This winter we partnered with My Helsinki and spent a week exploring Helsinki’s restaurant, design, sauna, and LGBT scene.
Believe it or not, I had never been to Europe before landing in Helsinki. So when we were contacted by My Helsinki I was super pumped. Plus, we had been chasing the sun for almost a year, I was ready to wear sweaters and see snow. Read on for our Helsinki travel guide with all the best hotels, activities, and restaurants to help build your plan your Helsinki Holiday.
Getting to Helsinki
For all of you are less than stellar in geography, let’s start here Helsinki is in Finland. Finland in northern Europe, bordered by Sweden, Russia and across the Gulf of Finland from Estonia. Helsinki is located in the southern part of the city which takes claim as the capital and largest city in Finland.
We took a 9-hour direct flight from Miami to Helsinki with Finnair. It was our first time flying Finnair and the experience was great. We had pillows, super soft blankets and a good amount of legroom to accommodate my 6-foot frame. The adjustable headrests make all the difference for me. The food was good, I opted for the meatballs both times. One nice touch was the complimentary beer or wine with our meals.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
No hesitation on this hotel recommendation, Aallonkoti Hotel Apartments is the perfect spot to stay in Helsinki. We hopped on the train at the airport and got off at the Helsinki Central Train Station, hungry and tired. After dragging the only bag we’ve checked in the last two years a mile in the wrong direction we realized the hotel is perfectly located 5 minutes walk from the station. The building is secure and very quiet, especially in the evenings. Within the building, you can find a studio, one, and two bedroom options.
We staying in an adorable studio with floor to ceiling windows opening up to a terrace. The room was well stocked with a small fridge, coffee, tea and all the cookware we needed to make a few meals. There is also a washer/dryer in the unit, not going home with tons of dirty laundry was really nice. The room was also our first introduction, to what soon became a love affair with Finnish Design. The words that come to mind when describing the design are modern and cozy. Those words are summed up perfectly by the towel warmer inches from the shower door.
Things to do in Helsinki
Find the Ducks at the Ateneum National Portrait Gallery
Art doesn’t have to be stuffy and uptight and the Finns know just how to poke a little fun at themselves. Roughly one-fifth of the population of Finland reads Donald Duck Magazine about once a week. It’s been published in Finland for nearly 60 years and is very close to the hearts of many Finnish people. For the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence, Donald Duck Magazine wanted to give a special present to the people of Finland in the form of 12 masterpiece painting recreating with characters from Duckburg. Ateneum got in on the joke and decided to showcase the paintings amongst the classics already on display. In between Finnish masterpieces, you’ll find portraits of Scrooge McDuck and other lively characters. We had a lot of fun tracking down the 12 paintings in the various galleries and cracking up at their highbrow descriptions.
Have your authentic Finnish Sauna Experience
I have to admit, I was wildly skeptical about the sauna experience. I get anxious about all things bathroom and gendered locker room related because I have so many issues with people being able to identify my gender. Would they try to hand me a men’s suit at the rental desk? How were people going to react when I walked into the women’s locker room? I typically try hard to avoid spaces like this but we desperately wanted to have the Finnish sauna experience. Luckily, with a little help from Google, I learned that the Allas Sea Pool, has mixed gender saunas! My mind was instantly at ease and we had an incredible time! Located almost underneath the Ferris wheel the Allas Sea Pool it’s a beautiful view. While sitting in the sauna we could watch the ships pulling in and out of the harbor. We went from the sauna to the pool six times, we heard that was the standard amount. I typically hate, like really hate saunas. I despise being hot and never really understood what people liked about it. The contrast of hot and cold is a complete game changer! Seeing the steam come off your skin as you walk down the ice-covered steps to the pool is a completely unique experience. We opted for the heated pool so the only time I really felt cold was when I got out of the pool and walked on the ice again.
Without a doubt, my biggest regret of our entire trip to Finland was missing out on a visit to Loyly. I kept putting off the trip to the sauna for so long that by the time I realized it’s awesome, we couldn’t fit another visit in the schedule. Funny enough, Loyly was actually one of the things we had promised ourselves we’d do during our stay. The building is absolutely stunning made out of wood with three levels of terraces overlooking the sea. We might have to make a trip back just for a visit. There are no mixed gender dressing rooms here but all the other spaces are mixed gender.
