Helsinki is one capital I didn’t think I’d return to or ever consider as one of my favorites in Europe given my limited first experience with it, but after spending a little more time there on my Blonde Gypsy Finland trip, it’s safe to say I was completely wrong.
While it may not be as instantly beautiful as some of the neighboring Nordic and Baltic capitals like Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn or Riga, there is a real creative and forward-thinking vibe to it that I haven’t felt in many other cities before.
Helsinki is down to experiment big time with things like food, fashion, design, architecture, and technology that most other capitals are either too scared or too set in their ways to, and I find that much more appealing. Even if something doesn’t always pan out to be a success, their persistence to keep trying new things and raising the bar for themselves is admirable. To put it bluntly, Helsinki has balls.
Here are six things in Helsinki that I loved the second time around and don’t think you should miss, but might due to bad timing or simply because you had no idea.
1) Its hodgepodge of architecture
Helsinki’s architecture is one of the biggest quirks of the capital in my opinion and easy to overlook at first glance. It’s a crazy mix of of Modern, Neoclassical, Jugend/Art Nouveau, Byzantine-Russian and Vernacular architecture all up in your face at once so perhaps it’s not a matter of overlooking it as much as being subconsciously overwhelmed. Paying attention to Helsinki’s architecture is in many ways like paying attention to it’s history and personality though, so seriously, take a closer look.
2) A fashion brunch at Klaus K
I love fashion and I love brunch so when I heard there was a “fashion brunch” at Klaus K, Helsinki’s first design hotel, I had to investigate.
These special brunches take place only about five times each fall and spring on the upper-level of the hotel’s stylish LIVINGROOM which they describe as not a restaurant or a bar, but “an environment where guests (especially including non-hotel guests) can be themselves”. I was myself alright, all over their delectable appetizer buffet and champagne selection.
The fashion show was lovely and actually had two intermissions in the form of a magic act and musical performance. I was really lucky to be in town not only on the last weekend of the season, but also when Jukka Rintala, the “Karl Lagerfeld of Finland”, was there showing his collection.
I’ve been to a lot of nice brunches in my life and I can honestly this one might take the cake in terms of value for your money (€38). It’s definitely not the cheapest I’ve ever had, but it’s also not just a brunch – it’s an event that lasted over three hours and was a great way to take in some Finnish fashion while enjoying copious amounts of delicious food in a well-known Helsinki hot spot.
3) The food scene
The food culture of Finland is quite interesting and has been making great strides in the past few years, especially in Helsinki, regardless of the fact that most people outside of the country know little to nothing about it. I mean, when’s the last time you walked by a Finnish restaurant?
Even though you probably couldn’t identify one of their national dishes or delicacies in a line-up if your life depended on it, you may have heard about Restaurant Day which actually originated in Helsinki in 2011 and has been spreading around the world like wildfire. This concept of opening up your own pop-up restaurant wherever you want – in your home, on a street corner, up in a tree, etc – and serving whatever you want, be it deep fried bubble gum, Kobe beef hot dogs, or caviar ice cream sundaes (because that’s what I would serve), is perhaps the best example of all in understanding the lengths Finns are going to experiment with food.
If you aren’t in town on one of the four days out of the year that Restaurant Day takes place, another way to explore Helsinki’s growing food scene is on a guided tour with Food Sightseeing Helsinki (€55). It’s basically a three hour introduction that includes visits to 5 establishments with 7 different tastings and gives you a pretty well-rounded view of what’s happening right now and what’s been happening for years.
4) The karaoke bars
I’m not sure how I didn’t notice this before, but there are a ton of karaoke bars in Helsinki which is surprising given the Finns’ reputation for being so “reserved”. Pop into one and I promise you’re also going to think this stereotype to be just plain silly. One of the most popular in the city is Restroom which, yes, was also once a public restroom. What is it with Finns and wanting to party in potties? I kind of love it.
5) The beaches and hills of Suomenlinna
Sure, Suomenlinna is one of the most visited attractions in Helsinki, but it’s so much more than just a former maritime fortress with military museums and canons lying around. It’s a wonderful little island perfect for strolling around or picnicking, and if the weather is warm enough, even swimming, so keep that in mind when scheduling it into your day. Stupidly, I thought an hour would be more than enough time to see it so I was forced to leave way before I wanted to, but now I know and so do you.
