Planning a weekend trip to Helsinki, Finland? Read on for a complete 2 days in Helsinki itinerary including the best things to do, where to eat, where to stay and other essential tips written by a local.
2 Days in Helsinki Itinerary
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Helsinki is a perfect destination for a city break as it has to offer a combination nature, history and art in a compact and safe setting for a metropolitan city. Helsinki’s location at the seaside and the distinctive four seasons shape the experience of visitors to the capital of Finland. This 2-day itinerary shares some of the key sights and experiences not to miss on your first visit to the city. On the first day, get to know the most iconic sites of the city center, admire the amazing archipelago and explore some insights to the history of the country. On the next day, make a deep dive to art and culture. Also, make sure to enjoy some breaks with coffee and traditional Finnish food to keep you energized throughout your stay in Helsinki!
Day 1 in Helsinki Itinerary: Cityscape and History
Kick-off the day from the Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral
Start your visit to Helsinki from the iconic Senate Square plaza and views to the Helsinki Cathedral. You’re now at the heart of Helsinki’s historic center and some of the city’s oldest streets and buildings are located in this area, for example Helsinki University main building is on the left of the plaza. The Senate Square hosts a variety of events, such as concerts, the Christmas market and New Year’s celebrations. It’s also the place where Finns get together to celebrate after victory in Ice Hockey World Championships, Eurovision Song Contest or success in other major international events.
Have your morning coffee at Cafe Engel that is located facing the Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral and serves all-day breakfast with different sets to choose from. In the summer time the café hosts an outdoor cinema making it a perfect place to round up the day as well.
Pass by Havis Amanda Statue and fountain
Walk down Sofiankatu and you’ll arrive at the Havis Amanda Statue and fountain. It’s the place where people come together to celebrate the eve of Labour Day on the 30th April. The tradition is that students wash the statue and place a high school graduate cap on her head to mark the start of the Labour Day celebrations. From mid-November to early January the fountain plaza hosts Christmas market huts and stalls with local delicacies and handcrafts.
Take a stroll through Esplanadi Park
Take a turn right and make your way across Unioninkatu street towards the Esplanadi Park. In the summer, when the weather is at its best, the park’s lawns become the most popular picnic places in the city center. Often also outdoor concerts are held on the stage. In the winter you can marvel the Christmas lights and the season’s peaceful atmosphere.
If you feel like another cup of coffee or getting hungry for a snack, Café Esplanad is a traditional café known for its huge cinnamon buns (“Korvapuusti” in Finnish, you really should try one with coffee!) and fresh salads. In the summer the tables on the street make a perfect spot to watch the people passing by.
Stock-up at Kauppatori marketplace
The Kauppatori marketplace has a variety of stalls ranging from a traditional farmer’s market selling fresh berries in the summer, fish and other local food products, handcrafts and souvenirs. The presidential palace is across the street and the ferry terminal to Suomenlinna fortress is in the south-west corner of the marketplace.
Submerge in history in the Suomenlinna sea fortress
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is an UNESCO world heritage site and a very popular place to visit especially in the summer but beautiful in the winter as well (just remember to dress warm!). There is a small population of residents so it’s advisable to be mindful to not disturb private areas of the island. The white Suomenlinna church that’s a short walk from the harbor is one of the rare churches that’s also a lighthouse. A good place for lunch is for example Bastion Bistro located in a building that has a fascinating history since it was built in 1892 and has even served as a prison in the past.
The ferry to Suomenlinna runs around the year and it takes about 15 minutes to reach the island. It’s a good idea to pack along a weather proof jacket and good walking shoes as the island is best explored on foot. If you’re visiting in the summer and have more time you could also opt for the island-hopping ticket and visit also two other islands Vallisaari and Lonna in addition to Suomenlinna. There’s still a lot of signs of historical military presence on the islands like barracks and canons as all three have had an important role in Finland’s history in protecting the city.
Marvel the cityscape views from SkyWheel Helsinki
Take the ferry back to Kauppatori from Suomenlinna and find one of the newer landmarks of the city, the SkyWheel Helsinki just a short stroll away. Enjoy the panoramic views to the sea and over the city from the ferris wheel cabins. There’s even a sauna cabin if you want to try a really unique experience!
Relax at the sauna and outdoor swim at Allas Sea Pool
Your visit to Finland would not be complete without going to sauna! One of the most convenient locations to enjoy sauna and a swim in the middle of Helsinki is Allas Sea Pool that’s located next door from the Skywheel. Its open around the year with a heated 25-meter pool and a (cold) sea water pool. The kids pool is open in the summer. The day ticket includes unlimited swimming time and use of sauna. Check the website in advance about events – Skinny dip Saturdays are held once a month so depending on your preferences you might want to avoid or join this unique experience (swimsuits are allowed though, even in the sauna – although the local tradition is to go to sauna nude even if it’s not skinny dipping night)! There’s also a café and a bistro in the building and in the summer, the top floor hosts one of the city’s most popular terraces.
