How to enjoy Helsinki in winter - the ultimate guide
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Talking about weather in Helsinki - we are having a real pleasant summer in Scandinavia at the moment, hotter than usual – nevertheless I will take you now up North to a winter wonderland in this Blog. Some cold images might be anyway a good option to chill you down. Plus with all the cancelled holiday trips most of us are facing now due to the current Covid-19 situation, it´s a good time to plan already ahead for the next winter season, when we can hopefully enjoy full travel freedom again.
I have mentioned it already in a previous Blog about Scandinavian countries, that some time ago it wasn´t in my mind at all to travel up North for a vacation. For me these countries always seemed to be too cold, too remote and also quite expansive for a holiday. However through my work in the tourism industry in Dubai I was sent for many business trips to all the Scandinavian countries over many years and with each trip I started to love these countries more and more. Foremost because of the amazing people over there, I made friends for lifetime and I am really grateful for this unique batch of people. Plus of course the real stunning nature in these countries. Yes, a lot of places over there really deserve the tag of “being remote”, but exactly this loneliness and peace creates this very special atmosphere up North.
Nowadays these scenic countries are getting more and more admirers plus the Nordic cities are currently trending and have positioned themselves in the first ranking of many travel-wish lists. Also the hunt for the magic Northern Lights is a must-have picture on every Instagram profile. In general of course it’s nice that the Nordic countries are gaining more popularity, but for such a beautiful nature I also see the arrival of a mass tourism critical – you can observe that for example already in Svalbard (Norway) or Reykjavik (Iceland) with the arrival of all the cruise ships. Nevertheless this trend is in the beginning and therefore you can still find vast lands of unspoilt nature.
If you come to see the Northern Lights I will give you some suggestions in the next Blog post, so that you can get the best out of it.
But first let´s start with an interesting Nordic city:
Helsinki the frosty capital of Finland
How to reach
Helsinki Vantaa airport is well connected with the whole world through its national carrier Finnair (www.finnair.com) or many other international airlines. The city centre is then just a 30-minutes ride away from the airport (you can either choose between a bus or train ride as well as a shared or private taxi service like for example www.airporttaxi.fi).
By water you can reach Helsinki through various ferry services from Sweden, Germany, Estonia and Russia. I did the Stockholm-Helsinki trip once in January, which was an overnight cruise in very bad weather. Although a ferry cruise with all the amenities on board is fun, that one was a nightmare and I reached Helsinki totally sea sick, which got me a lot of pity from the receptionist of the hotel where I checked-in afterwards. Since then I never was brave enough to do that trip again, but I would still recommend it as a nice alternative and usually the sea isn´t that rough like on this trip. When leaving Stockholm the first hours of the cruise are going through a picturesque archipelago landscape, so a cruise time in daylight is highly recommended.
Ferries on above mentioned routes are operated by Tallink Silja (www.tallinksilja.com), Viking (www.vikingline.com) , Eckerö Line (www.eckeroline.fi), Finnlines (www.finnlines.com) and St. Peter Line (www.stpeterline.com).
Where to stay
Throughout my many visits to Helsinki I always tried out different places and below is the list of my favourites.
Clarion Hotel Helsinki (www.nordicchoicehotels.fi) – is a bit off the center facing the harbour. However it is just a 15-minutes walk to the main city center and if you don´t feel walking the tram stops right in front of the hotel. I personally like the industrial harbour feel around. The hotel itself is a modern high rise building with a stylish interior. Rooms are quite small, but with nice views. Main plus of this hotel is the sauna and gym area on the top floor. The small rooftop swimming pool has a glass floor, which is hanging freely over the edge of the building. Freaky! Also the rooftop bar – Sky Room - is one of my favourite places in Helsinki for a drink with a view. Even if you don´t stay at the hotel a visit to this bar is highly recommended. The extensive breakfast buffet is served at their main restaurant – Kitchen & Table – on the ground floor.
Radisson Blue Seaside Hotel – almost in the same location, just opposite the Clarion is another hotel where I am frequently staying (www.radissonhotels.com). This urban harbour hotel is a tribute to the modern Finnish way of life. I love to take a pre-dinner drink at the lobby bar, where a DJ is spinning his tunes every evening and indulge in the modern artistry feel of the lobby hall. Food is also always excellent here – lucky if you visit in February when they run their famous Blini weeks. Blini´s are originally from Russia (kind of savoury pancake usually topped with caviar), but are also a popular dish here in Helsinki.
GLO Hotel Art (www.glohotels.fi) is located in an over 100-years old Art Nouveau Castle right in the middle of Helsinki´s Art district. The main reception area is integrated in the historic stone walls, whereas the rooms are within a modern side complex. Super nice ambiance!
