It’s not everyday you visit the capital of Finland. So when we had only 24 (and a bit) hours up our sleeves, we crammed in all the best sights of Helsinki in just 1 day.
Where To Stay
With only 2 nights to spend in Helsinki we needed a base that would allow us to get around in a hurry. Sokos Hotel Helsinki was the perfect location.
It was walking distance to the famous shopping district, the picturesque waterfront and very conveniently, just a few steps from the central train and bus station.
The rooms were small, but I liked how the kids’ bed was tucked in a little alcove. The shower tiles were a little mouldy in places and the room had a slight worn feel, but all could be forgiven with the ease of getting around Helsinki.
The daily buffet breakfast offered a decent selection and quality was quite good. I had read they were a family friendly hotel and this was demonstrated in the simple things, like a welcome gift for the kids and children’s books in the lobby. Unfortunately that’s as far as “family friendly” went.
If you plan on spending little time in the hotel and all your time out and about, then the Sokos Hotel Helsinki is a clever choice.
How To Get Around
The public transport system in Helsinki is extremely well designed. The trams and buses can take you practically anywhere. We used the Helsinki Card to make our way around, as it includes free public transport - trams, buses, metro, commuter trains and the Suomenlinna ferry.
While we walked to the majority of locations in the centre of the city, it did come in handy for a tram ride to a special dinner venue and for the ferry over to Suomenlinna.
If you are not planning to purchase the Helsinki Card you will pay around €3 for a single ticket or €8 for an all day travel card.
Where To Eat
Having been to Finland about 6 months prior, Josh wrote an extensive post on his favourite meals in Finland here. We didn’t have much time to explore food within Helsinki and ate several meals on the go.
One particular meal that did stand out was dinner at the Kuukuu - a modern restaurant serving delicious traditional, yet elegant, Finnish food. The kids were smiling thanks to their creamy meatballs (like the Ikea ones, but bigger and better) with buttery mash. They even received a side serving of lingonberries as the perfect accompaniment.
Josh and I decided on a set 3 and 4-course menu respectively.
Check out Josh’s 3-course meal - wild boar with escargot, mouth-watering trout, and a drool worthy chocolate and rum pastry.
And for my 4 courses – root vegetables, slow cooked lamb shank, Finnish cheese and cinnamon crème brulee with apple sorbet.
Finland Loves Families
Finland loves families. Children don’t start school until 7, because the Finnish believe each child needs a childhood and daycare is also very affordable. If you take a pram on public transport, the person pushing the pram doesn’t need to pay for a ticket. This was done for safety reasons so the parent/guardian never had to leave the pram to pay the driver and it helps the transport run like clockwork.
Public bikes for hire are spread throughout the city and they actually include kids seats.
Everywhere we went children under 7 were free or heavily discounted. People were so friendly and the whole atmosphere was just perfect for families. I wish we had more time to spend in this friendly city.
What To Do With One Day In Helsinki
With such little time available, you’ll need a solid plan. And a couple well-rounded sources to start your research are Our Finland and Visit Helsinki websites. With a few ideas in mind we made a list and got straight to it.
We also decided with such a small amount of time we would do a tour with Maria. It was custom made and very family friendly. Here's what we covered:
Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Kirkko)
Back in 1969 this location was chosen for the construction of a new church. But with a playground on the premises the locals were adamant that a safe place for the kids to play had to remain. On top of that there was a more economical reason to build a church within solid rock – it was cheaper.
So they blew a hole in the rock and built a beautiful and unique church. It’s an elegant example of cutting edge architecture that defines the city, and this church and is bathed in natural light from the skylights around the unmistakable copper dome.
As you can imagine acoustics are outstanding because of the acoustic properties of the rock surface.
The interior is peaceful and tranquil. The building itself screams nature, which is inequibically tied to God.
Over half a million people visit the church annually. It is free to enter, and definitely worth a moment of your time.
Cost: Free to enter, donations welcome.
Location: Lutherinkatu 3, FI-00100 Helsinki
Olympic Stadium (Olympiastadion)
Josh’s father played basketball in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. And since witnessing that stadium back in 2007, Josh and I have really enjoyed checking out the Olympic stadiums around the world.
