When people think of Finland and its capital city Helsinki in the wintertime, they think about it being dark and cold and people drinking lots of vodka but in reality, the city really comes alive during the coldest months of the year.
The average day has around 5 hours of sunlight, which each day gaining a little more daylight after the New Year. As you may have guessed, the weather in Helsinki gets extremely cold, with -5 Celsius being the average temperature. Getting good quality winter clothing for your trip is essential.
I spent a total of 8 days in Helsinki this January when I was invited to speak at the Matka Travel Fair in partnership with my friends over at Finnair. Thankfully Finnair flies directly from Miami International Airport, my home base.
The snow and slush made for some pretty epic photos. Also, the food in Helsinki is outstanding, ranging from Michelin-Starred restaurants, to market stalls with grilled reindeer. Here is my list of top things to do in Helsinki in winter!
Explore Market Square
This is the most famous market in Helsinki and is located in the South Harbor at the very beginning of Esplanade Park. Here you can find locals selling traditional Finnish foods, handicrafts and plenty of souvenirs. Look out for the famous lihapiirakka meat pastries.
Should you be in Helsinki on a first Friday of the month, go check out the vintage American cars on display. No one seems completely sure how this monthly event got started but anyone who loves classic cars will enjoy walking through these beauties.
If it gets too cold for you just head inside the heated café tent where you can get a hot coffee to warm you up. Also, exercise caution with the seagulls, they have become something of a menace and may try to steal food right out of your hands!
See Helsinki’s Cathedral
Helsinki’s Cathedral is dedicated to St. Nicholas and is a very distinctive white domed building near Market Square in the center of the city.
The original church was built in the 1830-50s in tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and was known as St. Nicholas Church until Finnish independence in 1917.
The current church was built on the site of a smaller church called the Ulrika Eleonora Church, dedicated to the queen of Sweden who was its patron. This was followed by the Helsinki Old Church from the 1820s until the modern building was erected.
The design, featuring the central dome and four smaller domes was modeled on Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg by architect Ernst Lohrmann.
With its stark white walls, the cathedral is a must-see spot and is also perfect for any photography fans. You can also just take a seat on one of the steps and people watch if you like.
Visit the Old Market Hall
This is one of the best places to experience a true indoor Finnish market. It’s been in operation since 1889 and sells everything from fish and veggies, to cheese, fruit and even tea and coffee. It is located at Etelaranta, beside Market Square and only a short walk from the city center.
Traditionally, before the Old Market Hall opened, food and produce was sold from outdoor markets. But architect Gustaf Nystrom looked at indoor markets around Europe and came up with the design for the building.
When it opened, there were 120 stalls and six shops in a central gallery that were allowed to sell dairy products and meat.
Fish stalls were added around the turn of the century. Since then, the market has seen many new products from Finland and around Europe being sold.
Something I suggest you try when you visit the Old Market Hall is a cinnamon pastry at Roberts Café.
Chapel of Silence
The Chapel of Silence, also known as the Kamppi Chapel, is located on Narinkka Square and is an oasis of calm in the center of the busy city. It is also very different from the normal chapel, as it was created in partnership between the Helsinki Parish Union and the Social Services Department of the city.
It holds a number of regular church services but is also ecumenical so welcomes people of any religion, background or philosophy to enjoy peace, tranquility and a moment of rest in their busy lives.
The chapel is also very different to look at and makes it one of the more photographed locations in the city. It has won several awards for its design and is considered a cultural and architectural landmark.
Sauna at Loyly
Finland is famous for its sauna culture. There is an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland, so almost one for every two people in the country. Helsinki used to have a huge sauna culture but over the last few decades there has a been a decrease in public saunas. There only a handful left, among them the Sauna at Loyly.
Loyly Sauna is working to revitalize the public sauna culture. They have a smoke sauna and two regular saunas, plus a spot to enter the Baltic Sea, which many choose to do once they exit the sauna.
Loyly Sauna also has a bar and restaurant so there’s no need to go far if you want something to eat after the sauna session.
There’s no need to make a reservation for drinks and snacks but for meals, it’s probably best to book ahead since the restaurant only has around 100 seats.
Views of Helsinki from Hotel Torni
A friend of mine recommended I head to the top of Hotel Torni if I wanted to get an amazing view of Helsinki.
With so many tall churches you would think it would be easy to get a high view of the city but unfortunately, none of the churches allow you to visit the top of their towers.
The Ateljee Bar in the hotel is a great place to have those city views while enjoying a drink or light meal.
They have a changing monthly exhibit that highlights Finnish artists.
Stay at the Klaus K Hotel
Klaus K Hotel is a beautiful design hotel in the center of Helsinki, only a few blocks away from the central train station. I had the opportunity to stay here during my ti in the city.
