Ornate architecture, picturesque parks and a beautiful seafront make Helsinki one of the most unique cities in Europe. Snow and ice transform the city into a winter wonderland, while in the summer, waterside cafés and tranquil islands make Helsinki an exciting destination on your European cruise.
“What makes Helsinki unique is that it’s a city of contrasts,” Jenny from Helsinki told us. “This already appears in its geographical location and cultural influences from both east and west can be found from Helsinki. The city has also been called the hidden gem of the north.
“It is a city where urban life and beautiful nature combine. You can find trendy bars and restaurants from the city but it’s also a 15-minute drive to go berry picking or a short ferry ride to go on one of the beautiful islands nearby Helsinki’s coastline. Helsinki is also compact and functional, which makes it possible to explore within a short time. I’d also say that people make the city. Even we Finns might be a bit shy at first, we are truly honest, friendly and always ready to help. Everyone also speaks fluent English, thanks to our excellent education system.”
Relax in one of Helsinki’s typical cafés
Coffee is big business in Finland. In 2017, Finns were named the top coffee consumers in the world, according to the International Coffee Organisation. It’s reported that each person drinks 12kg of coffee per year, compared to just 2.8kg in the UK and 5.7kg in Italy.
“If you only have one day in Helsinki, I’d suggest you start your day with a good cup of coffee,” Jenni explained. “We as Finns are the biggest coffee drinkers in the world. For a lovely cup of coffee, you should either head to Ekberg Café, which is also the oldest café in Finland or Johan & Nystrom right next to the Uspenski Cathedral.”
The coffee is traditionally served dark, paired with a traditional Finnish pastry, such as a korvapuusti - a delicious cinnamon roll. While you’re likely to find great coffee all over the city, in trendy cafés or traditional coffee shops, we’ve picked out a few for you to try:
- Café Regatta
- Café Vanille
- Ekberg Café
If you find yourself in the north of the city, you shouldn’t miss out on a trip to Café Regatta. Set in a traditional cottage on the Baltic Sea, it’s difficult to miss this vibrant red café. Take a seat at one of the pretty tables and chairs outside and admire the waterside views with a fresh coffee and pastry. On a cold day, you can also indulge in hot cocoa with whipped cream.
Overlooking a beautiful church on the World Heritage site and archipelago Suomenlinna, Café Vanille is a favourite among locals looking for delicious coffee. The traditional café also serves hearty Finnish cuisine, so you can expect to see smoked cheese and reindeer soup on the menu, along with classic cakes and pastries for those with a sweet tooth.
Creating exceptional sweet treats since 1852, Ekberg Café is perhaps one of the most popular in Helsinki. The café prides itself on serving high-quality pastries and confectionery as well as mouth-watering meals. You’ll struggle to walk by Ekberg without sampling the delicious food, which is beautifully presented in traditional glass cases.
Take in Helsinki’s sights
There are so many incredible things to see and do in Finland’s capital that you’re certain never to be bored. During your time in port, make sure to check out these things to do in Helsinki:
- Design District
- Temppeliaukio Church
- The Sibelius Monument
Finland is one of the world’s most exciting countries when it comes to design. In the heart of Helsinki, the Design District is the place to go to explore Finnish design and buy unique Finnish products. Browse fashion stores, art galleries and showrooms, as well as some of the city’s trendiest restaurants. As a hub for creative businesses, the Design District is perfect for anyone with an interest in art and fashion.
Anyone with an interest in history should take the ferry to the 18th-century sea fortress and World Heritage site, Suomenlinna. The fortress was built when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom and is formed of six islands. Visit sights such as the King’s Gate, the dramatic entrance to the fortress, the picturesque Great Courtyard and Suomenlinna Church. The site is free to visit, so all you need to pay for is the ferry.
Built into solid rock, Temppeliaukio Church is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights in Helsinki. The church’s remarkable design draws visitors from all over the world and is highly recommended for your visit to Helsinki. Its church hall is covered with an impressive dome which is lined with copper and supported by reinforced concrete beams on the rock walls. Temppeliaukio Church also has excellent acoustics and holds concerts throughout the year.
The Sibelius Monument
The Sibelius Monument is a mesmerising piece of artwork created to honour Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Erected in 1967 by Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen, the monument was designed to resemble a soundwave and is made of over 600 steel pipes. The sculpture can be found in Sibelius Park in the district of Töölö.
