Things to Do in Helsinki
Hewn into solid rock in the middle of a residential square, Helsinki’s Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Kirkko) features a circular ceiling covered entirely with copper stripping. Natural light streams in through 180 window panes, while an ice age crevice in the natural rock serves as the altar.
Spread over six islands in the Helsinki archipelago, Suomenlinna Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular destination for picnicking and leisure activities. The fortress is an important historic site with multiple on-site museums, as well as a living community with roughly 900 permanent residents.
Nestled among the trees of Sibelius Park, the contemporary Sibelius Monument commemorates the life of acclaimed Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. 600 hollow, silver-steel pipes hover above the ground and evoke a range of creative interpretations. Initially, the abstract sculpture caused controversy with its modern design, so a bronze Sibelius bust was installed nearby to appease critics.
An impressive architectural landmark, Finland’s Parliament House (Eduskuntatalo) is home to the nation’s governing body. The imposing building looms over Helsinki on Arcadia Hill, making it both the political and geographical heart of the Finnish capital.
The Helsinki Cathedral is also known as Tuomiokirkko. Built from 1830 to 1852, it replaced a smaller 18th-century church and was originally called St. Nicholas' Church in homage to Russian Czar. After Finland gained independence from Russia, the church was renamed, and in 1959 it became an Evangelical Lutheran cathedral.
Senate Square (Senaatintori) symbolizes the cultural heart of Helsinki. Among the many landmarks surrounding the square are the Government Palace, National Library, Lutheran Cathedral, City Museum, and Helsinki’s oldest building, which make Senate Square an essential stop on any first-time visitor’s itinerary.
For thousands of commuters, Helsinki’s Central Railway Station is the main traffic hub from which buses, the metro and numerous local and long distance trains arrive and depart. In fact, with roughly 200,000 daily visitors, it is Finland’s most visited structure. The building also happens to be one of the landmarks of the city and looks back on over 100 years of history. Designed in 1909 by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919, the Railway Station’s most distinctive features are the big clock tower and the two towering figures of two heavily muscled, half-naked men holding big globes of light.
Another notable feature is the red Finnish granite that was used to clad the façades of the Central Railway Station. The granite originated in Hanko, the southernmost region of Finland and is believed to be over 400 million years old. A more curious addition to the station, which is also unique in the world, is the presidential lounge. It was originally supposed to be reserved for the private use of the Emperor of Russia, but since Finland’s independence, the waiting area has been dedicated to the sole use of the Finnish President and his guests.
The impressive National Museum of Finland (or Suomen Kansallismuseo) looks a bit like a Gothic church with its stonework and tower. Built in 1916 and extensively renovated in 2000, the museum's rooms cover different periods of Finnish history. The Treasure Trove has coins, silver, weaponry, medals and jewelery. The Prehistory of Finland is a large, permanent exhibition of prehistory and archaeological finds. A Land and its People shows life in Finland before industrialization. The Realm covers the history of Finland in the 13th - 17th centuries when it was under Swedish rule and an independent duchy of the Russian empire. The permanent exhibition, "Suomi Finland 1900", explores 20th-century Finland and was opened in April 2012. There are also changing displays of church relics, ethnography and cultural exhibitions.
The superb frescoes on the ceiling arches (by Akseli Gallen-Kallela) depict scenes from the epic Kalevala, including one of the hero Väinämöinen plunging a stake into the giant pike. You can visit the cafeteria at the end of your day to rest and absorb what you've learned about the history of Finland.
Located a mile from the city center in the Töölö district, Helsinki Olympic Stadium (Helsingin Olympiastadion) is the biggest arena in Finland, with 40,600 spectator spots.
Finland was originally meant to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, but the outbreak of World War II delayed the games until 1952, when the country finally got to host the big event. Today, the stadium is home to the national soccer team and houses big-name concerts and sports events every year.
For views of all of Helsinki and its downtown, take the elevator to the top of the 72.21-meter Stadium Tower. Why the idiosyncratic height? Well, that was the gold-medal winning result of Finnish athlete Matti Järvinen’s javelin throw in the 1932 Summer Olympics, of course!
Aside from its 14-story viewing tower, the Helsinki Olympic Stadium also has a restaurant, an Olympics museum and, quirkily enough, a youth hostel.
