Helsinki is a vibrant young European capital with beautiful architecture and a thriving design district. The center is compact, and even if you just have one day in Helsinki, you can cover most of the highlights. Read on to discover the best things to do in Helsinki in one day!
Helsinki was founded by Swedish King Gustav I in 1550, to compete for the lucrative Baltic sea trade. But it didn’t really develop into a port of authority. When Finland was taken over by Russia in the early 1800s, Helsinki was made the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland.
Under Russia’s dominance, the German architect Carl L. Engel was tasked with building out Helsinki in the mold of St. Petersburg, resulting in a lot of the neoclassical architecture you see in Helsinki. Finland eventually achieved independence in 1917, and Helsinki became its capital.
Situated on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, in the south of the country, Helsinki is actually an archipelago, made up of 300+ islands! We loved our visit to the “White City of the North,” even though our time in the city was brief. You will love visiting Helsinki too, so if you are wondering if Helsinki should be on your itinerary for Northern Europe, don’t hesitate to add it!
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN HELSINKI IN ONE DAY
If you are wondering what there is to see and do in Helsinki, get ready for a full day of eclectic sights and activities! From churches to markets and historic squares to great restaurants, Finland’s capital city makes for an exciting day of sightseeing.
Here are the highlights you should consider for your itinerary, to make the most of your one day in Helsinki.
#1 Take a Guided City Bus Tour
Start your Helsinki sightseeing with a guided panoramic bus tour of the city. You can independently book a Hop-On Hop-Off tour or other guided city bus tour. Keep in mind that the Hop-On Hop-Off tour operates only between May and September. If you are visiting Helsinki as part of a cruise, book a city tour excursion offered by your cruise line.
Your guided Helsinki tour by bus will offer a quick glimpse into the major attractions in the city, along with a commentary that acclimates you to the history and context of what you are seeing. It’s the ideal way to begin your day! You will likely pass by the gleaming white Opera House, the National Museum of Finland, Finlandia Hall (Alvar Aalto’s concert hall), and the Helsinki Central train station, with its impressive Art Nouveau architecture by Eliel Saarinen.
The bus tour is a great way to get a look at the outstanding architecture that’s everywhere in the city, as well as the neighborhoods and the pretty green spaces and waterfront.
HELSINKI TRAIN STATION
But if bus tours aren’t your thing, walk to the Helsinki Central Station to begin your day. Helsingin päärautatieasema is both impressive and historic, and you will want to take photos of the gorgeous facade. The station actually has a special entrance reserved for the President of Finland and guests of the President!
Rautatientori Square, the square just adjacent to the station, is beautiful. Along this square, you will find the Finnish National Theater building and the Ateneum classical art museum, in addition to the train station. The square is not just beautiful but functional as well: it serves as a second bus station for the city.
If you go: Helsingin päärautatieasema, Kaivokatu 1, 00100 Helsinki, Finland
#2 Admire the Sibelius Monument
The Sibelius Monument is definitely a must-see on your one day in Helsinki! Sculpted by Eila Hiltunen, the monument is dedicated to Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer. Sibelius is credited with being the most acclaimed composer Finland has ever produced.
If you do not know the story behind the monument, a competition was held to determine who would design the memorial, and Hiltunen won. (The designs for many buildings in Helsinki were chosen based on competitions). Hiltunen’s design featured a large number of hollow organ pipes, and was criticized as not being relevant to the music of Sibelius. Hiltunen added a sculpture of the face of the composer nearby in response to the criticism.
Walk around close to and under the hollow organ pipes that make up the sculpture, to appreciate it from all angles. I thought it was a lovely contemporary design, in harmony with the young vibe of the Finnish capital.
Sibelius Park, where the memorial is located, is beautiful, especially if you visit it when the flowers are in bloom.
The Sibelius Monument is a little out of the historic part of the city. If you do a bus tour, it will most likely stop at the memorial. Otherwise, you can take a tram or a bus from the city center to Sibelius Park.
