Helsinki

Cruise ships make a scenic approach into Helsinki harbour so have your cameras at the ready.  Almost all cruise ships will dock at the South Terminal.  This terminal is very central to the city centre and just half a mile from Senate Square.  If you don’t fancy the walk you can always hop  on to one of Helsinki’s famous trams.  Catch either the 1A, 3B or 3T numbered trams which will take you into the city centre.  Incidentally trams 3B and 3T are the tourist trams which do a full  circular tour of the city centre in either direction.  You can stay on for the full tour or simply hop on and hop off.  More details on Helsinki’s trams and travel passes are given further on in this guide.   Some of the larger cruise ships may use the West Terminal.  This terminal is slightly further out than the South Terminal (about one and a half miles).   

View of the cathedral

Practicalities

Once you arrive in Helsinki you will find that it is very easy to get around either by bus, walking, cycling, metro or tram.  If you are planning to visit a lot of attractions and travel around the city, you may want to consider the Helsinki card, which also includes a two hour guided sight seeing tour on a coach. Tourist Information has all the details. Otherwise you can buy a one day tourist ticket which will be valid valid on all public transport within Helsinki, including the buses, trams and the metro system.  These can be bought from the automatic machines at the metro stations, or  direct from the driver when boarding buses or trams.

The two main languages in Finland are Finnish and Swedish.  Most locals in Helsinki will speak good English, however it is always appreciated if you attempt some words in Finnish.  Useful words are

Yes – Kyllä,
No – Ei,
Thank you – Kiitos (pronounced like key, (a like in a ball) s -> keytas)
Please – there is no word for it in finnish but you can use Kiitos,
Excuse me – Anteeksi,
Hello – Hei.

Hei (Hey) – A casual greeting whether saying hello or goodbye

En puhu suomea – I do not speak Finnish

As a rule ‘J’ at the beginning of a word is pronounced ‘Y’.  The letter ‘æ’ are pronounced ‘a’, as in ‘hat’ and ‘å’ is pronounced ‘a’ as in ‘ball’.

You will find Finnish customs very similar to our own and the Finnish are not easily offended.

As Finland is part of the European Union the currency is the euro.  Currency exchanges are located at the Central Railway Station, Mannerheimintie 10 and Pohjoisesplanadi 27.  All are open Monday to Friday from 10am however the currency exchange at the Central Railway Station is also open at the weekends, but there are plenty of ATMs too.

The General Post Office is located in the Elielinaukio district and is open 7 days a week.  Internet access can be found at Helsinki’s Library located in Kirjasto 10 (library 10).  The library is open weekdays from 10am and 12pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Helsinki’s main tourist office can be found on Pohjoisesplanadi 19 just south of Senate Square.   The tour shop situated inside the tourist office is where you can purchase the ‘Helsinki Card’ along with bus, tram, metro tickets and ferry tickets across to Suomenlinna Island.  The tourist office is open daily from 9am.

Automatic toilets are located throughout the city centre, for example in Esplanade Park and Sibelius Park and beside the Old Market Hall.  There is a fee, however, the large department stores have toilets that are free!

Inside the market hall

The good news is that despite the fact that Scandinavia in general is known to be expensive you are still able to see all the major attractions in Helsinki without spending a small fortune.   The Helsinki Cathedral, most of Helsinki’s museums including Helsinki City Museum and Serderholm House the oldest brick building in Helsinki.  Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, Temppeliaukio Church and Parliament House will not cost you a penny to visit and are well worth seeing.

Helsinki’s parks and gardens are a delight to walk around and again absolutely free.  Sibelius Park is where you will find the Sibelius Monument, Helsinki’s Winter Gardens feature over 200 plant species including a cactus room and a rose garden and Helsinki’s market square and market hall are popular for their array of different sights and smells.

By far the most fun way to travel in Helsinki is by tram.  Helsinki’s tram system is one of the oldest in the world.  There are 12 different tram routes.  Tram 3T does a one hour loop of the city which covers many of Helsinki’s sites, passing Finlandia Hall, Parliament House, the National Opera House and the Olympic Stadium, The Winter Gardens, Senate Square, the Central Railway Station and Helsinki’s Botanical Gardens.   Tram 3T (or 3B which runs in the other direction) runs every 10 minutes, so you will not have too long to wait.

The following routes will take you to view Helsinki’s famous architecture.  Tram 1 will take you to Senate Square and the Kapyla district.  Trams 4, 7a, 7b or 10 will take you to Kiasma, Parliament House, The National Opera and Finlandia Hall.  Tram 4 will also take you to Katajanokka Island.  Tram 10 will take you to the Museum of Finnish Architecture.

