Take a Boat to the Fortress of Sveaborg & the Suomenlinna Islands
The fortified islands of Suomenlinna are an integral part of Helsinki. While they may at first seem remote, they are in fact easy to reach by a 20-minute ferry ride, using the same ticket as for buses and trams. The fortress of Sveaborg itself – which, literally translates as “Swedish Castle” – dominates the island. It was built in the mid-18th century to bar Russian access to the Baltic. During the Swedish-Russian war of 1808-09, it fell to the Russians, who thereafter enlarged and strengthened it. In 1918, it passed into Finnish hands and was given the Finnish name of Suomenlinna (Finnish Castle).
During the 1950s and 1960s, it was handed over by the military to the civilian authorities, and since then has been restored and converted for cultural and recreational use. It is now included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage monuments and is a museum, a park, and an arts venue. The area is open most of the year but hours and ferry access vary, so be sure to visit the website for the latest information.
Shop in Helsinki’s Market Square
The Market Square (Kauppatori) is the main planned and paved square in central Helsinki, and is one of the best-known outdoor markets in northern Europe. Bordering the Baltic Sea at the eastern end of the Esplanadi, it is full of stands selling Finnish foods, flowers, and tourist souvenirs. There are often even fishing boats lined up in the water selling seafood directly from the boat. In the winter, market stalls are protected under tents, and there is a year-round market hall with more vendors. Visitors should watch their food carefully, however, as the seagulls at the market are large and brazen and will pluck food from unsuspecting diners.
Temppeliaukio Rock Church
North of Helsinki’s Hietaniemi area, along Fredrikinkatu, is Helsinki’s Rock Church. Designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in the late 1960s, the underground interior of the church was carved out of and built directly into the ancient solid rock of the Helsinki peninsula. The inside of the church is bathed in a glorious natural light that enters through the glazed dome. It has a shallow circular dome (13 meters high) of copper sheeting and glass borne on concrete ribs. The church is also used as a concert hall due to its excellent acoustics created by the rough, unworked rock surfaces of the interior. Guided tours are available, and if visiting in summer, be sure to visit the on-site café for a unique dining experience.
Experience Traditional Finnish Culture at Seurasaari open-Air Museum
East of Helsinki’s city center is the island of Seurasaari, linked with the mainland by a footbridge. Here, you’ll find the excellent Seurasaari Open-Air Museum with its many old houses, farmsteads, a manor house, a church from Kiruna that dates back to 1686, and other timber buildings that have been brought here from all parts of Finland. This is the place to learn how Finns lived long ago, before the modern era. Nearby, at Meilahti 7, is an old timber house now occupied by the Friends of Finnish Handicrafts, with an exhibition of rye carpets and other traditional textiles. Visitors can watch the weavers at work, and the on-site shop sells examples of their handiwork.Guided tours are available, and afterwards stop at the attraction’s café and restaurant for a bite to eat. The island is also home to a popular public beach, so bring your swimsuit!
Linnanmäki Amusement Park
To the east of Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, beyond the railroad line, is the Linnanmäki amusement park. In operation since 1950, it’s a favorite family outing for locals and tourists alike. The park offers a great range of rides for all ages, as well as live entertainment, games, and plenty of places to get meals and snacks. There is a good selection of rides for the youngest visitors, including a kiddie train, little trucks on a track, a pirate ship, a little kids’ carousel, a playhouse, and even a kiddie roller coaster. Rides for bigger kids include a fun house, spinning coffee cups, a haunted hotel, bumper cars, and a raft ride.The park is also home to over a half dozen thrilling roller coasters, and several attractions that offer splendid views of Helsinki and the town of Linnanmäki, including the 53-meter observation tower, and a large Ferris wheel. Visitors can also enjoy the view from atop the 60-meter Rocket and the 75-meter free-fall tower – at least until the rides drop.
