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In November 2015, I embarked on a one week journey through Scandinavia, an area of Europe I had been wanting to see for years. My first stop was Helsinki, the capital city of Finalnd. Helsinki sits on a peninsula in the southern part of Finland on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. Helsinki was established in 1550 by the King of Sweden as a trading competitor to what is now known as the city of Tallinn. However, Helsinki remained a relatively impoverished city until Russia defeated Sweden and annexed Finland in 1809. Since then, Helsinki has experienced a steady growth despite undergoing some tumultuous events, such as the Finnish Civil War and the Winter War. Today, Helsinki is a beautiful, posh city with high end shops, flawless architecture, and some of the world’s best social policies. Read on to find out how I spent my 24 hours in Helsinki.
As I like to do in almost every new city I visit, I started my day with a free walking tour from Happy Guide Helsinki. We met at the Helsinki Cathedral, and our tour guide was easy to find as she was wearing a funny Finland hat (a hat with antlers on it). The Helsinki Cathedral is an Evangelical Lutheran church that was originally built from 1830-1852 as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who was the Grand Duke of Finland at the time. Until Finland gained independence in 1917, the Helsinki Cathedral was known as St. Nicholas’ Church. You can spot the Helsinki Cathedral by its green dome topped with golden crosses, as well as its majestic white columns.
In front of the Helsinki Cathedral is a large plaza called the Senate Square. The area surrounding Senate Square is the oldest area in central Helsinki. On the other sides of Senate Square stand the Government Palace, the main building of University of Helsinki, and Sederholm House, the oldest building in central Helsinki.
Our tour guide took us to many historical sites following the Helsinki Cathedral, but what really stood out to me was the abundance of nature, the flawless architecture, and the cleanliness of the city. Unsurprisingly, Helsinki was named the World Design Capital for 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.
Helsinki also boasts the title of most liveable city in the world in 2011, and it consistently ranks in the top 10 most liveable cities in the world each year. This is largely due to their abundance of social policies benefiting women and children and promoting family values and work life balance. For example, Finnish law requires employers to provide 18 weeks of maternity leave, 9 weeks of paternity leave, and 26 weeks of parental leave, all at 70-90% of previous annual earnings, to its employees. Should parents take the fully allotted time, this would cover the entire first year of a newborn’s life. Moreover, after a child turns three years old, the parents can take partial care leave, in which they split time between work and home, until the child starts second grade. This presents a stark contrast to the United States’ provision of 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and no provision for paternity leave or parental leave. The gap in social benefits between Finland and countries like the United States continues on to child care, schooling, etc. It is easy to see why parents would want to raise their kids in Finland.
Since Helsinki is a peninsula in the Gulf of Finland, it is surrounded by water, bridges, and boats. We couldn’t resist sharing some of these spectacular views.
Our last stop on the walking tour was the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox church designed by a Russian architect and built in 1862-1868. This cathedral is the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe and the clearest sign of Russian influence in Finnish history. You can see clearly the difference in design between the red brick and golden cupolas of the Uspenski Cathedral and the neoclassical style of the Helsinki Cathedral. The Uspenski Cathedral is open to visitors daily at no cost, except on Mondays when it is closed.
Old Market Hall (Vanha kauppahalli)
After the walking tour, I walked back toward the esplanade and to the Old Market Hall near Market Square. Old Market Hall is home to a variety of cafes and restaurants and offers options for a quick takeaway meal or a place to sit down and rest for a while.
Suomenlinna – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Last, but not least, I knew I had to check out Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site, during my 24 hours in Helsinki. Suomenlinna is a sea fortress located on an island about a 20 minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square. You can read a full review of and guide to Suomenlinna here.
Interested in exploring more of Scandinavia? Then you might want to check out these posts:
- How I Traveled Scandinavia for 6 Days With Less Than $1000
- Complete Guide to 3 Days in the Faroe Islands
- A Weekend in Oslo for Budget Travellers
- 5 Bucket List Things to do in Iceland in the Winter
- 25 Free Things to do in Copenhagen
I’m planning a trip to the Nordic countries, so this article will be perfect for planning a day trip to Helsinki! Thanks!
Great to hear! Which countries will you be traveling to? We also have a guide to Iceland and Oslo and will be coming out with some posts on Copenhagen and Stockholm in our Scandinavia series 🙂
Helsinki looks great, would love to visit. Haven’t been to Scandanavia yet. I always do a free walking tour when I arrive somewhere new too, it’s a great introduction to a new city.
So true! I’ve found that free walking tours are also a great way to meet fellow travelers, which is nice if you’re traveling solo.
Love the architecture and your photos! I had a layover in Helsinki on my way elsewhere and would love to explore a bit thanks to your guide! Next time. 🙂
Thanks, Karen! Helsinki is definitely worth strolling around and exploring for a bit if you’ve got a layover there again. It’s only a short 30-45 minute bus or train ride from the airport to city centre.
I love the gloomy november feel of your pictures! Makes me want to head straight for the Market Hall and enjoy that warm ambiance there!