If you go: Sibelius Monument, Sibeliuksen puisto, Mechelininkatu, 00250 Helsinki, Finland
#3 Visit the Temppeliaukio Church or the Kamppi Chapel
The Temppeliaukio Church, also known as the Rock Church, is built directly into the rock, and has a copper and glass dome. The church only opened in 1969, so it is a recent addition to the landmarks in Helsinki.
The design of Rock Church is also the result of a competition: the third of three competitions held for the purpose. A design was chosen after competition number two, but construction was abandoned when World War II broke out. In the early 1960s, the Suomalainen brothers won competition number three. The structure was finally built, but much scaled down from the original design.
You will love the unique location and architecture of the church. The organ is stunning. If you visit in the morning on a sunny day, you will be awed by the shadow effects from the sunlight streaming in through the windows.
There is a small entrance fee. The Rock Church is one of the attractions included in the Helsinki Card. From the Sibelius Monument, the Rock Church is a 20-minute walk, or you can take the tram.
If you go: Temppeliaukio Church, Lutherinkatu 3, 00100 Helsinki, Finland
Closer to the railway station is the very contemporary Kamppi Chapel of Silence. The architecture is stunning, and inside, there are no formal services: it is just a haven for silence and contemplation for anyone that chooses to enter. Isn’t that a lovely idea?
If you go: Kamppi Chapel, Simonkatu 7, 00100 Helsinki, Finland
#4 Be awed by the Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral is brilliant white, topped with green domes. It sits atop a flight of steps, looking down upon Senate Square. Your one day itinerary for Helsinki should definitely include an exploration of Helsinki’s Cathedral!
Built in the first half of the 19th century, the Helsinki Cathedral is one of the most recognizable sights in Helsinki and a striking example of Neoclassical architecture. If you approach Helsinki from the water, the domes of the Helsinki Cathedral dominate the skyline of the city.
The church was designed by Carl Engel, as were some of the other buildings on Senate Square. Engel was still working on the project when he died. Engel’s design was modified by his successor, Ernst Lohrmann. It was Lohrmann who added the four small domes to the large dome, to make it look more like St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
I love the interior of this cathedral, done in pristine white. It is elegant and uncluttered, with just a few touches of color for interest.
After your visit, sit for a few minutes on the steps and enjoy the sights and sounds of Senate Square from your vantage point. It’s a great place to people watch, or see the sea birds swooping down from the domes, or just enjoy the sun if you visit on a nice weather day.
If you go: Helsinki Cathedral, Unioninkatu 29, 00170 Helsinki, Finland
#5 Admire the architecture at Senate Square
After you visit the cathedral, take some time to stroll around Senate Square to view the architecture. Here you will find the Government Palace, the University of Helsinki main building, and Sederholm House. Sederholm House is the oldest building in the historic center of Helsinki. It was built in the mid 18th century.
The statue in the square is of Emperor Alexander II. Stand near the statue for the best sound experience if you are here when the carillon sounds a little before 6 p.m.
The square is not just one of the most popular Helsinki attractions, it is used for all kinds of events. The day we visited, military exercises were happening, with tanks and military personnel everywhere. Much of the square was cordoned off, so we had to return later in the day to take photos. Concerts and exhibitions are often held in the square.
There are lots of cafes on the square if you wish to sit for a little while and enjoy a drink.
#6 Browse the stalls at Market Square
Your cruise bus excursion will likely end with some free time at Helsinki’s lively waterfront Market Square. If you are visiting independently, Market Square is an easy walk from Senate Square. It’s also the place from where the ferry to Suomenlinna departs.
You will love browsing Helsinki’s Market Square, by the water. Called Kauppatori, the square features a number of stalls selling produce, flowers, prepared foods, and souvenirs. You’ll find lots of jewelry, clothing, and local crafts. If you enjoy observation wheels, take a ride on the Helsinki Skywheel for panoramic views over the city.
If you look across from the Market Square, you will see the City Hall, which houses the Virka Art Gallery, and the President’s Palace, one of the three official residences of the Finnish President. You may find the facade of the Presidential Palace simple as palaces go, but it’s a pleasing building nevertheless, with a lovely yellow exterior.
