Despite being a prominent feature on happiness indexes and a regular ‘must-visit’ destination from bloggers and travel sites, Helsinki still remains an overlooked Baltic cruise destination. Overshadowed by the likes of Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen, the capital city of Finland is a real treasure.
Few places on Earth can offer a natural landscape with a cutting edge metropolitan city quite like Helsinki, as Jenni Pöyry, Communications and Media Relations at My Helsinki, says: “Helsinki is a city of contrasts; the hidden gem of the North. Helsinki is a city where urban life and beautiful nature combines. It’s also very compact and functional city which makes it also possible to explore within short amount of time.”
But what if you haven’t got long to spend in the city? If you are tight for time on your Baltic cruise holiday but you really want to make the most of it, here is our guide on how to spend 12 hours in Helsinki.
Go to a sauna
Saunas are a big deal in Finland. In a country which has a population of just 5.5 million people, there are more than 3.5 million saunas. No visit to Finland, nor Helsinki is really complete without steaming yourself, which has proven to relieve stress, cleanse the skin, flush out any unwanted toxins, burn calories, fight illness and much more. They are everywhere. Want to enjoy a steam while you tuck into a burger? Then head to the world’s first ever fast food sauna.
You’ll meet some Fins who head to a sauna six times a week, whereas a massive 99 per cent of the population use them at least once a week. In Britain you may only be presented with the chance to steam yourself after the gym or if you are on a spa break, meaning that this activity is quiet alien to us. But when in Rome, or rather Helsinki, you must give it a go.
It is a typically Finnish experience, but when you only have 12 hours to spend in Helsinki you don’t want to waste your time trying to find a good sauna. Jenni Pöyry had a couple of recommendations for those visiting Helsinki: “Of course, when in Finland, you need to experience the true sauna culture. Best places in Helsinki for that are design sauna called Löyly, Kotiharjun sauna or Allas Sea Pool. At Allas Sea Pool they also have heated outdoor pools.”
If you are invited to bath in a sauna with someone then you should be honoured, and you’d better have a good reason to turn it down. Fins even say that the majority of their most important decisions are made in a sauna rather than meetings.
You’re likely to be rushed off of your feet as you try and absorb as much of Helsinki as possible during your Baltic cruise holiday, and a sauna is the best chance to decompress and relieve the stresses of the day. A calm environment, coloured lighting, aromatic fragrances and tranquil music will leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
In an unassuming residential square in the Töölö neighbourhood of Helsinki sits a surreal, movie-prop like building. From above it appears to be a machine, or an underground spaceship from a sci-fi movie is trying to break through the Earth’s crust. But in reality, it is the stunning Temppeliaukio Church, or Rock Church.
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate how unique this building is. The fascinating site is one thing that Laurence Norah, from the brilliant Finding the Universe, recommended people visit when they are in Helsinki:
“Visit the Church in the Rocks, also known as Temppeliaukio Church. This has a really unique design for a church, built as it is right into the rocks, and is worth a visit even if folks aren't religious.”
Free to visit – though donations are welcome – the church has become one of the city’s biggest attractions since its completion in 1969. The entire structure is built into the very heart of Helsinki, with falls of rock and a domed copper ceiling making the entire church appear environmental and natural.
The Sibelius Monument
Helsinki has a long list of unusual, thought provoking and stand-out attractions. Sitting comfortably amongst them in the Sibelius Monument. Created in honour of national composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), it was the work of sculptor Eila Huitman whose design won a two-stage competition in 1961.
Consisting of 600 acid-proof stainless steel tubes, varying in diameter and length, the jagged monument resembles a soundwave. The design aimed to embody the spirit of Sibelius’ music, though it did receive some criticism from those who believed the composer should be directly honoured. It can be found in the Sibelius Park and perfectly reflects the Helsinki’s brilliant influence on architecture, art and design across the world. On a quiet day you can hear the sculpture echo bird songs, as the pipes reflect the changes in the seasons.
Consisting of four main buildings: Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the University of Helsinki’s main building and the National Library of Finland, Senate Square is a must for anyone spending 12 hours in Helsinki. Here you can tick off sights that are on many people’s bucket lists for the city, as you explore brilliant examples of Neoclassical architecture in all their grandeur.
Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840), the buildings encircle Senate Square itself, which has become a major gathering point for tourists and locals alike, as it is situated in the heart of downtown Helsinki.
Towering down on the square is the iconic Helsinki Cathedral. This is a major landmark for anyone arriving to the city on their Baltic cruise, and is easily distinguishable from the port. Previously called St. Nicholas Church and Great Cathedral, it is free to enter and reflects a significant part of the history of Finland.
The Old Market Hall has been to go-to for local produce since 1889. Cheeses, fish, vegetables, cakes, spices, fruit and so much more are available from the vendors, making it a must for any food lovers.
This is the place to get a real taste of Helsinki, and Finland, as you sample not only the gastronomy of the area, but also get a flavour of how to locals live – and have lived for over a century. When asked where she would go with just 12 hours to spend in Helsinki, Milou Van Roon, from Explorista, recommended Vanha Kauppahalli:
“The Old Market Hall was one of my favourite places to visit, and is best visited around lunchtime. The vintage looking building has been serving customers since 1889, and sells everything from pastries, to local cheeses and meats. It’s right by the water, so you can assure yourself that the fish is fresh as can be!”
