Many people immediately associate the Finnish winter with Lapland, sledges and the Northern Lights. While these are some of the most alluring parts of Finland, the capital does have a certain charm in winter as well. Before getting to our city guide, we do have to issue a preliminary warning: if you do not like cold weather, DO NOT GO to Helsinki in January! Temperatures can drop below -20°C and you hardly get any light. It is however an incredible experience as it completely changes the manner in which you approach your visit of the Finnish capital. Here are some of the best things to do in Helsinki in winter.
History and overview:
Helsinki was founded as a Swedish trading town in the mid 16th Century and remained a relatively diminutive trading post until the early 19th Century when the Russians annexed the city after having successfully besieged the fortress of Sveaborg (Suomenlinna). The Russian tsar established Helsinki as the new capital of Finland and relocated the country’s only university, Turku to Helsinki. This new academic and cultural importance led to continuous growth in tandem with the rapid industrialization of Russia.
In 1917, Finland became an independent country and Helsinki continued its path to a modern European capital.
Finland and its capital Helsinki are praised for their innovative economy and their social cohesion. Very few countries can match Finland very low poverty levels and wealth disparities. Akin to other Scandinavian nations, Finns have established a social model which works extremely well and makes the vast majority of the population benefit from the country’s economic success.
Helsinki is not a very large city but the residential parts are quite spread out, most of the sights are located within walking distance of the main Cathedral or the Central Train Station.
The best area to stay is without a doubt the city centre, best look for a place close to the Central Train Station, this way you will have the chance to see most attractions on foot without having to walk long distances in the freezing temperatures. The Central Station also has an excellent train connection to the airport. Here are our suggestions.
Hotel Indigo Helsinki – Boulevard: A lovely little boutique hotel in central Helsinki with all the amenities you need and a great breakfast assortment. The rooms are moreover beautifully decorated with trendy Finnish art.
SATO Hotelhome Kristianinkatu: a centrally located apartment is a priceworthy option and has all the facilites you need for a short stay in the Finnish capital. The SATO Hotelhome offers you different apartments in ordinary buildings with a kitchen and a sauna in the hallway. Definitely the value for money option in an otherwise not so cheap city.
Hotel Seurahuone Helsinki: a great upper-mid range hotel located right in the city centre with all the usual amenities, kind staff and mouthwatering breakfast options.
Cultural offer and activities:
National Museum of Finland: (Mannerheimintie 34) A great place to learn about the history and culture of Finland, especially considering the significant differences between the capital city and remote parts of the country such as Lapland.
Suomenlinna island: A Unesco world heritage sea fortress on a small island right off the coast. Unfortunately, the island is completely covered in snow during winter months and the fact that the place is completely deserted creates the brilliant illusion that it might just be a mirage, a fake sight where no fortress has ever existed.
Public or private sauna The most Finnish of Finnish traditions, an absolute must in Helsinki. Most apartment buildings have their own sauna but there are also public saunas all over the city. Our suggestion for a public sauna in the city centre is the Kotiharjun Sauna (Harjutorinkatu 1)
Helsinki Art Museum: (Eteläinen Rautatiekatu 8) A collection of more than 9000 works of art that will not disappoint any art enthusiast.
Old town & Cathedral: The charming old town contains the main Cathedral which is a brilliant piece of neoclassical architecture and therefore definitely worth a glance.
Finlandia Hall: (Mannerheimintie 13e) The Finlandia Hall is a stunning feat of modern architecture, designed by famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and located right next to the National Museum. The Hall hosts event facilities and a large music venue, seating 1700 people. All sorts of concerts and other events are organised here and the hall thereby offers a great opportunity to check out Finnish artists in a beautiful setting.
Helicopter Tours: If you have the budget to splash the cash on a truly bewildering activity, why not embark on a helicopter over the staggering Finnish winter wilderness? Helicopter tours over the Finnish capital and the aforementioned Suomenlinna island are available at any time, we recommend Rotorway Helicopter Services, a company offering fantastic rides for reasonable prices.
Wine & Dine:
Finnish cuisine is characterised by the use of simple, organic and high quality ingredients which makes eating out in Helsinki a delicious but pricey experience. Many new restaurants have opened in the Finnish capital in recent years and the city’s food scene now rivals some of its larger European counterparts. Here are some suggestions.
Olo Ravintolo: (Pohjoisesplanadi 5) quite a pricey option but worth every cent. Serves traditional Scandinavian food and Finnish dishes, many of which are related to the restaurants’ extensive fish assortment.
Cafe Bar No9: (Uudenmaankatu 9) A great option in the city centre where you can enjoy large platters of varied dishes in a comfy setting and for a relatively small outlay. We strongly recommend their fish pasta which is a great lunch menu and will provide you with all the nutrition you need for an afternoon in freezing temperatures.
Hietalahti Market Hall: (Lönnrotinkatu 34) A renovated old market hall which now offers a large variety of high quality foods from different regions in a great atmosphere. The choice is extensive and the hall is also a great place to meet some locals and talk over shrimps, burgers or fish soup.
Molly Malone’s Pub: (Kaisaniemenkatu 1) Our favourite pub in Helsinki. A typical Irish pub and a great place to warm up during the cold winter nights.
Milliklubi: (Kaivokatu 12) One of the only clubs where you can expect to have a large crowd even on the coldest nights, not too bad but not extraordinary either.
Kuudes Linja: (Hämeentie 13 B) One of the best clubs in Helsinki where local and international DJs will delight you with their tunes until 4AM. A great venue in our opinion but not always packed in winter.
Kaisla: (Vilhonkatu 4) The beer lovers’ haven in Helsinki. Their large assortment of local and international brews will delight even the most demanding beer connaisseur in a cosy and laidback atmosphere.
Bar Bäkkeri & Green Room: (Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 21) If you are into rock, a music genre which is very popular in Finland, this is the spot for you. You can expect live gigs from Finnish bands playing mostly hard rock with the occasional touch of classic tunes
Be aware that Helsinki nightlife isn’t really buzzing in winter, this is mostly due to the fact that when the real cold comes in, most Finns prefer to organise home parties in combination with sauna and traditional Finnish games.
Final tips & Verdict:
Scandinavian countries generally have a great public transit system and Helsinki is no exception. The metro is a great way to get around and covers most of the city’s areas while public buses are also a good option.
On par with other Northern European nations, English levels are very high in Helsinki and communication is hardly ever an issue. Finnish is completely unintelligible anyway and it is therefore next to impossible to learn the basics for a short trip.
Helsinki is very expensive compared to most European countries. Not the most exciting city in Europe, a trip to Helsinki works well in combination with Tallinn, which can be reached on a short 2h boat trip. The boat ride is in itself an experience, especially in winter when it resembles more an icebreaker than a tourist ferry.