Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Helsinki. Before visiting any country, I always try to check in with myself about my preconceived notions about the place. As an avid reader of Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll series, I imagined Finland as a nation of adorable white hippo creatures randomly interspersed with human oddballs.
Sadly, I encountered exactly zero hippo people in my time in Helsinki. What I did find were warm saunas, eclectic churches, and delicious reindeer. Join me for 24 hours in Helsinki, and you’ll find in its own way that it’s as strange and delightful as Moominland.
24 Hours in Helsinki
Where to Stay?
It can be very expensive to spend 24 hours in Helsinki. Not because the city is dirty or dangerous, at it’s clean and incredibly safe. The problem is that Helsinki, like many other Scandinavian cities, is quite expensive. And I wanted to spend all my money on Michelin star restaurants, not hotels.
So if you’re on a budget, but don’t want to share a room with strangers, I suggest the Yard Hostel. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the staff is extremely friendly. They even helped collect my bag when AirFrance lost my bag. Also the location couldn’t be more convenient. You don’t want to waste any of your 24 hours in Helsinki commuting.
24 Hours in Helsinki
What to Pack?
Finland can be on the rainy side. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Finland.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out and about without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or British plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in Helsinki
I always say that the morning is the best time to visit a museum when traveling. You’re fresh and rested, you’ve had your coffee/tea/me, and your brain is itching to learn fun facts. And visiting foreign museums is an amazing way to see new art and other cultures. The most Can’t Miss Museum in Helsinki is the Ateneum. It’s the most famous art museum in Finland, according to the highly unbiased Ateneum website. When you visit, you’ll not only learn about Finnish art, you’ll discover some of the strange history of this often-colonized nation. Let us begin with…
three fun facts: ateneum art
1) What’s the most popular color?
I don’t want to traffic in stereotypes here, but I get the feeling that Finns are quite familiar with the color white. After all, it snows a fairly decent amount in this northern nation. That’s why I was not surprised, yet mildly concerned to see how many paintings in the Ateneum are white on white. There’s this one above, which at least manages to sprinkle some color in.
Now we’re getting whiter…
We get even more Finnish now with a snow ship. Also I’d like to point out that the artist’s last name has four “y”s in it.
This Finnish artist found some non-white brushes and apparently didn’t know how to process it, so she isolated them in this box and surrounded them with white paint.
On the one hand, I’m very impressed at how many ways Finns can use the color white. On the other hand, I feel like someone needs to tell the Finns that there are other colors. There’s more to life than snow, Finland!
2) Um who are these people?
The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland. It was written down in the 19th century, but it is based on much older mythology. Finland did not become an independent country until the early 20th century, so much of the art around that time period is an attempt to form a Finnish identity. Depicting mythological figures is one way of doing that. Americans do the same thing with figures like Johnny Appleseed or George Washington.
The statue on the right above depicts a young lady named Marjatta. She gets mysteriously pregnant when she eats a cowberry. Her parents are suspicious of this story because I guess they don’t know they’re characters in a legend. All sorts of wacky pregnancies happen in legends. If I ever have a daughter who tells me she got pregnant from eating a cowberry, I’ll be very excited because I’ve always wanted to be a mythological figure of some sort.
3) Who Were The First Finnish Artists?
Because Finland spent such a long time as a colony, first of Sweden, then of Russia, it didn’t have so much time to develop its own artistic style. One of the first professional Finnish artists was Ferdinand von Wright. His most famous painting is the one above of the two birds going at it, aka “The Fighting Capercaillies”.
Many Finnish artists wanted to find what made their fledgling nation special, and so they focused on paintings of its stunning landscapes and intriguing animals. Perhaps this emphasis on nature is why Finland has such strong environmental protections in place to this day! (It currently ranks in the top 10 countries.)
