Helsinki is a captivating city with an intriguing history, impressive architecture, innovative design and fantastic food. Light and airy in the summer and a snowy wonderland in winter, Finland's capital can be enjoyed year-round.
Like other Nordic countries, Helsinki is not generally considered to be an affordable destination, and it certainly can be pricey compared to other parts of the world. That doesn't mean Helsinki can't be enjoyed on a limited budget though, as there is plenty to see, do, and eat without breaking the bank.
The impressive Tuomiokirkko and statue of Tsar Alexander in Helsinki's Senaatintori (Senate Sq) on a snowy winter day © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet
Stroll in the heart of the city
Helsinki's city centre is compact, with scenic squares and streets perfect for discovering on foot. The heart of the city is Senaatintori (Senate Sq), overlooked by the impressive Tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral). Dramatically perched atop an immense staircase, the church is free to visit. It's framed on either side by lovely neoclassical buildings, while a statue of Tsar Alexander II stands watch in the middle of the square.
Only steps away is Helsinki's harbour, home to Kauppatori. This outdoor marketplace is open year-round, with stalls offering local products, souvenirs and food. From here, you can spot Uspenski Cathedral, an imposing Russian Orthodox church overlooking the harbour, which can also be visited for free. Also off Senate Sq is a series of shopping streets, lined with historic buildings and interesting statues like Kolme seppää (The Three Smiths), which bears damage from the Continuation War against the USSR in 1944.
A display of toys and games at Children's Town, part of the City Museum, Helsinki © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet
Discover local history
Take a journey through the city's past and present at the City Museum, which is free to visit and has several venues around Helsinki. The main museum at Senate Sq features exhibits like 'Helsinki Bites', which features glimpses at life in the city throughout history, while 'Children's Town' lets kids and grown-ups alike experience a school room from the 1930's, 'Grandma's House' from the 1970s, and Finnish toys through the years.
The Burgher's Home (open May to September) is also part of the City Museum and is about a kilometre away; it is the oldest wooden home in Helsinki and furnished in the style of the 19th century. Meanwhile, the Tram Museum in the Töölö neighbourhood follows the 100-year history of trams in the city.
If you want to learn more about Finland's history, the National Museum is free to visit every Friday from 4pm to 6pm.
Local Finnish products on sale at Kauppatori (Old Market Hall) © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet
Savour the local flavours at the markets
Though a relatively small city, Helsinki has no fewer than three market halls in the city centre. They're wonderful places to explore and to get an affordable taste of local foods. The Old Market Hall sits next to Kauppatori on the shores of the harbour. This historic market's wooden stalls offer unique items like reindeer chips, bear sausage and smoked fish, as well as chocolate, honey and handicrafts.
Hietalahti Market Hall is a 115-year-old food hall popular with workers on their lunch break and offers a range of cuisines from French to Filipino. The weekday lunch special of handmade noodles with teriyaki salmon at Tokyo Street is a mouth-watering steal at €10.
Just north of the centre, Hakaniemi Market has a very local feel, with stalls offering fresh produce like meats and cheeses, as well as handicrafts, clothing and gifts, alongside cafes and bakeries. Soppakeittiö (Soup Kitchen), known for its delicious and affordable soups including Finland's famous salmon soup, can be found at all three markets.
The calm interior of Temppeliaukio Church (the Rock Church), Helsinki © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet
Marvel at the architecture and design
From the engaging sculptures of the art nouveau central train station to the imposing columns of the neoclassical Parliament House and the flowing glass of the modernist Finlandia Hall, intriguing architecture is around every corner in Helsinki. The city is also home to two unique churches: Temppeliauko (entry €3), also known as the Rock Church, which was built into solid rock and features a dramatic copper dome, and the Kamppi Chapel of Silence (free entry), a wooden pod-like structure designed to provide a peaceful retreat for visitors.
Wander the Katajanokka neighbourhood to take in historic homes, and the Design District to window shop for Finnish brands such as Aalto, Marimekko and Artek.
Esplanadi Park runs through the centre of Helsinki © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet
Get some fresh air
Whether it's sunny summer or snowy winter, Helsinki's parks are an ideal place to go for a stroll and enjoy nature. Esplanadi, a charming green space with walkways and statues and lined with gorgeous historic buildings housing cafes and shops, runs through the heart of Helsinki. It's a popular spot with locals and is often the site of events and concerts.
Sibelius Park, by the seaside in the Töölö neighbourhood, is named for famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The park's centrepiece is the unusual monument in his memory, an abstract sculpture made up of 600 pipes creating a wave representing Sibelius' music, as well as a large likeness of the composer's face. The piece is a kinetic sculpture which creates music as the wind blows across the tubes.
Stone archways inside Suomenlinna's fortress walls, Helsinki © Risto0 / Shutterstock
Head to Suomennlina, the island fortress
Hop on a ferry departing from Market Square on Helsinki's harbour and set sail for Suomenlinna, a former fortress that's now a Unesco World Heritage Site. The journey takes 15 minutes and costs €3.20 each way; Suomennlina itself is free to visit.
The six connected islands are open year-round and are the perfect spot to enjoy a hike or a picnic, explore the fortress' old tunnels, and visit the museums and restaurants, including a brewery. In the summer months, the last ferry returns to Helsinki at 2am.
Helsinki's Mumin Kaffe is themed around Tove Jansson's 'Moomins' characters © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet
Enjoy cafe culture
It's not only Helsinki's markets that offer delicious local food at an affordable price, but its many cafes do as well. Cafe Engel boasts an incredible view of Helsinki Cathedral from its cosy dining room, but the prices are surprisingly affordable for its tourist-friendly location. The generous serving of meatballs with lingonberries and mashed potato is a hearty and tasty meal for under €15.
Themed cafes also offer surprising quality and value. Drop into the Fazer Cafe for breakfast, pastries and of course the famous Karl Fazer chocolates, or pay a visit to the charming Mumin Kaffe, named for the famous Finnish children's stories by Tove Jansson. Longstanding Helsinki favourites Esplanad and Ekberg are also great cafes for a light meal, and a weekday lunch special can be had at Cafe Aalto for around €10.
For a budget-friendly and authentic restaurant meal, head to Ravintola Nokka in Katajanokka on weekdays for its farm lunch special, featuring local ingredients like reindeer, moose, salmon and cloudberries.