Scandic Grand Marina (www.scandichotels.fi) – is also located in an old Art Nouveau building from the 20ies. The atmosphere within the hotel has a marine feel, which fits the harbour surrounding outside as the hotel is located right opposite the ferry terminal.
Hotel Katajanokka (www.hotelkatajanokka.fi) – have you ever been in jail? No 😊 well, then that´s your ultimate chance if you are looking for a special place to stay. Because here you can escape the ordinary as Katajanokka used to be a county prison and pre-trial detention center until the year 2002. Now you can find a magic world of contrasts within the red brick walls. Although the rooms and general interior is with a modern Nordic design, you can still see and feel the history of this building. However now you can come and leave on your free will……😊
Hotel Indigo (www.ihg.com) – nothing special, just a very convenient hotel for a short city stay with a very central location. The hotel has an environmental conscious Scandinavian decor, with lean lines and an industrial design. I really love their cute small yoga studio inclusive of a silk yoga trapeze hammock plus their offer of recorded yoga sessions right on your hotel television.
Another nice hotel in the same road as the Hotel Indigo is the Lapland Hotel Bulevardi (www.laplandhotelsbulevardi.com) a good option if you like to get the northern feeling of Lapland, but can´t make all the way up there.
What to do in the city
Of course you can find a wide selection of activities, guided tours, attractions like for example the popular Rock Church (www.temppeliaukionkirkko.fi) and museums in a city as Helsinki – but these you can all read up in the common city guides. So here is a brief selection of my most favourite places in Helsinki.
Hietalathi Market Hall (www.hietalahdenkauppahalli.fi) – ok, that´s more a culinary attraction than a real site – but I love to stroll through these ancient market halls during lunch time, which are hosting various food stalls to try some delicious snacks here and there. Nice is also that you will meet mainly local people here other than in the more famous Old Market Hall in the center (www.vanhakauppahalli.fi).
Esplanade – this urban park in the heart of the city is the place to see and be seen. I love to take a relaxed stroll here on nice days watching the various street artists or just sitting down and observing the locals and tourists passing by. At the eastern end of the park you can find the historic Kappeli restaurant (www.raflaamo.fi), which is perfect for a stylish Afternoon Tea.
Market Square – further east at the end of the Esplanade you reach the harbour area from where you can see the Market Square right in front of you. On good weather days you can find a very nice local market here with vendors selling typical Finnish food, grocery and souvenirs. Best is to eat your way around the different stands and of course fish is the ultimate choice here – especially in October, when the popular historic Herring Market (www.silakkamarkkinat.fi) is taking place. From the harbour in front of the market various boat trips are departing (mainly during summer) to different spots in the nearby archipelago area.
Helsinki Cathedral (www.helsinginseurakunnat.fi) – is of course a must-see and although I have been already many times there, I always return on every Helsinki trip back again. Beside the interesting interior of the church with its impressive organ, I really like to come here for the fantastic view over the city from the stairs of the church.
Talking about the various city churches, we also have the already above mentioned popular Helsinki Rock Church. Another real picturesque church is the Orthodox Uspenskin Cathedral (www.hos.fi/kirkot/uspenskin-katedraali/), which can be already seen from far as it is rising high on a hill at the entrance of the Katajanokka neighbourhood.
Finally my all time favourite activity while in Helsinki – a visit to one of the city Saunas. That´s a real must-do experience as in the end it`s the Finns, who have invented this healthy body ritual. In almost all the hotels in Finland you will find a Sauna, but I would really recommend to go to a public one to get the feeling of the real overall experience – as Saunas in Finland are a social place, where you meet your friends to chat rather than to relax and steam away in silence on your towel. You have a couple of public Saunas throughout the city, some of them are really with a long history like the Arlan Sauna (www.arlansauna.net) or the Kotiharjun Sauna (www.kotiharjunsauna.fi).
However my favourite public Sauna is Löyly (www.loylyhelsinki.fi) – which is quite small, but directly located at the seaside – so for your chilling dip you can jump directly into the sea, if that is during winter month however it will require some bravery from you. Another plus here is the huge outdoor terrace of the restaurant just beside the sauna – even without a visit to the sauna itself, I would recommend a restaurant visit or at least some chilled cocktails with an excellent view. For the Sauna experience you have to bring your swimming wear plus slippers along. Towel, shampoo and shower gel will be provided.
The latest Sauna addition to Helsinki is directly in the heart of the city beside the Market Square – Allas Sea Pool (www.allasseapool.fi). Beside your Sauna experience you can enjoy an outdoor swim here either in the warm water pool or the chilly sea water pool with views on the city and the huge ferry boats just beside you. A restaurant is also available plus check their website for further activities on site as yoga or other fitness classes.