For a nice modern Finnish dinner head to Juuri (meaning ”root” in Finnish) restaurant that bases its menu on fresh local ingredients and has been mentioned in the Michelin guide annually for the last decade. The restaurant launched “sapas” as Finnish version of tapas, small delicious starters that can be shared.
Or if you prefer to stay in the close neighborhood and opt for a more traditional Finnish dinner, try Savotta restaurant instead.
Day 2 in Helsinki Itinerary: Culture and Arts
In the past decade, Helsinki has really become a hub for art, culture and design. The city is home to several inspirational museums from more classical to contemporary art. If you plan to stay longer and explore a high number of museums, the Museum Card could be the optimal solution for you – at the price of 69 euros it includes admission to over 200 museums in Finland!
Enjoy morning coffee and modern art at Kiasma
Kiasma – Museum of Contemporary Art is architectural sight both from the outside as well as inside. The museum coffee shop is worth a visit for taking a break. There’s free admission on the first Friday of the month.
Admire the classical works of art at Ateneum
Switch from modern to classical and make your way to Ateneum Art Museum that hosts the largest classical art exhibition in Finland. It’s home to many of the most iconic masterpieces of Finnish art as well as some well-known international artists work.
Take a lunch break
Have lunch at Cafe Roasberg across the street from Ateneum museum. It’s the place to go for some fresh ground cappuccino or latte and salads. It’s also a nice place to work on your computer to catch up on those important emails or get up-to-speed on social media.
Wake up your senses at Amos Rex
Amos Rex museum with contemporary audio-visual exhibitions was recently opened and it became a huge hit instantly – probably for the first time in Finland, people have been queuing to a museum! It’s very popular in the weekends and evenings, so if possible plan your visit for a weekday.
Chill at Central Library Oodi
Central Library Oodi is the newest addition to Helsinki’s cultural offering was opened on the eve of Finland’s 101st Independence Day on the 5th of December 2018. The modern sleek wood-clad building is centrally located next to Kiasma and Helsinki Music Center and has been hailed as an architectural masterpiece making it worth visiting not only if you are a book lover.
Dinner your style
For a gourmet dinner experience head to Muru on Fredrikinkatu. Muru is a boutique fine dining restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere. It’s worthwhile to go for the tasting menu. The restaurant is small, and the number of tables limited so advance booking even weeks ahead is recommended (and in case you have special diets it’s useful to inform the restaurant in advance so that they can design the best culinary experience to your diet). Bon appétit!
In case you prefer a more down-to-earth dining experience Restaurant Zetor is located very centrally and is decorated in unique Finnish countryside style, you could almost call it having some “hillbilly” charm. Here you can find the most traditional Finnish dishes on the menu such as meatballs, karelian stew, sautéed reindeer, salmon soup, pyttipanna (fried potato, onion, and sausage) – you won’t go home hungry!
Cultural night out: symphony orchestra, opera, jazz or rock concert?
Are you a fan of classical music, opera or ballet? Check out the offering at Helsinki Music Center or Finnish National Opera when planning your visit to Helsinki. Book your tickets in advance to secure your seat in most popular shows or try your luck to get tickets for performances on the same day. After the performance, head for a glass of champagne on a rooftop bar. Torni Ateljé bar is the classic roof top bar in the top floor of Torni Hotel centrally located next to Forum shopping center with amazing views across Helsinki. In the winter there are only a few tables in the small bar but in the summer time there also the balcony seating is in use. The ladies bathroom has a famous toilet with views. Or check out Clarion Hotel’s Sky Room that’s one of the latest additions to the Helsinki bar scene.
If you’re more into pop, rock or jazz music, Helsinki has an active scene for concerts and clubs. Start the evening at Teerenpeli pub and brewery that’s a great place for after work drinks or catching up with friends and tasting the locally brewed beer and cider. There’s usually seats available and it’s not too noisy to enjoy a conversation. Then take your pick on the music genre to continue the evening for example at Tavastia club, established in 1970, that’s one of Europe’s oldest rock clubs or Storyville that’s a well-known jazz club.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
There are plenty of accommodation options for different budgets in Helsinki. There isn’t a bad area to stay in but do check out the map and evaluate how much walking you like to do from the places you plan to visit. A few hotel recommendations would be the boutique Hotel Haven, centrally located Scandic Simonkenttä and Clarion Hotel Helsinki for seaside glamour with rooftop pool.
Things to do in Finland beyond Helsinki
There’s naturally much more than the capital to see in Finland. For an ideal Finland holiday, include a visit to northern Finland in your journey – from late autumn till late spring you are likely to find a winter wonderland there while in the summer months the midnight sun lights up the scenery even at night. Ruka is just a short flight from Helsinki and is easily explored in just 3 days. For an authentic Lapland nature experience Pallas-Yllästunturi national park would be an ideal destination.
Hope you find these insights useful and enjoy your visit the Finland and Helsinki!
Bio: Pia Oravainen is a Finland based part-time blogger passionate about traveling, learning, nature and well-being. Hoping to inspire people and families to seize opportunities to explore the wonders of the world and be energized to stay active and healthy. Follow her on her website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.