You are probably excited to learn about the free things to do in Helsinki because this city is not cheap. I get a culture shock every time I return from Thailand because everything is so expensive. Well, almost everything. Read this post and you will know 25 thrifty things to experience in Helsinki.
The good thing is that Helsinki is relatively compact so you can walk almost everywhere. If you are not so keen on the idea, we have a wonderful public transport network also. Use Reittiopas journey planner and don’t stress over the routes! The latest addition to the wonderful public transportation is the extremely popular:
1. Citybikes Rental
They are so easy to use and inexpensive, therefore, I use them constantly. For mere 5 euros you can use the bike for the whole day or for 10 euros you can use it for 7 days. The trick is, though, that you can use it only for 30 minutes and then you need to park it for a while/ change the bike. If you have a longer trip you can keep using the pushbike but you are charged 1 euro for every additional 30 minutes. More info on the Citybikes here.
2. Helsinki Central Station
This is the natural starting point as it is right in the city centre and most people arrive here from the airport by train. This granite building was inaugurated in 1919 and it was designed by a famous Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. The facade has 4 statues, designed by a sculptor Emil Wikström. The official name for these statues is “Lyhdynkantajat” (Torch Carriers in English) but they are affectionately named, Kivimiehet which would loosely translate into the Stone Men.
3. The Helsinki Cathedral and the Senate Square
This is one of the most beautiful sights in Helsinki and hence, a very popular tourist attraction. It is not just the church itself but the whole Senate Square around it. You can see grandiose, historical buildings around the area, such as the National Library and the main building for the Uni of Helsinki where I spent numerous years working towards my Master’s degree. Oh, how the time flies!
The church is open every day from 9-18. During the busiest months, from June until August, it’s open 9-24.
4. Helsinki City Museum
This cool museum tells the history of Helsinki and in addition, it has changing exhibitions. It might be a good idea to come here quite early on your visit so you can see different maps from Helsinki and hear stories from the past. Did you know for example that the “Long Bridge” or Pitkäsilta, dividing the more central city from Hakaniemi and Kallio neighbourhoods was actually the frontier, demarcating the area where the affluent neighbourhoods of the bourgeoisie’s ended and those modest dwellings for the proletariat started?
For the time being, Helsinki Museum also holds a display on the clubbing scene in Helsinki. If you are a fan of the electronic music you might also be into it. For me, it was super exciting and also bittersweet seeing all the photos and videos from the time when clubbing was still new to me.
Then again, if you are travelling with your family, there is always the Children’s Town which is just around the corner from the Helsinki City Museum. All of the aforementioned are free of charge.
5. The Market Square
This is the place where you can see what kind of handicrafts the Finnish artisans make, what products the farmers grow and the fishermen catch. If you are visiting Finland summertime, you get to try the best strawberries and freshest blueberries in the world. After that, bulk stuff from other countries will taste very bland. The downside is that the berries are not super cheap. This time though, I would make an exception and splurge a bit. They do let you taste them before buying so you can be sure that they are delicious.
You can find typical Finnish dishes here, such as salmon soup, reindeer products, and different fish dishes. Unfortunately, they are not super cheap. Not the most expensive either so perhaps somewhere in the middle.
Torikahvit is a Finnish institution and it simply means coffee at the market. The cafes here are more for the common people so you won’t be getting fancy cappuccinos and the likes. You can usually find good deals though, such as a cup of coffee and a munkki (big, Finnish donut) for 3 euros. These coffee tents are good spots for watching the world go by especially on a sunny day.
7. The Uspenski Cathedral
A beautiful orthodox church just 5 minutes from the Market Square.
No web pages available in English. Opening times from June until August: Monday closed, Tuesday – Friday 9.30-18, Saturday 10-15, Sunday 12-15
This is a spectacular place! Helsinki doesn’t have many skyscrapers but this luxury hotel is one. Kinda. Anyway, you can climb all the way to the top, to Ateljee Torni bar to enjoy the 360 degrees view. Most likely they would appreciate if you bought something but there is no entrance fee.
The prices here are in the top-end so if you are on a tight budget you might want to skip this. I allow myself a splurge once a year and come here for a cocktail. Doesn’t get much better than this on a warm summer day in Helsinki. If you can afford a splurge, this hotel might not be a bad alternative either.
9. Eira & Ullanlinna
Two posh areas in the southernmost Helsinki. Architectonically, it is hard to beat these places. The old houses just make you go “Uuuuuuuuhh!” and “Aaaaaaaaaah!” and you wonder what it would be like living in one if you had “a couple” extra grand. No, make that a couple hundred grand.