During the 19th century, much of the groceries available to the people of Helsinki were available from outdoor markets and stalls, but with a desire to improve food hygiene, the first indoor hall in Helsinki was built in 1888. It opened to the public a year later and presented 120 stalls and six shops to the hungry and curious.
But what if it rains?
You are going to have to consider the rain if you are looking to book a Baltic cruise. But you do not have to let it spoil your trip, you merely have to know where to go in Helsinki when it rains. Of course, you have the covered market, but what else can you do? Well, Hasse Wiersma from Chris Travel Blog was kind enough to recommend a few activities for a rainy day:
“On a rainy day it's better to explore the Uspenski & Lutheran Cathedrals, Church in the Rock, National Museum of Finland, Museum of Cultures and the Design Museum. Olo Garden Restaurant is the place to go for high end dining, Juuri, or pop by the Old Market Hall if you're short on time.”
Helsinki Olympic Tower
Another rainy day activity is a visit to the Helsinki Olympic Tower. Standing at 72.71 metres, it is the same distance covered by the Javelin that was thrown by Matti Jarvinen that saw him win a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics. Here you can see amazing views of the city, as well as a look at the Sports Museum of Finland.
Head to Suomenlinna
Shaped by three historic eras as it defended Sweden, then Russia and finally Finland, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most unique historic experiences in Finland. With museums, restaurants, events and tours, Suomenlinna is accessible year-round by a short ferry ride from the Market Square.
When asked what people should see during their 12 hours in Helsinki, My Helsinki’s Jenni Pöyry suggested the historic fortress:
“If you have time and you should definitely visit Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Suomenlinna is only a 15 minute ferry ride away from the Market Square. Suomenlinna is a small island, but it is a very nice place to walk around and feel the history of the place. They also have a couple of cafés and restaurants in there.”
This might seem like a bit of an effort for anyone who has just 12 hours in Finland, but it is something that Arzo Nayel, the writer and editor or Arzo Travels, wouldn’t hesitate to recommend:
“If you just have a couple of hours in Helsinki I definitely recommend visiting Suomenlinna Sea Fortress.
“The island is a beautiful UNESCO heritage sight and if you are at the Helsinki waterfront you can just hop on a boat and visit this beautiful island which is full of history.
“Don´t worry - even if you are not interested in history, you will enjoy it. Cafes, lush meadows, beautiful views and these cute “Hobbit“ houses make this place very special and thus, it is my top recommendation for a short Helsinki trip.
“You should plan in about 3-4 hours in total to get there from Helsinki and strolling through this lush and lovely place (tip: do not forget your camera as it is very picturesque).”
Chris Travel Blog’s Hasse Wiersma was another to sing Suomenlinna’s praises: “If you have just 12 hours in Helsinki and the weather is nice it's highly recommend to go to Suomenlinna Island and explore this UNESCO site with museums, forts and beautiful wooden houses.”
The history of this island dates back to 1747, when the Swedish parliament made the decision to build a fortress and naval base in Helsinki. It later succumbed to the Russians, who, in May 1808 took control of the fortress and all of its ships and equipment. The Fins had to wait until 1918 to get their hands back on it, following their declaration of Independence.
Try a Korvapuusti
There are so many brilliant dishes and foods that you should try while in Helsinki. And Korvapuusti is among the very best. This is Finland’s equivalent to the croissant; a sweet, flaky pastry enjoyed with a coffee.
Translated, Korvapuusti means “slap in the face”, or simply a cinnamon roll. When you only have 12 hours in Helsinki you might find yourself rushing around trying to fit everything in. Well stop, relax, and sit down in one of the many coffee shops and have a hot Korvapuusti. You won’t regret it.
For authentic Finnish cuisine
One of the highlights of any cruise holiday is trying the local cuisine. In Helsinki you are fortunate enough to have a great array of restaurants and cafes providing both traditional dishes and modern interpretations. Jenni from My Helsinki has a couple of recommendations to consider:
Bringing traditional Nordic cuisine into the 21st century is Olo. Situated in the heart of Helsinki, Olo transforms raw materials from the north into gourmet dishes. With a menu that flows with the yearly natural cycle in Scandinavia, you will only taste the freshest, most seasonal ingredients on offer. Holder of a Michelin Star since 2011, you can choose from ‘The Journey’ (a nine-course tasting menu) or ‘a Shorter Way’ (a six-course tasting menu), flaunting a plethora of edible riches.
Juuri has been open since 2004 and has been as placed as highly as 8th in the list of the 50 best Finnish restaurants, back in 2010. Celebrating its thirteenth year, Juuri’s menu is an amalgamation of regional dishes from across Finland, each with its own longstanding tradition and heritage. At Juuri they celebrate their own history, while making moves to shape the future of Finnish cuisine.
If you are pressed for time and need to satisfy your sweet tooth, then why not visit Finland’s oldest bakery? Ekberg Café, along the lively Boulevard has been recently renovated, whilst maintaining its authentic charm. Tuck into some delicious cakes and pastries, or enjoy a Korvapuusti along with a coffee.
Helsinki is a city with enough entertainment to keep anyone occupied for weeks. But thanks to the accessibility of the Fin capital, you can have a really fulfilling time when you only have 12 hours to spend there during your Baltic cruise holiday.
Image Credit: Helsinki Marketing