Helsinki and Southern Finland – What to See in Finland’s Capital?

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Helsinki Cathedral and Market Square. Photo: Scanrail1 / Shutterstock

Helsinki is the most popular travel destination in Finland for a good reason. The capital of Finland has great museums, bustling restaurant scene, festivals and concerts – but like everywhere else in Finland, nature is close by. Take a bus and you’ll be in a national park in just one hour!

Helsinki has a population of about 650,000, and together with the neighboring cities (Espoo and Vantaa) the metropolitan area has 1.2 million inhabitants. Helsinki is therefore not a huge metropolis, but rather a compact holiday destination: the center and its neighboring parts of the city can be reached on foot, public transport is excellent, and there are many superb day trip destinations nearby. The most popular are the postcard-beautiful small town of Porvoo, the artists’ and craftsmen’s Fiskars, and the Nuuksio National Park, all of which can be reached by bus.

What to see in Helsinki?

Founded in 1550, Helsinki is not as historic a place as the medieval towns of Central Europe. Not even a castle can be found in Helsinki – the title of the best historical attraction is taken by the Suomenlinna sea fortress, which is Finland’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Suomenlinna, located on an island off Helsinki, is a very popular place to visit, especially on beautiful summer days. Be sure to pack lunch for a picnic! If you want to spend a night, Hostel Suomenlinna has dorm bed and double rooms.

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Suomenlinna sea fortress seen from a passing cruise ship. Photo: Visit Finland

The ferry to Suomenlinna leaves from the Market Square, where traditional food and souvenirs are sold to tourists. One hundred meters away you will find the historic central square, Senate Square, surrounded by heritage buildings such as the University’s main building, the Government Palace and the dazzling white Helsinki Cathedral.

Another church with a more interesting architecture can be found behind the Parliament House. Temppeliaukio Church is built inside the granite rock, as its English nickname Rock Church suggests. The plain altar of the church is a great example of the modest style of Evangelical Lutheranism.

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Rock Church in Helsinki, Finland, in built inside a rock. Photo: Niko Laurila / Visit Finland

Helsinki has numerous Art Nouveau-style buildings built in the early 20th century. The most beautiful are the main railway station and Kallio Church.

The latest gems of architecture are the central library Oodi and the sauna restaurant Löyly, which has won praise in international architectural magazines.

The best museums in Helsinki are the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and the Amos Anderson Museum, both located right in the city center. 

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Amos Anderson Museum is located in the heart of Helsinki – underground. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo / Visit Finland

Helsinki has a wide range of events from major music festivals to informal street parties. Recommended events are Restaurant Day (which originated in Helsinki), and Night of Arts, the culmination of Helsinki Festival. Helsinki also hosts many large music festivals, such as Flow Festival (for hipsters), Tuska Open Air (for metal fans) and World Village (world music).

In Finland, the sauna is also part of urban culture. Traditional sauna can be enjoyed at Kotiharju Sauna and Arla Sauna in Kallio district. Trendy sauna experiences are offered by Löyly and Allas Sea Pool in southern Helsinki.

Read more: Sauna in Finland – the Ultimate Guide to Finnish Sauna Culture

Recommended attractions for families with children are (in addition to Suomenlinna) Linnanmäki Amusement Park (highlighted by a wooden roller coaster built in 1952), Korkeasaari Zoo, and Heureka Science Center located north of Helsinki.

Best outdoor attractions in Helsinki

The highlight of Helsinki’s nature is the archipelago, which can be explored by kayaking or traveling by scheduled boats that take you to Vallisaari, Vartiosaari and Pihlajasaari islands – all great choices for a picnic!

Of course, the Baltic Sea’s scenery can also be enjoyed from the mainland. A 130-kilometer-long public beach route runs along the shores of Helsinki, where you can walk or cycle. One of the most popular islands is Lammassaari, which can be reached by walking along duckboards.

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Natura Viva organizes kayak trips in East Helsinki. Photo: Ville Palonen

The archipelago of Eastern Helsinki is a world-class kayaking destination. Natura Viva is a local company that rents canoes, kayaks and SUP boards, and organizes daily guided kayak trips. Natura Viva also has canoe rental points in Nuuksio and Teijo National Parks.

Helsinki Central Park, 7 square kilometers in size, gives you a pretty good idea of what ​​the Finnish forest looks like. You can’t get lost in Central Park (at least for a long time), but even there you can walk your own paths in the shade of tall trees. With luck, you can catch a glimpse of the endangered flying squirrel in Central Park.

Bird watchers should climb the Viikki bird towers rising on the shores of the Vanhankaupunginlahti bay. A few kilometers of reedbed shores is a nature reserve where you can also spot roe deer.

The most popular urban fishing spot in Helsinki is the large pool in Vantaanjoki estuary.