In the picture above you can see Aula day center for the mentally disabled. I did my work experience there a long time ago. They make beautiful handicrafts and tasty bakery products. Pop in if you happen to be in the area and see if their shop is open. The address is Engelinaukio 5.
A lush park next to Eira. I’d advise you to either walk or take the Citybike and follow the road along the coast. It really is beautiful there. You will encounter many lovely cafes and bars but they are not super cheap (perhaps close to typical Helsinki city prices though so not too expensive in that sense).
You could also plan a picnic in the Kaivopuisto park if you wish to remain frugal. Check out the beautiful old house, Kaivohuone, which used to be a summer playground/restaurant for the high society from 1838 when it was opened but nowadays everyone is welcome. Open on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 6PM until late at night. Address: Iso Puistotie 1
11. Johanneksenkirkko Church and Korkeavuorenkatu Street
I once wished that I would get married in Johanneksenkirkko. Ha! While I have given up hope on it, nonetheless, it is a spectacular place worth seeing. Korkeavuorenkatu street leaves from the Esplanade Park in the city centre, next to the marketplace and this church is about halfway to the southernmost Helsinki and Kaivopuisto park.
Korkeavuorenkatu is full of stylish boutiques, quality restaurants, and cafes. It’s not the cheapest place but it is lovely. Along the way, you can find an old-fashioned French-style cafe, Cafe Success where I used to work a long time ago. They make excellent (and huge) korvapuustis (cinnamon rolls) which they are famous for.
I just love it when new buildings and areas get a new life and second chance. You see, this place used to be a mental health institution. It is such a beautiful area next to a bay, surrounded by a lush, green garden. There was a big debate on what to do with Lapinlahti because the main building needed extensive renovations, but luckily, eventually, now the building has been put to good use.
It has studio space for artisans and artists, small boutiques, an art gallery, a zero-waste restaurant, a cafe, a sauna and various events throughout the year! In addition, an association called Lapinlahden Lähde is based there, working towards improving the mental health of various clientele.
Oh, there’s a small beach in the area and I’d strongly recommend getting your picnic basket ready for this place. The cliffs are a perfect spot for having a few cold beverages and adoring the Finnish summer.
13. Hietalahden Halli, Vanha Kauppahalli & Hakaniemen Halli Market Halls
Helsinki has 3 market halls. The oldest one, Vanha Kauppahalli (The Old Market Hall) was built in 1888 and is situated next to the Kauppatori marketplace in the city centre. They have many Finnish delicacies for sale, interesting restaurants, such as Soppakeittiö selling huge soup bowls, the trendy Story and last but not least, one of the smallest bottle shops Finland has.
The second one is in Hakaniemi, next to Kallio neighbourhood. The original one is currently under renovations and has been replaced with a huge container one which is not architectonically as interesting as the original one but, nevertheless, worth a visit if you are in the area. Special recommendations go to Kalaliike Marja Nätti for its fresh fish delicacies and their modern, light cafeteria, and a cheese shop Lentävä Lehmä (Flying Cow in English).
Hietalahden halli was designed in 1903. Summertime there is a flea market outside and you can make bargains there. The market hall has splendid restaurants, cafes, and specialty shops. My favourite restaurant is Fat Ramen which makes, as the name says, awesome ramen. Meat-eaters might be interested in Roslund for its juicy burgers.
14. Cafe Regatta and Sibelius Monument
While I have never considered Sibelius Monument to be anything that spectacular this place often gets busloads of tourists who first go take some pictures of the statue and then continue to have coffee at Cafe Regatta. I actually included this cutest cafe ever in my post on the best cafes in Helsinki. They have the best cinnamon rolls ever but you can also grill sausage if you need something savoury.
This is an awesome outdoor museum showing old Finnish buildings. They were collected from all around Finland and show very modest peasant cottages to finer and bigger bourgeoisie houses. And a church! If you want to have a look inside the buildings there is an entry fee (6-9 euros for adults). They are held only during summertime and the guided tours are included in the price. But to me, I have never considered this necessary. Seeing the houses from outside is enough.
The whole place is actually suitable for observing the Finnish nature. There are mostly birds (swans also) and squirrels, I think. Nevertheless, the place is a beautiful island, showing also the surrounding shores while you walk along the coastline. The place has a public beach so you could actually spend the whole day there. If you are looking for something different, there is a separate swimming area for nudists (a short walk from the beach), separate sides for ladies and men. Nowadays, however, if you wish, you can wear a bathing suit, and on Wednesdays and Sundays, it’s compulsory because it’s a mixed crowd.
