SUOMENLINNA – This Unesco-listed 18th-century fortress sits on a tight duster of islands connected by bridges, just a 15-minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s central market square Kauppatori (return US $ 4.75). Sights include a church that doubles as a lighthouse, a WWII-era submarine and a shipyard that has been operating since the 1750s, plus plenty of grassy picnic spots.
TEMPPELIAUKION CHURCH – Hewn into solid stone, this church feels close to a Finnish ideal of spirituality in nature – you could be in a rocky glade were it not for the stunning 24m-diameter roof covered in 14 miles of copper stripping. Call ahead before visiting as opening hours are irregular; services and concerts are held here, with great acoustics.
HELSINGIN KAUPUNGINMUSEO – This collection of small museums scattered around central Helsinki constitutes the city museum: all have free entry and focus on an aspect of the city’s past or present through exhibitions. The must-see is the main museum, which has been revamped, with an excellent collection of historical artefacts and photos of the city.
KOTIHARJUN SAUNA – This traditional wood-fired sauna in Kallio dates back to 1928. Places like this largely disappeared with the advent of shared saunas in apartment buildings, but it’s a classic experience, where you can also get a scrub down and massage. There are separate saunas for men and women.
HIETARANTA BEACH – Helsinki has several city beaches but this stretch of sand is the best (and most popular). It’s just west of the city centre, a 20-minute stroll from Temppeliaukion church, and ideal in summer for shallow and safe swimming, people-watching on the terrace or taking part in beach volleyball, basketball, tennis or mini golf. There’s also a separate children’s play area and a cafe (supervised beach season Jun-Aug, 10am-8pm).
TRAM SIGHTSEEING LOOP – Standard hop-on hop-off bus tours in Helsinki will set you back £20 to £25 a ticket, but an excellent budget alternative is to do a circuit of town on Tram 2 then Tram 3 (day pass US$7.30) or vice versa; pick up the free Sightseeing on Tram 2/2 brochure as your guide around the city centre and out to Kallio – a vibrant working-class neighbourhood in the east of Helsinki popular for its cheap beer, bohemian bars and cafes.
Food & Drink
MARKET HALLS – Smoked fish, berries and fresh bread are just a taster of the local produce that can be snaffled at Helsinki’s fabulous traditional kauppahallis (market halls). Vanha Kauppahalli is the most convenient, alongside the harbour, but it can be a little touristy; Hietalahden Kauppahalli is more authentic and has cafes upstairs.
CAFE BAR 9 – It’s tough to find low-priced food at dinnertime in Helsinki and this place stands out, with retro red Formica tables and an unpretentious artsy air. Piled-high plates vary, with some solid Finnish fare backed up by big sandwiches, stir fries and pastas, such as smoked salmon with white wine and chive sauce.
CAFE REGATTA – Especially popular with locals on sunny weekends, Cafe Regatta has a marvellous waterside location and is just half an hour from Helsinki city centre by bus. The cafe is set in a tiny historic cottage with a great outdoor setting on the bay. You can hire a canoe or paddleboards alongside it, buy sausages and grill them over the open fire, or just kick back with a drink.