Klaus K Hotel was the first design hotel in the city inspired by the supernatural elements and themes found in the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.
Every room and all of the interiors express one of four emotional themes associated with the work – passion, desire, envy and mysticism. There are also unique, designer rooms available for guests.
The building itself is the combination of two buildings dating back over 100 years. The Erottaja side is the work of Frans Sjostrom, built in 1882 while the Bulevard Street building dates from 1912 and was created by Lars Sonck, one of the most important national-romantic movement architects.
As well as being a great place to stay, the hotel is also home to design and art-related events including fashion shows, art exhibits, brand launches and themed events.
Try Finnish Shots at Bar Bakkari
When most people think of Finnish drinks, they usually think of vodka. But that is very far from the truth. Fins actually have a distinct alcohol culture of Finnish shots. The best place to try these types of shots are at metal bars, and the best one is Bar Bakkari.
We tried three different shots, but there are many, many more! Horna was the first one, a homemade drink out of Sisu Horna, a type of candy. It tasted like I was simply drinking a super spiked candy. The next one was Salmari, which is made from Finnish salmiakki (salty licorice). This may be the saltiest drink in the world!
The last one we had was called Fisu, which is made from Fisherman’s Friend candies. While these are a traditional Finnish candy, they have been transformed into this popular shot drink. This was actually the best tasting one!
Where to Eat
Helsinki is a wonderful place to sample food from around Finland, both from traditional and innovative spheres. While these are just a few suggestions, there are dozens of amazing restaurants to try in Helsinki.
The Bryggeri is a micro brewery is located in the heart of Helsinki, only a short distance from Helsinki’s cathedral. There are many brewery restaurants in the Helsinki but most of my Finnish friends recommended this one.
I went for lunch and had a flight of beers, which means a sampling of five different beers, four of which they have on tap: Pils, Weizen, IPA, Porto and the Sofia.
My favorite was the IPA, because I love IPA beers and it was really good! The second favorite was the Weizen, as it is more of a Bavarian style beer.
Mathias Huffner, the brew master gave me a little lesson in how they create their beers. He showed me the process starting with pouring malt into the containers and then showing me the fermentation room.
He was very enthusiastic about his beers. In total, they had over 15 beers to try. They also have seasonal beers so I took the liberty of trying their winter beer. I highly recommend you visit if you love beer as much as I do.
Restaurant Aino is a centrally located restaurant close to Esplanade Park and the shopping areas of the city center. It is a strong advocate for traditional Finnish food and offers the best, authentic dining experience to the many visitors to the city.
The restaurant has two floors with a brick cellar for private meetings and a street level restaurant for other diners with great views and lively vibe.
I started off my dinner with a slow-cooked Finnish goose with pickled red cabbage and mushroom mayonnaise. Then to start my main course I had a glass of Catalunyan wine paired with reindeer fillet and vegetables. To finish the dinner, they brought me a blueberry pastry with a Finnish blueberry dessert wine.
All the food was totally amazing! I always try to eat very local when I travel. The goose, reindeer and the blueberry desert wine were all super delicious.
I would suggest making reservations once you know you are heading to Helsinki, as the restaurant gets very busy, even on a Tuesday night.
Olo Restaurant is by far one of the best restaurants in all of Finland and has been awarded a Michelin Star. It is located across the street from the Market Square.
The restaurant opened back in 2006 with the idea of being a truly Nordic restaurant that would offer food that both locals and visitors would appreciate.
In addition to its Michelin Star, it has also won a number of culinary awards.
They have three menus: Journey with the Chefs, The Journey, and the Shorter Way. I decided to go with The Journey with wine pairing.
If you haven’t had the chance to enjoy a long tasting menu before I suggest you prepare by not eating too much beforehand and blocking off plenty of time for your meal. It will take about 2 1/2 hours to complete.
The menu starts off with a glass of champagne then a few little finger foods followed by potato with goat cheese, chicken liver with chicken stock, cold smoked salmon with crusty bread, potato flat bread with roe and vasterbotten cheese with dried mushrooms. They were all so unique and very tasty.
Next up is more wine from the sommelier and the main courses.
There are so many dishes available but the highlights for me were the pike perch with sunchoke and horseradish, king crab with seaweed, turbot with brown butter, and the reindeer with celeriac and spurce sprout.
The food and service make this one of my all-time favorite restaurants ever – it’s so good!!
Dinner and Drinks at Shelter
Shelter has become one of the hottest restaurants in Helsinki. Shelter is located inside an old warehouse at Katajanokka harbor in the heart of Helsinki, right next door to Uspenski Cathedral.
