Destination Insight: Helsinki
Destination Insight: Helsinki
One of Scandinavia's most elegant capital cities and a key cultural and design hub, Helsinki was also a former outpost of the Russian empire. This Russian influence can still be traced today in both its architecture and outlook, with Helsinki appearing to have as much in common with St Petersburg as its Scandinavian sisters.
The city was largely rebuilt in the 19th century after being crowned Finland's capital, which soon saw it festooned with Art Nouveau buildings and world-class museums. These days the city's food scene is going from strength to strength and its network of islands, bays and harbours continues to beguile visitors.
9 Things to See and Do in Helsinki
Here's our pick of some of the city's must-dos on your next business trip to Helsinki.
- See a Rock Concert in the Rock Church
Temppeliaukio Church is more commonly known as ‘the Rock Church' and remains perhaps the city's leading architectural marvel. Completed in 1969 by the Suomalainen brothers, it was carved directly from solid granite underneath the city centre's streets in the Fredrikinkatu area.
The unique properties of the structure lend it the ideal acoustics for musical events. The special atmosphere of the church with its intimate setting, seating just 750 people, makes watching a classical concert here a truly unforgettable experience.
- Drink in Helsinki Cathedral
It's impossible to miss this landmark, with its sweeping staircase, Corinthian pillars and white, pilastered neoclassical façade, it dominates the city's downtown skyline. Despite its obvious significance, it's still relatively young in historical terms. The Evangelic Lutheran church was only completed by celebrated architect Carl Ludvig Engle in 1852. Look towards the heavens to take in the 12 sculptures of the apostles on the roof, one of the largest collections of zinc sculptures in the world.
3. Step out to an Open-Air Museum
Just a few miles outside of the city centre lies the Seurasaari Island, a national park that's home to the Seurasaari Open Air Museum, which gives you a fascinating immersion into Finnish history and outdoor culture. Seurasaari features a collection of over 100 recreated wooden buildings from the 1600s onwards, brought to life by friendly guides in traditional dress giving folk dancing and craft demonstrations, all set in wooded idyll with a wealth of wildlife, including birds, hares and red squirrels. There's even a pair of single-sex nudist beaches on the island, for when you seriously need to cool your jets.
4. Hit Hietaniemi Beach
Helsinki may not be the first place you think of when it comes to beach life, but locals in the know swear by this little sandy stretch of 'Copacabana on the Baltic.' You'll find Hietaniemi Beach in the Töölö district, with safe, shallow waters, mini golf and a pleasant café. Less than 20 years ago it was an unprepossessing landfill site, but now thanks to industrious Helsinkians it now hosts volleyball tournaments.
5. Sample Street food at 'the Abattoir'
Tuerastamo is a former abattoir which has been completely reimagined in recent years as the go-to place for culinary and urban culture in the city. Naturally you can expect some barbequed meats to be on the menu here, but you can also stroll around the urban gardens, savour some Chinese street food, enjoy some artisanal ice cream or poke your nose into the Flavour Studio cookery school and laboratory. You can even hang out in this fast-evolving space - not from the hooks of old but in hammocks on the terraces.
6. Discover Design
Helsinki was anointed World Design Capital in 2012 and for good reason. Modern classics include Nokia, tasteful Iittala dinnerware and the charming, folkloric animal prints of Klaus Haapaniemi, among many others.
The best way to get an informed sense of the city's swish design credentials is to take the two hour guided Walking Tour through the Design District, just south of the Esplanade. This will drill you around over 200 attractions, spread across 25 streets packed with shops, studios, galleries and design hotels, which demonstrate Finnish design flair.
7. Scrub up at a Sauna
You can't really leave Finland without sampling one of its national institutions, the sauna. The Kotiharjun Sauna, near the Sörnäinen Metro Station, is a fine, authentic wood-fired example, and stands as the city's only remaining public sauna.
Here you can submit yourself to a sound scrub and pummel, which should revive you after an intensive day of back-to-back meetings. Saunas are such a staple of Finnish life nowadays that most dwellings have their own private ones, so make sure you experience the communal version while you still can.
8. Grab a Cuppa at Kauppatori
The outdoor harbour market on Kauppatori Square throngs from Monday to Saturday throughout the summer months, selling local fruit and veg, alongside a wide array of craft wares and souvenirs of course, making it a big draw with locals and visitors alike.
Make sure you check out the impressive granite, eagle-topped obelisk 'the Stone of Empress' in the centre of the square, the city's first public sculpture, celebrating the visit of Russian Emperor Nicholas I in 1833. The attractive Market Hall is the perfect spot to people-watch on rainy days while you grab a bite of smoked herring or some other fresh fish delicacy.
9. Hop on a Boat to Talinn
If you have time to spare, why not extend your trip and jump on a boat and see another city? Estonia's youthful capital of Talinn is just two hours away some 80 kilometres across the Gulf of Finland by ferry and offers an attractive contrast, with its extensive Old Town, plethora of summer festivals, green spaces and modern art galleries.
How to get to Helsinki
Helsinki Airport (HEL) is located just 17 kilometres outside of the city centre in the commuter suburb of Vaanta. The airport has 2 terminals serving 35 countries.
The easiest way to reach the city centre during business hours is by taking the city's new Ring Rail Line. Get the P Train from the airport to Helsinki Central Station which takes 27 minutes. On the way back, catch the I Train, which also takes 27 minutes. Trains run every 10 minutes during the daytime and up to every 20 minutes later. The trains run from 4am to 12am.
If you're arriving in the early hours, there are 3 bus services which cover you through the night costing around €5-7 one way.
The Finnair Bus is slightly faster and also offers free wi-fi.
Cabforce also runs pre-booked, flat-fare taxis. Expect to pay around €60 to the city centre.
Getting around Helsinki
A single journey ticket can be used on the city's excellent network of trams, buses, metro trains and even the ferry to Suomenlinna. It costs from €2.6 for an SMS ticket.
If you need to cover a lot of ground, a day ticket is available from €8, with a sliding scale of options going up to seven days travel at €32.
Helsinki City Transport (also known as HKL) run the metro, trams and ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress Island.
A growing 'Boris-Bike-style' bike sharing system started in May 2016 with 500 bikes available for hire from 50 stations. With a €5 day pass, you can take a bike for up to 30 minutes a time (with a supplement of 50 cents for further 30 minute intervals), and there's a Bike Centre where you can pump up your tyres and get a free tune up.
There's a simple, but efficient, one line metro service, with trains leaving every 4 minutes on average.
The tram network is more extensive. They aren’t the fastest in the west since they mostly run on the streets and can get caught up in traffic, but they're in good condition.
Helsinki's innovative 'on demand' bus service Kutsuplus sadly closed last year, but a network of regular bus routes continue to serve the downtown area and act as feeder lines for the Metro stations in the eastern part of the city.
Helsinki remains a pleasant city to explore on foot, thanks to an orderly grid system and compact city centre. You might find these five scenic walking routes useful if you plan to burn a lot of shoe leather on your trip.
Learn more about Helsinki by checking out the city's tourism website.