark – which certainly says more about other hotels than it does about this particular one. Hotelli Finn screams student accommodation and, television aside, it is as basic as it comes. But on city breaks, rooms are nothing more than base camps, and it serves its purpose well.
Between the unconventional elevator, which is more cups and string than iPhone 6, and its location just off one of the main roads in the city centre, Hotelli Finn is a great place for any budget traveller to stay. It may not be luxurious, but it has character with charming and friendly staff. Booking.com also has alternative hotels on offer.
You know the routine. If it’s time to check in, dump the bags in the room. If not then put them up for the afternoon in the storage room, because the city’s not going to wait around for you.
The first point of call has to be the National Museum of Finland (A), which provides a look at the history of the country, starting from the Stone Age and continuing all the way through to the present day. The building itself is impressive, reflecting the appearance of a Finnish medieval church, which inside presents a diverse range of exhibits with plenty of artefacts on show, including an impressive armoury in the basement.
Across the road is the Helsinki Music Centre (B), a concert hall open to visitors in between concert times. You can then get the tram, or walk if you’re not pushed for time, up the road to the Olympic Stadium (C).
Helsinki hosted the Olympic games in 1952 and the stadium is now home to the Finland national football team. Football fans are sure to be in for a treat, as HJK Helsinki play next door at Sonera Stadium (D), and are Finland’s most successful team.
The Olympic Stadium is free to enter and view, but the viewing tower which looks out over both the stadium and the city only costs €3 to climb. There’s also the lesser-known Sports Museum of Finland (E) which can be found a little further past the entrance to the Olympic Stadium and will attract any visiting sports nut.
Catch the tram back up the road into the centre, scrub up and head to Marski Bar & Restaurant (F) to enjoy some delicious food.
Helsinki is ridiculously expensive when it comes to food and drink, but this restaurant is affordable. It’s the beer that elevates the price in here, with a pint of Lapin Kulta costing around the €8 mark, while a full rack of ribs, fries, salad and garnishes was €17.50, despite being a more upmarket restaurant. Although a lot of Helsinki eateries give this impression.
Make it an early start and take the half-hour boat journey from Market Square (J) to the Fortress of Suomenlinna (K). The UNESCO World Heritage Site is spread across six small islands, upon which is an inhabited sea fortress which now forms part of the city itself, and was originally constructed as protection against Russian expansionism.
To explore the fortress properly will take at least five or six hours, so allow plenty of time to see everything, including the canons facing the mainland, the church, several museums, Augustin Ehrensvard’s grave, King’s Gate and the labyrinthine tunnels that can be found all over the islands.
Upon return from Suomenlinna, check out the market at Market Square which has fresh food, crafts and souvenirs galore.
Helsinki seems to be a city big on afternoon buffets, so take advantage of this and wolf down an all-you-can-eat helping at one of the many restaurants that offer it. Filling up in the day also means that you can save a lot of money on an expensive evening meal.
Other attractions of interest include the unusual Temppeliaukio Church (L), which is literally built into a rock. It looks more like a spaceship than a place of worship, and the suggested donation box rather than an enforced ticket place makes this attractive to those looking to save. Just make sure to empty your bladder beforehand, as the toilets there cost €1 to use.
The Kamppi Chapel of Silence (M) is open into the evening on weekdays and is a nice way to close out the tourist trail for the day. Located in Narinkkatori Square, the chapel is peace in the heart of one of Finland’s busiest areas.
If you’re still not full from before, MorriSon’s (N) – who serve the self-proclaimed ‘biggest burgers in town’ – serve up huge portions at reasonable prices, and it’s youth-influenced ambiance makes it a good place to have a beer, too.
Before you head home, make the trip to Helsinki Cathedral (O) and enjoy the contrast of the grand white structure against the backdrop of a blue sky and granite steps. If the weather’s not great it’s still worth the visit, and head inside to see the surprisingly plain, but still impressive décor. Oh, and fun fact, the cathedral and Senate Square, where it stands, featured in the opening of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ music video.
Across the road is the National Library of Finland (P) as well, which boasts some impressive architecture to quickly catch before leaving.