Old Market Hall was the perfect escape from the cold! It is so cozy inside, and I saw some great options for soup and other hearty foods. I just sat inside and sipped on a hot coffee for a while 🙂
It’s great that you did so much exploring of the city – one of my favourite ways of seeing a city (especially on a short break) is a walking food tour. I think walking eating tours have started gaining traction as well so I’ll always look out for them!
Lauretta, I would’ve loved to do a food tour around Helsinki! If you get to do that one day, please write a blog post about it! 🙂
I love your photo’s defiantly gives the winter vibe and enjoyed reading your article and I you’ve convinced me take at the trip to my world travel itinerary next year 🙂
Thanks, enjoy Helsinki!
Amazing shots of Helsinki! Love the photo editing on them, gives the town a soul. Would love to get to the Nordic countries very soon, but for now I would wait for after winter!
It does get really cold in the winter, and some of your activities, such as hiking, may be limited, but there is a special charm to Nordic countries in the winter that you can’t get in the summer. It’s almost like seeing them in their natural element because everyone has the perception of the Nordics being cold all the time. Anyhow, I’ve been in the summer and winter and both are great in their own ways 🙂
I love ’24 hours in…’ because I usually travel just for a while to see as much as I can. I’ve never been to Helsinki…yet 😉
I work a full time job, so I’ve gotten really good at fast travel over the years 🙂 There’s a lot more you can do in 24 hours in a new city than most people realize. Hope you get to visit Helsinki soon.
I’m so jealous! You saw so much in 24 hours! How do you edit your photos? They’re so lovely and have so much depth!
My favorite phone app, and the app I used to edit most of these photos, is Priime. They have a great selection of pre-set styles that I really like!
Helsinki looks like a beautiful city! The architecture looks incredible. I love doing walking tours too – such a great way to explore a place. I love that more and more cities are offering free walking tours. The Old Market Hall looks amazing – I am sure the food would be so delicious!
Free walking tours are the best for short trips because you get a broad overview of the city, and then you can decide which specific areas you’d like to explore more of. There was some really hearty food in Old Market Hall, and it was made heartier by the fact that it was so cold outside so the Market was a nice respite from the cold 🙂
I’ve read about how Helsinki is a very livable city, it’s just really impressive how they have these laws huh?
The esplanade looks like my kind of area. I always love seeing greenery in the middle of a city. 🙂
I love seeing greenery in the middle of a city too, and there was so much greenery in Helsinki! Their social policies are very impressive but may not work as well in a more populated, capitalistic society.
Wow you managed to cram so much into such a short time. I never though of Helsinki as an impoverished city. I do love the social policies they have. I hope to get there soon but it’s probably a few years off yet. I also love that this is part of series and can’t wait to read what you have done in 24 hours in other cities 🙂
I never would’ve though of Helsinki as an impoverished city either, Allison! It’s amazing how Helsinki has developed from a rough past into this beautiful, posh city. We’ll be covering the other Scandinavian capital cities in our later posts so stay tuned 🙂
I love the streets of Helsinki. I would love to visit this place in 2017
I would love to spend some time exploring Helsinki, looks like a wonderful city. This Cathedral is just so beautiful, and the other places you visited as well. There is so much so see in Finland, that I would`t mind to stay there like a month! haha
Yes, I would love to stay there for a month! I’ve heard the areas surrounding Helsinki are beautiful as well. I thought it was so interesting to see the Helsinki Cathedral and then the Uspenski Cathedral because they are entirely different in their history and design that it’s hard to imagine they even exist in the same city!
Isn’t it interesting that Finland has such a commitment to children? Long leaves for parents and now one of the top educational systems in the world. I think we should all take note.
Completely agree, Natalie! Finland’s obviously doing something right!
Nice guide! Helsinki is the one Scandinavian capital I haven’t visited. I love that you put in the social side of Finland too. It’s one of the reasons I live in Scotland, we have nearly as good!
I didn’t know that about Scotland, but that’s great to know! I’ll be visiting Edinburgh for the first time in March 🙂
Helsinki looks like a perfect place for photowalks. The structures looks great specially the cathedral. This is just a 24 hour tour right? You’ve highlighted the great ons. I haven’t been to Helsinki so thank you for touring me around by reading this post. 🙂
Hey Kris, you’re right, this is just a 24 hour tour. If you hit all these spots, it’ll be a busy day, but it’s doable and totally worth it to see all of this if you’re only there for a short time! You’ll want to take photos everywhere you go, it’s beautiful 🙂 Hope you get to visit Helsinki one day!
So interesting! Never really bothered to look up info about Helsinki before but now after reading your post and seeing those wonderful pictures I want to visit it so badly!
I hope you get to go one day, Yanica! It was a great experience.
Great info! How would you rate Helsinki as a budget destination. I figure, if you’re only there for a day or two it can’t be a big budget-buster, right?
Helsinki is on my list! Saving this post for later 🙂