The best things to do in Helsinki – from steamy saunas to silent chapels!

Think of Finland and the stereotypical image of frozen Rudolph noses and a never-ending miserable winter probably pops into your head. But quirky capital Helsinki has a lot to offer to anyone who is willing to embrace the charm of this small but beautiful city. It’s only in recent years that Helsinki has become popular with travellers – in the past it has often been overlooked thanks to its overachieving Nordic siblings. If Stockholm is the elder sibling that went to med school and is the pride and joy of the parents, Helsinki is the younger rebel who chose to study fine arts. This nonconformity is what makes backpacking in Helsinki so unique. If you’re after things to do in Helsinki on a budget, read on for some local tips!

things to do in helsinki, view of helsinki cathedral from the water

📷 @tap5a

  1. Experience Finnish Sauna at Löyly

Sauna in Finland? Groundbreaking. No, it isn’t unexpected and doesn’t exactly help to break the perception of Finland that foreigners have. But if you’re after a true holistic Finnish experience, then you must pay a visit to a sauna! Every public sauna has character and a personality of its own, and the pièce de résistance of all public saunas in Helsinki is in the heart of the city. Welcome to Löyly!

Built from sustainably sourced wood, Löyly offers you the primal Finnish experience of sweating out toxins, followed by a refreshing dip in the sea. If you’re visiting Helsinki in wintertime, they make a hole in the ice just for this activity – we hope you’re feeling brave! Löyly also serves as a restaurant and cocktail bar, cooking up organic food and sustainably caught fish.

  • Price: €19 per person for a two-hour sauna session. It’s a little on the pricier side, but in all honesty Finland is an expensive country and this is the top place for a sauna
  • To get there, take bus 14 or 18N from Kamppi

things to do in helsinki, man sitting in water surrounded by ice at löyly

📷 Löyly

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  1. Enjoy a hearty brunch at the Fazer Café at Kluuvikatu

A cinnamon bun and coffee is a mandatory part of any Nordic experience, and it’s essential for all travellers to enjoy it at the birthplace of the Finnish confectionery. Fazer Café has remained one of the best places to visit in Helsinki since its establishment in 1891. If it’s a hearty start to the day you’re after, then you must hit up this place for its epic brunch which includes crusty slices of bread, turkey and ham, smoothies, iced cakes and sweet buns that taste like they were kissed by butter-winged angels. Seriously, it’s that good!

  • Price: brunch from €14,90, served between 7:30-10:30 on weekdays, 9:00-14:00 on Saturdays and 10:00-14:00 on Sundays
  • Closest metro station: University of Helsinki
  1. Stroll through the Design District

Helsinki’s Design District brings the creativity of the Finnish people together into an impressive constellation in the centre of the city. The district covers the core of Helsinki, sprawling over 25 streets and housing over 200 buildings. Taking a walk through this part of the city is the perfect thing to do for culture-hungry travellers, the best part being that it doesn’t cost a thing! The area is classed as its own district, home to a range of homegrown design and antique shops, fashion stores, museums, art galleries, restaurants and showrooms.

A good place to begin is the Design Museum, a one-stop crash course through Finnish design with a comprehensive collection. If there’s some money burning a hole in your pocket, you could always indulge yourself by purchasing unique pieces from iconic Finnish brands such as Marimekko, Artek and Iittala.

  • Price: free to explore, €12 to visit the Design Museum
  • Closest metro station: Central Railway Station

things to do in helsinki, skateboard leaning against a wall with graffiti skulls

📷 @jhonkasalo

  1. Visit Suomenlinna Island

If you’re not the artsy type then may I suggest a spot of island hopping? As you probably already know from many Instagram posts, Finland is a country of thousands of lakes and islands. But none hold a torch to the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, which has been recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

This historically significant cluster of six linked islands offers a total contrast to Helsinki’s city centre, with its uneven hills, cobblestone paths and cannons dressed in cobwebs. Yet it’s only a 15 minute HSL ferry ride from the Market Square! Visit this peaceful spot where Finns hang out on summer days to enjoy picnics, soak up the sun and wander the quaint streets and restaurants that are conveniently located in the heart of the island.

  • Price: a single ferry ticket costs €2.80
  • Get there from the ferry point in the Market Square

things to do in helsinki, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress islands

📷 @marjattacajan

  1. Feast at the Old Market Hall

If a return to the ‘good old days’ (that you never actually witnessed) is what you crave, then a trip to the Old Market Hall is exactly what the nostalgia doctor prescribes. Even though today’s visitors are lucky enough not to witness babushkas queuing for hours in the cold to buy kielbasas (sausages), it’s fascinating to discover a vintage market that feels like a slice of the past.