If it’s raining when you visit, try the Hakaniemi Market Hall in place of the outdoor market. The bottom floor features foods and the top floor has souvenir shops. This market is not open on Sundays.
If you go: Kauppatori, Eteläranta, 00170 Helsinki, Finland
#7 Marvel at the Uspenski Cathedral
The red Uspenski Cathedral, located on a hill on the Katajanokka island, is just a few minutes walk from Market Square. It is as completely different from the Helsinki Cathedral as the proverbial chalk from cheese! The Russian Orthodox cathedral was completed in 1868 and today is one of the most visited Helsinki attractions.
The exterior of the Uspenski Cathedral is impressive, with its red brick facade, green roof, and gold onion domes. Uspenski Cathedral is reported to be the largest orthodox church in western Europe. It looks fabulous from the water as you approach the shore.
It’s worth climbing up all those steps to view the ornate interior of the church, which features many valuable icons and artwork. There is gold everywhere! The views from the hilltop are beautiful as well.
If you visit during a service, prepare to be awed by the hundreds of candles lit inside the church. The ambience is just amazing.
If you go: Uspenski Cathedral, Kanavakatu 1, 00160 Helsinki, Finland
#8 Explore Suomenlinna fortress
The highlight of our one day in Helsinki was our visit to the little group of islands that houses Suomenlinna, a historic maritime fortress complex. Suomenlinna was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, and it should definitely be on your list when planning what to do in Helsinki in one day.
Construction of the complex began in the middle of the 18th century, when Sweden felt the need to ramp up defenses in Finland to ward off Russia. At the time, it was called the Viapori fortress, After the Russians gained control of Viapori in 1808, they expanded the complex to include barracks for soldiers and an Orthodox church. The Finns named the complex Suomenlinna, the Castle of Finland, when they took control in 1918.
TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT TO SUOMENLINNA
Today, Suomenlinna is one of the most popular attractions in Finland. It is easily accessible, but only by water! Walk up to the ferry terminal in Market Square and buy return tickets. The ferry runs once to four times per hour, depending on the time of year.
The ferry ride takes about 15-20 minutes. On the way in, choose a seat that faces Suomenlinna, so you can see the complex as you approach. On the way back, sit facing Market Square, so you can get beautiful photos of the shoreline, the Helsinki Cathedral, the red Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the Helsinki Skywheel from the water. You’ll love the beautiful views from the ferry!
You could easily spend several hours here, but allow at least an hour to wander around and see the sights at Suomenlinna. Don’t miss King’s Gate and Suomenlinna Church. The church originally had the onion domes characteristic of Russian churches, but not any more.
There are six museums on the little archipelago! Only one, the Suomenlinna Museum, is open all year. If you have the time, pop in to learn about the history of the place. There is an entrance fee for each museum, but none to visit the complex.
There are restaurants and cafes on Suomenlinna, if you want a break for a bite to eat or a drink.
Allow about two hours total at a minimum for your visit, more if you plan to visit one or more museums.
For more information and a current ferry/water bus schedule: Suomenlinna
#9 Stroll down the Esplanadi
Continue your day in Helsinki with a walk down Helsinki’s major boulevard, the Esplanadi. It connects Market Square with the city center and is lined with beautiful buildings. You’ll find it busy, especially on a good weather day, but it’s a great place for window shopping, strolling with an ice cream cone in your hand, and people watching.
The Esplanadi Park is a lovely place to sit down if you need a break. There are lots of benches, and bars and cafes where you can get a drink and relax for a little while. The park was designed by Carl Engel and has been open since 1818.
The street is lined with high-end stores such as Marimekko and Iittala. Marimekko is the iconic textiles and fabrics label out of Helsinki, and Iittala is a Finnish design brand known for contemporary tableware and cookware. At the end of the Esplanadi is the iconic Stockmann department store. It’s a landmark in Helsinki. The basement supermarket is supposed to be wonderful.
Stop to see the Three Blacksmiths statue, sculpted by Felix Nylund, right outside the store. Story has it that if a virgin walks by, the blacksmiths will strike the anvil!
