Most people think we’re crazy when we announced we would visit Helsinki in winter – not once, but TWICE! Nick was in the Finnish capital for Nordic Bloggers Experience in 2015, and we were lucky to be both selected to participate in 2016 as well. If you’re wondering what to do in Helsinki in winter, this is the post for you – we’ll reveal 6 awesome things to do in and around Helsinki, and great place to stay in town without breaking your budget!
Helsinki & Us
I’ve never been the kind of person that refuses to visit a city I have been to before. I have visited some of my favourite cities time and time again – Berlin and Budapest three times last year alone, Rome and Florence perhaps twenty times each, and I can’t wait to return to London and Paris, cities I love deeply and I haven’t been to for a while now.
Another example of a city that deserves more than one visit is Helsinki. The capital of Finland is actually two cities in one. In summer, the town moves outdoors, between picnics, parties and weekends away on the islands around the city. Our first visit to Helsinki was in August 2014, before a blog trip that took us as far as the Kvarken Archipelago and Maakalla Island in Western Finland.
During our first visit, we had the chance to spend one night on Suomenlinna, the UNESCO-listed fortress island off the coast of Helsinki, and spent three days exploring the city, which – surprise surprise – was not as expensive as we imagined. After that trip, we put together a guide of free things to do in Helsinki, and the visit left us yearning to explore the Finnish capital further.
What to do in Helsinki in Winter
That’s why we were delighted to have been chosen to return to Helsinki for the Nordic Bloggers Experience – and this time, we would be visiting the city in January. We took the same flight we had taken in summer, and landed at 3.25 pm – whereas in summer we still had several hours of sunlight ahead of us, this time it was already dark.
In winter, the atmosphere around Helsinki is just as magical as in summer. The long Nordic days of summer become very short, as the sun rises above the horizon only for a few hours each day. Yes, it may be cold, but you get the benefit of sunrises without having to wake up at ungodly hours; and after sunset, the town is bathed in the blue light of the magical ‘blue hour’ between dusk and night. The sea freezes over and the town is covered in snow, making it look like a fairytale.
So, what to do in winter in Helsinki if you find yourself there? Here are six ideas to enjoy the best of what the city has to offer!
Walk around Suomenlinna
There are several islands off the coast of Helsinki, including many where locals have their summer homes. In summer, these islands are probably at their best – people often spend the entire season there, enjoying nature and time with friends and family. Unsurprisingly, in winter the islands are usually very quiet – but that is not to say they aren’t worth a visit!
The most famous of the islands just off Helsinki’s harbour is Suomenlinna, a fortress island with several museums, historic sights and a community of 800 residents. In summer, Suomenlinna becomes a popular destination for young people, who take advantage of the 24 hour ferries and organise ‘secret’ parties on the meadows between one fortified tower and another – think cans of Karhu beer and music blaring from iPhone speakers.
The museums are wonderful year-round; wandering around Suomenlinna in winter, between snow-blanketed meadows and the frozen sea, was simply magical. There was barely a soul around, and no sound other than our boots crunching the snow. Here’s our Suomenlinna in Two Seasons post, if you want to know more about the island in summer and winter.
Take a Helicopter Tour
During his first winter visit to Helsinki, Nick had the chance to take a helicopter tour over the city. You can imagine how envious I was, right? Flying over one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, on a helicopter (a kind of transport that, to date, I haven’t yet experienced!) at sunrise… Amazing, right? Well, take a look at these pictures and I’m sure you’ll agree!
The company that organised the tour is called Rotorway. Nick and the other bloggers were taken by bus to a park out of the city centre, where there’s a perfect place for a helicopter to take off and land. Tours last about 25 minutes and each helicopter can fit up to 6 people – a lucky one at the front right next to the pilot and others in the back.
Helsinki is a great place to enjoy from the air – especially in winter, when the city is covered in snow and the frozen sea doesn’t make it immediately clear where land ends and water begins. To make things even better, tours at typically around ‘sunrise’ – and in winter, at these latitudes, sunrise means around 9.30 am, so there’s no need for an early wake up. Great for sleepy heads like us!