6) Celebrating Vappu aka May Day
Ain’t no party [in Helsinki] like a Vappu party, so if want to see the city the most alive it gets all year, you should definitely visit around May 1st. It’s a national holiday honoring workers and celebrated around the rest of the country, but the best and biggest party of all happens right in the capital.
Although this holiday is meant to celebrate workers, these days it has pretty much been taken over by students in white hats and candy-colored Ghostbuster jumpsuits celebrating their last days of school and the arrival of spring (assuming it arrived). The partying actually starts on Vappu eve, April 30th, when everyone gathers in Market Square to watch the crowning of Havis Amanda around 6pm. From that point forward, anything goes until May 2nd. Anything.
All roads and parties eventually lead to Kaivopuisto or Kaisaniemenpuisto on May 1st for picnics and if you’re game, more champagne. Such a perfect way to end a nineteen day trip in Finland and in my opinion, the biggest thing that’s not to be missed.
Have you been to Helsinki? What did I miss putting on this list that I shouldn’t have? Kiitos to Visit Helsinki, Klaus K, and Food Sightseeing Helsinki, and Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel for making my visit and some of these activities possible. As always, all opinions stated here are my own.
Audrey - That BackpackerJuly 16, 2013 at 1:54 am
This is perfect! I’m heading there next week. :) Can’t wait to do some exploring around Helsinki!
LarissaJuly 16, 2013 at 5:34 pm
I saw that! Congrats on being selected, sounds like you have a lot of cool stuff lined up that I can’t wait to read about :) Safe travels!
AlissonJuly 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm
You forgot where to get news, events and city info > finnbay.com ;)
Marsha Paulsen PetersJuly 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm
Great report, Blonde Gypsy. We’re moving there for a year, next month, and now I have a hefty To-Do list for Helsinki from Day One!
LarissaJuly 16, 2013 at 5:57 pm
How cool! Would love to live there for a year. Hope this list helps get you started though I am sure by the end of it you’re going to have one of your own that’s two or three times as long :)
Marsha Paulsen PetersJuly 18, 2013 at 11:24 pm
I have a USA friend (native to Helsinki) who has recently moved Back to Soumi land to stay there and she also now has a great list of things she wants to introduce me to there. I’m all set!
LarissaJuly 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm
You are! Local recommendations are always the best which is how I ended up doing a few of these things in the first place.
ShaunJuly 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm
I Think I’ll be there in late August! Will budget more time to see Suomenlinna.
Thanks for the tips!
LarissaJuly 16, 2013 at 5:35 pm
You’re welcome, I hope you have a great time!
JustynaJuly 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm
i was living in HKI ! its always gives chills when im reading about this pretty city!
Maybe You should add Seurasaari ?
LarissaJuly 17, 2013 at 6:01 pm
:) I probably would have added Seurasaari had I made it over, next time for sure! From what I hear that’s a really beautiful island as well.
KarlJuly 17, 2013 at 12:20 am
I’ve visited at least seven times over the years, the first right out of high school. Visited relatives there that I had never met during the two weeks. Helsinki and it’s people left quite an impression on me that to this day I still haven’t shaken. It’s a unique place and Finland is a unique country.
LarissaJuly 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm
Finland is very unique which I think many people don’t realize until they spend some time there. That’s great you’ve been able to visit so much and have relatives, no better connection than that!
KennethJuly 17, 2013 at 10:05 am
This was a nice blog post, and as a Finn it warmed my heart to read that our beloved capital reaches someone else’s heart this way.
I’ve been wondering about what our city has to offer to tourists, when comparing for example to Stockholm. You gave me some insight to this, and I thank you for that :)
We were actually thinking of taking the Hop on – Hop off bus with a few friends to see what they offer… It might be interesting as a resident to check that one out.
If you have the time at some point, I would recommend the forest in Nuuksio. There are different lengths of trails that you can go hiking, and enjoy the Finnish forests and landscapes. Nuuksio is also not that far away from Helsinki.
LarissaJuly 17, 2013 at 6:28 pm
Hey, Kenneth – glad you enjoyed the post. As someone who has also spent quite a bit of time in Stockholm, what I wanted to convey most through this post is that Helsinki definitely has it’s own thing going on so glad you picked that up. They’re very easy to compare at first glance and do have some similarities, but once you dip a little below the surface, you will find they are completely different.