Seurasaari has got a dedicated barbeque area, a cafe, and a cafeteria. During the high season in summer, you can also buy ice-cream from a kiosk. Many people skip this versatile place because it is a little bit out of the way. I would strongly recommend trying it out, though. Bus number 24 from the city takes you all the way or you could get a Citybike. There is a Citybike station at the entrance so most likely you will have a bike on your way back as well.
A picturesque and slightly posh area next to Seurasaari, within walking distance from there. If you are coming straight from the city, hop on to tram number 4. “Munkka” has got a lot of old houses with character. You can also find a beach and a popular cafe, Cafe Torpanranta here with its huge patio with a sea view. In addition, Hilton Kalastajatorppa hotel is also in the area with a SUP rental company, TwentyKnots down at the shore. I once went paddle boarding there and enjoyed it immensely!
A part of Helsinki that not many foreigners go to. It’s in Eastern Helsinki, at the end of the subway line (to be exact, there are 2 Eastern lines, Vuosaari and Rastila. That’s how big Helsinki is =D ). Vuosaari has a shopping centre and one of the only real skyscrapers Finland has, Cirrus, next to the tube station. There is something much more valuable here, though. 2 wonderful nature spots if you want to get a break from the hustle and bustle of the city life.
One of the best kept secrets in Helsinki. I’ve been living in Helsinki for a long time but I didn’t know about this place until my work took me to Vuosaari. The landscape is not so typical of Helsinki, or Finland for that matter. Beautiful pine forest with lots of blueberries and light all around you. When you walk all the way to the cape you will find dunes which are quite untypical of Finland. There is a shallow beach and a kiosk so you could spend a relaxing beach day here. Kallahdenniemi is not super big so you could easily take the metro from the city to Vuosaari and walk to this reserved nature spot and back.
Skatan tila/ Skatta farm
This farm used to belong to a famous Finnish artist, Miina Äkkijyrkkä. At the moment, it’s used as a rehabilitation farm and it has got animals, such as ponies and sheep. The surrounding forests are nice for strolling around and you can walk along the shore.
Once again, you could walk from the metro here. On your way, you will see the Vuosaari Beach and a cozy red cottage which is Cafe Kampela. They have delicious salmon soup, traditional Finnish pancakes, and cinnamon buns just to name a few. The location is lovely, right at the marina where you can soak in the sun. Just remember to watch out for the seagulls. They might be interested in the delicious snacks on your plate likewise.
18. The Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden
The entrance here is free. If you want to visit the greenhouse, you have to pay extra (10e). It is wonderful inside but if you are on a budget, strolling around in the garden is a nice experience in itself. Right at the entrance, you will find a cute baby blue coloured building, Cafe Viola. It is a charming old wooden house so it might be worth popping in just to see the decor if nothing else. Not to mention the outside patio which is a wonderful place to sit down for a cup of coffee or lunch.
19. Sompasauna, Kalasatama & Suvilahti
Well, this is actually 3 things but they go easily hand in hand because they are next to each other. Walk or use the Citybike to explore the areas. You will find the quirkiest sauna with the friendliest people at this DIY sauna called Sompasauna. I dedicated a whole blog post to the sauna and the neighbouring areas if you want to know more. Highly recommended!
This old slaughterhouse from 1933 has witnessed quite a transformation. Its name as a direct translation means abattoir. What once was a bloody place for working-class men is now an urban living room for trendy hipsters and enthusiastic foodies.
They have special events her weekly, ranging from music festivals to laid-back barbeque events and farmer’s market. There are awesome restaurants on the site and even a distillery! I can’t wait to do the distillery tour actually. On special days, you can enjoy the atmosphere, do your own barbeque (there is a designated area for it) or have a picnic on the lawn.
Otherwise, there is not so much to see here per se, except the unique milieu (which I think is worth seeing anyway). If you prefer to remain economical, I’d recommend at least trying out the divine ice-creams from Jädelino. They make the best vegan pistachio ice-cream! All the other flavours are equally delicious so you can’t go wrong here. Actually, they have unique flavour combinations which are not served elsewhere and in addition, they use applesauce that comes from a place which employs mentally disabled people. Now, this is the kind of business that I like supporting!