Enjoy blini in January
Russia and Finland have a complicated relationship – unsurprisingly, considering that Russia ruled Finland for over 100 years. During this time, Finnish national identity awakened, until the country finally became independent after the end of WW1. Finland then went on to lose part of its territories to Russia at the end of WW2 – if you’re interested to know more about this matter, check out our post about Salla in Finnish Lapland.
In the early days of Modern Finland, Russia was seen as the great oppressor next door, and anything Russian was perceived as ‘bad’. For instance, anyone who’s been to Finland will be familiar with the Finns’ love for coffee. Some say that the Finns drink so much coffee because tea is the quintessentially Russian drink, so of course the Finns had to opt for something else. Yet, both Finns and Russians love vodka. Go figure.
If you visit Finland during the winter season, you may be surprised to find blini on the menu. Blini are a version of pancakes originating from Russia. They are thick and fluffy, smaller than usual pancakes, and traditionally served with fish roe and sour cream.
Blini are offered during the dark winter period, especially in January, to lend a festive atmosphere to the beginning of the year – they are soft and buttery, and traditionally served as a starter. Blini became popular in the 1990s – nobody really knows why, but does it matter? They’re delicious!
Have a sauna followed by an icy dip
If you have a Finnish friend or you’ve ever visited, you’ll be familiar with the country’s obsession with sauna – second only to their love for coffee. The Finns love relaxing with a sauna at the end of the day, and invite friends over for a sauna in the same way we invite people for dinner.
Most hotels and some apartment rentals will offer guests access to a sauna. Alternatively you can go to one of many public saunas in town, like Kaurila or Kotiharju, one of the last genuine wood-heated public saunas in Helsinki, open since 1928. If you prefer something more modern, opt for Kultuurisauna, an ecological design sauna heated with wood pellets and with separated areas for men and women.
We were lucky to be able to experience the ‘real deal’, spending a night at Helsinki’s Sauna Society, a members-only sauna located on the island of Lauttasaari, not far from the city centre. You need to be a member to access, but sometimes special evenings for groups can be arranged.
The Sauna Society has six saunas, ranging in temperature from 60° to a boiling 130°. Three of them are ‘smoke saunas’, the traditional kind, heated for several hours with a wooden fire. The sauna has ventilation but much of the soot remains on the walls, turning them black. I must say that after having experienced a smoke sauna, the hotel’s electric sauna doesn’t quite hit the spot anymore – just remember not to lean against the walls, or your skin will be covered in soot.
There’s only one way to end your Helsinki sauna experience the Finnish way, with an icy dip in the Baltic sea. The experience can be invigorating or downright painful, but it’s definitely something to brag about at home. The Sauna Society has an outdoor walkway leading towards a hole in the frozen sea – make sure you walk (or run) in your socks or slippers, because if you do so in your bare feet, they may stick to the frozen walkway. And that hurts. A lot.
Visit Nuuksio National Park
Helsinki locals are lucky to have an awesome national park right next to the city. Technically, Nuuksio National Park is closer to Espoo, Finland’s second-largest city, but being only 30 km away from Helsinki it’s very easy to plan an outing from the capital.
The symbol of Nuuksio National Park is the flying squirrel – they are very rare though, let alone in winter, when they slow down their activity to make up for the scarcity of food. In winter you’ll be able to explore Nuuksio’s paths with snowshoes or cross-country skis, enjoying the beautiful winter light for as long as you can, before retreating to a kota (teepee) for a cup of hot tea or juice.
We visited Nuuksio National Park one afternoon when the temperature dipped to -27°. A variety of activities had been organised for us – snowshoeing, meditation in the forest, even a walk with ‘mood rings’ to measure the effect that nature has on our mood. We opted for a trip on Altai skis, shorter and wider than typical cross-country skis, that can be strapped onto your hiking boots.