Museum of Contemporary Art (Kiasma)
In a land renowned for its cutting-edge native architects, it’s ironic that the building considered one of Finland’s landmarks of modern architecture was designed by the American architect Steven Holl. The curvy exterior continues inside, creating exhibit spaces uniquely fitting for displaying contemporary works of art. Along with its collections of post-1960 Finnish art, the museum has a theater dedicated to experimental drama, music, and dance. A café and shop are located on the premises. Visitors also have the option to take a public or private guided tour of the museum that includes information on the works, the artists, and the museum building.
Helsinki Railway Station
Helsinki’s strikingly original Art Nouveau railway station (Helsingin päärautatieasema) was designed by Eliel Saarinen and is especially notable for American tourists because its 48-meter-high clock tower was the first of several designs that finally resulted in Saarinen’s 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower – America’s first skyscraper. The exterior of the station is made of local granite, featuring an immense archway over the entrance, which is flanked by two giant statues on each side. The figures each hold globes that illuminate the façade at night, making a striking landmark. Inside, visitors will find towering arched halls and surprisingly delicate carved panels that decorate the walls.
North of the Municipal Museum in Helsinki, on the shores of Töölö Bay (Töölönlahti), is the Finlandia Hall, a concert and convention hall designed by Alvar Aalto and built in 1971 with a white facade of Carrara marble. The marble is also used on the inside of the structure. Details appear in hardwoods and ceramics. The main concert auditorium is a stunning site and is famous for its acoustics. Another standout feature is the wide Venetian staircase that leads from the ground floor to both the main auditorium and chamber music hall. The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was signed here in July 1975. To the north of the hall is an excellent park (home to large chess boards and chess pieces), and beyond this again is the new Finnish National Opera House, inaugurated in November 1993 with a performance of the opera “Kullervo” by the Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. Check the website for frequent updates on events, prices, and openings.
Founded in the 1880s, Korkeasaari Zoo is one of the oldest in the world, and holds a foremost place for its exceptional breeding programs for endangered species. They have been especially successful with breeding snow leopards and other big cats, such as the Amur and Siberian tiger. As in any good zoo, the environments have been designed to be as close as possible to natural habitats, and nearly 1,000 plant species grow here to replicate the native environments of the 150 different animal species. The zoo is open all year-round, and visiting the tropical houses is one of the favorite things to do in Helsinki in the winter.
The zoo is on an island, and you can get here by ferry from May to the end of September. The rest of the year, you can get here by bus.
The National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo)
The National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo) was built in 1912 in a National Romantic style, Finland’s own take on the Art Nouveau movement that was popular in Europe at the time. This style is especially appropriate for a museum whose purpose is to collect and interpret material on the culture and ethnography of Finland. Of note is the Finno-Ugrian collection with traditional costumes and everyday cultural objects. The prehistoric section is the largest permanent collection of archaeological materials in the country. Various displays also document the development of Finland from the Middle Ages through the Swedish and Russian empires and into a modern state.
The entrance hall is decorated with fabulous ceiling frescoes inspired by the Kalevala, the national myth of Finland. The frescoes were painted by Akseli Gallén-Kallela, perhaps Finland’s best-known artist. Opposite the National Museum, in a park, is the Municipal Museum.
One of two imposing churches that dominate the skyline above Helsinki’s harbor, Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali) is an eye-catcher. This stunning brick building is notable for its multiple towers and spires topped by 13 gold cupolas. The interior of this Orthodox Church is equally impressive, filled with altars, icons, and crosses, the intricate patterns on its arches set against block marble and a preponderance of gold embellishments.
The Gallen-Kallela Museum
Akseli Gallen-Kallela is perhaps Finland’s most important and certainly most impressive painter. The Gallen-Kallela house was built in 1911-13. Better known as Tarvaspää, the house was opened to the public as the Gallen-Kallela Museum in 1961. It contains a permanent exhibition of Gallen-Kallela’s own paintings, graphics, and tools. An excellent café is located on site as well as a fine little store.
The Gallen-Kallela Museum is located on the beautiful shore of Laajalahti Bay in the eastern part of Helsinki, about ten kilometers from the center. It can be reached by car or by the walking and bike path from Munkkiniemi in Helsinki and Ruukinranta in Espoo.