12 Activities In Helsinki Inspired By Finnish Locals
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Whenever you travel to a new city for the first time, one of the best ways to create life-long memories is to understand the native customs. In today's 'like a local' blog we're setting our sights on Helsinki, the capital of a nation famed for its stellar education system, high standards of living, and of course, being the home of Santa Claus. If you only have a few days in Helsinki and want to spend your time as efficiently as possible, here are a few activities we'd recommend:
1) Visit A Free Museum:
No doubt you'll arrive in Helsinki eager to peruse the national pastimes and discover local quirks, but starting off on the bigger picture is never a bad idea. Certainly for first-time visitors, Helsinki's museums can offer invaluable insights into Finland’s history, art scene, and customs - a brilliant way to kick-off any culture trip. Those with high quality, modern exhibitions include: the National Museum of Finland, the Finnish Museum of Natural History, and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. Loved by locals and foreign visitors alike, these three attractions will broaden your impressions of a nation hardly immune to niggling stereotypes.
Prospective travellers should take note of the first Friday of each month. At certain times during these days the above museums are free to enter. For the National Museum it's 16:00-18:00; for FNMH it's 13:00-16:00 (14:00-17:00 during summer), and for the Kiasma it's 16:00-18:30.
Repeat visitors may be interested in some of Helsinki's more 'specialised' museums. One example is the Finnish Postal Museum, which explores how the country's Post Office has evolved over time. Another idea is the Akseli Gallen-Kallela Museum, where you can find a permanent collection of the famous Finnish painter’s works. Or the Toy Museum, where you can find hundreds of dolls and teddy bears.
2) Sample The Local Tipple:
If you're at all familiar with Scandinavian culture, you'll know that the people have a soft spot for quality nightlife. In Helsinki the drinks of choice for such occasions tend to be cocktails or spirits. Beer is a popular beverage, but as is the case in other cities throughout the region, it tends to be very expensive - with prices for a pint approaching €6-10 or more. If you are cool to the idea of premium prices, however, then you might like to try Sahti, a traditional Finnish beer with a high ABV ranging from 7.0-11.0%. With a flat, yeasty, berry-like flavour, Sahti is definitely an acquired taste, but one that dates back to the rural farmhouses of 1500s Finland - so a special experience if nothing else.
Cocktail and mixer lovers will be pleased to know that Finland boasts its own national brand of vodka, Finlandia, which you can find at almost every bar or restaurant.
Speaking of nightlife venues, we’d advise you to check out some of the best local bars in Helsinki at the end of each day. Bars like the A21 Helsinki OJ or the Ateljee Bar are both right in the city centre and are usually filled with locals. If you fancy international food and drinks, Liberty or Death is well worth checking out, although it might be quite busy. If a classic pub with lots of beer on the menu is your cup of tea, look no further than Kaisla.
For a traditional clubbing experience, visit Tavastia. This rock club has been welcoming patrons since the 1970s, and the locals consider it one of the best venues in the city.
3) Linnanmäki Amusement Park:
Located close to Helsinki's Olympic Stadium, Linnanmäki is a seasonal amusement park located at the northern end of the city centre. Its rides are suitable for all ages, the main one being a 34 meter tall Ferris wheel called the Rinkeli. This attraction offers a rare panoramic view of Helsinki that's impossible to achieve elsewhere in the city. Looks wise Linnanmäki is a charming combination of old and new, with rides dating back to 1950 when the park first opened. Be sure to check the website for fares and admission hours, because they tend to change both quite often.
4) Helsinki Rock Church:
Finland may be famed for its love of metal, but the name of this iconic 1960s church is about as literal as they come. Its subterranean interior was carved directly into the natural rock of the Finnish peninsula, then roofed by a 13-meter high dome. The building's natural lighting is one of its most spectacular features, and better yet, it's completely free to visit - except for days when concerts are scheduled. Speaking of shows, if you do find one that you think you’d enjoy, buy tickets and see it! The acoustics of the church are nothing short of awesome.