Just behind the Allas Sea Pool you have another nice new attraction the SkyWheel (www.skywheel.fi) that offers you stunning views over the city and the archipelago. If the common cabins are not enough for you, you can step up your experience here and book for the Sauna cabin, where you can enjoy a Sauna, Whirlpool and some Bubbly during your ride. What else you require!
Some other nice thing to do is to go on a photowalk with professionals. On the tours operated by Finndays you can improve your photography skills while exploring the city in an unqiue and inspiring way. Book your tour on www.finnday.com
Where to eat
Helsinki has plenty of amazing restaurants either with local Northern Cuisine or all kind of international and cross-over food.
I just put here the ones that I have been visited on this trip. First the traditional ones. One is my all-time favourite, although it is quite touristic, opposite the Helsinki Cathedral. But the food here never disappoints and the ambiance is very nice – Savotta Restaurant (www.ravintolasavotta.fi) – try some typical Finnish dish like the delicious salmon soup.
Another traditional restaurant – however from the Northern Finnish region of Lapland is the Saaga Restaurant (www.ravintolasaaga.fi) – so if you can´t make the exciting trip all up North yourself, at least it is worth to have a dinner here. You can choose from a wide range of typical Lappish dishes either from the buffet or a-la-carte. If you are a meat-lover I can really recommend to try the reindeer. Although the desserts deserve to be mentioned as they are a feast for the eyes as well.
Moving over to International Street Food you should try Lebanese @ Restaurant Levant (www.levant.fi), Mexican @ El Rey (www.elrey.fi), Vietnamese @ Nom (www.nomvietnamesekitchen.fi) and Hawaiian Poke Bowls @ Hey Poke (www.heypoke.fi).
And for all cake lovers have a visit @ Cafe Ekberg (www.ekberg.fi), for delicious however also pricey cake slices with a long tradition.
Special excursion tip
If you are done with the city sights, I have a real nice excursion here for you – go on a bus ride to the cute little city of Porvoo, which is around 50 km east of Helsinki. In the main Helsinki bus terminal, which is centrally located under the Kamppi Shopping Center, you can find very frequent bus connections to Porvoo. You can buy your ticket either directly on the bus or at a counter inside the station.
Porvoo is one of the six medieval Finnish towns and is recognized as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. The historical Old Town is a magnet for tourists and can get very crowded during summer month. We visited on a rainy day in February and had the town almost on our own.
Take a stroll through the cobble streets of the Old Town – it´s not very big, so for sure you won´t get lost. A lot of the houses in the main street and around the main square are hosting small shops, Cafes and restaurants.
Don´t miss a walk down to the riverside, where you can see the red-coloured wooden storage buildings, which are a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you take the walk uphill you can see the historical Cathedral of Porvoo, which hosts one time per year a nice light festival.
If you continue your walk through the old alleys behind the Cathedral you will walk through a nice residential area. For us the wooden coloured houses seem to be rather toy houses than houses where people still live.
(Porvoo Slide Show)
If museums are your thing, I would recommend a visit to the Porvoo Museum (www.porvoonmuseo.fi), where you can see how a wealthy family has lived in the 18th century or to the J.L. Runeberg Museum, the home of Finland’s most popular national poet. Information about these museums and any other attractions and events in Porvoo you will find on www.visitporvoo.fi
But of course after all this sightseeing you can´t leave Porvoo on an empty stomach. So I would recommend first a hearty Finnish lunch @ Hanna-Maria Ravintola (www.hanna-maria.fi) or for a more modern twist on the Finnish Cuisine to Salt (www.restaurantsalt.fi).
Followed by a sweet treat at a real Porvoo jewel – the Cafe Helmi (www.teehelmi.fi). I need to say a few words about this Cafe, as it was recommended by a very good friend, Merja, to me. And really, I could have spent hours in this cosy little coffee house – actually it is much more than an ordinary Cafe, it is almost a museum itself with all the different interiors collected over various decades. But not only the ambiance also the cakes are divine here – if you like to try a speciality, go for the Runeberg cake, named after the famous poet of the city. It is a small round pastry flavoured with almonds and rum, topped with raspberry jam and an icing circle around. This cake is mainly popular in February in memory of Mr. Runeberg´s birthday 😊
And on your way back to the bus station stop by at the Brunberg Chocolate Factory (www.brunberg.fi) to take some delicious handmade chocolates and candies home with you.
So that´s it for my glimpse on Helsinki in winter – if you are ready now to go further up north, then come with me and follow me on my next Blog post to Inari – a very cold spot in Finnish Lapland. Also if you have any further questions about Helsinki and the region around please get in touch with me.
For more inspiration about this trip watch: