SHARP Travels: Visiting Helsinki in 48 Hours

From the Editors — With very good reason, Scandinavia (and Finland,) often finds its way onto most people’s travel wish list. The fjords, the people, the culture; nations like Finland still carry a sort of mystique that draws travellers looking for something beyond the typical “Euro trip”. Being too far north to be a typical travel hub, these sorts of destinations require intent more than happenstance, but that doesn’t mean a quick hop into Helsinki isn’t worth the effort. With that in mind, we leaned on one of our roaming wordsmiths with extensive experience in the city to guide us through the perfect 48 hours in Helsinki.

You’ve just arrived in Finland’s capital by train. Where are you staying? Two local hotels are worth a visit, even if their nightly rate is out of budget. No, they’re not paying for mention here, just fascinating. See the first across the street before even ordering your car. 

Also, maybe don’t order a car. Helsinki’s convenient public transit is fast. Download the HSL app to pay from your phone, or buy tickets at tram and metro station kiosks. (NB: You may not be asked for proof of payment, but fare evasion exacts an €80 charge plus the evaded fare.) 

The nearby Sokos Hotel could’ve been plunked down last week, but was actually erected for the 1952 Olympics. Take five minutes in the lobby. Every unique centimeter was designed to impress, marking Finland as a leader in postwar creative cool. Sit in an original captain’s chair flanked by funky reading lamps. Ikea could borrow their designs next week and they’d still seem futuristic.

Sokos Hotel Lobby view
Sokos Hotel Lobby

The other celebrated hotel worth seeing is Torni, meaning tower. Built in 1931, it was Helsinki’s tallest structure till recently. Visit the rooftop cocktail bar not just for incomparable views. Sometimes Canadian resident John Irving incorporates Torni in his heartbreaking novel, Until I Find You

Tip: If you’re considering a short-term rental, the elegant but quiet Töölo neighbourhood, an early 20th century spaghetti of streets, intentionally eschews the North American cereal-box-on-a-grid. It’s walkable from the train station, or minutes by tram.

Day 1: Helsinki Must-Sees

Helsinki Must-Sees

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Torni Hotel

Helsinki Must-Sees

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Helsinki Must-Sees

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Helsinki Central Station

Helsinki Must-Sees

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Helsinki Central Station

Helsinki Must-Sees

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Hakaniemi Market Hall

Gawk at the Art Nouveau Train Station

First: even by European standards, the Art Nouveau train station’s a bucket-lister. 

Hyper-masculine statues with Dutch Boy haircuts bookend the entrance. A designer’s paradise, Helsinki regularly decorates these vaguely creepy sentinels with gentle self-mockery. In 2009, they briefly wore KISS makeup welcoming the dad-rock act to town. This spring, they modeled the flouncy green costume of Finland’s Eurovision finalist.

Helsinki Central Station outside
Helsinki Central Station

Inside, the irreverence in decoration is slightly more controversial. An American burger chain built their kitchen beneath a lovely original landscape by Finland’s early 20th century master Eero Järnefelt. Patriots and art lovers grumble that rising steam and grease mar the paint. 

Spend the Morning at the Least Church-y Churches in the Nordic Countries 

Staying in Töölo? Don’t miss the Temppeliaukio — aka Rock Church. Outside, it looks like a titanic cymbal capping a Canadian Shield quarry. Inside, 360o of haphazardly hacked boulders support scores of narrow glass panels whose spines somehow support the roof. 

Did I say roof? That’s actually 22 kilometres of tightly wound copper stripping. It’s worth the €5 entry fee just to watch your Like button break.

Not to be outdone, the Kamppi Chapel 1km southeast, looks like a precisely imbalanced and gargantuan wooden egg cup. Inside, it’s windowless but for a crack of skylight beneath the ceiling. The only cost for entry is your attention. Signs request no speaking or phone use. Easy: all around you is calming curved wood. Be at peace.

Templaliaukko, or Rock Church
Temppeliaukio, or Rock Church

Mind, if you love traditional European churches, the austere Lutheran simplicity of the Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square looms monochromatic. Prefer your churches more ornate and bloody? The Uspenski Cathedral offers a rich dose of busy Eastern Orthodoxy, complete with icky icons. These two churches dominate the cityscape from the harbour. Maybe you’ll take a ferry or boat tour this afternoon.

Grab Lunch at Hakaniemi Market Hall, The Traditional Worker’s Market

Treasured by locals, the recently updated Hakaniemi Market Hall is distinctly less touristy than the harbour market which flogs Sami knives, plush reindeer toys and canned smoked fish. Get some Finnish black bread, cured meats and fresh veggies for a picnic in the nearby Tokoinranta park. It’s one link in a chain of parks that bisects much of Helsinki. (A friend used to cross-country ski from downtown 10km to work with almost no road crossings. Streetlights lit his path during winter’s truncated days.) 

