Home » Helsinki Highlights: A One-Day Itinerary

Helsinki Highlights: A One-Day Itinerary

by Paola Bertoni
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For many tourists and travellers, Helsinki is the first stop in Finland before they embark on a journey to witness the Northern Lights. However, Helsinki is much more than just a mandatory stopover. It is a beautiful coastal city that offers a unique glimpse into ancient and modern Finnish architecture. There are also a variety of excellent restaurants to try. In this article, you will discover what to see in Helsinki in one day to maximise your trip.

What to see in Helsinki in one day

Compared to other Scandinavian capitals such as Stockholm or Copenhagen, Helsinki appears much smaller. All the main tourist attractions are within easy walking distance, and its urban structure develops around the main monuments.

If you have just a few hours, you can explore the main sights in the city, either on a guided tour or by yourself. However, taking a guided tour is much more efficient for discovering the unique features of a new city, so I suggest booking a tour of Helsinki by tram with a local guide or purchasing tickets for the sightseeing bus with an audio guide.

Must-see attraction in Helsinki

In one day, you can see most of the city. Still, if you have limited time, the must-see sights are the train station, the Lutheran Cathedral, the Finnish National Library, and the Helsinki Old Market Hall.

The imposing buildings of the train station and the Cathedral, surrounded by vast open spaces, are the main landmarks. The gigantic white Lutheran Cathedral, perched atop a monumental flight of stairs, is probably the most iconic building in Finland.

On the other hand, the harborfront district has an entirely different look. Certainly less flashy, it will remain one of your fondest memories of Helsinki with its souvenir stalls and lovely covered market where you can enjoy great Finnish food.

The Old Market Hall is also the perfect place to stock up on curious foods, such as canned reindeer, bear, and moose meat. You can also detour and see the view from the top of the ferry wheel SkyWheel Helsinki.

If you still have time, you can go as far as the Parliament to see another imposing structure, or you can take a ferry from the harbour near the covered market to the island of Suomelinna, once a fortress and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ferry trip is a great experience; you can witness an unusual sea with floating ice sheets in winter.

A street in the centre of Helsinki
A street in the centre of Helsinki

Helsinki Central Station

Helsinki Central Station, in Finnish Helsingin päärautatieasema, opened in 1919, is the principal railway hub in the Finnish capital. You will definitely stop there on your trip to Finland because direct trains run to and from the airport. For this reason, it is most likely your first stop in the city. If you only have one day to spare, leave your suitcase at the airport luggage room and head straight here.

This building, designed in the modern rationalist style by Swedish architect Carl Albert Edelfelt, is truly impressive. The station’s façade, predominantly covered in Finnish granite, showcases its main attractions: the clock tower and two pairs of statues holding lamps on either side of the main entrance.

Helsinki Central Station also houses a 50-square-metre private waiting room with furniture designed by Eliel Saarinen. Initially designated for the Russian emperor, the room became exclusively reserved for the President of Finland and his official guests after Finland gained independence.

Helsinki Central Station, Finland
Helsinki Central Station, Finland

Senate Square in Helsinki

Senate Square, also known as Senatstorget, is the oldest part of central Helsinki and a tourist must-visit destination. Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, it is an architectural marvel, and all the famous landmarks in the Finnish capital, including the Helsinki Cathedral, face Senate Square. 

Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral is the focal point of Senate Square. Around the Cathedral, you can also see the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki, and Sederholm House, the oldest building in the city centre, dating back to 1757.

The square also houses the statue of Russian Emperor Alexander II, which holds significant historical importance. The Russians occupied Finland until the end of World War I, and the statue became a symbol of peaceful resistance during the period of Russification from 1899. Finns protested against Tsar Nicholas II by leaving flowers at the foot of Alexander II, his grandfather’s statue, known as the Good Tsar in Finland.

Paola Bertoni in front of the statue of Tsar Alexander II in Helsinki's Senate Square
In front of the statue of Tsar Alexander II in Helsinki’s Senate Square

Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks and tourist attractions in the Finnish capital. Still used for worship services, the church was built between 1830 and 1852 and has a neoclassical style that does not go unnoticed.

Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, the same architect as Senate Square, the Lutheran Cathedral is immediately recognisable by its grandeur and tall green dome surrounded by four smaller domes. The church looks even more imposing because it stands at the top of a high staircase while all around it is the space of the square.

The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral in the middle of Senate Square
The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral in the middle of Senate Square

Finnish National Library

The Finnish National Library, called Kansalliskirjasto, is a historical building to be discovered by walking through its halls and looking out from its interior balconies. The oldest part of the complex dates back to 1844 and was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, the same architect as the Senate Square and the Cathedral. The newer part dates back to 1906 and was designed by architect Gustaf Nyström.

In addition to its historical value, the Finnish National Library is famous for being Finland’s primary research library and part of the University of Helsinki. According to Finnish law, the National Library is a legal deposit library. It receives copies of all printed and audiovisual materials produced or distributed in Finland. Most of these books, however, cannot be seen in the halls but are stored in a 57,600 cubic metre underground bunker dug into the rock, 18 metres below the library!

Interior of the Finnish National Library in Helsinki
Interior of the Finnish National Library in Helsinki

Helsinki Old Market Hall

The Helsinki Old Market Hall, established in 1889 and situated near the port and the stalls of Kauppatori Market Square, is also known as Vanha Kauppahalli. The architecture is similar to other covered markets across Europe. The architect Gustaf Nyström, in fact, studied this kind of building in various European cities before designing the Helsinki Old Market Hall.

