Helsinki: Main Sights
Helsinki is a gloriously diverse city, for all that its centre is pocket-sized. With excellent art galleries and museums it’s culturally exciting, but it’s also an area of great natural resources, as a walk through one of Helsinki’s parks or a trip to any of the islands will prove. Whether you’re visiting during midwinter or the long days and white nights of midsummer, Helsinki has many sights to divert and entertain the visitor.
Helsinki Central Park
Helsinki Central Park (Helsingin keskuspuisto in Finnish) is a 10 kilometre stretch of forest and parkland reaching from the inner city to the northern border of Helsinki. It’s the main place to go for any sort of outdoor recreation, as well as being an area of great natural beauty. The park contains four different protected areas: the Pitkäkoski deciduous forest, Haltiala primeval forest, Niskala arboretum, and Ruutinkoski deciduous forest. Aside from these areas of special conservation, there are also 100kms of hiking and jogging trails (many of which are ski trails in the winter). There’s also an extensive sports complex containing the Olympic Stadium, a bay for canoeing and boating, a riding field, a hiking lodge with sauna, golf course and many sports fields.
Helsinki Cathedral is possibly the most prominent building in the city and is something of a civic symbol. A celebrated piece of neo-classical design, it was completed in 1852, 12 years after the death of its architect, Carl Ludvig Engel, who was responsible for the design of the city centre, including the Senate Square. No visit to Helsinki would be complete without a look at the Cathedral.
Helsinki Central Railway Station
Not only is the Central Railway Station a transport hub, it’s also of great architectural significance. Its architect was master of the Finnish Art Nouveau, Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950), and the railway station is his masterpiece – well worth seeing.
Finnish National Gallery
The Finnish National Gallery is made up of three museums: the Ateneum Art Museum, which shows classical Finnish Art, the Kiasma Art Museum for modern art and Sinebrychoff Art Museum for classical European art. As well as their extensive and wonderful collections, the Ateneum and the Kiasma are also housed in architecturally interesting buildings. The Ateneum is a 19th century neo-renaissance palace, whilst the Kiasma is one of the most highly debated buildings in Helsinki because of its intensely modern design.
National Museum of Finland
The biggest historical museum in Helsinki is the National Museum of Finland, which displays a vast historical collection covering everything from the prehistoric era to the 21st century. The museum building itself is a tourist attraction: a national romantic-style neo-medieval castle.
Helsinki City Museum
For an introduction to Helsinki’s 500 year history, look no further than the Helsinki City Museum. It’ll take you through the Swedish and Russian periods as well as modern events. As well as the permanent exhibition, there are also excellent (and sometimes provocative) temporary exhibitions examining different aspects of life in Helsinki.
Finlandia Hall is Helsinki’s main concert and convention venue, principally interesting for its architecture, which has remained controversial ever since its completion in 1971. Although it hosts a number of excellent concerts every year, it’s worth a visit in its own right: it’s the work of leading Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, one of the pioneers of functionalism.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Suomenlinna (which translates as Castle of Finland) is an inhabited sea-fort built over eight islands. Built during Swedish rule as a military fortification, it is also known by its Swedish name: Sveaborg. It’s a major tourist draw, but is also a suburb of Helsinki in its own right. Although its UNESCO status reflects Suomenlinna’s importance as an historic military installation, it is in fact an extremely popular cultural destination. There are six museums in the fortress, artisan’s studios, many cafes and restaurants and an independent brewery. Suomenlinna also hosts different types of entertainment during the summer months: open air theatre, children's tours and theatre, Viapori Jazz, a regatta, and various concerts.
Municipal ferries run regularly to Suomenlinna all year round, with daily services continuing until around 2am.
A beautiful and popular recreational island, Pihlajasaari has swimming beaches, lovely cafes and a public sauna for visitors to enjoy. Visiting Pihlajasaari Island is a good way to enjoy the outdoors Finnish-style. It can be reached by ferry, which runs from early May to late September from Merisatamanranta (beside Cafe Carusel) or Ruoholahti.
This is a wonderful place to take a family – you can learn a bit about Finnish history as well as exploring the great outdoors. Seurasaari is an island, but can be reached via a bridge from the mainland; the number 24 bus will take you there.
Basically, it’s an open-air museum which lets you roam around different types of buildings and villages from Finland’s past. The island has been a popular tourist draw since the 1880s, and as well as the very interesting museum aspect, it boasts beautiful parkland that can be explored and a swimming beach. A huge and popular midsummer celebration also happens here each year.
Another draw for the island is perhaps less family-friendly (depending on your point of view): Seurasaari is also home to one of the two nudist beaches in Helsinki, with segregated areas for men and women.