The best and funkiest neighbourhood in Helsinki. Obviously, I used to live in Kallio before. Most of my friends live there also. Kallio used to be very much a working-class part of town. The Long Bridge separated this area from the more affluent part of the city. The area has a lot of small flats so it’s been very popular among young people, blue-collar workers, students but perhaps also lately young, urban couple with kids.
Due to its history, you will see people from all different classes here. The area can be described as errrmm… restless especially at summer and on the weekends. There is an area called Vaasanaukio which has been nicknamed as The Plaza of the Forever May Day. May Day or the Labour Day is one of the biggest celebrations of the working people. So yeah, the name hints that there are some festivities and disarray going on constantly. Despite this, I’ve never felt the area unsafe and neither should you, in my opinion.
This previously not so glamorous neighbourhood is dealing with some serious gentrification and the rents have risen. Despite this, the area has still remained somewhat rough, alongside the yoganisation and appearance of coffee shops. To me, there couldn’t be a better neighbourhood. I don’t want it to be “cleaned out” completely. I like it the way it is.
Go walk around at Vaasankatu and Helsinginkatu (Hesari for short) streets and you will find lovely cafes, such as Sävy, Roots, Cafe Pequeno, trendy bars, such as Panema, next to massage parlours and striptease joints. Welcome to Kallio! You can also bump into vintage shops, find a beautiful library and a robust church here so these hoods are definitely worth visiting.
One of the favourite jogging tracks in the city. You will see the Finlandia Music House at the city end and at the other end there is the Opera House and a few minutes from there, you can find the Olympic Stadium which is currently under renovations, though. If you are lucky, you will encounter the majestic swans swimming in the Töölönlahti Gulf.
The track is just over 2 kilometres and paved so you don’t have to be super athletic to finish it. On the hill, you will find a few gorgeous, old, wooden houses. Moreover, the view from there is really nice and they have 2 lovely cafes if you are feeling peckish, Sinisen huvilan kahvila cafe and Cafe Panorama. More info in my recent blog post, the best cafes in Helsinki.
Another great outdoors option. Bus number 71 takes you to Vanhankaupunginkoski from the Railway Station or you could always take the Citybike! When you get there, you have a tranquil view in front of you: old buildings, a rapid, green fields and fishermen trying to catch fish. From here starts a short walk which takes you to Lammassaari; a small island which has tiny cabins that Helsinki residents use as their summer cottages in summer. Along the way, you will run into ornithologists and if you are keen, why not do some birdwatching yourself?
When you walk a bit further on the duckboards, you will come across another island, Kuusiluoto which has sheep grazing. Open the gate, remember to close it and go have a look at the cute lambs. From here, you can also see Helsinki from a different perspective.
If you are a design freak you probably know that Finnish design is known for its clean lines and simplicity. Marimekko is super popular but we also have very skillful and stylish ceramics and glassware, such as Iittala and Arabia (hence the name of the neighbourhood). In addition to the shops, here you can find the Arabia Design museum. During summer, it’s open from Tuesday until Sunday. For the rest of the year, it’s open only on Saturdays and Sundays. Entry is free.
25. One of the Most Popular Things to Do in Helsinki – Suomenlinna
Suomenlinna, the Finnish Sea Fortress is one of the top attractions Helsinki has to offer. For a good reason. “Suokki” is a UNESCO World Heritage site, unique for its military architecture which in many parts is still intact. It is a beautiful island, a park itself but it also has historical buildings, a church, ruins, museums and lovely cafes and restaurants. Oh, and a submarine as well. The entry is free but you do need to pay for the ferry. During the peak hours in summer, the boats leave every 20 minutes. The ticket costs 5 euros and is valid for 12 hours, ie. there and back. Do notice, though, that some of the museums cost extra if you want to visit them.
It is a tradition for many Helsinki residents to make a picnic trip to Suomenlinna once in the summer. This is also a way to keep the visit cost-effective. If you rushed to the ferry and didn’t have time to buy anything, you can also find a small shop here which has enough foodstuff to fill up your picnic basket. NB Even though you’d wish to throw a barbie here, fire is not allowed!
I was actually astonished after having written this post. Wow! So many free things to do in Helsinki or activities that are relatively affordable. I guess what really makes the city expensive are the other things that you want or need to consume during the holidays, eg. eating out, a few glasses of wine here and there, hotel, moving from one place to another (you can’t use the super handy Citybikes for everything, after all) and so on.
Hope you enjoyed the post and even more, Helsinki itself <3
If you would like to know about the Finnish mökkielämä, cottage life, have a look at this post which tells about a trip to the beautiful Finnish archipelago.
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