We were only able to resist to the bitter cold for one hour, before the sun set and the temperature dropped even further. That afternoon was nothing short of magical – the cold made everything still and beautiful, as if the world had fallen under a spell.
When the cold became too much at Nuuksio, we sought some warmth at Haltia, a newly-built exhibition centre dedicated to Finnish nature.
Haltia houses several exhibitions. We were also taken for a guided tour that explained the link between Haltia’s architecture and the Kalevala, the epic tale of Finland. In one room, we were surrounded by 360° videos of how Finnish nature changes during the year – from Northern lights to midnight sun, through the colours of winter and the blooms of spring.
Haltia also organizes nature-themed concerts and events – we were treated to a concert of a 12 year old musician who played a traditional Finnish instrument that seemed to resemble the sounds of nature.
In case you get hungry, Haltia also has an excellent restaurant offering the best of modern Finnish cuisine. This summer we’ll return to Haltia for another visit, so keep following us for more info on this awesome place!
Where to Stay in Helsinki in Winter (and also in Summer!)
Helsinki has the reputation of being a pricey city. As I said before, we didn’t find it as bad as we expected, but accommodation can seriously put a dent in your travel budget. Luckily, there are some deals out there – and Forenom Apartments is perhaps one of the best places in town to combine reasonable prices with a comfortable stay.
Forenom offers a range of serviced apartments, many of which are found in the Kamppi area of Helsinki, near the train station and lots of cool bars and cafes. Prices start from €73 per night, for a two-person apartment. That is about the same as a double room in a hostel, with shared bathroom! At Forenom, for that price, you’ll get a bedroom, living room with kitchen and your own bathroom.
The apartments are all very nicely decorated and we found ours very comfortable – there was a coffee machine for us to use, and Forenom had left some essentials for us like bread, cheese and fruit juice, so that we could enjoy breakfast every morning.
So, how does Forenom manage to offer such competitive prices? There’s no reception in the buildings and no staff on site. At the time of booking, you receive a door code to access the building, and another code to access your own apartment. There are no keys and no annoying keycards that always end up getting misplaced.
In case you need any assistance, Forenom staff can be contacted via telephone 24/7 – we had an issue that was solved in no time, so I can personally vouch for their excellent customer service.
We loved our stay with Forenom and highly recommend booking with them your next Helsinki stay!
Use the code BLOGLOVE you’ll receive a €10 discount on your accommodation until July 31st – trust me, you’ll love it!
Two Tips on how to Brave the Cold
Yes, Helsinki is chilly in winter. Temperatures can go down as low as -30°. We thought the cold lent an air of otherworldly magic to Helsinki, but if you’re not prepared or ready for it, it can indeed be difficult to bear.
So here’s our first tip – dress warm, and choose warm and comfortable shoes. We wore a ski jacket, fleece, a merino wool jumper, thermal underwear and tights, and cross-country ski pants. Forget glamour – you want warmth and practicality. The streets of Helsinki are often icy, so stilettos and anything with a smooth sole will send you flying on your booty. Opt for trekking shoes with a rugged sole.
If you’re heading to a meeting, a trade fair or anywhere where formal wear may be required, bring some extra shoes and change your outdoor shoes when you enter. There’s often a ‘shoe room’ in addition to the cloak room.
Second tip – batteries. The cold can seriously drain your batteries. That means that even if you have 90% battery left, if your device sits in the cold for too long, it will switch off out of the blue. And that can be seriously annoying, especially if you are relying on your phone for important info like your door code!
Solutions? Try to keep your phone next to your body, and keep other electronic devices out of the cold as much as possible. Always make sure you have a battery pack charged up to give your devices an ’emergency boost’ – you’ll often find that a few minutes charge is enough to restore power.
Do you have any other tips on what to do in Helsinki in winter? Let us know!
We visited Helsinki in winter 2015 and 2016 as part of the Nordic Bloggers Experience project. As always, all opinions are our own.
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