Located on Korkeasaari island, Helsinki Zoo is home to 150 animal species and more than 1,000 species of plant. Opened in 1889, the zoo is geographically divided into three sections that house bears, tigers, and lions. Today, the zoo is best known for its conservation work, particularly with endangered snow leopards.
More Things to Do in Helsinki
Helsinki’s Market Square (Kauppatori) has served as the center of city trading for more than 200 years. Located on the harbor, just a short walk from Senate Square, the open-air market takes place year-round and attracts tourists and locals alike with its range of clothing, crafts, and fresh produce.
Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall is an architectural masterpiece designed by famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Its exterior complements the local landscape and nearby park, while the inside features asymmetrical and curvy structural details, along with natural materials and colors. The multipurpose venue hosts concerts, meetings, other events, and a gallery.
Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma contemporary art museum is part of the wider Finnish National Gallery, and showcases both national and international art from across a broad creative spectrum. The museum exhibits more than 8,500 works, including and has a permanent collection that includes pieces by iconic Finnish artists Tom of Finland and Kalervo Palsa, as well as international names such as Andy Warhol.
Helsinki City Hall, also called Kaupungintalo, didn’t always have an administrative purpose. In fact, it was originally designed as a cultural entertainment hotel by the famous German architect Carl Ludvig Engel back in 1833. The beautiful white and blue façade in the imperial style has remained, but today, most of the classical interiors have been replaced by more modern glass structures. In 1913, the former grand hotel was turned into Helsinki City Hall and although it has served as a hospital during the First World War, the building has since then hosted the offices of the mayor of Helsinki. There are also several other rooms for City Board and City Council meetings, which take place every other Wednesday in the council chamber.
If you love architecture, you can simply bring your camera and wander, but visitors are also able to attend various events and exhibitions inside the building. Vikra Gallery organizes photography exhibitions, movie screenings and concerts in the lobby and banquet hall. In the lobby you can also find quite a few paintings and sculptures, for example “the Chain,” a sculpture by Kimmo Trench showing the unity of the people of Europe, or Oscar Klineh’s famous painting of Helsinki.
The Helsinki Swedish Theatre, also known as the Svenska Teatern, is the oldest theater in Helsinki and offers performances exclusively in Swedish, the country’s second official language. Going to a theatre performance in a foreign language can seem a bit daunting, but musicals such as the timeless feel-good show “Mamma Mia” or George Orwell’s 1984 can be quite enjoyable even if you don’t have the necessary language skills. The national theatre offers a wider repertoire that caters to everyone and genres range from drama to musicals and children’s theatre. The atmosphere alone is worth the visit.
Established in 1827, the once small wooden theatre used to be a quick road stop for actors en route to Saint Petersburg, but it soon became so popular that a newer and bigger building had to be constructed. The theatre seen today was opened in 1863 and was built in the neoclassical style, although during a renovation in the early 20th century, the richly decorated façade was replaced with a more functional one. It offers room for up to 700 spectators, but also has smaller stages with fewer seats.
Home to both the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo) is the Finnish capital’s main concert hall. Sitting opposite Parliament House in the prestigious Töölönlahti district, the building and its copper facade may look gargantuan from the outside, but actually, most of its rooms are underground.
Home to the Sibelius Academy as well as Finland’s national orchestras, the center was unveiled in 2011. With a modern and understated design, the center’s unusual interior layout features weaving hallways, as well as a unique main hall, where up to 1,704 visitors are seated in a full circle around the orchestra.
Designed to sit in harmony with the stately buildings that surround it, the Helsinki Music Centre and its design have been well-received. This was not without controversial beginnings, however; to make space for the structure, an area of grassroots art spaces (that had been converted from derelict warehouses) had to be pulled down.
Not far from the center of Helsinki, Seurasaari Island is an open-air museum of the Finnish traditional way of life. It has 87 buildings, 18th and 19th century traditional houses, manors and outbuildings from around Finland. Guides dressed in traditional costume demonstrate crafts such as spinning, embroidery and troll-making.Shops sell old fashioned treats, and folk-dancing performances are scheduled frequently during the summer. On Midsummer Eve a huge bonfire kicks off the celebrations, and a real wedding takes place in the Karuna Church.