If you are feeling fit Helsinki has its own ‘Citybike’ scheme.   There are around 26 hire stands dotted around the city centre.  You cannot miss these brightly coloured bicycles.  To hire a bicycle all you do is pay a small deposit then you are free to explore the city at your leisure.  Upon returning the bicycle your deposit will be reimbursed.

Public transport in Helsinki is also a viable option for the less mobile passenger.  Helsinki is a world leader in integrating the disabled. Wide entrances and ramps can be found in most of the cities attractions.  Most of the buses have low floors and ramped access for wheelchair users.  Many trams now also have lowered floors which can be easily accessed as long as the stop has a platform.  Wheelchair accessible routes are highlighted on the timetables and adapted vehicles show the letter ‘M’.  The metro system is accessible and timetables can also be found in Braille.

Helsinki is filled with cafés and restaurants so there is certainly no shortage of places to take lunch, including many island restaurants.  The ‘Boathouse’ restaurant and ‘Chez Dominique’, Helsinki’s two Michelin-star restaurant, are both popular choices.

Cafe in Helsinki

Whatever you choose to do you will find the capital of Finland a delight to explore, you may also like to take home some beautiful wood carvings or Finnish glass both traditional Finnish gifts to remind you of your wonderful day.

Context

Rich in culture and architecture, Helsinki is Finlands high tech capital city where east meets west.  One of the wealthiest capitals in Europe, Helsinki’s residents enjoy a high standard of living, education and an excellent health service.

However, Helsinki wasn’t always the capital of Finland.  Over 500 years ago Helsinki was just a small fishing port and Turku, just to the west of Helsinki was Finland’s capital.  Things started to change in 1550 when the King of Sweden decided Helsinki would make a good trading port due to it’s position on the Baltic Sea.  Helsinki continued as a trading port until in 1640, the decision was made to move the whole port further south to its present day position, with the idea that Helsinki would fair better as a trading port.

In 1748 the Swedish starting building Suomenlinna Fortress ‘The Castle of Finland’, after Russia declared war on Sweden.  The fortress helped the Swedish and Finnish fend off the Russian’s until 1808 when they finally stormed the fortress and took over occupation of Finland.  This invasion was the turning point for Helsinki.  It was decided that a new capital city was needed much closer to the new Russian capital of St. Petersburg.  With its new position and fortress Helsinki was chosen as the new capital of Finland in 1812.

After a devastating fire Helsinki was completely re-built and since gaining independence from Russia in 1917 Helsinki has never looked back.  Helsinki hosted the summer Olympics of 1952.

Today the President of Finland is Tarja Halonen, the first female President of Finland.  Tarja Halonen has been in office since 2000 after her re-election in 2006.  The Presidentinlinna (Presidential Palace), guarded by colourful sentries and overlooking Market Square is one of the President’s official residences.

Things to do

During the beautiful summer months in Helsinki you can catch a ferry to one of the many islands surrounding the city.  Take a stroll amongst the ramparts of the Suomenlinna Fortress ‘The Castle of Finland’,  just a 15 minute ferry ride away from the city centre.  Ferries leave from Market Square.  Suomenlinna Fortress is a UNESCO world heritage site and around 900 people live on the island.  There is also a visitors centre, around five museums including the Suomenlinna museum.  You will also find cafés and restaurants on the island, from the Brewery Restaurant to Café Vanille serving home made sandwiches and cakes. Many events and exhibitions come to Suomenlinna Island in the summer months and entrance is free.

A view across Suomenlinna

On sunny days many locals head to Central Park, which starts from Töölönlahti Bay.  Covering one thousand hectares, Central Park stretches for nearly 10km.  Explore the park along one of the many walking trails, sit by the lake and enjoy the view, or hire a canoe.

Finnish music can go from classical to heavy metal!  So whatever your taste in music you will find something you like.  Helsinki has many concert halls offering traditional or contemporary classical music.  The most unusual being Temppeliaukio better known as the Rock Church. Although a church and not officially a concert hall the building hosts many concerts due to its excellent acoustics.  The church has been hewn out of solid rock and has a magnificent copper dome roof.  Temppeliaukio is located in the Lutherinkatu district of Helsinki, admission is free and opening time’s can vary but the church is normally open from 10am until 5pm closing lunch time’s on a Tuesday and Sundays.

You may also be fortunate enough to catch a daytime concert.   The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is the oldest professional orchestra in Scandinavia celebrating 126 years.  As well as touring they play at Finlandia Hall.  Also playing at Finlandia Hall and the Hall of Culture in Kulttuuritalo are the Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Helsinki can claim many famous conductors and composers as its own, including Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius monument

Helsinki’s monument to Jean Sibelius can be found within Sibelius park in the Taka-Toolo district of the city.  Unveiled on the 7th September 1967 the monument is a collection of metal tubes, apparently resembling organ pipes (although Jean Sibelius never composed organ music), which look as if they are suspended in mid air.   The sculpture generated muc controversy at the time, as it was partly public funded the city was divided on whether to build a monument or a statue to the great composer.

