One day in Helsinki is not nearly enough time to see it all (at least it wasn’t for me). But with an open mind and appetite for adventure, it’ll be a day you won’t soon forget!
Small, compact and exploding with style, Helsinki is the cultural and economic epicenter of Finland. It is the country’s capital and largest city, home to a little over 600 thousand people.
With its progressive, democratic culture one might forget that Finland is closer to Russia geographically and linguistically than Western Europe. However, communicating isn’t a problem here – Finland is among the top four English-speaking countries in the world.
Nestled against the Baltic Sea and surrounded by hundreds of beautiful inlets and islands, Helsinki provides a refreshing balance between urban living and natural beauty. You don’t have to look far to notice the architectural innovations, trendy cafes and stylish locals. At the same time, just a short drive, train ride or boat cruise will place you in the middle of a natural wonderland.
Explore an 18th-Century Sea Fortress
Because I only have one day in Helsinki, I wake up early to take full advantage of the day and head to the ferry terminal in Market Square. From here I catch the ferry to Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s 18th century sea fortress.
Admission to the fortress is free for everyone. You only have to pay for the ferry to get there. Ferry service runs multiple times per day and costs 3 Euro.
Suomenlinna is one of seven UNESCO world heritage sites in Finland. It also carries the distinction as one of my favorite castles in Europe (technically its a fortress, but that’s just semantics). I’ve seen a lot of castles, so that shouldn’t be taken lightly!
The island complex includes a series of artillery garrisons and defensive walls. All of the main sites are located along the “Blue Route,” a walking trail that runs across the fortress grounds. The trail is about 1.5 km long and the marked signs along the trail will help guide you.
Another option is to take an organized walking tour with a knowledgeable guide to explain the history and lesser known facts about the fortress. Purchase tickets in advance through the online store or from the Suomenlinna Centre where the tour begins.
Suomenlinna is also host to six museums, many restaurants, cafes and even a brewery!
Given the size of the fortress and plethora of sights, you could spend your entire one day in Helsinki at Suomenlinna. That’s why I recommend getting there early and sticking to the Blue Route before heading back to the city center.
Experience Old Helsinki
The ferry terminal at Market Square is the perfect launching point for an afternoon of walking around the city. I exit the ferry and head out from here to explore.
In addition to the modern functional style of Finland, Helsinki is also known for its Art Nouveau architecture. Nowhere is this more evident than in Katajanokka, a quiet harborside neighborhood a few minutes walk from Market Square.
I take a stroll around the area to admire the elegant buildings and the massive, red-bricked Uspenski Cathedral. Katajanokka is also known for its upscale seafood restaurants and Wanha Satama, a 19th-century warehouse that hosts markets and nautical exhibits.
Less than 10 minutes by foot from the western edge of Katajanokka is the Helsinki Cathedral. It’s a giant neoclassical green-domed cathedral of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran denomination.
I wasn’t that impressed by the inside, but the view looking up at the cathedral from the steps below is amazing.
By this point it was time to give the legs a break and fill up on food and drink.
Madison was busy spending an epic weekend in Las Vegas for a work event, so my one day in Helsinki was a solo trip. Thus, I decided to go the unhealthy route and gorge on sausage and beer (she’s vegetarian and not much of a beer drinker).
I settled on Il Birrificio. It’s only a 15 minute walk from Senate Square and has a diverse selection of beer and food. I got the gin sausage and washed it down with a Finnish ale.
Hang with Hipsters in Kallio
With legs rested and stomach satisfied I hopped on route 3 of the city tram, exiting at the Hakaniemi stop in the heart of Kallio.
This densely populated, formerly working class neighborhood has undergone a resurgence in recent years. The influx of a young, diverse population has brought with it an array of unique shops, trendy cafes, hipster bars and locally-sourced, organic restaurants.
Kallio’s laid-back bohemian vibes and progressive culture have cultivated an eclectic personality that makes for an interesting and entertaining visit. This neighborhood is a must if you only have one day in Helsinki.
My first stop is at Hakaniemi Market Hall. This cozy market is home to shops, cafes and restaurants selling everything from fresh vegetables and poultry to soaps and vintage clothing.
I head to the second floor to find a cafe and pastry shop selling specialty coffees and pastries. Unable to resist, I devour a delicious piece of chocolate cake before heading out for the next destination.
One of Kallio’s most popular hangout spots, Bear Park (Karhupuisto) is only a 10 minute walk from Hakaniemi. Bear Park Cafe makes for a great location to spend a summer afternoon. It’s perfect for people-watching while enjoying an espresso.
Neighboring Bear Park Cafe is the Kallio Church and library. If you enjoyed the art nouveau architecture from earlier, this cathedral is definitely worth a visit. I was a bit burnt out on viewing churches, but it was so close to Bear Park that I couldn’t resist stopping by.
By now darkness has arrived and it’s time for a drink. I stop in at Sivukirjasto, one of the most unique bars in all of Helsinki. Whether this place is a bar or a library is up for debate, but either way there’s over 100 beers on tap!
Get Sweaty in a Finnish Sauna
This is where things get interesting.
Enjoying a beer and surrounded by library books, I strike up a conversation with a local who tells me that saunas are extremely popular. Turns out there are more saunas than cars in Finland!
He recommends I visit a local hangout spot and public sauna called Sompasauna. It’s free to use and maintained by the community.
“That sounds cool,” I replied, “but it’s getting late and the sauna is a long walk from here.”
A few beers later the buzz kicks in, and I decide the two mile walk doesn’t sound so bad after all. I save the location in google maps, and I’m on my way.
Before long I’m trekking through an abandoned construction site and it’s pitch black outside. The thought of turning back begins taking over.
Luckily, I soon come across a tiny, wooden shack covered in graffiti. This thing looks like it was made with scrap materials from a junkyard and might collapse into a pile of rubbish at any minute.
A few people are smoking cigarettes nearby with towels around their waste. I change into my swim trunks behind a tree and venture into the shack. Maybe 15 feet long and just wide enough for a bench along each side, it’s cramped and insanely hot.
My body is instantly covered in sweat.
I find a spot in the corner to sit. Gazing around, I quickly realize the obvious – I’m the only one who is not naked!
The locals make a joke about my modesty, and we proceed to engage in a rather curious conversation about sexuality in different cultures. We all exit the sauna to jump in the ice cold Baltic Sea, which begins a cycle found only in Finland.
Sauna. Swim. Repeat.
After a few rotations I finish the night at a pub drinking pints with my new sauna friends.
So, what did I learn from this experience?
First, don’t be afraid to engage with locals – it’s something you should always do when visiting a new country. Second, the next time you have one day in Helsinki, hop in the sauna and do it Finnish style: naked!
That’s everything I was able to squeeze into one day in Helsinki. What else would you recommend doing?