Top Things to Do in Helsinki, Finland During Winter
Updated: Apr 1
Finland has ranked as the happiest country in the world (5 years running). As such, when I was planning my trip to Scandinavia, I knew stopping in the capital city was a must. To top it off, Finland invented the sauna, and what better way to decompress while on vacation than relaxing (often nude) in a warm steam room? Here are the best things to do in Helsinki in winter.
I arrived on an evening flight into the city and hopped a train into Helsinki station. It is surprisingly easy to purchase tickets via a stall or you can download the HSL app to purchase online. There are two trains that take you into the city center (line P or I) and one or the other comes every 10 minutes. It’s about 30 minutes into Helsinki station.
One of the first things you may notice is that all train stops have two names. You will also see this on all the road signs. Each location is written in Finnish and Swedish due to their long history as a Swedish territory and the remaining influence in the country. Along the western coast, the Swedish name will be first, but in the capital the Finnish is always dominate. If you see a map with two different names for a place, don’t be alarmed!
After settling into my accommodations which were a short walk from the central station, I ventured out in search of a (nearby) dinner. I found a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant by Hotel Torni called Pho Viet. On a cold winter night, a big bowl of pho bo hit the spot and warmed me right up! The hotel has a great rooftop bar – Bar Ateljee – with sweeping views of the city.
Free Walking Tours
I try to always begin a new city with a free walking tour! There are several different companies that operate in Helsinki with most English tours at 10 am or 12 pm during the week. While free, be sure to tip your guide for their service. They take electronic payment, so cash is not needed. Most tours start at the most iconic site – the Helsinki Cathedral.
I took a tour with the Green Cap Tours which provided excellent history of the three main eras of Finnish history. The Cathedral and the Orthodox church are still robust examples of the Russian influence and occupation of the country for almost 100 years. They remain some of the most well-known sights in the city today.
Tours last about 90 mins and usually cover the main attractions around the Cathedral to the harbor. These tours are a great way to learn a little history and one of the best free things to do in Helsinki!
Fun Fact: For more than 85 years, the Finnish government has sent a Äitiyspakkaus or Baby Box to each expectant mother, which includes all essentials for the first year of the baby’s birth, including diapers, clothes for various seasons, thermometer and even medication for the mother. Adoptive parents also receive this special box. Many use it as a memento box throughout the child’s life!
After the tour, head to one of the best places in Helsinki - the Old Market Hall just off the harbor is perfect for an afternoon snack or late lunch. The salmon soup at the Scandinavia Café was my absolute favorite, and I went back twice! The portion was large for €12.50 (as of Jan ‘23) and came with two pieces of bread for sopping up all the creamy broth.
Note: Alcohol is controlled by the State (i.e., government) which strictly regulates spirits over 5.5%. Beer is found in supermarkets, but wine and hard liquor must be purchased from a specialty shop. Many Fins take the 2-hour ferry to Tallinn, Estonia to purchase cheaper alcohol or stock up for their “sauna sipping.” While alcohol can be found in restaurants, holidays and weekends can be regulated for purchase.
Regardless, you should try two Finnish drinks – the Lonkero, which is a gin & “insert your favorite flavor” drink, almost like our spiked seltzers that have taken hold. However, the original Lonkero is surprisingly sweet mixed with grapefruit soda and is so popular it is often found on tap at bars. The other, which I’ve only been told to try, but haven’t dared, is the Salmari. It is a licorice flavored liquor, though I’m told is NOTHING like Jägermeister. Best served from the freezer in a shot glass. Kippis!
Finland is also known for their cinnamon buns, which are found in almost every bakery around town. I must warn fellow Americans though that it doesn’t come with any icing on top, so the pastry is less sweet than our usual Pillsbury treat.
Located by the sea and the Sibelius monument in Töölö, you can find Café Regatta. It’s a small red building originally used for storing fishing nets and has turned into a little reprieve on the waterfront. Sip their yummy hot chocolate or a winter cup of Glögi, which is a sweet, spiced wine. They have plentiful outside seating and a nice sunset view.
The Sibelius monument is up the street dedicated to the famous Finnish composer. I, sadly, did not know who he was, but if you do (or are in the area) it’s worth a quick walk-by. I snapped a picture before heading to the city’s Winter Garden. With snow and ice all around me, the Helsinki Winter Garden was a perfect retreat in January. It’s free and open to the public from 8-4 each day. The flowering plants transition through the year and the summer/fall enjoy a rose garden in the front lawn.