Helsinki also has its own Opera House located on the banks of Töölönlahti Bay, where there are around 300 performances a year, some of these performances include the ballet, as the Opera House is home to Finland’s only professional ballet company.  In the summer months it is possible to take a guided backstage tour of the Opera House, although this is very limited indeed and only operates on a Wednesday at 3pm.  It is also worth noting that the Opera House is closed from the 20th June until the 3rd August.

From Dionne Warwick to Motorhead, Helsinki  hosts many popular  concerts each year at either the Olympic Stadium or Hartwall Arena.

The Olympic tower

With over 40 museums in Helsinki you could probably spend a whole week touring them all.  They even have a museum dedicated to road building.  The two main museums are the Helsinki City Museum and the National Museum of Finland.

Helsinki City Museum is divided into twelve different buildings, scattered in and around the city, all housing their own unique exhibitions.  The main building can be found south of Senate Square in the Sofiankatu district.  Its exhibition entitled ‘Helsinki Horizons’ tells the story of over 450 years of Helsinki’s history through the Swedish and Russian’s eras and the story of Finnish independence.  Artefacts, pictures and tales bring the city’s history to life and many of the archaeological finds on display are the Museums own discoveries.  The Museum is open daily between 9am and 5pm, opening at 11am on the weekends and entrance is free.

The National Museum of Finland is divided into four main areas.  ‘The Treasure Troves’ houses the cities collections of artefacts including coins, medals, orders, decorations, silver and weapons.  The Prehistory of Finland which houses Finland’s largest archaeological exhibition. Workshop VINTTI, which is an interactive exhibition of  Finnish culture and ‘The Realm’ which tells the story of Finland through the middle ages until the present day.  The Museum also hosts changing exhibitions.

The Ateneum Art Museum, part of the Finnish National Gallery, houses the largest art collection of Finnish art dating from the 1750’s up until the 1960’s.  The Ateneum Art Museum is open daily except Mondays and admission is free.  The gallery can be found in the Kaivotkatu district of the city near to the Central Railway Station.   The Museum of Contemporary Modern Art, Kiasma, breaks all the barriers of the traditional art museums.  The very building itself is a tribute to modernistic art. Open everyday except Monday.

Whether you are shopping for that special gift or just to treat yourself, Helsinki offers everything from large department stores and shopping centres to small boutiques stocking clothes and accessories created by local designers.  The Stockmann department store is by far the largest and stocks everything including clothing, cosmetics, electrical items and books.   Kamp Galleria is filled with individual boutiques offering well known branded items plus local designers.  The main shopping areas can be found along the Esplanade and Mannerheimint west of Senate Square.  If you are looking for a more authentic shopping experience head to Market Square or Kauppatori.  A pulsating mix of fresh Finnish food and fun souvenirs.

Furs in Helsinki Harbour market

The most photographed sites in Helsinki are undoubtedly the Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square with its large green dome surrounded by four smaller domes.  The Cathedral is unmissable and the main green dome can be viewed from around the city.

On Katajanokan Island the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral one of the clearest symbols of Russia’s impact on the city and it is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe.  Situated on top of a hill the cathedral is an imposing building with red brick façade and its golden onion domes.  Both buildings are open daily and entrance is free.

Quirky Facts

  • Helsinki ranks as the Northernmost European capital.
  • Suomi is the Finnish word for Finland.  Finland is actually a Swedish word.
  • There are more than 300 islands surrounding greater Helsinki
  • Due to architectural similarities, Helsinki has acted as a substitute for the Soviet Union in several Hollywood films including the 1984 film ‘Gorky Park’ starring William Hurt and Lee Marvin, ‘Reds and The Kremlin Letter’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’ starring Omar Sharif all had scenes shot in Helsinki.  Michael Cain’s Billion Dollar Brain was also filmed in the city.
  • The Northern Lights are a common sight in northern Finland, but Helsinkians might also catch a glimpse of the natural phenomenon up to 20 times a year.
  • In 2006 Finland won the Eurovision song contest with Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah”.   Lordi received 292 points the most points any entrant into the Eurovision has ever been awarded.   This is now in the Guinness Book of Records.  As a result Helsinki hosted the 2007 Eurovision song contest.
  • Knut Fredrick Idestamin born in Helsinki is the co-founder of Nokia.  Contrary to popular belief Nokia mobile phones are not produced in Asia but here in Finland and they now account for around 25% of Finland’s exports.