Wander the stacks in the Kaisa House Library
Okay okay – I know what you’re thinking – visit a library on vacation? Just hang with me here and keep an open mind. The Kaisa House is not just any old dusty library, It’s an award-winning piece of architecture that is filled with Instagram worthy nooks and crannies. The library is part of Helsinki University but it’s open to the public. While you’re on the campus, stop into the Think Corner. It’s a gorgeous study center with a wooden interior and large windows. It’s so beautiful that I can’t help but be a bit inspired to write and create while I’m there.
Take in the views from the Helsinki SkyWheel
The Helsinki SkyWheel is situated in Katajanokka, one of the most beautiful locations in Helsinki, next to the market square and right on the water. From 130 feet in the air, you can see some of the most beautiful landmarks of the city like the Uspenski Cathedral and the ships passing back and forth to surrounding islands. If you’re feeling a little extra you can upgrade your SkyWheel car to the Veuve Clicquot VIP Experience. Which is basically just a 30-minute ride with a bottle of bubbly for you and 3 friends for 195 Euros. Or if you’re feeling super extra why not go for a SkySauna? Yes, there is a Ferris wheel with a sauna because this is Finland after all. For the low price of 240 Euros an hour you and your three friends can bake in the sky while taking in views of the city skyline. Honestly, for 240 Euros that sauna better comes with some personalized robes and champagne out of crystal chalices. Meg and I are mere mortals [**cough** and on a budget] so we just opted for the traditional 12 Euro ticket and enjoyed our ride sans champagne and steam like the rest of the peasants. But if you’ve got it like that – more power to ya’ll let me know how your ride was from the VIP suite.
Browse the shops of the Design District
About every six months, Meg and I toy around with the idea of wanting our own space. A place to call home and decorate exactly how we want. Being in Helsinki only turned those feelings up like 1000%. Seriously, every space we visited the entire time we were there was designed perfectly. The Design District is the bubbling middle of all thing beautiful and creative. Here you’ll find the Design Museum, dozens of perfectly curated boutiques and of course Marimekko. Think shops, art stores, and bakeries. Everything from the clothing to the home decor just fits me. The minimal but stylish looks are what I strive to be. Two of my favorite stops were Costo with their sustainable hats, scarves and drool-worthy bow ties. You can feel the quality of each piece. We both opted for Wau beanies with changeable bobbles that we wore pretty much every day. Another favorite was Makia Clothing, I actually debated buying a second bag to check because there was so much stuff I wanted. A bunch of people have asked about my coat in our Helsinki photos, it’s actually from a Finnish designer, Makia Fishtail Parka.
Indulge in Finnish Licorice, Coffee and Chocolate
Little known fact, Finnish people drink more coffee per person than any other country in the world. Apparently, nobody would bat an eye at a 7-8 cup a day habit. Are you reading this Dad? Our 3 cups a day were child’s play. What this really means to you as a traveler is you can get a cup of coffee anywhere! My favorite part of the coffee culture is that chains aren’t really a thing. There are only 8 Starbucks locations in the whole country so that means more room for cafes of all types. A salty black licorice, Salmiakki seems to be the most popular candy choice. You can find it all over in all kinds of varieties. I was skeptical from the start because I’m not a regular black licorice fan but did give it a try. In my opinion, it’s not my thing, but you haven’t really been to Finland if you don’t try it. More than one person told us to that one of the ways Finnish people deal with the long dark days is by eating some combination of chocolate, licorice and coffee every day. We opted for the coffee and chocolate, maybe they’re onto something.
Fall in love with the Moomins
When we first arrived we saw these little creatures everywhere, but we had no idea what they were. We assumed it was some type of popular children’s cartoon. That is certainly not the case, the Moomins are more like a national obsession. The white hippo-like Moomin Troll and its friends are literary characters created in the 40’s by Tove Jansson. While on the surface the books seem to be for children, Jansson is actually tackling much larger issues in a more politically palatable way. There is now a theme park, museum and many coffee shops dedicated to Moomins. Each character has distinct personality trait so its common for someone to strongly identify with one particular Moomin. Of course, there’s a Buzzfeed quiz for this. Meg and I took the more official Moomin Character quiz to find she is Moomintroll and I am Snufkin.
Explore Suomenlinna Island
Suomenlinna is a sea fortress island that people still live on. Historically it’s interesting because it was used as a military fort by both Sweden and Russia. Finland doesn’t really use it for military purposes anymore but it has become one of Helsinki’s biggest tourist spots. Check out this video of Button and Bly visiting Suomenlinna Island. When the weather is warm its the ideal spot for a picnic. The fact the 900 people still call it home, in my opinion, is what makes it so unique. The area very much feels like a living breathing museum. To get there you’ll take the ferry that leaves from Market Square.