The atmosphere inside the Old Market Hall, next to the Market Square, is warm and welcoming. The indoor hall has served customers since 1889 and today sells the finest cheeses, meats, vegetables and sweet treats. Within the complex there are several cafés where you can sit and enjoy the food and vibe. If you want to tuck into some authentic Finnish cuisine, this is the place!

  • Price: free – just pay for what you eat
  • Closest metro station: University of Helsinki

things to do in helsinki, roberts coffee stand in the old market hall

📷 @sapegin

  1. Get your culture fix at the Ateneum Art Museum

It’s basic backpacker 101 that you have to engage in cultural activities when you’re in a new country. While there are many ways to celebrate the arts in Helsinki, most Finns’ top recommendation would be the Ateneum Art Museum.

The celebrated work that is part of the Ateneum collection is deeply ingrained in the Finnish psyche, as most of us have a personal history of visiting the museum through various school trips. The paintings and art pieces range from the 19th century to the modern age, allowing the observer to draw new perspectives between the past and the future. But hey, even if you’re not a critic you can just enjoy some spectacular works of art!

  • Price: €17.00 for normal admission
  • Closest metro station: Central Railway Station

things to do in helsinki, ateneum art museum at night with pablo exhibition banners

📷 @vindodmurali

  1. Meditate at the Kamppi Chapel

The Nordics are not a particularly religious bunch and talking about one’s beliefs in public can result in awkward situations. It’s unlikely that you’ll see loud displays of spiritual expression, instead you’ll be welcome to silently meditate and take a pause at the ‘Chapel of Silence’.

The quaint chapel is literally in the middle of everything, right outside a giant mall in the centre of the bustling city – it’s a place to take a breather and calm down in one of the country’s busiest areas. This peculiar architectural feat built with alder wood stands to remind the people of Helsinki that though the world is losing its head, you mustn’t let that happen to yourself. People from all walks of life are welcome to enjoy one of the most unique things to do in Helsinki.

  • Price: Free
  • Closest metro station: Kamppi

things to do in helsinki, kamppi chapel in the city centre

📷 @mattimattila

  1. Embrace your inner kid at the Moomin Kaffe Café

It doesn’t matter whether you grew up with the magical tales penned by Tove Jansson, or whether the fantastic species of the Moomin trolls, who seemingly don’t possess any genitals, were a part of your childhood. You should still make a point of visiting Helsinki’s Moomin Kaffe for its stylish, Nordic design, relaxed atmosphere and Jansson’s artwork that will provide excellent fodder for your Instagram account. While similar themed cafes elsewhere might be just a tourist trap, the Moomins are so beloved in Finland that they’re essentially a part of Finnish national identity and culture, so you should definitely go and pay homage to the cute creatures!

If nothing else, it’s worth visiting the Moomin Kaffe just to down a Moomin mugful of Finnish coffee and contemplate how on earth these trolls procreate…

  • Price: free – just pay for what you eat
  • Closest metro station: University of Helsinki
  1. Browse the Market Square

The most famous and internationally visited market in Finland lies at the South Harbour at one end of Helsinki’s Esplanade Park. In summer, the booths are filled to the brim with local Finnish berries, in autumn there are freshly picked lingonberries and mushrooms, while in winter you’ll find booths selling mulled wine and cosy clothing. The latter may well be the best time to visit – you can stroll through the market and admire the handcrafted beanies and mittens, or just enjoy Karelian pies in heated café tents with a steaming hot coffee – sure to warm your bones even on the coldest winter days!

  • Closest metro station: University of Helsinki

things to do in helsinki, christmas markets in the market square

  1. Feel like Bambi on the ice rink at the Jääpuisto Ice Park

Next to the Helsinki Railway Station, every year there pops up a charming winter amusement park known as Jääpuisto Ice Park. Their iconic ice rink opens around November time every year and remains there until March, so if you’re wondering what to do in Helsinki in winter then this should be top of your list.

Renting a pair of ice skates, a helmet and a sled is included in the entry fee. There’s also an Ice Park café offering warm drinks that you can enjoy between skating rounds or when you’ve fallen over one too many times.

  • Price: €6
  • Closest metro station: Central Railway Station


There’s something for everyone in our list of the top things to do in Helsinki. For an amazing Finnish adventure, get steamy in a sauna, let a man in a Moomin costume give you a hug and eat so many cinnamon buns that your trousers pop. P.S, don’t forget to check out our awesome hostels in Helsinki to save even more money on your trip!

things to do in helsinki, view of the city centre with colourful roofs

About the author:

Karan Ahluwalia is a Finnish writer studying in London, about to embark on great adventures after her MA studies. She knows her way around five languages, food from all corners of the world, and misses the snow and seasons from back home.

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