The Seurasaari Open-Air Museum opened in the 1909, when it was only accessible by boat. It's been popular with locals and visitors ever since. On summer nights there are regularly scheduled concerts in Karuna Church. The buildings are closed during the winter, but the park is open for cross-country skiing and invigorating walks.
Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum (Konstmuseet Ateneum), built in 1887, showcases Finnish paintings and sculptures from the 18th century to the 1950s. There’s also a small collection of 19th- and early 20th-century international art, including a copy of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker and paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne.
HAM Helsinki Art Museum is one of the largest museums in all of Finland, featuring its main venue in Helsinki's historic Tennis Palace complex; a regional outpost in Uusimaa; the HAM Gallery (formerly known as the Kluuvi Gallery); and much of the city's public domain art. All in all, the art museum has a collection of nearly 9,000 pieces, most of which are of the modern Finnish variety.
Both contemporary and modern works are displayed at the museum, and pieces are often brought in on exchange from partners in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in Europe. The works cover a wide variety of regions, genres and history.
Located inside of Helsinki’s Linnanmaki Amusement Park, SEA LIFE® Helsinki is an interactive aquarium that proclaims to take visitors on a magical journey through the world’s seas and oceans. Touch crabs and sea urchins under the guidance of trained staff at the interactive rock pool or see a hermit crab change its shell. Immerse yourself inside an ocean tank via a transparent underwater tunnel. Catch a glimpse of sharks, piranhas, stingrays and tropical fish and learn about the need to protect their endangered environments.
One of the largest museums in all of Finland, the Helsinki Art Museum, is located within the Tennis Palace complex in central Helsinki. However, the museum also has a regional art museum in Uusimaa, keeps the Kluuvi Gallery, and also maintains much of the city's public domain art. The main museum itself has been located in the historic Tennis Palace space since 1999 and hosts one of the largest collections of art anywhere in all the Nordic countries. All in all, the art museum has a collection of nearly 9,000 pieces, most of which come from modern era Finland.
The vast majority of the museums exhibitions are temporary, and the works found within the museum are not necessarily locked into any particular region, history, or genre. Both contemporary and modern works are displayed at the museum and art is often brought in on exchange from partners in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in Europe.
The Design Museum, or Designmuseo in Finnish, is a specialized design collection and Finland’s national design museum located in the capital Helsinki. The museum hosts an ever changing array of special exhibitions throughout the year, featuring contemporary as well as historical design from Finland and beyond. It also manages to offer a schedule choke full of various events, workshops and lectures on all things art and design. Accordingly, the art exhibited, from post-modernism to industrial, is constantly changing and with the Design Museum’s constant attention to new trends and designers, the museum is incredibly attractive to first time guests as well as repeat visitors intent on discovering new shapes, forms and perspectives.
Especially interesting for visitors from abroad might be the Design Museum’s Collections Exhibition called “Finnish Form,” which focuses on the uniquely Finnish styles influenced by Nordic functionalism, the harsh seasons and the cold Arctic environment. All in all, the museum hosts over 75,000 objects that date from the mid-19th century all the way to the present day.
Admire Helsinki from above without leaving the ground at the Flying Cinema Tour Of Helsinki—a state-of-the-art virtual cinema experience that offers birds-eye views of all the city’s landmarks. You’ll soar over the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress and hover over Helsinki Rock Church, all from the comfort of your moving seat.
Helsinki’s Museum of Finnish Architecture dedicates three stories to design, with a special focus on Finnish architecture from 1900-1970 in its permanent collection on the second floor. The Finnish collection is especially interesting for those interested in Modernism and renowned Finnish architects like Alvar Aalto.
Located in Helsinki’s design district, first floor temporary exhibits showcase both international and Finnish architecture.
As the second-oldest museum of architecture in the world, a visit to the small museum is an interesting way to learn about Finnish culture and Scandinavian style. Located in a beautiful neo-renaissance building dating back to 1899, the archives on the second floor are open to the public and feature over 50,000 drawings, many of which are originals. The archives also include an extensive selection of photographs, slides, and models. On the ground floor there’s a bookshop and library.
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