Don’t let the winter stop you from planning a holiday to Helsinki! The vibrant, cool and young capital of Finland has a lot to offer to visitors all year round. After spending a week in Helsinki last December, I decided to put together a list of all my favourite activities to do in the city in the colder months.
Top 10 Activities To Do in Helsinki in Winter
Helsinki is known as “Daughter of the Baltic” for its location on the tip of the Finnish peninsula where the city lies surrounded by over 300 islands. You are never too far from nature – the sea, the lakes, the forests – when you are in Helsinki, which is one of the main reasons why the city is a popular summer destination. If you are visiting Helsinki in winter however you will find many other exciting activities to fill your days.
1. Try traditional Finnish sauna
If you want to get to know Finnish culture, try the traditional sauna + swim in the cold water experience. It is an experience you shouldn’t miss when visiting Helsinki, especially in winter. It will leave you both incredibly invigorated and relaxed. I am a big fan of the modern Löyly, since my first visit to Helsinki (see my two day city guide to Helsinki). It is an urban oasis equipped with two sauna rooms heated to over 90°C and an outdoor deck on the water, perfect for dipping in the sea. Unfortunately this time the sea was too rough because of bad weather and it was too dangerous to swim. Tip: book your sauna slot in advance through the website a few days ahead of your visit.
My new favourite discovery is Allas Sea Pool! I loved the location in the heart of Helsinki, just a few minutes away from Senate Square. Pack your swimsuit and go to the Allas Sea Pool, even if just for an hour, it’s totally worth it for the experience and for the views of the harbour. There are three sauna rooms of about 80°C: one for men, one for women, and a third one that can be used by both men and women unless it is booked for private events. There are also three swimming pools: with cold sea water, with warm water and one for children.
2. Explore Kluuvi, Kruununhaka and Kaartinkaupunki
The central districts of Kluuvi, Kruununhaka and Kaartinkaupunki, surrounding the harbour with the beautiful Esplanadi park running in between them, are the starting point to any Helsinki tour.
At the heart of it all is Senate Square with its Empire-style buildings and the iconic Helsinki Cathedral and steps leading to it. This is my favourite part of the city! The streets around the square form an area called Torikorttelit which used to be home to government offices but now is filled with restaurants, cafés, independent boutiques and also the City Museum.
Walk towards the harbour to visit Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall), a beautiful food market housed in the same building since 1889. You can find cheese, fish, vegetables and fruits, coffee, cakes and spices.
3. Visit Helsinki Christmas markets
The Helsinki Christmas Market is held every December in Senate Square, showcasing over 120 traders and attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors.
You will find lots of Finnish foods and handicrafts to buy, like sea buckthorn jam jars and Joulutorttu, a traditional Christmas star-shaped pastry. Keep warm with a glass of glögi, a spiced drink similar to mulled wine (though here it’s often non-alcoholic) consumed across all Scandinavian countries during winter.
4. Drink speciality coffee
My favourite part of visiting a new city is looking for the best speciality coffee shops. In Helsinki, I was spoilt for choice! I was researching for a coffee guide for Sprudge.com so I spent the better part of each day drinking coffee. One of my favourite cafés is Kaffa Roastery, where I a coffee tasting (cupping) with 2019 Finnish Barista Champion, Kaisa Kokkonen. The shop is in the south part of downtown Helsinki, between the Design district and the Eira neighbourhood. There are lots of interesting shops, cafés and restaurants in this area and it’s well worth a visit.
Another favourite discovery was Cafetoria roastery & café, one of the early adopters of speciality coffee in Helsinki and the first Finnish member of SCAE. Co-founders Ivan Ore and Mia Nikander are some of the loveliest people I met and I could have spent hours chatting with them and tasting their coffees. They have so many on sale on their shelves – from single origins to blends, from light to dark roasted. So, whatever your taste in coffee, you will likely find one that you like here. Tip: don’t miss Temppeliaukio Church, aka the Church of the Rock, just around the corner from Cafetoria.
Artisan Café is a also must-visit, especially if you love filter coffee, as its founder and head barista Jani Mikkonen is the National Brewers Cup Champion 2018 & 2019. Other great coffee shops in Helsinki are: El Fant and Kahvila Sävy (both serving Good Life Coffee beans); Andante, housed in a former flower shop in the Design District; We Got This, all day café and wine bar also in the Design District; and Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo, which literally translates to Helsinki coffee roastery.
5. Visit Helsinki’s beautiful libraries
Public libraries in Helsinki aren’t just a place to borrow books, they are a place to meet friends, to work, to read. There are over 40 libraries that are part of the Helsinki City Library circuit. The newest one is Oodi Helsinki Central Library, inaugurated at the end of 2018 in Kansalaistori square (across from the Finnish parliament building). Spread over three floors, under an undulating cloud-like white ceiling, you will find of course books, but also computer rooms, a movie theatre, recording studios, print rooms, and makers’ space complete with sewing machines. Oodi is a wonderful space to read and work with 360-degree views of the city. There is also a café on the ground floor. Entry to the library is free.
Other libraries that are worth visiting, if not just for their book collection also to see their beautiful interiors, are the National Library of Finland and Helsinki University Library.
6. Eat the best cinnamon rolls
Literally the first thing I bought in Helsinki was a cinnamon roll (at the airport, right after I landed and before leaving the terminal to head to the city). You could say I have a sweet tooth and korvapuusti are my obsession. I scouted the city’s bakeries and cafés searching for the softest, sweetest, spiciest and freshest rolls.