Enjoy a taste of Finland
It’s no secret the Finnish love their fish. As Helsinki is perched on the water’s edge, fish and seafood can be found in abundance. When dining out, you’re likely to come across traditional dishes such as lohikeitto (salmon soup), kalakukko (fish pie) and silakat (pickled fried herring). As Finland and Japan both share a love of seafood, there are many Japanese eateries across the city. Gaijin and Ravintola Konnichiwa are considered to be some of the best Japanese restaurants in Helsinki.
If you’re not a fan of seafood, don’t worry! Finnish cuisine also incorporates a lot of meat, serving dishes such as lihapullat (meat balls), mustamakkara (blood sausage) and karjalanpaisti (hot pot with beef, pork and lamb). Vegetarians can tuck into equally heaty dishes including perunalaatikko (sweetened potato casserole), valkosipulikeitto (garlic soup) and korvasienimuhennos (mushroom stew).
Asli from My Dear Kitchen in Helsinki is passionate about Finnish cuisine. Having learned much of her cooking and baking skills online, Asli’s blog is designed to help others learn how to create exceptional dishes, both modern and traditional. “Mostly, in blogs, you only see very nice final food photos but you don’t see the process of how they got there,” she told us. “So, I wanted to show people the whole process with detailed explanations and photos. This is why I don’t post too often because each recipe and related blog post takes a very long time to prepare.”
Originally a designer by trade, Asli started her own company to combine design and food. Her blog is both a learning tool and a portfolio. As an expert in Finnish cuisine, we asked Asli what makes it so special, “Finnish cuisine roots from a functional point of view. I believe the harsh climate forced Finnish cuisine to give as much energy and health as possible and this is a very good thing.
“In Finland, even when you are living in the city, it is very easy to reach local ingredients like berries and mushrooms etc. So foraging is very common and it is both a social activity and an essential part of home cooking. There are even courses and workshops given by famous chefs about foraging wild food in the city and cooking with them. The freshness of these specific ingredients and light cooking techniques bring Finnish cuisine a healthy comfort food aspect.”
Asli told us a few of her favourite Finnish dishes, “My favourite Finnish dishes are lohikeitto (salmon soup), karjalanpiirakka (Karelian pie) and pulla (cardamom bun varieties). Also, there are many different kinds of very delicious laatikko (casserloe dishes).”
When it comes to dining out, Helsinki is one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in Europe. Revered modern fusion restaurants and traditional eateries are dotted around the city, so it’s pretty easy to find a great place to eat. Here are a few of our recommendations:
- Old Market Hall
- Ravintola Kuu
- Ravintola Olo
Old Market Hall
Helsinki’s Old Market Hall, or Vanha Kauppahalli, has been bringing fresh produce to locals since 1888. If you want to sample some of the finest Finnish products, this is the place to be. Meats, cheeses, cakes, fruit and vegetables are all on sale under the roof of this historic building. Adventurous travellers may wish to try reindeer or caviar among other local delicacies like salty liquorice. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs too.
Ora offers an intimate setting with just 23 seats. Chef Sasu Laukkonen has created a beautiful seasonal menu using locally sourced food. It is a fine dining restaurant, with a six-course set menu costing 85 euros per person. The restaurant has caught the eye of many locals and critics for its exciting cuisine.
Ravintola Kuu is a firm favourite among locals. With a relaxing atmosphere, the eatery is perfect for enjoying high quality Finnish and Scandinavian classics with a modern touch. We spoke to manager Eija Tuohinen to find out more, “Restaurant Kuu, or ‘the moon’ in English, was founded in 1966 by entrepreneur Gunnar Holmstrom with an eye above the clouds because his goal was to bring the moon down to earth. Later on in the 80s, the restaurant was purchased by the Nurmilaukas family with an identity very much related to food culture.
“Since the beginning, the atmosphere of the restaurant has been described as reminiscent of a continental bistro. The harmoniously simple interior gives a relaxed, comfortable feel and the room is quaint with floral wallpaper, warm woods and paintings. The service is laid back but still professional.”
Creating modern fusion dishes based on traditional Finnish cuisine, Ravintola Olo has long been praised by critics and foodies. The restaurant holds a Michelin star, so dining here should be considered an extravagant treat. Its indulgent menu certainly caters to those with a sophisticated palate, serving bream, nuts and fennel, plum and bone marrow and smoked reindeer heart.
Spis is a small Nordic restaurant seating just 18 people. Using only the freshest ingredients, the menu is mainly based around vegetables, however, there is always at least one fish and meat entre on offer. Dine here for artisan wines and fine Nordic beers.