Best national parks in Southern Finland

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Repovesi National Park in southern Finland has plenty of small lakes and steep cliffs. Photo: Ville Palonen

Nuuksio is the most visited national park in Southern Finland. What makes the place so popular is the location: Nuuksio is right next to the Helsinki metropolitan area – you can get there by public bus! The Nuuksio lake plateau is an excellent example of Finnish nature: small lakes, high cliffs and dense forest. The park has many marked trails and campfire sites where you can stop for a picnic. Like in all national parks in Finland, services like firewood and restrooms are completely free or charge.

A calmer alternative to super-popular Nuuksio is Sipoonkorpi National Park, which is just as close to Helsinki and can also be reached by public transport. Sipoonkorpi, dominated by gloomy spruce forests, is especially popular with mushroom pickers in August-September. 

If you’re on the go with a rental car, explore Liesjärvi and Torronsuo National Parks, 100 kilometers from Helsinki, or Porkkala peninsula, which is a favourite for birdwatchers and fishermen.

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Duckboards snake across Torronsuo National Park, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The best national park in Southern Finland is Repovesi, located about 200 kilometers from Helsinki. Repovesi is the perfect destination for a one-night camping trip. On the way to Repovesi you should visit the nearby Verla Factory Museum, which is one of the few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Finland.

Read more: National Parks in Finland – 10 Best Places for Hiking and Camping

Best day trips from Helsinki

Porvoo is a small coastal town loved by Helsinki residents. It’s a romantic day trip destination where you can enjoy the atmosphere of a historical wooden centre, good restaurants and lovely boutique hotels such as Pariisin Ville. Porvoo can be easily reached by bus, but a more adventurous way is to travel in one direction on a boat. The cruise from Helsinki to Porvoo goes through the beautiful archipelago scenery and takes 3.5 hours.

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Old Town of Porvoo, Finland. Photo: Niko Laurila / Visit Finland

Ainola, the home museum of Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius, is located on the shores of Lake Tuusulanjärvi. The Art Nouveau-style house was completed in 1904 and Sibelius lived there for the rest of his life, for more than 50 years. In Ainola, Sibelius found the peace of mind he longed for, and many of his finest compositions were created in this handsome villa.

Fiskars Village is a beautiful and vibrant historic ironworks area. Today the old factory buildings serve as workshops, boutiques and restaurants. In Fiskars, you can stay at Hotel Tegel, a wonderfully historic ironworks building. There’s a tourist bus from Kiasma Museum to Fiskars in July-August.

Finland’s second largest city, Tampere, and Finland’s oldest city, Turku, are only a couple of hours by train from Helsinki. Instead of a day trip, it’s worth spending at least one night in them, as both have plenty to see and do.

One of the best day trips from Helsinki is the capital of Estonia, Tallinn. A day cruise lasts from morning to evening – Tallinn’s lovely Old Town can be visited for a few hours – and costs only twenty euros.

Best time to visit Helsinki

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In wintertime Helsinki usually gets some snow, and people can walk and ski on the frozen sea. Photo: Ville Palonen

Unlike in Lapland, where the best time to visit is from February to April, the winter in Southern Finland is nowadays often wet, dark and snowless. The best time to visit Helsinki is definitely the summer season from May to September.

The onset of spring is at its most beautiful in May. It is worth noting that during Midsummer and the July holiday season, Helsinki can be a ghostly deserted place – in early summer it‘s best to follow the example of the Finns and head to Turku Archipelago or Lakelands region for some quality time at a summer cottage.

Read more: Cottages in Finland

The best month to visit Helsinki is August. The weather is usually beautiful and often very warm, and there are various festivals and cultural events, such as the Helsinki Festival in the end of August and early September.

September, too, is an excellent time to visit Helsinki and other parts of Southern Finland.

How do you travel from Helsinki to other parts of Finland?

Helsinki is a great starting point for a holiday In Finland, as public transport efficiently takes you anywhere in the country. Turku and Tampere can be reached by train or bus. Rovaniemi, which awaits in Lapland a thousand kilometers away, can be reached by night train or plane.

Helsinki is also a port for cruise ships. Several shipping companies take passengers every day to Stockholm, Tallinn and even St. Petersburg, Russia.

By a rental car it’s easy to reach the best road trip routes in Finland.

Map of Finland’s best travel attractions

The map below shows the best tourist sights, museums, family attractions, hiking trails, outdoor activities, wildlife safaris and ski resorts of Finland.

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Ville Palonen (born 1976) is a freelance photographer and travel writer who loves mountains, wildlife and road trips. He has visited 80 countries and travelled in adventurous destinations like Amazon, Himalaya and Borneo. In Finland Ville spends his time photographing, hiking, fishing, hunting and mushrooming. Ville's favourite destinations in Finland are treeless fells of Lapland and wild parts of East Finland.

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