Spend a few days exploring Helsinki and you’ll discover that the Finnish capital city is comprised of a beautiful yet eclectic collection of buildings. It is a place where Art Nouveau meets modern minimalism, with many historic buildings reminiscent of both Swedish or Russian styles of architecture….or both! I arrived early to explore the city before NBE Finland and was so impressed by both Helsinki and Finland as a whole that I rented a place at Forenom so I could spend more time in Hel….sinki. Best decision ever! 😀
Much of the winter in Finland was as expected — cloudy, snowy and white…during those few precious hours of daylight, that is. The further north you go, the darker it gets. Relaxing and enjoyable, no doubt about that — at least for the tourists. And completely understandable why so many Finns choose the frozen winter months to flee for tropical weather, such as Southeast Asia.
Helsinki underneath a frozen blue sky….
Then one morning while watching the 9:30am sunrise I noticed it was a cloudless day. Perfect blue skies over Helsinki like I had never seen before. So I hit the streets with my A7Rii and basically ran all over town re-taking every photo and video I had shot while exploring Helsinki during previous weeks. Here’s a glimpse of the city plus info on what to do in Helsinki during winter:
Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
The beautiful and elaborate Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral in Helsinki is claimed to be the largest orthodox church in Western Europe (wikipedia)
150 years old this year! Helsinki’s Eastern Orthodox cathedral is the most beautiful building in the city and such an integral part of the city’s architecture that no trip to Helsinki is complete until you visit the ornate Uspenski Cathedral. Located on the western hilltop of Katajanokka near the South Harbour and SkyWheel, Uspenski is impossible to miss when coming across the bridge from downtown Helsinki.
Uspenski Cathedral is free to enter and open 7 days a week except “on Mondays during winter”….or in other words, about half of the year 😉
Not to be confused with the Uspenski Cathedral, the white Helsinki Cathedral is the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki. The cathedral took more than two decades to build and was originally known as St Nicholas’ Church. It is located on the northern side of the Senate Square, the oldest part of central Helsinki, next to the Government Palace and University of Helsinki.
Both Helsinki’s White Cathedral and Senate Square are popular meeting places for Helsinki locals and an obligatory stop for tourists eager to take photos. Trivia Fact: The opening sequence of Darude’s music video for “Sandstorm” was filmed at Senate Square and prominently features the Cathedral in the background. (wikipedia)
Free Helsinki Walking Tours
If exploring Helsinki history and architecture interests you, check out the FREE Helsinki Walking Tours every weekend. I did and it was much more entertaining (and educating) than just wandering around a strange new city by myself 😉 Plus the guides are all local volunteers with a wealth of knowledge of Finnish history.
Helsinki Central Market & Old Market Hall
When the outdoor Helsinki Central Market at Kauppatori (also known as Market Square) gets a bit too cold, head on down to the Old Market Hall just a few metres walk south. Dating back to 1889 — or so the building says — the Old Market Hall is full of vendors selling countless types of meat, cheese, wine, chocolates, deserts, vegetables, bread and other decadent pastries, including one shop that claims their cinnamon roll was voted “Best Cinnamon Roll in Helsinki” 😉
Do not come here hungry. The delicious mix of smells that greets you upon entering will make your mouth start watering.
Finnish National Theatre
Built just a few years after the Uspenski Cathedral, the Finnish National Theatre is almost 150 years old and still actively putting on performances. Sadly, much like the cathedral, I only admired the building from the outside and never saw the inside. Despite all the time I spent in Helsinki, never went to see a show here. Why?
The Finnish National Theatre is reportedly haunted by at least three ghosts! One is referred to the “Grey Lady” and the other two are former Finnish theatre stars — including the infamous Urho Somersalmi, who killed his wife with an axe he received from the Finnish Actors’ Union before hanging himself.
Needless to say, the Finnish Actors’ Union no longer gives axes to actors.
Crazy? No, just Finnish! And there’s more! 20 Awesome Things You Do Not Know About Finland
Even if going to the theatre is not for you, the Rautatientori ice-skating rink directly in front of it is a great stop for families with kids. Or just for people-watching. Just remember, the Ice Park is only open during the winter months, for obvious reasons 😉
More Photos Exploring Helsinki
Notice the “Art Is A Stance” and the “Eat Humans Not Animals” signs? 😉 Exploring Helsinki is always entertaining!
Ateneum Art Gallery
Ateneum is Helsinki’s art museum and one third of the Finnish National Gallery. Located on the southern side of Rautatientori, Ateneum is one of the first buildings I noticed after emerging from the Helsinki railway station. Although I prefer strange and unique museums, art museums are always a great way to learn more about the history and culture of a country. Sometimes you end up finding some really cool and crazy artwork, too. Plus I passed by it damn near every day I was in Helsinki. Eventually, I had to give it a go.
Turns out that Ateneum art museum is the largest collection of Finnish art in the world. The permanent collection alone is made up of over 5,000 paintings and sculptures documenting the history and evolution of Finnish artwork. Additionally, like all good art galleries, Ateneum constantly has new, rotating art exhibits and collections from around the world. Entry fee is only 15€ — if you’ve never been to Finland before, that’s basically what a Starbucks coffee costs. Art enthusiasts can check out the exhibition schedule on their web site.
Helsinki Central Station
Unless arriving in Finland via cruise ship or ferry, odds are that your gateway to the city will be Helsinki Central Station. It’s the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to get from HEL airport to the city center — just 5€ and 35 minutes. Although relatively small, the architecture is quite grand and it definitely feels much bigger inside.
Built in 1919 and about to turn 100, Helsinki Central was chosen as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations by BBC in 2013. Almost a quarter of a million people pass through Helsinki Central Station on a daily basis.
St. John’s Church
Finishing off the list of Helsinki’s top three historic churches/cathedrals is St. John’s Church. The youngest of the trio, it is only 125 years old and located on the southern side of Helsinki bordering the Design District.
One downside of exploring Helsinki in the winter is the limited amount of daylight. Sunrise was at 9:30am in the morning but six hours later and the sun was already setting. It made for one nice photo as I approached St. John’s Church, but within minutes the entire building was covered in shadows.
Having spent the entire day outside in negative temperatures and a short sleeve shirt, as soon as the sun set I rushed back to Clarion Hotel before freezing to death — and snapped one final photo as the last of the light was fading from the sky.
Helsinki ended up being a lot more fun than expected, which is a large part of why I stayed in Finland so much longer than expected. And why I’m eager to return again!