24 Hours in Helsinki
Afternoon: Happy Guide Helsinki Walking Tour
If museums are for mornings, then walking tours are for afternoons, say I! The warm sunshine of the afternoon is the perfect time to get out and explore a city. And if you only have 24 hours in Helsinki, having a local guide show you around is extremely helpful. That’s why I recommend the Happy Guide Helsinki Walking Tour.
It is pay-what-you-wish on weekends only, so you definitely won’t break the budget. But don’t stiff your guide! A lot of them make their living this way, and many free walking tour companies require the guide to pay a small fee for each person who takes the tour. So if you don’t tip your guide, they could actually lose money off of the tour. I always give about 20 US dollars.
Now that we’ve got the disclaimers out of the way, let’s head off on our walk! I promise you’ll learn all about…
approximately top 5: 24 hours in helsinki
1) White Church Helsinki
You’ve seen the white art, now meet the White Church. It is more properly known as Helsinki Cathedral, and it is Lutheran. I hadn’t been aware that Lutheran cathedrals were a thing! It was designed by an architect named Carl Ludvig Engel, who designed a large portion of Helsinki. Finland had been a Swedish colony for many years, which explains why there were Lutherans there. However, in the early 1800s, Finland became a Russian colony. Our Finnish guide, whom I shall dub Snufkin, said that Finns considered the Russians to have been more benevolent overlords than the Swedes. Maybe that’s just cause they were farther away and cared less about suppressing Finnish language and customs.
One fun fact that Snufkin told us about the cathedral is that there is no rhyme or reason to the bells. If I planned a cathedral, I’d definitely make sure the bells had no discernible rhyme or reason. I do not seek to justify the ways of God, or bells, to man.
2) Uspenski Cathedral
Speaking of Russia (and in the United States, we talk of little else), once the Russians started coming to Helsinki, they needed an Orthodox church. That’s where Uspenski Cathedral comes in. It’s thanks to the Russians that Helsinki is even the capital at all. Under Sweden, the capital of Finland was Turku. But Czar Alexander I moved the capital to Helsinki because it’s closer to Russia (and further away from Sweden). I wonder if there’s lingering Russophobic sentiment in Turku to this day.
Fortunately Uspenski Cathedral is free to visit, so you get to enter on the walking tour. The icons are amazing, but don’t forget to look up! This way you can see the stars even during Finnish winters when I presume it’s dark outside 24/7 and everyone has Seasonal Affective Disorder.
3) Tove Jansson Street
The famous Swedish-Finnish author Tove Jansson once lived on this very street. She is primarily known for her Moomin novels for kids, but she wrote for adults as well. Snufkin explained that Jansson wrote her books for children in Post World War II Finland. Many were poor and devastated by the war, so the books gave them something sweet to look forward too. Finland changed sides several times during World War II and seems to have been more interested in fighting the USSR, which was trying to conquer it, than any other aspect of the war.
4) Market Square
During the “warm”er months in Helsinki, there is a large open-air market by the water in Market Square. You can get anything here from magnets shaped like reindeer, to really good coffee, to chic silver jewelry. Snufkin gave us a few minutes to wander, and I was feeling peckish, so I bought a fresh blueberry donut and coffee. Bring some Euros with you if you’re going to want a snack. The smaller vendors don’t take credit cards.
5) Esplanadi Park
Esplanadi Park is kind of like the Central Park of Helsinki, in that it’s the main park of the city. It’s also about as much quieter and smaller than Central Park as Helsinki is quieter and smaller than New York City. This fine statue in the park is of the Finnish poet Johan Runeberg. This was the first public monument in the city of Helsinki, and it was dedicated in 1885! That’s so young! I’m so used to thinking of European countries as so much older than America, but I’m pretty sure even Topeka, Kansas has monuments older than that.