Compared to other covered markets in mainland Europe, Helsinki’s market is more intimate and calm. You will find a variety of Finnish food stalls selling high-quality local produce. The market offers an excellent selection of fresh, smoked, cured, and shellfish fish. Additionally, it is renowned for jars of preserved meat from Scandinavian venison, such as bear, reindeer, or elk, which are popular souvenirs. Vanha Kauppahalli is also a great place to grab a quick and affordable lunch, with tasty options like soup or panini available.

Façade of the Helsinki Old Market Hall
Façade of the Helsinki Old Market Hall

Suomelinna Island

Suomenlinna Fortress is one of Finland’s most significant landmarks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was once a naval base of the Finnish fleet, dating back to when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Suomenlinna is situated one kilometre off Helsinki’s coast and has played a crucial role in the history of Finland. Over almost 300 years, the fortress has witnessed many power struggles between Finland, Sweden, and Russia.

The Suomenlinna Fortress is now a museum that presents the fortress’s history through a collection of tools, clothes, and other historical artefacts. The museum features multimedia stations that offer an immersive experience of the fortress’s historical action and provide an insider’s view of Finnish and Northern European culture.

To reach Suomenlinna Island, you can take a ferry from Helsinki Harbour to Kauppatori Market Square. It takes only a few minutes to get there. I recommend buying your ferry tickets in advance to ensure you get the ferry if you find yourself in a queue at the automatic machines. The ferry waits for no one, even if you are buying a ticket for the ride.

Helsinki from the ferry to the island of Suomelinna
Helsinki from the ferry to the island of Suomelinna

Getting around Helsinki

Helsinki is a unique and delightful city, distinct from other European capitals. The city is remarkably clean and tranquil with fewer people and less traffic compared to what we are accustomed to. Helsinki has a charming architecture and broad streets that make it a perfect city to explore on foot.

While strolling around the city, you can discover some fascinating ties with neighbouring Russia, such as the statue of Tsar Alexander II in front of the Cathedral. You can effortlessly navigate the city center, from the station to the Cathedral, passing through the harbour and the covered market, even without a tour guide.

I suggest using Google Maps to move between the attractions. By doing so, you will have everything at your fingertips on your smartphone. If you wish to visit some remote locations, you can purchase a one-day bus ticket that also includes the ferry to the island-fortress Suomelinna.

However, if you have limited time, little inclination to walk, or are travelling with children, I recommend purchasing a sightseeing bus ticket. This way, you can be certain not to miss any of the sights and see much more in less time, including those attractions that are often overlooked during the first visit to Helsinki.

Tram in the centre of Helsinki
Tram in the centre of Helsinki

Where and what to eat in Helsinki

When planning a day trip to Helsinki, the best place to eat is Kauppatori, a Finnish word meaning market square, in front of the harbour and near the Old Market Hall. The Kauppatori market is active from spring to autumn, and vendors sell a variety of fresh food and Finnish souvenirs. There are also several outdoor cafés.

For a more comfortable dining experience, the nearby covered market, the Helsinki Old Market Hall, has several small restaurants with tables and chairs. I enjoyed a fantastic lunch menu with salmon soup and bread croutons at one of the restaurants in the covered market, which only cost me around €10. If you prefer, you can also buy takeaway food to eat outside. The stalls offer various options, making it difficult to choose.

While the open-air market is known as the kingdom of fresh fish, the covered market is the perfect place to find smoked or fried salmon, herring, and other fish from the Baltic Sea. The indoor market is also the place to stock up on gourmet souvenirs, such as jams made from all kinds of Finnish berries or canned meat from elk, reindeer, bear, and other Nordic animals.

For a truly local experience, grab a coffee in the centre of Helsinki. Finland is among the most coffee-consuming countries in the world, and you’ll find several coffee roasters and shops in Helsinki. The coffee is delicious, and I suggest you accompany it with a taste of Finnish pastries such as pulla, a tasty cardamom bun.

For dinner, I recommend asking for a local beer in a restaurant. Every region of Finland has a microbrewery of excellent quality.

Sandwiches for sale at the Helsinki Old Market Hall
Sandwiches for sale at the Helsinki Old Market Hall

Where to buy souvenirs in Helsinki

Helsinki, along with other Nordic capitals, is well-known for its Scandinavian design. If you’re looking for unique gifts, head over to the Design District galleries and boutiques, which stretch from Kamppi to Punavuori. The shops in this district mainly sell products with Finnish designs.

Alternatively, you can go souvenir shopping in the centre of Helsinki, where you’ll find the leading shops of famous Finnish brands like Marimekko and Iittala. You can choose Stockmann, Kamppi, Forum, or Galleria Esplanadi if you prefer shopping centres. However, if you’re looking to buy gourmet souvenirs, the Helsinki Old Market Hall is the best place, while the open-air market Kauppatori in front of the harbour offers beautifully crafted items.

Canned meats, smoked fish and Finnish delicatessen for sale at a stall in Helsinki Old Market Hall
Canned meats, smoked fish and Finnish delicatessen for sale at a stall in Helsinki Old Market Hall

Where to stay in Helsinki

Helsinki boasts of several Scandinavian-style hotels that offer exceptional services and experiences. I recommend staying in the city centre to explore the entire city on foot. Among the best hotels, you’ll find the Hotel F6, which serves a delicious Finnish breakfast and offers a bar, 24-hour reception, laundry services, and free bicycles. Alternatively, consider the charming Hotel Bastian near the Helsinki Cathedral and Helsinki Central Station. Another great option near the city’s popular attractions is the Aparthotel Bob W Koti Ullanlinna, which has a garden and stunning city views.

Whether you’re making a brief stopover or spending a weekend in the Finnish capital, employ these recommendations to uncover the finest aspects of Helsinki in just a day. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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