Embrace the Cold and Get Outside
Don’t let the cold keep you inside! Helsinki is filled with a remarkable amount of open outdoor space for a city, take full advantage of it. Esplanade Park is the perfect place for a walk. The park is every bit as beautiful when covered in snow as it is when its green. There are also tons of nearby cafes to pop into if you’re chilly. Other outdoor activities include ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. A date at night at Jaapuisto Ice Park is kind of like being in a movie. Picture it, holding hands with your love, skating in the middle of the twinkling city lights stopping only to sip hot chocolate.
Enjoy the Silence at Kamppi Chapel
In one of the busiest places in Helsinki, you can duck away to the Kamppi Chapel to experience complete silence. There is just a sense of remarkable calm upon entering. I found myself almost holding my breath as to not disturb the moment. The building itself is really neat, sort of like a giant wooden egg or maybe a funnel. Once inside there are just simple wooden benches to sit on. When you leave it sort of feels like you just unpaused your tv, the world’s immediately loud and busy again.
Visit Tallinn, Estonia
On our last full day, we took a Tallink Ferry to visit Tallinn, Estonia. I have to admit that before this trip I probably wouldn’t have been able to locate Estonia on a map. The only thing I know was that they have a fantastic tech industry and beautiful nature and that’s only because Meg wrote an article about it. I’m happy to tell you Tallinn is located just 2 hours by boat across the Baltic Sea from Helsinki. Estonia was awesome and will absolutely be getting its own blog post but for now, I’ll keep it short. If you’re in Helsinki you have to pencil in some time for a day trip. The first half of the day we explored the old part of the city. Admiring the architecture and streets that made us feel like we had been dropped in a book of fairytales. From there we headed to the Kalamaja neighborhood which is about as hipster as it gets. Which coming from us is definitely a good thing. We explored the street art, ate a great meal at F-Hoone and sipped coffee at Renard Speed Shop before heading back to Helsinki. Traveling on the Tallink was great. We were in business class so that we could get some work done. The chairs were comfortable and we had two fantastic buffet style meals with a completely open bar. Apparently going back and forth between the two cities is pretty common because we found this great day trip guide to Helsinki taking the ferry the opposite way.
Finnish Food to Try
Our first restaurant in Finland certainly did not disappoint. Jurri is located close to the famed design museum, we popped in during some afternoon exploring. The lunch menu was a set three courses or a mix and match of your choice. Now I am naturally a picky eater so a set menu gives me a bit of anxiety but it’s a great way to try new things. We started with a carrot and squash appetizer topped with sunflower seeds. From there we moved to our main courses of fish and beef which we were both pumped about. To finish it off we had a cheese, pear, and almonds. It was the most perfect, beautiful start to our time in Helsinki.
No beating around the bush here, The Cock was our favorite meal in Helsinki. The restaurant is stylish, inviting and oh so cozy. Plus, you can think of about 100 lesbians eating at The Cock jokes, right? I was instantly excited about the mocktail options and ordered an Apple Julep. I pretty much get a hangover just thinking about alcohol so it’s fun when places have a mocktail menu. Meg had roasted lamb with truffle risotto ($34) that she absolutely loved. I went with the royale with cheese ($29), quite possibly the best burger I’ve ever eaten. I’m convinced great pickles were key to the burger. Since it was our last meal in Finland we ordered dessert, a wonderful piece of cheesecake.
If I had to pick one word to describe Savotta, it would be cozy. I can’t be sure if its because we ducked in much earlier than our reservation to warm up of because my meal tasted similar to one of my childhood favorites. It was a hearty meal, exactly what you’d crave on a cold day. Located directly across from the Helsinki Cathedral it’s the perfect lunch or dinner spot. I had lamb and potatoes in a delicious broth it tasted very similar to my Dad’s pot roast which made me happy and homesick in every bite. We loved the raw wood tables, topped with beautiful delicate dishware. We started with a cheese soup and finished with a lingonberry pie. The three-course options start at $55 dollars, you do have the option to purchase things separately.
Ateneum at the Finnish National Gallery
Located just steps inside the front doors the Finnish National Gallery, allows you to stop for lunch at any point during your browsing without ever leaving the building. We had lunch here and were shocked at how tasty it was. In the US “lunch buffets” are not often synonymous with quality food, but in Helsinki the food was incredibly delicious. The key difference is that they limit the number of dishes so everything is very high quality. It was crowded throughout our entire meal. We both had the salad bar which included some incredibly cheesy lasagna.