5) Kamppi Chapel
Finland is not an especially religious country, but man does Helsinki love its churches. This is our third church of the day, and we haven’t even seen the coolest one in Helsinki. (We’re going there tomorrow, never you fear.) Technically the Kamppi Chapel isn’t a church, though. It’s also known as the Chapel of Silence because it’s meant to be a place where people of all religions can come and take a break from the bustle of city life. If Finns think Helsinki is noisy, I hate to think how’d they’d react if they ever visited New York City. The closest things we have to silence chapels in Times Square are the M&M Store and peep shows.
The Silence Chapel really shows off the Finnish interest in design. The exterior is modeled on Noah’s Arc and the interior is supposed to be like an egg. I guess the interior of an egg is pretty silent. I’ve never been in one myself. But I got to think Noah’s Arc was pretty noisy, what with all the animals mating.
24 Hour Treasure: Kapelli
After the tour was over, Snufkin recommended stopping at Kapelli for a late lunch. This legendary restaurant in Esplanadi Park has been around since the 1860s. The famous (and highly dramatic) Finnish composer Sibelius used to dine here. I had chatted with three other Traveling Ladies from the walking tour, and we decided to lunch here together. The restaurant is quite pricey, but the cafe side of Kapelli is quite affordable for Finland.
As you can see, I went All In with the seafood here, pairing an open-faced salmon and shrimp sandwich with the salmon soup. If you get only one dish here, let it be the salmon soup. It’s a classic preparation, so you can really taste every bit of butter and cream they put in the soup. I love seafood, but if you don’t, I’m sure adding this much fat to the salmon will make you want to give it a shot.
24 Hours in Helsinki
Evening: Allas Sea Pool
Of course I would never ask you go to Helsinki without a visit to the sauna, Internet Stranger! That’s cruel and unusual punishment! And fortunately Allas Sea Pool is conveniently located right in the center of town. It’s open until 11 PM, even on Sunday, which is lovely because many attractions and restaurants are closed in Helsinki on Sunday evening.
At Allas Sea Pool, you can just buy a ticket and you can stay for as long as you like. You may use the saunas (steam rooms), the showers, the warm water pool, the much colder sea water pool, and even the cafe. (Of course you have to pay extra for the food and beverages at the cafe.) If you’re a sauna neophyte, like I was, I’ll be happy to share…
three fun sauna facts
1) What should I bring?
This is Helsinki, not a nudist colony. The pools are co-ed, and you’ll need a swimsuit if you want to partake. As a bonus, you’ll get these amazing views of Helsinki Harbor while you relax.
2) What do I wear in the sauna?
As they say in Finnish, nada! In the single sex sauna room, all the ladies went au naturel, except for one shy girl who was obviously a tourist. I mean, I was a tourist too, but I didn’t want to look like one. But then I spoiled the whole effect because I didn’t bring a towel into the sauna, and you need to bring one to sit on or your butt will definitely stick to the wood in the sauna. Not that I know this from bitter experience or anything.
You’ll definitely know if there’s a Finn in the sauna with you because she will turn up the heat by tossing water on the heat source in the middle of the room. This will send out a brutal blast of steam that will certainly chase away the demons lurking in your bloodstream, or whatever exactly saunas are supposed to do. I’m convinced I lost three pounds in there from sweat alone.
3) Where’s my dinner?
As I mentioned earlier, it can be hard to find a decent place for Sunday dinner out in Helsinki. Fortunately, the cafe at Allas Sea Pool is there to meet your needs. (And after the sauna, you’ll need to eat something to replenish your energy after all that heat removed the thetans from your brainstem.)
I opted for the highly Finnish combination of Lapin Kulta beer and reindeer quiche. It was my first time eating reindeer. The rich flavor of the meat was perfect with the flaky crust and sweet, eggy quiche filling. What could be better than sauna + reindeer + beer? The Finns know how to live, I say!
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Helsinki!
What would you do with 24 hours in Helsinki? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Helsinki? Where are all the Moomins hiding and how can I get them to come out and play? And what exactly does a sauna do? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Helsinki. If you have another 24 hours in Helsinki, try this itinerary.