With the Moomins as national treasures, it makes perfect sense that the Finnish capital should be child-friendly, but geography also plays its part.
Helsinki's coastline wriggles to form gentle beaches and inlets, lapped by the blue-grey Baltic Sea. The coast is dotted with islands – one dominated by a fort, another by a zoo – and offers plenty of natural space where families can roam and explore.
Island-hopping by boat makes any trip more fun, and the city is light on traffic and easy to get around. Helsinki is a city that’s so calm, it’s a relaxing place to be even if your companions are overexcited and under 12.
Helsinki’s top child-friendly sights
Suomenlinna – the astounding island fortress
Taking a ferry is all part of the adventure of visiting the awesome Suomenlinna, an 18th-century fortress that straddles several islands connected by bridges. This is one of Helsinki’s major attractions, and a whole fantastical world in itself. The best area for kids is Kustaanmiekka, which has a wild, abandoned feel. Doorways lead to mysterious underground bunkers, a coastal path overlooks the sea, there are enormous cannons to climb over, and little bays with rock pools to investigate.
There are museums aplenty across the fort’s several islands, but the best ones for children include Vesikko, a beached WWII submarine that you can clamber aboard for a claustrophobic and thrilling glimpse into life underwater. Military museum Sotamuseo Maneesi has a replica underground bunker and some heavy military overcoats and tin helmets that kids both big and small will enjoy trying on. Lelumuseo is the islands’ toy museum, with lots of bears and dolls in glass cases, and several small play areas (including a tree with a slide) for younger kids.
Discovering the natural world
The Natural History Museum gives kids the chance to view dinosaur skeletons and a stuffed African elephant, as well as examine displays of different kinds of animal droppings or stroke a fox. Another top place to explore the wonders of nature is Gardenia (gardenia-helsinki.fi/en), a tropical garden which offers many different themed guided tours for children (mostly for the age range 5-12). They’ll get to look for treasure, hunt bugs or plant something to take home.
Out near the airport, in the Tikkurila district of Vantaa, Heureka! is a science museum that’s well worth the trip if you’re entertaining older kids. It makes learning about science truly wondrous, with lots of games, shows and activities, from the chance to pan for gold to a demonstration of rats playing basketball.
Fantastic animal-spotting, rides & playgrounds
Helsinki Zoo's animals, including red pandas, snow leopards, reindeer and hairy camels, live on their very own island, Korkeasaari (High Island), where peacocks wander freely, adding to the sense of wonder. It’s accessible by boat in summer (though buses also run here).
To the north of the city, Linnamäki & Sealife are located close to each other, so you can combine sparkling, thrilling fairground excitement with a trip to an aquarium that features tunnels through the tanks and around 200 species, from clownfish to sharks.
Helsinki is also well equipped with skateparks and playgrounds, including the centrally located, underground Helsinki Playground (en.leikkiluola.fi), complete with climbing wall and glow-in-the-dark ghost cave.
Flea markets, such as the one held in Hietalahti Market Square, are very popular in Finland. Markets take place regularly, offering a mix of boot-fair-style bric-a-brac and Russian artefacts from over the border, and older children will enjoy browsing around the stalls and learning the art of bargaining.
Helsinki City Museum: Children’s Town
The City Museum's Children's Town will reopen in 2016. This is the best place in town for imaginative play: kids can pretend to ride a horse and trap; sit at a school desk in a 1930s school classroom; and visit a grandma’s home from the 1970s, where adults can explain mysterious ancient devices such as the tape recorder and the rotary dial telephone.
Helsinki is flat and the pavements and streets are broad, so walking around with a stroller is straightforward, and it's easy to hop on and off trams for longer distances.
The airport bus 615/620 arrives at the city centre in 30-45 minutes, and efficient trams and buses make getting around simple. Ferries are another fun way to travel, with short hops across to neighbouring islands. A one-hour ticket for any of these costs €3/1.50 (adult/child aged 7-16).
When travelling with a child aged 0-6 years in a pram, stroller or wheelchair, you are entitled to free travel on trains, buses and trams, as well as on the metro and municipal ferry.
Sleeping & eating
Apartments are ideal for family stays, giving more room to spread out as well as the chance to self-cater. They're also more economical as prices in the Finnish capital are relatively high. Try City Apartments, Kotihotelli, Helsten Helsinki Parliament and SATO Hotelhome to look for short-term rentals. Rastila Camping is only 20 minutes by metro from the city centre, and offers cabins and bike hire, plus there's a beach nearby.
On the menu in Helsinki, as well as Finnish favourites such as cloudberries and smoked fish, there are lots of international options to please even the most fussy of palates. There are a few restaurants with play areas in the city, such as the 8th-floor café at Stockman department store. The Art Deco-styled Loiste, on the 10th floor of Sokos department store, also has a large (if windowless) playroom, with toys, playhouses and a couple of arcade games. A relaxing family choice in summer is Cafe Carusel, with seating right next to the waterfront and a kid-friendly menu of pizza and burgers.
The most enjoyable places to stock up for picnics (ideal for taking out on boat trips to the islands) are Helsinki’s traditional market halls, such as harbourside Vanha Kauppahalli.
Make it happen
Airlines such as Norwegian Air (norwegian.com), British Airways (britishairways.com), and Finnair (finnair.com) fly to Helsinki airport. Helsinki Tourist Office produces a handy 'Helsinki for Kids' map in Finnish, English or Russian.
For inspiration on how to keep your young explorers entertained whilst on the road – or at home – sign up to the Lonely Planet Kids newsletter.