I took the ferry from Kauppatori over to the Suomenlinna island, which houses a fortress from the 1700s. The Suomenlinna fortress was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List as a unique monument of military architecture.
The ferry takes about 20 minutes and leaves about every 40-60 mins throughout the day. Tickets can be purchased at a stall by the dock or again on the HSL app before boarding.
During the summer, you can take a picnic and wander around the island soaking up the water views. You can even bring a swimsuit if you dare to dip your toes in the water! Since I traveled in January, a snow blanket covered the ground, and the tourists were few. Most of the restaurants, cafes and museums were closed. There are about 800 residents year-round on the island, so some were seen walking about. It appears many artists and musicians take up residence (at least in the winter) as I saw many honing their craft or preparing for an exhibition.
Sauna is the only Finnish word that has been universally adopted. And while in the country, visiting one is an absolute must!
There are options ranging from high-end, luxury to free, community sauna houses reachable by bus. I choose two during my stay.
Allas Sea Pool
Located right on the harbor, directly next to the ferry, the Allas Sea Pool is quite an experience. Adult entry is €18 which includes access to the sauna and outdoor swimming pools. Towels are available for an additional charge (currently €8.50), so be sure to bring your own if you have one! Wrist bands are given to secure your lockers in the sauna rooms. There are three different sauna options: mixed, female only and male only. The sauna buildings include individual lockers, showers and bathrooms.
After steaming in the sauna, you can jump into the Arctic water – which is a small pool that comes directly from the Baltic Sea and was a balmy 1°C. It took me two tries before I finally went all in! Brrrr!!!!
There is also a heated pool that stays 27°C and is much appreciated after a freezing plunge! Guests wander back and forth for hours between the pools and the sauna. Enjoy the experience and the views from the harbor! There is a café on site if you wish to purchase refreshments.
Yrjӧnkatu Swimming Hall
Yrjӧnkatu is the oldest swimming hall in Finland, established in 1928. It has separate entry days for males and females so be sure to check the schedule before going. Currently, women can swim on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Men on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Swimsuits are optional in the pool, but not allowed in the saunas. The first-floor entry (€6) comes with pool access and one sauna. Lockers are available for your personal belongings and towels may be rented. The second-floor tickets (€16) provide free towel, bathrobe, personal cabin with locked drawer for valuables and two additional saunas. Pro tip: Get the second-floor ticket. There are also tables outside of each cabin available for use to order food & drink from the café during your visit.
The infrared sauna, electric steam and wood-burning saunas are each a unique experience. All have showers before entry to wash off from the swimming pool. The pool offers three lanes: one for fast laps, one for slower laps and one for “rotations” which is just slowing circling the pool at a leisurely pace with your friends. There are also flotation devices available. Each ticket receives a two-hour entry. Reservations are not required but are suggested if you go during peak hours (usually the evening).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lӧyly Sauna. It was closed for annual cleaning when I visited, but the waterfront sauna and swimming retreat features a spa and restaurant.
Temppeliaukio Church aka Rock Church
Built into a huge bedrock, this unique church was created by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. They won an architectural competition in 1960 for the building’s proposal, and it has become a favorite destination for weddings and concerts. The traditionally Lutheran church still holds worship each week with a chime melody in place of church bells. Water trickles from the cracks in the rocks so the interior has these channels under the floor to catch the runoff. It’s quite spectacular and unlike any other church I have seen. Entry is €5 during the week.
The Helsinki Cathedral and Uspenski Orthodox Church are within walking distance to each other and the harbor. The Helsinki Cathedral was designed by architect Carl Engel and consecrated in 1852. The church bells didn’t arrive until after the building was completed; as such, a separate building was adding to house them. There is a voluntary €5 entry fee.
Uspenski Orthodox Church
The Uspenski Orthodox Church is the clearest symbol of the Russian history in Finland. Consecrated in 1827 during the Russian occupation of Finland, the parish has grown to more than 20,000 members. Its ornate interior is a stark contrast to the simple design in the Helsinki Cathedral.
Museums, museums, museums – if you are a museum lover, Helsinki is for you with over 80 different ones in the city alone. The free Helsinki City Museum off the Senate Square is in the oldest building in the square and offers rotating exhibits on life in Finland. If you are interested in visiting several museums, it may be best to purchase a city pass.
Enjoy! There is so much to do in Helsinki, even in the winter. Be sure to try as many unique Finnish activities.
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