A few months ago I travelled to Helsinki with Finnair for a two-day tour of the Finnish capital organised by Visit Helsinki. It was a short trip (I was there for just about 48 hours), but it was long enough to get a glimpse of what Helsinki has to offer. I’ve put together a guide on how to spend two days in Helsinki: where to stay, what to see and where to eat.
I was in Helsinki in November, not exactly the best month to go, or so the locals kept telling me. The days are really short; it’s cold, but not cold enough for the city to be covered in snow, and it often rains. Having said that, when the sun comes out in the late morning, it is a truly glorious sight!
One thing is for sure: there is no better time to visit Helsinki than this year as 2017 marks the centenary of Finnish independence. Finland became an independent state on 6 December 1917. To celebrate this important anniversary, Finland has planned a programme of special events, festivals and exhibitions taking place throughout the year. For a full list of the events click here.
Where to Stay
I stayed at Hotel Haven, part of Kämp collection, and of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The luxury hotel has a boutiquey feel and is perfectly located in the city centre: just a few minutes walk from Market Square (Kauppatori) and the harbour. The lobby is small, but they make up for it with a large restaurant and bar area. We enjoyed a cocktail in the bar before dinner and admired their vast Finnish vodka selection.
Room prices at Hotel Haven start from €175 per night including buffet breakfast.
A Tour of The City
Nature and water are big elements of the life in Helsinki. The city spectacularly lies on a bay on the Baltic sea with 315 islands islands scattered around it.
Architecture, art, design and Nordic cuisine are the other big tourism drives of Helsinki and luckily I had time to experience some of that during my visit.
We joined a 2-hour guided city tour with Mikael of Green Cap Tours. We started from the main stairs of the Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square (Senaatintori), then walked to the University of Helsinki and finished the tour on the main boulevard (Esplanadi) where most of the luxury boutiques and hotels are located.
Thanks to this tour, I learnt a lot about the city’s history: the Swedish influence, the Russian era, the national Romantic Movement and declaration of the independence 100 years ago. If I had more time I would have visited one of the many museums and explore more of the outer neighbourhoods.
Arabia and IIttala Centre
The design scene in Helsinki is really dynamic, with many boutiques, workshops and galleries proliferating especially in the Design District. The newest addition to Helsinki’s design scene is the Arabia and Iittala Centre, named after two of the best-known Finnish design and lifestyle brands.
The centre is housed in the former Arabia factory. There is a big shop on the ground floor; a café; an exhibition area on the top floor and areas where guests can interact with working artists.
I knew Iittala, Finland’s most famous glassmaker, already but Arabia’s porcelain was new to me. I love both these brands now, their modern and unique designs, and the fact their objects are beautiful yet functional. It was a joy to learn about the craftsmanship that goes behind each product.
I couldn’t resist buying one of Iittala’s glass vases from the Alvar Aalto collection, which was first designed in 1936. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s the kind of object you buy in the hope of passing it on to your children and grand-children one day.
The Design Museum
In honour of the centennial of Finnish independence, the Design Museum opened a special collection in February dedicated to the development of design in the modern Finnish welfare state. Called “Utopia Now – The Story of Finnish Design”, the exhibition showcases 100 Finnish objects and furniture that have become iconic such as Fiskars scissors, Iittala glasses and Nokia phones.
Escape to The Nature
Despite being a capital city, Helsinki is a relatively small city compared to other European capitals like Paris, London or Rome. In just 15 minutes by car you can be out of the city centre and surrounded by nature and lakes!
Vanhankaupunginlahti is a unique nature zone formed by the fields of Viikki and the Vantaanjoki River. The 258-hectare reserve is in the location where Helsinki was first founded in 1550. Nowadays it lies in the middle of the city. It is open to the public and is a great place for walking, bird-watching and foraging.
We had a 1-hour guided tour of Vanhankaupunginlahti and I just loved being surrounded by nature, but at the same time being so close to the city!
Sauna at Löyly
Sauna is a huge part of Finnish culture. It is estimated that there are 2 million saunas in Finland for a population of 5 million! There are many public and private saunas in Helsinki (there’s even one in a Burger King and inside Finnair’s airport lounge!).
I went to the Löyly, an impressive design sauna which opened last Spring in Hernesaari, on the southern tip of the peninsula. In addition to a smoke sauna and traditional Finnish sauna, visitors can taste Nordic cuisine at the restaurant or enjoy stunning views from the rooftop terrace. The design is beautiful! The rooms are made of recycled wood and energy-efficient glass walls. Ecological electricity is used throughout the complex.
My favourite part? Jumping into the cold Baltic sea after a hot sauna! I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but when everybody else was going it I decided to go for it too. It was exhilarating, exciting and energising! I would love to go back and experience it again.
Löyly sauna is open to the public (a two-hour booking costs 19 euros) and is mixed between men and women.
Where to Eat
Aside from the sauna, the best part of my trip to Helsinki was learning about Finnish cuisine and eating at some of the city’s best restaurants. Every dish I tasted was outstanding! It’s not just me who thinks that: Helsinki’s dining scene is flourishing. There are plenty of trendy eateries, craft breweries, speciality coffee shops and micro-distilleries to discover there.
On the first evening we had dinner at Nokka, a restaurant housed in a converted harbour-side warehouse. I loved the atmosphere (it reminded me of London’s railway arches). The 4-course tasting menu featured Nordic dishes such as Smoked and charred Baltic herring with mustard seeds and Wild reindeer from Salla with smoked reindeer tallow.
We had lunch at Sunn the next day, it was a simple Ceasar salad with salmon instead of chicken, but was it delicious! I still remember now the taste of the roasted fish! The restaurant is located on the 2nd floor of an historic building overlooking Senate square.
My meal at Grön was probably my favourite of the whole trip, because of the creativity of the dishes but also the sense of intimacy in the small restaurant. If Grön’s focus is to create tasty and inspiring plant-based food, they achieved that one hundred percent. They serve only natural or biodynamic wines and speciality coffee from the Good Life Coffee roastery.
Our last meal in Helsinki at OLO was stunning. I see why the restaurant has been awarded with one Michelin star since 2011. Chef Jari Vesivalo’s approach is to combine the best Nordic ingredients to create clear, modern flavours.
Guests can book a table at the main restaurant, at OLO Garden or at Creative Kitchen (where they eat in a kitchen supperclub-style and enjoy a unique evening with the chefs).
Talking about food in Helsinki, I could not fail to mention The Old Market Hall. Although it was just behind our Hotel Haven, it wasn’t until the last morning that Jacintha and I ventured inside for a quick sneak peek. Sadly we didn’t have time to stop for coffee and cinnamon buns, but this hall is certainly the first place I will visit next time I am in Helsinki!
Where to Drink Coffee
I couldn’t finish this post without mentioning Helsinki’s thriving coffee scene. I managed to visit three coffee shops in the little time I had: La Torrefazione, El Fant and Good Life Coffee. All three were very good and different between each other. Good Life Coffee in the Kallio district was my favourite. It is widely considered the best speciality coffee roaster in Finland! I liked the laid back-vibe of the shop and their cortado.
So, this concludes my packed two-day itinerary to visit Helsinki in Finland. It doesn’t cover everything that the city has to offer, but if you’re a first time visitor like a was, this will make a good start!
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Visit Helsinki. All opinions are my own.