Eckberg is Finland’s oldest bakery and cafe, located in the center of Helsinki. We enjoyed a lovely weekday breakfast in the packed cafe. Breakfast is served buffet-style with a large variety to choose from. It will come as no surprise that having breakfast at a bakery mean fresh, warm delicious bread. I much prefer the meat and cheese options found on European breakfast tables over sugary pancakes. The coffee was also fantastic as we had come to expect in Helsinki.
This relaxed burger joint is the concept of Top Chef Suomi (Finland’s version of Top Chef) winner Akseli Herlevi. Naughty BRGR is a familiar order-at-the-counter style burger joint, but the flavors were next level. Meg went for the NYC Burger Combo ($15) with ketchup, mustard, onion, and pickles on the burger and slaw on the side. I ordered the Naughty, which came with bacon jam, cheddar, and blue cheese. The burgers were cooked perfectly but the sided ended up stealing the show! The tangy purple cabbage slaw with tart green apples was so good we’ve found a similar recipe to make back at home.
Yes! Yes! Yes!
We’ve been testing the waters a vegetarian leaning diet, as I’m sure you can tell by the meals listed above. Seriously, at home cooking for ourselves, we’re about 95% vegetarian. So when we had the chance to meet up with Meg’s longtime blogger buddy and Helsinki native Veera were excited to try one of her favorite vegetarian spots. This was my first vegetarian restaurant and it was at least 20 times better than I expected. The food is served tapas style and the three of us had all the things so I won’t list it all out. My favorite was the zucchini and feta bites, Meg loved the halloumi fries with pomegranate both 12 dollars. The restaurant is stylish with white tiles and neon signs, its trendy, cool and I’d recommend a reservation.
If a place to chill and a little something sweet is what you’re after check out Goodie. It’s fair to say we were excited before we even tasted the chocolate because the packaging is so cute! We actually bought a couple extra so that we could take it home as gifts for family members. Unfortunately, we ate it on the flight. It’s the thought that counts right? You can buy the chocolate bar throughout the city but we decided to head right to the Goodie Cafe. We snuggled up in the back corner surrounded by big pillows and a swinging daybed. We spent a couple hours just relaxing, drinking tea and nibbling on chocolate. The coconut and the mint bars were the winners for us. The bars are made of pure cacao, mixed with other local and organic ingredients. If you’re looking for a truly unique Finnish option, pick up the licorice and sea buckthorn bar.
Festivals and Events
I can’t believe how lucky we were to be in the city for the Lux Helsinki event. The city is literally lit up with art installations showcasing some of the cities most well-known building and lesser-known courtyards for an entire week. Locals and tourist alike grab a map and brave the cold to check out the displays. The route changes and literally highlights different sections of the city each year. What was really neat is that we were literally walking the streets with a hundred other people. Everyone was carrying hot chocolate and chatting with a couple other people as we walked the route at our own pace. To me, if felt a bit like walking through my suburban Pennsylvania looking at Christmas lights. The festival was started as a way to light up the city during a time of year that has very little sun.
The Pride Parade used to rotate through different cities in Finland but has found a home in Helsinki since 2006. Rather than a weekend, Pride in Helsinki starts on Monday and runs through Saturday night. There are workshops, sporting events and a rainbow fair in addition to a parade on Saturday. During this week there is also a specific emphasis on celebrating the role of women. Saturday evening is when the biggest parties are hosted throughout the city.
If I could give one piece of advice about planning a trip to Helsinki would say check the dates for Restaurant Day. The event happens every February, May, August, and November, all throughout Helsinki. On these four days, anyone is allowed to open a restaurant anywhere. That means for a day the local shoe store could be a Korean Restaurant and the local park could be filled with 20 pop up stalls. There are even some restaurants, like The Cock listed above, that tested out and gained traction for their concept during Restaurant Day. Unfortunately, we weren’t in town for one but we’re already planning our next trip to experience one.
Is Finland LGBT Friendly?
Yes, all the yes. I can’t name a single place we’ve ever been where people paid less attention to us than here in Helsinki. Over the years we’ve learned to steer pretty clear of public displays of affection, however, when we did hold hands or show affection nobody seemed to bat an eye. The other major plus is gender-neutral bathrooms are very easy to find. If you’re looking to meet up with other Lesbian, Bi, Queers check out DTM Nightclub.
Fun Fact: Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins had both male and female romantic partners. She spent much of her life with her partner and graphic designer Tuulikki Pietila. The character Too-Ticky was a practical tomboy based on Pietila.