The capital and largest city in Finland, Helsinki has something for everyone. This 24-hour city guide takes you to a Kremlin-inspired cathedral, a traditional Finnish restaurant and, of course, Helsinki’s best pubs. We’re gonna wake up early and go! go! go!
Morning – Exploring Historic Churches
Helsinki is unique in that it is the only European capital without medieval influence. It was founded in 1550 so you won’t find old fort towns or ancient ruins. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have historical sites. A great way to get an overview of Helsinki history is to visit its churches.
The first church on our tour is Tuomiokirkko, or simply the Lutheran Cathedral. Its neoclassical white columns and green domed interiors are impressive in their starkness. This church was actually built by Russian czars in 1852 in response to Swedish efforts to Christianize Finland. But Finland’s king was having none of that. He broke away from the Catholic church and adopted Lutheranism as the country’s official religion. It remains the most popular religion to this day.
In 1809, Russia took over Finland, moved the capital to Helsinki and modeled the city after St. Petersburg. This influence is apparent today in the Upenski Cathedral. This church, which is within walking distance of the Lutheran Cathedral, is our next stop.
From its perch atop a hill, the cathedral’s golden dome and red brick walls contrast wildly with the gray buildings surrounding it. Like many Catholic churches, the interior tells the story of the Last Supper and Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
If you’re really into history of this sort, extend this bit of your day and visit four Helsinki churches instead of two.
Cafe Bar #9
If you haven’t visited Helsinki, you may think that pickled herring and mashed potatoes is all there is to eat. This couldn’t be further from the truth. An influx of foreign restaurants in the 1990s broadened everyone’s palettes. Cafe Bar No. 9 serves a little bit of everything, from traditional Finnish grub to noodle curries.
For a total of about $30, Helen Anne got a salmon, tomato and mustard sandwich while I ordered a hot chicken red curry to warm me from the Helsinki cold. Truly an excellent meal at an excellent price.
Helsinki Design District
After a hearty meal (well, if you order the curry anyway) get the blood flowing again by taking a stroll around the Design District. Located in and around Pieni Roobertinkatu, design stores are identified by black stickers on their windows. You can spend as much time as you want here, popping in and out of stores and taking in that unique Finnish style. Be careful not to call it Scandanavian or Swedish-inspired! Finns are proud of their design aesthetic.
For a general design district guide, we used this TripAdvisor walking tour of the area.
Kiasma – Contemporary Art Museum
Our favorite Helsinki museum was the Kiasma. This museum is unique in that it focuses on visual contemporary art. For example, one exhibit was thousands upon thousands of different colored ribbons hung from the ceiling in a roughly 10 by 10 foot square. Visitors are encouraged to walk through it, getting lost in the sensation. But that sounds too serious…you just run through that thing like a little kid!
If this sounds a little offbeat, it’s meant to be! This museum specializes in innovative and engaging art and installations. The permanent collection presents some of Finland’s more well-known artists such as Nina Roos, Susanne Gottberg and Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland.
Tickets are 10 Euros, but if you happen to be visiting on the first Friday of the month you can get in free.
Traditional Finnish Dinner
For dinner, make the trek out to Konstan Molja, a super rad buffet that specializes in traditional Finnish foods. The food is prepared by a husband and wife team who are also the owners. You feel as if you’ve walked into their home when you enter.
Pots and pans situated on a large wooden table full of traditional Finnish foods vie for your attention. The menu includes roasted reindeer, salmon soup, pickled herring, sour cabbage and lots of potatoes. If you want Finnish home cooking this is the place to get it. My personal favorite was the Vorschmack, beef and lamb ground together with a bit of anchovy.
And the best part, it is only 18 Euros!
Brews and Brewpubs
Round out your evening by visiting a couple of bars. We were pleasantly surprised at the variety of beers Helsinki offers. Many bars brew their own house beers and ciders. A beer you have at a bar here likely doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
One bar we really enjoyed was Bruuveri. Located in a shopping mall, Bruuveri is a microbrewery that is decorated to look like a luxury cabin. A couple of fireplaces add to the warmth literally and figuratively. Their beer selection is vast and I was thankful to find some strong IPAs to warm me from the cold. This also seemed a popular place for the happy hour crowd.
The other pub we’re recommending for one specific reason: Sahti. Sahti is a traditional beer from Finland that uses juniper berries in addition to, or sometimes in place, of hops. It’s lightly carbonated, tastes faintly of bananas and is 100% Finnish in origin.
To try this wonderful concoction head over to Bryggeri. This bar was founded essentially through crowd-sourcing. More than 700 individuals contributed to make this place a reality. And thank goodness they did! It is the only brewery making Sahti in the city.
End your day with a few rounds of this traditional Finnish brew.
We worked with Nokia and Visit Finland in arranging our trip to Finland. Neither groups reviewed the stories we wrote in advance. All opinions remain our own.