The Olympic Stadium in Helsinki features a distinct landmark, a tower of 72.71 metres. This, of course, beckons to Josh whispering about its matchless photography opportunities of the Helsinki skyline.
The Stadium was originally built for the 1940 Olympics, which was cancelled due to outbreak of World War II. It was later used for the 1952 Summer Olympics. These days it is primarily used for concerts and major sporting events. Performers such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bon Jovi and more have played to packed crowds at this venue.
As it was winter, it was really cold at the top of the tower, so rug up and enjoy the panorama!
Cost: €5 per adult, €2 children 7+, under 6 free – Helsinki Card discount to €3 for adults and free for kids.
Location: Paavo Nurmen tie 1, 00250 Helsinki
Fortress of Suomenlinna
The only way to reach Suomenlinna is by ferry. Apparently they use to have an ice road in winter, but as you can imagine the safety concerns were overwhelming.
Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage inhabited sea fortress, built on six islands. When Finland was under Swedish rule, the Swedish crown commenced construction in 1748 to protect against Russian expansionism. There are secret emergency underground tunnels, walls built to withstand cannon fire and lots more… all of which were never used.
Fighting never came to Suomenlinna. No longer used as a military base, Suomenlinna was turned over to civilian administration in 1973. It is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Helsinki for gorgeous picnics, relaxing summer island days or discovery of an ancient fort with its untold secrets.
It currently is home to 900 inhabitants, which is why it’s so much more than just an old fortress, it’s a living, thriving community.
We arrived around midday and stopped at the Viaporin Deli & Café for some delicious hot chocolate along with hot soup and pasta before our guided tour around the island.
It was a fairly windy and cold day so our guide was very perceptive in taking us to several spots where the wind was less prominent rather than by the sea-facing coastline.
We explored underground tunnels, learnt about it’s fascinating history and had a warm Finnish Christmas drink in the Visitor’s Centre. The place is a wonderful exploration excursion and would be perfect on a sunny day. Beware the wind in winter though; we did retreat several times to the Visitors Centre to warm up our chilly fingers and toes.
Cost: From a ticket machine the single ferry ride is €2.50, but it is included in your Helsinki Card or all-day travel card too.
Location: Suomenlinna is accessible only by water. The ferry runs from the Market Square to Suomenlinna regularly throughout the year.
After you finish at Soumenlinna take a walk along Helsinki’s famous Esplanade. It’s a beautiful tree-lined street filled with delicious restaurants and cafes, prestigious hotels and, in the summer, spacious parkland for picnics. A lush oasis in the heart of the city.
It would be remiss of us not to recommend at least 1 artistically orientated attraction, considering the city’s considerable international influence on architecture and art.
This eye-catching piece of abstract art is dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and was created by Eila Hiltunen in 1967. As you can imagine, it attracted quite a lot of controversy at the time. However, now it is one of the most popular attractions in Helsinki. These stainless steel tubes arranged into wave-like patterns portray a vivid message about the music of this composer but also invite young and old to interact and touch the sculpture. Any child (or adult!) would love to pop their head into one of those tubes. And to top it off, nearby is a children’s playground.
Location: Sibelius Park, around 2 kilometres northwest from the centre of Helsinki.
Bonus: Christmas in Helsinki
We were lucky to be spending our 24 hours in December. The city was so pretty with Christmas lights everywhere and a tiny hint of snow in the air. The Stockmann featured a bright and intricate Christmas window display that the kids adored.
And we also enjoyed a visit to the Christmas markets to sample the delicious gingerbread cookies and check out handcrafted Christmas items. There was a carousel in the centre of the market that looked just magical.
The markets are set up in Senate Square, in front of the Tuomiokirkko (The Lutheran Cathedral, also known as “Helsinki Cathedral”) - an impressive white structure that towers over the surrounding landscape.
I am sure you will see there is far more to Helsinki than what can be fit into 24 hours and, given the chance, we would have loved to spend more time in the friendly Finnish capital. We hope that whatever amount of time you devote to Helsinki you will, at the very least, find this post useful and conquer our list of recommended places to visit. If you have more favourites to add, just share them in the comments below.