Islands near Helsinki
Islands near Helsinki

Feeling refreshed? Good. The greater Helsinki archipelago contains over 300 small islands. Take a harbour tour or …

See Seurasaari, An Island With An Open-Air Museum (& Clothing-Optional Beaches)

Helsinki’s most important islands are connected by bridge and, being on sea-level, easy to cycle to. (You can rent city bikes on the HSL app.) Several are accessible by tram and even metro. 

However you go, don’t miss Seurasaari. (The ubiquitous suffix saari means island.) This public park’s seasonal outdoor museum features traditional Finnish buildings dating from the 18th century. The older ones induce itchiness — and gratitude that you live in the modern age. Especially since Helsinki’s harbour is still pristine, clean enough for swimming. 

Seurasaari cabins with snow

So? If it’s a lovely day, pay to swim at Seurasaari’s segregated nude beaches. Beware: Wednesdays and Sundays, bathing suits are mandatory!

Hit the Saunas: Take In Views Aboard A Ferris Wheel at SkySauna, or Stroll Through Time Favourite Löyly

Didn’t quite satisfy your exhibitionist tendencies? There’s a Ferris wheel sauna. (Really.)

A sauna is de rigeur for any visitor to Finland. And if this one doesn’t light up your social media feed, fire your friends. SkySauna is just as it sounds: a Ferris wheel sweatbox offering views of Helsinki city and harbour outside, and who knows what within.

SkySauna Helsinki
SkySauna on Helsinki’s SkyWheel

Maybe you had a good childhood and don’t need to swoop up and down while perspiring. Löyly, a huge sauna/café/restaurant/patio/nightclub covers other bases. While it looks like a charnel house and ziggurat had a baby, Time Magazine called it “one of the 100 greatest places in the world.” After sweating out the day’s gunge, visitors plunge into the Baltic between meals and cocktails. 

Day 2: Helsinki History and Culture

Helsinki History and Culture

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Oodi Central Library

Helsinki History and Culture

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Oodi Central Library: rolling floors.

Helsinki History and Culture

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Helsinki History and Culture

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Musiikkitalo, or Music House

Helsinki History and Culture

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National Museum

Helsinki History and Culture

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Museums and Triumphant Civic Structures

Homage to Helsinki’s history at sea, Oodi Central Library is utterly unique. It looks like an immense ship — not just outside. The top floor isn’t flat; rolling upwards, it mimics a pitch through high seas. Visit the café up here for breakfast on the outdoor patio. Enjoy vistas of the park, plus the Musiikkitalo (Music House), Kiasma, and giant pike sculpture. We might visit them all today. 

First, Kiasma, the modern art museum, is functionally an exhibit itself. Note the lack of stairs; every floor is accessed via ramp or elevator. Meaning? Rather than treating accessibility as some box-ticking nuisance, Kiasma lives it. Bravo! 

Kiasma Helsinki museum

The installations are as unexpected. This summer featured a retrospective of upstart illustrator, Tom of Finland, whose graphic underground comics not only showed men having sex as early as the ‘50s but loving it. If you’re at the office desktop while reading this, best not search Tom till you’re home.

400m away, the National Museum reception hall ceiling depicts scenes from the Finnish epic poem, Kalevala. Composed in the 19th century to sound ancient, the Kalevala inspired some young Brit called John to attempt England’s own retroactive national myth a century later. (Yess, Precious, The Lord of the Ringss.) Note the takedown of a giant pike. It features in public art throughout town.

Lunchtime: Taste the Baltic’s Best Burgers and Shop for Souvenirs

For lunch, I found the best burgers in the Baltic. From the park across the street, walk or ride Helsinki’s car-free Baana Trail to its end. Then eat atop Morton restaurant, a charmingly converted ship container. So many cool buildings! Wash your perfect burger down with local brews. Everyone speaks English here but for funsies: beer in Finnish is pronounced AH-loot, IPA is EE-pah. 

Banana Bike Trail
Baana Bike Trail

This afternoon? Just wander the shops. Check out the funky designs for household items and textiles in Marimekko, a name as associated with Finland as bagpipes are with Scotland. And don’t miss the immense multi-floored Akateeminen bookstore, designed by Alvar Aalto one of Europe’s original ‘starchitects’. 

Final Night: Eat Disturbingly Local Dinner and Enjoy Live Music

Shock your friends back home with a meal that includes reindeer! No, it doesn’t taste like chicken but does smack of elk, also on many menus. A quick internet search offers multiple suggestions, though my Finnish friends and I love eating at Kuu — pronounced koo-oo with a syllable for each vowel.

Opera Ballet Helsinki

Complementing the museums, Helsinki enjoys a varied music scene. The breathtaking Oopera-Baletti or opera-ballet house — Finnish often subsumes English words, my favourites being elevattorii and drinkki-baari — is just up the road from the stunning Music House. Check the schedules. 

If nothing appeals, Storyville Jazz Club is just metres away and, arguably, more fun. Is your final night in town lovely? The immense patio is among my favourite places in town. Don’t be surprised if it’s busy. Like Canadians, Finns milk their bright northern summer nights.