5) The Market Square:
Kauppatori is a great place to get a taste (sometimes literally) of Finnish lifestyle. It’s one of the biggest outdoor markets in Europe and usually runs between March and September, depending on the year’s weather. It also borders the Baltic Sea, so you’ll never be far from the smell of salty sea air while browsing for fresh food, a cooked meal or some local souvenirs.
Take good care of any food you purchase here - local seagulls have developed a taste for human fare and will rapidly descend to steal anything you’re not holding closely. That said, you should definitely grab a bite from the pop-up stalls, which sell both local and international dishes perfect for munching on the go. We’d absolutely recommend the fried calamari rings, or the deep fried pawn tails. Basically anything containing some form of fresh fish, be it a sandwich, snack or soup.
If you find yourself putting together a picnic hamper based on the market stall offers then consider carting it along to this picturesque World Heritage site. Despite its off-shore location Suomenlinna fortress is actually part of Helsinki. Since the mid-18th century it has served as a guard post on the edge of the Baltic Sea, one which proved its worth as late as the Finnish - Russian wars. The site is easily accessible via ferry from the pier at Kauppatori.
Since passing into civilian hands in the 1950s, Suomenlinna has been converted into a recreational and cultural area, but the military architecture remains. While the fortress is open most of the year do remember to check opening hours and fares online, as they do have seasonal variations.
7) Sink Into A Sauna:
It's no secret that Scandinavians, Fins in particular, enjoy saunas. So much so that even with a modest population of ~5.5 million, the country is estimated to have over 2 million saunas. For visitors who're eager to sample this inalienable aspect of Finnish culture 'Löyly' is one of the newest and most accessible saunas in Helsinki.
Located in the southern part of the city near the coast, Löyly is a large wooden structure with a modern, urban design. While it's a sight worth seeing in its own right we'd highly recommend spending at least 1 hour inside. The locals are very fond of this type of relaxation, and so should you be. The building also includes a restaurant which serves traditional Finnish cuisine.
8) Expressionism In The Park:
Another place worth stopping by is Sibelius Park, home to Finland's most recognisable monument. This abstract arrangement of steel organ pipes is dedicated to composer Jean Sibelius, a key figure in Finland's 20th century identity formation. The rest of the park is a popular local relaxation spot relatively close to the city centre, so a short walk here is definitely recommended.
9) Free Music Concerts:
Experience classical compositions in some of Helsinki's most striking buildings. The Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo), the Finnish National Opera and Finlandia Hall are all great attractions in their own right, but they also host regular free music concerts. In the Helsinki Music Centre, for example, you're always guaranteed to find free art exhibitions, organ matinees and student performances. Although bits of the music might be in Finnish, listening to these shows is a great way to dive into the local way of life.
10) Grab The Mic And Turn To 11:
In any Helsinki nightlife discussion it's worth noting that the Finnish are only second to the Japanese when it comes to love for karaoke. You'll find plenty of karaoke bars around Helsinki, but the most memorable experience is a ride aboard the Karaoke Taxi. This minibus can host 12 people and also serves drinks. While most of the songs are in Finnish, you will find some classic hits in English as well - and after a few drinks, wouldn’t you fancy the Finnish ones?
Alternatively, try visiting Anna K Karaoke Bar or Erottaja. Bear in mind that the second rarely has international songs, since its customers are mostly Finnish locals.
11) For 11, Turn To Zero:
The polar opposite of loud and lively karaoke can be found on Narrinkkatori Square, where a hive-like building draws the attention of passing cameras. It’s the famous “Chapel of Silence” - which really isn’t a chapel since no religious events take place here. Instead, the wooden building is only home to a minimalist altar, a chandelier, and some benches. It's an oasis of silence in the heart of a very busy city. Visited by over 500,000 people every year, it earned a spot on this list.
12) A Zoo On An Island:
A favourite of locals and tourists alike, Helsinki Zoo is a great place to see arctic animals, some of which you can’t commonly find in temperate countries. One of the attraction's most notable and endearing features is its location - on a little island called Korkeasaari just a few hundred from the mainland.
It’s within this secluded environment that you'll encounter thousands of plant and animal species - a captivating combination offering unique views of an unaltered Finnish landscape. Highlights include the forest reindeer, winter owl and musk ox, along with some iconic arctic animals like penguins and polar bears.