Helsinki: A Friend Visiting, a Week of Culture

I moved to Helsinki last summer, right in the middle of the pandemic, to do my master’s degree. I think it is common when one moves abroad that some friends or family want to visit us. With the pandemic, this hasn’t been easy, but one of my friends made it here last week.

In the hope of giving some inspiration, I will share what we did to introduce something new that you can do with your friends, or even by yourself. I started by drafting a very open itinerary and suggested that she also did some research so she wouldn’t miss out on things that she might want to see but I hadn’t considered.

She arrived on Monday evening and left early on Saturday morning. With almost 5 days to explore, some might question what Helsinki has to offer and consider just hopping on a boat to Stockholm or Tallinn. While that is completely fine, I want to assure you that it is possible to have a lot of fun without going far from the Finnish capital.

Day zero

Since she got here at 5 pm and it was already dark, our day was very simple. From the airport, she dropped her things at my apartment and then we went to explore the city centre at night. In the Market Square, we tried to recreate photos that the BTS took when they visited Helsinki and then we just ordered food from Koti Pizza since we were on a budget and I had a discount code. (Not the most exciting choice of restaurant, I know!) I hope Finns won’t judge me, but this is how my friend got to try reindeer for the first time, on a Koti Pizza!

The first day

After having breakfast at my apartment, the main event for our day was heading to Kuusijärvi in Vantaa. After exploring the forest, we dived into multiple sessions of sauna and swimming in the lake. I consider this to be a great alternative to Allas Seapool or Löyly. Even though the latter is more convenient for being in the centre of Helsinki, Kuusijärvi gives you the opportunity to be connected to nature and away from the city, while not being incredibly far. It is also not as busy. You get there by public transport (it’s in zone C), and the entrance fee is 4,50€ if you are a student. They also have a café and restaurant there, but we opted for a traditional picnic outside.

Then we returned to Helsinki and our next stop was the Hakaniemi Market Hall, which is my favourite market hall in the city, both for food and souvenirs. From there we walked around the Töölö Bay and finished at Café Regatta. Known to be a good place to get your cinnamon buns, of course, I introduced them to her, but could not help also ordering a hot chocolate since the weather was very cold and the sun had set hours ago. After hanging around for a bit, we slowly made our way to Oodi, the public library. My friend was fascinated by the architecture of the surrounding buildings, but even more by the inside of the library. I do think it is a must-see and worth visiting the inside of Oodi. One has to be careful to not bother people who are doing their own thing, but it is a place where innovation and future are immensely present and in ways that are not in several European countries still. Afterwards we took the metro to Sörnäinen and ate at Georgian Vibe. I do feel like Helsinki has a lot of diverse options when it comes to food, and since my friend never tried Georgian food this was our pick. (Highly recommend the Khatchapuri and the Meat Khinkali. From here, you could also finish your night at a bar in Kallio.)

The second day

This was the day to explore the city centre and the fancier areas of Helsinki. Our morning started at the Central Station, then we went to the Silent Chapel in Kamppi. I would also recommend visiting Temppeliaukio Church which has an entrance fee. We walked along Aleksanterinkatu and I showed her around the main spots of my university campus (Think Corner, UniCafé and the library). We went inside Helsinki Cathedral, walked through the Senate Square to Katajanokka to see the Uspenski Cathedral. Before lunch, we also headed to the Old Market Hall mainly to check traditional foods (lots of salmon, reindeer and bear!). After a stroll in Esplanadi, we had salmon soup with rye bread at Café Esplanad, which was really delicious!

Fed and ready, we walked by the seaside from the Old Market Hall to Eira making small stops at the Tähtitorninvuori Observatory Hill Park, Café Ursula and Kaivopuisto park. From here we went inside the neighbourhood in Ullanlinna and just observed the cute shops and architecture. My top picks would be Huvilakatu (classified as one of the most beautiful streets in Helsinki) and Korkeavuorenkatu (with Café Succès and St. John’s Church as the main attractions). The latter is close to Fredrikinkatu which is my favourite street in Helsinki: full of cafés and nice places to window shop and for secondhand shopping. We walked along the street until we were in Kamppi and met with another friend and went for a coffee at Ihana Kahvila Baari. From there went to have dinner at Hills Dumplings. (I recommend making a reservation!)

The third day

Our first and only day trip was to Porvoo. I don’t know how I managed to be in Finland for more than a year and not visit this very cosy city, yet it was nice that I hadn’t, since it was lovely to visit something for the first time. It is not a huge place so I’ll just share some of our favourite spots: the forest, the old train station, the river banks, and the old town. I would say it is a place for wandering around, looking at pretty buildings, and entering nice shops. It is almost impossible not to buy something there since the city has a unique vibe attached to it. We also tried the Runeberg torte, a Finnish pastry named after the poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Usually, the pastry is only around in February, but since the poet and the pastry are originally from Porvoo, it is widely available there. We tried it at Porvoon Paahtimo Bar & Café.

The last day

The last day called for brunch and we chose to go to Flät No 14, which I find to be one of the best places in terms of price/quality for brunch in Helsinki. We were full and we even got to try reindeer humus. Since my friend’s mom is an architect, we visited the locations of Alvar Aalto’s studio and house (it is quite expensive to visit each, and you need to book a tour). From there we walked to Seurasaari which has an Open-Air Museum with old wooden buildings and a bunch of squirrels and birds. It is definitely one of my favourite places, and it became one of my friend’s as well – so much so that she recommended I make this a must-visit whenever someone else visits me. Then we decided to visit the Hietaniemi cemetery since cemeteries here are different from where we come from, being much more connected to nature and providing a peaceful environment. We had one last coffee at the Paulig Kulma café in the centre and had our last meal together in my apartment.

I hope this itinerary gives you some inspiration for places to visit. The secret to a nice week is to combine the touristy and must-dos with your own favourite places, be that a specific café, museum, or park. And don’t forget to accommodate your visitor’s interests!

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