Things to Do in Helsinki
The skyline of Helsinki is dominated by Tuomiokirkko, or the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral. The green domes, white building and zinc rooftop statues of the twelve apostles of the magnificent Lutheran church stand tall and proud looking over the city to the sea. Built between 1830 and 1852, it replaced a smaller 18th century church, and was originally called St. Nicholas' Church in homage to the Tsar of Russia, Grand Duke Nicholas I. After Finnish independence from Russia 1917, the church was renamed and in 1959 it became a cathedral of the Evangelical Lutheran denomination. Designed by a German architect Carl Ludwig Engel who laid out the whole of Senate Square, the exterior is Neo-Classical with columns and statues and in comparison, inside seems rather plain. The design was later altered by Ernst Lohrmann who added the zinc apostles and a few extra small domes. There is room for 1,300 worshipers and an altarpiece flanked by angels. The suitably atmospheric crypt is now a cafe.
Finland’s Parliament House, also called Eduskuntatalo, is not only the home of the session hall that hosts the 200-seat parliament, but is also somewhat of a massive work of art within the capital of Helsinki. It’s a monumental, square building constructed in a classical style – the result of an architecture competition held in 1923 that was won by the architecture firm of Borg-Sirén-Åberg. Standing on Arcadia Hill, the exterior is dominated by strong but simple geometry, a lot of granite and tall Corinthian columns. The whole design looks more functional and industrial rather than elegant and ornate, but reflects a style that was popular in the 1920s. Noteworthy is that the building was constructed using mostly Finnish materials, such as the reddish Kalvola Granite used on the façade and furniture made of oak, curly birch and walnut.
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.
Big cats, wolverines, and monkeys…welcome to Helsinki Zoo (Korkeasaari). Opened in 1889, the zoo on Korkeasaari Island is the biggest in Finland, and one of the oldest in the world. With over 150 species of animals, it’s a popular year-round destination, with its notable tropical house, home to more than 1,000 different kinds of plants from all around the world.
Set on a 52-acre island that served as a military base in the Crimean War, the hilly zoo houses monkeys, bears, camels, reptiles and more. Famous for its pioneering work with big cats and snow leopards, the animals are divided geographically into Amazonia, Africasia and Borealia areas. The animals of the Arctic tundra look especially at home here in Finland, so make sure to look out for the resident elks and bison, wild forest reindeer, wolverines and arctic owls.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Helsinki
Market Square, also called Kauppatori, hosts Helsinki’s most famous open-air market with great opportunities for shopping. The stalls sell everything from traditional dishes and snacks to crafts and souvenirs. It’s located right by the sea and is a place where locals often come to find a fresh and cheap lunch, including freshly caught salmon, local mushrooms and reindeer meat. Souvenir hunters can find the typical Russian fur hats, lots of carved kitchenware, knitted sweaters, gloves and hats, as well as delicious reindeer salami.
In summer, it’s nice to sit in one of the outdoor cafés and enjoy the sun, but even in the midst of winter, the many hot drinks that are offered everywhere and the heated café tent make Market Square a fun place to visit. In the middle of the square you can find an obelisk marking a visit by Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Tsaritsa of Russia and if you plan on taking a ferry to Sweden, the adjoining south harbor is the place to go.
Finlandia Hall (or Finlandiatalo) is Helsinki's concert and congress hall. It is also an architecture masterpiece by famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898 - 1976) who was sometimes referred to as the Father of Modernism. In Helsinki, Aalto wanted to realize the major plan for a grand square and avenue flanked by cultural buildings, including the Parliament Building, first thought of by Eliel Saarinen in 1917 when Finland became independent of Russia. He drew plans for a grand center to Helsinki in 1961 and modified them in 1964 and 1971; you could say the city was a lifelong project of his.
Finlandia Hall was designed in 1962 and built between 1967 and 1972. The congress wing followed in 1973 - 75. For Aalto it was a major part of realizing his grand plan. The building shows many of his ongoing concerns - few right angles, design around existing trees on the site, the use of Italian marble and Finnish granite.
The Kiasma Museum of Modern Art (or Nykytaiteen Museo) is housed in a curvaceous and quirky chalk-white building. It exhibits a rapidly growing collection of Finnish and international modern art from the 1960s to the 1990s. Leading Finnish artists in the permanent collection include Nina Roos, Susanne Gottberg, Jussi Nivi and the homoerotic illustrator Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. Some of the international artists represented are Nan Goldin, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman. In addition to its impressive collection of visual art, the Kiasma regularly presents performance art, dance, music and films. Innovative and engaging, the Kiasma is not only a world-class museum but also a laboratory for artistic experimentation and expression. The focus is definitely on the Finnish penchant for the offbeat. The cafe and beer terrace are also very popular in summer.
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.
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.
Your cruise ship will likely dock at the South Terminal, which is easy walking distance to the center of Helsinki. Trams 1A, 3B and 3T can take you further inland and both 3B and 3T make full loops around the center if you would like to get an overview of the city before exploring on foot. Larger ships make dock at the West Terminal, which is further out from the center. From there, limited ferries run to and from Kauppatori (Market Square) or you can take a taxi into the city center.
Start your day by checking out Kauppatori, also known as Market Square. There you can find fresh flowers, fruit, fish and a variety of Finnish souvenirs. Market Square is also the departure point for harbor cruises and ferries to nearby islands. A must-see is Suomenlinna Island - a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to one of the world’s largest maritime fortresses, dating back to 1748. You can easily spend a couple hours exploring the island on foot.
The Ateneum Art Museum (or Konstmuseet Ateneum) houses Finnish paintings and sculptures from the 18 century to the 1950s. There's also a small, interesting collection of 19th and early-20th century foreign art, including a copy of Auguste Rodin's bronze The Thinker, and paintings by Van Gogh, Gaugin and Cézanne. The building itself dates from 1887. Downstairs is a cafe, good bookshop and reading room.
The list of painters at the Ateneum reads like a 'who's who' of Finnish art, housing paintings and sculptures by Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, the Von Wright brothers and Pekka Halonen. Pride of place goes to the prolific Gallen-Kallela's triptych from the Kalevala depicting Väinämöinen's pursuit of the maiden Aino.
The Finnish National Gallery's other main museum, the Sinebrychoff, contains the largest collection of Italian, Dutch and Flemish paintings in Finland. The museum also features Russian and Karelian icons, silver, porcelain and furniture.
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.
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.
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.
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