If you go: Esplanadi Park, Pohjoisesplanadi, 00101 Helsinki, Finland
#10 Delve a little deeper into design!
Although you can pop into iconic stores like Marimekko along the Esplanadi, you can do a more extensive tour of Helsinki’s vibrant design district if you enjoy browsing or you want to buy Finnish design products. Download a current map in advance if you plan to explore, to maximize your time.
The Design District in Helsinki spans 25 streets and has more than 200 members! A guided Design Walk is offered each Saturday morning. If you enjoy retail therapy on your vacations, be warned, you will not ever want to leave!
In the Design District, you can visit the Design Museum, and any number of galleries, stores, and workshops. From furniture to fashion, and jewelry to arts and crafts, you will find a lot to discover.
If you go: Helsinki Design District, Punavuorenkatu 7, 00120 Helsinki, Finland
Getting to Helsinki
Helsinki is connected by ferry with nearby cities. From Tallinn in Estonia, you can get to Helsinki in two hours by fast ferry. The Helsinki-Tallinn ferry route is served by three companies.
You can also travel to Helsinki from Stockholm in Sweden, or from St. Petersburg in Russia. The ferry ride from Stockholm is a 16-hour overnight journey, but the Tallink Silja Line offers comfortable accommodation and you will not want to miss the views on the journey.
Book ferry tickets in advance for cheaper fares.
Of course, Helsinki is also connected by air with airports all over Europe and beyond. Finnair, Finland’s own airline, has Helsinki as its hub and offers connections to numerous destinations worldwide.
Where to stay in Helsinki
For lovers of luxury, you cannot beat Hotel Kamp, Helsinki’s top 5-star hotel. Situated centrally, Hotel Kamp offers stunning rooms and suites with classic furnishings and marble bathrooms. This historic hotel should definitely be your top choice in Helsinki!
Hotel Fabian is ultra contemporary, with fabulous bathrooms and trendy furnishings. And its location, near Market Square, is close to many major attractions!
If you love water views, consider Hotel Haven, which overlooks Helsinki Harbor. The rooms are luxurious, the decor elegant, and they serve afternoon tea on Fridays and Saturdays!
Where to eat in Helsinki
For dinner with a local flair, visit Olo Ravintola. The restaurant boasts a Michelin star and is located a short 5-minute taxi ride from the center. They feature set tasting menus as well as à la carte options. Try the famous salmon soup as a starter course. The goat cheese salad is awesome. They accommodate vegetarians and vegans. Advance reservations are recommended.
For a taste of korvapuusti, the Finnish cardamom-flavored pastry, visit Fleuriste. For a quick lunch, sample the offerings at the Kauppatori Market, or enjoy a more relaxed meal at one of the waterfront cafes. You can also try the basement food hall at Stockmann for a wide variety of delectable savory and sweet offerings. Try leipäjuusto, the Finnish cheese that’s fried or baked and served with jam.
The best time to visit Helsinki
Summer months offer mild weather and are the best months to visit Helsinki. We visited in late May and it was perfect: balmy weather with lots of sunshine. June is a great month to visit as well. July is the month Finns take their vacations so you might have to deal with higher prices and some business closures. And in August and September, you have to deal with a higher probability of rain.
The Helsinki Card
If you plan to do the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour or visit museums, you may want to investigate the Helsinki card. It’s available for 24, 48, or 72 hours, and includes both admissions to several Helsinki attractions as well as transport and the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour or a panorama bus tour. The Design Museum, the Rock Church, and the ferry to Suomenlinna are all included.
So there you have it: my recommendations for the best things to do in one day in Helsinki. We loved our visit to this beautiful Northern Europe city, and hope to return soon for a longer stay.
Have you visited Helsinki? How did you like the young capital of Finland? Comment below to respond. If you have not visited yet, I hope you will place it on your itinerary for your next visit to Northern Europe!
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Photo Credit, Rock Church: Guillaume Baviere from Copenhagen, Denmark – 2010-01-09, CC BY 2.0