I’m pretty sure the only thing those buses have to offer is an easy means to hit up all the main attractions in the city and perhaps some random Helsinki facts for you to learn. Could be interesting to check out just to check out, but I’m certain whatever personal recommendations you have for your new friends will always be much more meaningful to them. Next time I really want to explore Helsinki’s surroundings so thank you for reminding me about Nuuksio. That was actually going to be a seventh thing I was going to say people shouldn’t miss – checking out what there is away from the city center – but I didn’t get to do much of that myself so it wouldn’t have been appropriate :)
ChrisJuly 17, 2013 at 4:07 pm
I liked this post so I linked to it on my site. I think one other thing that I have noticed recently is the number of kids that do Glam Rock. If you are a fan of the 80’s or Motley Crue you would love this. This is also compounded with the great rock scene.
LarissaJuly 17, 2013 at 7:29 pm
Thanks, I really appreciate that. I did notice a lot of Glam Rock kids, not just in Helsinki, but all over Southern Finland. Where can I hang out with them, not just look at them, is what I want to know..
MiaJuly 18, 2013 at 9:24 am
Yes indeed..what a place :) I love Helsinki (my birth-town) especially in summer… the whole atmosphere changes when sun is warming the streets and people are changing their summer-clothes (and faces) on.
I am a Finn to my heart and soul and it really warms my heart to read things like this article. Good work :)
I live in UK now and really miss Helsinki :)
LarissaJuly 20, 2013 at 9:21 pm
Thank you :) Well lucky for you, Helsinki isn’t too far away from the UK (compared to say the USA where I currently am…) I was there for one day in June on my way out and have to say it was a pretty different vibe than the end of May just because the weather was warmer and more things happening on the streets. Really hope my next visit will be in the heat of summer even though I’d love to do another Vappu.
Mandi | No Apathy AllowedJuly 20, 2013 at 4:30 pm
Thanks for the awesome post! I will be heading to Helsinki for a long weekend at the end of August and will definitely add a few of these to my to-see list — especially Suomenlinna. Can’t wait!
LarissaJuly 20, 2013 at 9:33 pm
You’re welcome, I hope you have a wonderful time :) I think that will be a great time to go!
KarenJuly 26, 2013 at 7:43 pm
Oh, I just loved reading this — and looking at the beautiful photographs. Although I have sadly only been there once, I absolutely adore Helsinki and am just dying to go back.
LarissaJuly 26, 2013 at 10:57 pm
Great, thank you :) I am dying to go back as well!
FrancaAugust 28, 2013 at 5:40 pm
It is a pretty good list that makes me want to go to Helsinki mainly for the architecture (old and new too) and the amazing beaches and hills around there. I’m not a fan of fashion shows, but I’d happily give it a go. Thanks Larissa!
LarissaAugust 29, 2013 at 2:35 am
Nice, you guys should definitely go if you can! Forget the fashion, the food was reason enough :)
CassandraSeptember 18, 2013 at 8:55 pm
I definitely agree about the architecture! I visited Helsinki a few years ago and kept snapping picture after picture of the little architectural details–even the gates and windows and doorknobs had character!
After reading this I have a few more reasons to return to Finland–lest but not least, Suomenlinna!
ShaunDecember 9, 2013 at 1:22 am
I had mixed feelings about my time in the Finish capital as well. Looks like I will have to give it another chance!
LarissaDecember 9, 2013 at 11:32 am
Do tell what your mixed feelings were? Or just dropping a link? Can’t tell.
Sam SMarch 1, 2014 at 9:42 am
Hi, Thankyou for the information! We are heading home from our Euro trip via Helsinki, and we are there for 24 hours. I am just wondering if they have any hot springs there, and if they are any good? Your info is really appreciated.
LarissaMarch 3, 2014 at 8:49 am
You’re welcome! Hope you found it useful. Unfortunately I don’t think there are any hot springs there and a quick Google search tells me “no”, too. Plenty of great saunas though!
KishorSeptember 15, 2016 at 10:52 am
Great buildings, great post too. This list is doable. It would be a crime to miss this city.
LarissaOctober 5, 2016 at 2:19 pm
Thank you and I agree!
Jossus TravelpicsMarch 4, 2018 at 11:53 am
If you go back to Finland, remember the name Fazer. Go to the foodstore and buy some chocolate and the fudge called Omar. Delicious.
LarissaJune 19, 2018 at 7:23 am
Oh, I’m quite familiar with Fazer :) Will look out for Omar in particular next time!