It is impossible to crown one winner, but here are some of my favourite places to buy cinnamon (or cardamon) rolls in Helsinki: Gateau, an artisan bakery founded in 1937 in Saltsjöbadet, Stockholm with 14 stores in Helsinki; Kanniston Leipomo, the bakery founded by Alma Kannisto in 1914, now has seven shops across Helsinki; Way Bakery is an all day café serving coffee and small plates that turns into a wine bar in the evenings; their glazed cinnamon rolls are incredibly good.
If you are visiting Helsinki during the Christmas period, look out for Joulupulla: Finnish Christmas buns with raisins and saffron.
7. Spend an afternoon in a museum
One of the reasons I am glad to have visited Helsinki in winter is that it made me want to visit all of the city’s museums (or as many as possible). I am sure that, had I been there in Spring / Summer, I would have spent a lot more time outdoors, perhaps visiting one of the many islands of the Helsinki archipelago. I would have missed out on the amazing art, design pieces and exhibitions displayed in the city’s top museums.
When it comes to art, I love painting more than anything, so it’s no surprise that my favourite museum in Helsinki is Ateneum. It is Finland’s best-known art museum and the home of Finnish art. The permanent collection dates from the 19th century to the modern age, including masterpieces by Le Corbusier and Edvard Munch.
The Ateneum is part of the Finnish National Gallery, together with Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Other museums worth visiting in Helsinki are: the Design Museum with its ongoing exhibition on the story of Finnish design; and Amos Rex Museum, opened in 2018 and famous for its iconic domes which lead visitors to underground exhibition spaces.
8. Get a taste of Finnish cuisine
Helsinki is heaven for foodies! I’ve written about the city’s artisanal bakeries and speciality coffee shops, now let me tell you about my favourite restaurants. To eat traditional Finnish fare served in an evocative setting, go to Savotta in Senate Square.
For a taste of modern Nordic cuisine cooked with local Finnish ingredients by the country’s top chefs, I recommend above all Ravintola Spis. It’s a tiny restaurant with just 18 covers and an intimate feel. Guests are truly looked after from the moment they step through the door and all through the several courses of the Tasting Dinner, which is paired with the most interesting natural wines. The food at Spis was sensational and our favourite of the entire trip.
Other restaurants worth trying in Helsinki are Emo, Ultima, Juuri, Nokka, Palace, OLO and Grön. Note: it is always best to book a table, especially in December when many restaurants are fully booked with Christmas parties.
9. Go shopping in Helsinki
What better excuse than a cold winter day than to go shopping? Helsinki is home to some of the world’s best design, accessories, furniture and clothing brands. One of the best shopping centres in the city is Kamppi with over a hundred shops and 40 cafés and restaurants. Then there is the historic Stockmann department store, a destination for shopping since the 1930’s.
If you are looking for Finnish design pieces (and aren’t afraid of the price tag), you must visit Artek showroom; Iittala for the BEST glassware and Arabia for Finland’s most celebrated ceramics. For unique and original finds, head to the Design District, home to Helsinki’s best boutiques and vintage shops.
If you love browsing supermarkets whenever you are in a new country to discover all the different ingredients and brands, then you are going to love Food Market Herkku inside Stockmann department store. The grocery store is huge, beautiful and stocked with amazing brands – I spent over one hour browsing the aisles. Inside the food market you will also find a bistro with tables, open all day, serving hot dishes and drinks. I highly recommend trying the Salmon Soup, lohikeitto, one of the most popular dishes of Finnish cuisine. The one at Herkku Bistro is considered the best in Helsinki! You can order it to eat in or to take away.
10. Take the ferry to Tallinn
On the last day of our holiday we took the ferry across the Baltic sea to Estonia and spent a day sightseeing in Tallinn.
Estonia is smallest of the three Baltic states, but that doesn’t make it any less attractive. Tallinn in particular is growing in popularity among young people and becoming a top class digital hub. It’s a vibrant and exciting city and I cannot wait to return for a longer stay!
The Estonian capital offers an exciting mix of old and new with its medieval old town and the cool district of Telliskivi Creative City.
Kalamaja, formerly the town’s main fishing harbour, is a charming residential area. Go for a stroll through its colourful wooden houses and bright panel doors.
We spent about 6 hours walking around Tallinn which was enough to get familiar with Estonian cuisine at Rataskaevu. We loved exploring the local food market of Balti Jaam Market, drink coffee at Fika Café and eat cinnamon buns at RØST Bakery. And of course we couldn’t leave Tallinn without visiting the local Christmas Market right on the Town Hall Square, one of the biggest attractions during the winter season.
How to get there: Tallink Silja operates cruises between Helsinki T2 and Tallinn D-terminal daily. The sea voyage takes just 2 hours. On our way back we travelled on Tallink Shuttle Megastar cruise ship, a new generation LNG powered fast ferry featuring the largest mall on the Baltic Sea and a gorgeous Business Lounge.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
Helsinki offers a wide range of accommodations from hostels to hotels, from airbnb’s to residences. If you are looking for boutique or luxury hotels in the heart of the city, I recommend Hotel Lilla Roberts, Hotel Kämp, Hotel Haven and Lapland Hotels Bulevardi. If you prefer the comforts of an apartment with kitchen in a central location near the railway station, then book Aallonkoti Hotel Apartments. My husband and I spent a week in one of their studio apartments as part of #MyHelsinkiResidence programme and I highly recommend it for comfort and convenience.
Disclaimer: I travelled to Helsinki on a press trip hosted by the tourism office. All opinions are my own.