Shelter offers two options, a 3 or 5 course surprise menu. The menus change weekly and they use the freshest produce and if you’re a vegetarian don’t worry they can adapt it to your needs.
Once you’re done with dinner head upstairs to the Shelter bar called Rusty. They offer handcrafted cocktails, wines and craft beer.
If you have the time to spare, I suggest heading outside of the city to see some stunning nature and historical sites. From a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to a National Park and even a medieval town, here are three options:
This fortress island is the one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Finland. This is the easiest of the day trips to take from Helsinki.
It’s a 13-minute ferry ride from the port. Tickets are 9 euro round trip and there is a ferry every 15-30 minutes.
Suomenlinna Island is a place with a turbulent history that was founded back in 1748 while Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden.
It served as a naval base during the Russo-Swedish War in the 1780s and then surrendered to the Russian Army in 1808, remaining in their hands for over 100 years.
The island was bombarded by the English and French during the Crimean War in 1855 and became a prisoner of war camp in the Finnish Civil War in 1918.
Finally, it served as a coastal artillery and anti-aircraft base during World War II, when it got its current name of Suomenlinna Island.
There is plenty to see on the island. I would recommend the King’s Gate, the monumental symbol of the island built in the 1750s as the ceremonial entrance to the fortress.
Then there is Suomenlinna Church, built for the Russian garrison in the 1920s then later converted into a Lutheran place of worship. It also houses the lighthouse that protects the waters of the island even today.
Kustaanmiekka is a great spot to check out the 19th century Russian defenses on the island with their sand banks and artillery emplacements.
You should also check out the Great Courtyard while visiting, where the tomb of designer Augustin Ehrensvard can be seen.
Did you know Suomenlinna island also has a brewery? Trying some of the local beer was definitely one of the fun highlights of my day trip!
Nuuksio National Park
Nuuksio National Park is one of Finland’s newly established national parks, located right outside of the city of Espoo and only about a 30-minute drive from Helsinki.
I had the opportunity to visit Nuuksio National Park during my stopover day with NBE Finland. The park has many hiking trails, biking trails and even horse riding trails.
We were going to go snowshoeing here, but it was a surprising warm day at 2 Celsius (by Finnish standards) and the snow wasn’t thick enough. We started off walking across a frozen lake, getting epic photos everywhere we looked.
Once we crossed the lake, we walked through the forest for about 20 minutes before stopping for snacks and coffee. We used snow to heat up our coffee then warmed up Karelian pies (rye dough filled with rice) and some cinnamon buns.
There are 12 public camp fire huts all around the national park, of which nine provide campfire site, firewood shelter, an axe to cut wood and dry toilet.
The park has stunning landscapes including rocky pine forests and lush glades as well as some ancient forest. There are lakes and even some secluded forest pools..
High spots offer terrific views across the whole park. There are plenty of marked trails ranging from easy strolls of a few kilometers to to harder treks of over 100 km.
After we finished hiking around the national park we went to Haltia for lunch. Haltia is the first European museum to be awarded with special commendation for sustainability at the annual European Museum of the Year Award.
On my last day in Helsinki, I decided to take a quick day trip to Porvoo, one of six medieval cities in Finland. The fastest way to get there is by taking a direct 50-minute bus ride.
The town was first mentioned back in the 14th century and it became the episcopal seat in 1721 when Viborg became part of Russia.
Porvoo is considered to be one of the most picturesque towns in Finland and I could quickly see why. A walk through the old town doesn’t take very long as the town is very compact and you can pick up a map from the Tourist Office.
During the walk, I came across the Porvoo Cathedral, a 15th century building that has parts dating back two hundred years earlier, making it one of the oldest in the country.
Colorful buildings are a theme in Porvoo and none more so than the Old Town Hall. It is a two-story building with mansard roof and a wooden block tower that now serves as a museum of the town’s history as well as local art exhibition space.
The Red Warehouse Buildings are probably the most photographed spot in the town and were once part of the river trade, storing fruit, wine, coffee, tobacco and more. Their red ochre color was done to honor a visit by Swedish King Gustav III in the 18th century and maintained since.
Because I was there so early I headed to Café Pos 3 to get breakfast. I ordered a Finnish sandwich with salmon and eggs and a delicious coffee. Probably the best breakfast sandwich I have eaten in a while.
After spending over a week in Helsinki, I learned that there is way more to see and that I really needed much more time to explore everything. The truth is you could spend several days dining, taking day trips, and sampling beers at the local breweries.
Even though I was there in the heart of winter, I fell in love with this city. If it wasn’t as cold as I imagined during the winter months. I could definitely see myself living in such a beautiful, safe and friendly place.