In March I spent a week staying in an apartment in Helsinki in my best attempts to experience it like a local.
If you travel as much as I do and you are a giant homebody on the inside like me, you really value unpacking your suitcase for a week and tossing your crap absolutely everywhere. I like to think of myself as almost a turtle traveler – I like to take it as slow and mellow as possible. What’s the rush? You’ll miss the best bits.
After I spent a week exploring Lapland in the Arctic Circle, I was beyond stoked to put my feet up and kick back and relax in Helsinki. And while you can’t really ignore the more well-known tourist attractions in Finland, I did my best to see what else this metropolis had to offer beyond saunas and reindeer soup – because trust me, there is SO much more to Helsinki than what you might imagine. I spent my days wandering around the different neighborhoods, following my nose wherever it led me and peeping inside every cute cafe and colorful shop I could find.
I was curious to see what I could find out on my own about Helsinki and see what made the capital of Finland tick. Spoiler alert, Helsinki is full of surprises. Here are my best Helsinki travel tips.
Check out 10 things that surprised me about Helsinki. Enjoy!
1. Helsinki is a city of design
Helsinki was named the world design capital a few years ago and also awarded the City of Design by UNESCO. I nodded and smiled the first time I heard that, and thought to myself “what does that even mean?” Luckily, it took less than an hour of wandering around downtown to start to get it.
It’s trendy. It’s creative. It’s beautiful. There are so many designers and shops around with the most exquisite pieces and it seems that all of the food spots and bars are designed as perfect as possible. Thank you credit cards!
From canvas printed bags to Finnish style homewares to furniture to ALL the clothes, like the famous brand Marimekko, everyone here has an eye for design. I really loved Makia, a local brand that makes great winter gear, especially beanies and I totally splurged on amazing stationary and notebooks at Papershop. I love buying a few local things when I travel, and in Helsinki I had to ship a box home with goodies like hand printed pillowcase covers and even a reindeer pelt. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been feeling very domestic lately. Help.
2. The amazing cafes I never wanted to leave
Helsinki has no shortage of really quirky and hip cafes. Whether you are grabbing cake and a coffee at a bakery cafe that seems to not have changed in 100 years to a place so minimalist and trendy you could probably be in Brooklyn, you won’t be bored. So many of them have wifi and are cozy places you don’t mind spending hours tucked away reading or working on your laptop hiding from the frosty winter air.
When I travel now I always work so I really love good cafe spaces with free fast internet to hide away in. Not to mention they are inspiring spaces to work in. One afternoon I tucked up in the window of a cafe called Andante after getting lost in the Design District for hours. It’s a flower shop slash cafe so you can sit back and literally smell the roses while you relax.
Johan & Nyström is another cafe that I spent a lot of time in. Right on the water, its location is fab and the space will blow you away. There are so many cozy corners to hide away in and write for hours. Plus they do a perfect flat white which makes me love them even more.
Another spot I just have to mention is a juice and smoothie bar called Why Join The Navy When You Can Be A Pirate. Best. Name. Ever.
3. Introverted and quiet
This is probably my favorite thing I loved about Finland – if I had to describe the main personality trait there, it would probably be introverted and fairly quiet. People talk here when they have something to say. There is not stupid chit chat, no pointless banter, no personal space issues. Just glorious silence and mild awkwardness. End of story.
And yes, I’ve finally found my people!
While you might not believe I’m naturally introverted, let me assure you, I am. I don’t like people and I love to be alone and quiet. I’d be a hermit if I could. I hate when someone sits next to me on a bus and I avoid eye contact when I can. Though I do like hugs. If you’re like that then start packing your bags and move to Finland.
Check out Finnish Nightmares on Facebook to see what I mean.
4. Foodie scene
Again, I feel really embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t expecting Helsinki to have a great food scene. It wasn’t that I wasn’t expecting it to be bad, I just didn’t really think about it at all. But let me tell you, not only is it great, it’s pretty amazing! Like I would go back to Helsinki just to eat. If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will.
I was lucky enough to be in town during their annual Streat Helsinki street food festival too and boy oh boy was I in for a treat. While I managed to keep my diet more or less under control in the weeks leading up to it in Europe, it was out the window at the first Mexican food truck burger I got my hands on. From a day of street food trucks lined up downtown to different grills style outdoor sessions on some of the islands to evening master chef meals, to say I ate well in Helsinki was an understatement.
I was also lucky that I had local blogger Kathrin from Luminoucity to show me the best spots to chow down!
5. So many islands
There’s something like over 300 islands around the Helsinki area which is pretty amazing. It means you are never far from the sea and nature is just a stone’s throw away, so I count that as pretty unique and amazing for a big European capital.
While everyone usually heads over to Suomenlinna, a fortress island in Helsinki, I decided to go to the lesser-known Seurasaari, a small island connected by a bridge filled with historical Finnish houses. It’s an open air museum in summer, but in winter it’s closed so you can just explore on your own.
Staying warm in my Parajumpers winter jacket
6. East meets west
Another reason I really liked Helsinki was because to me it felt like a place that straddles both East and West. You can see all kinds of Russian and European influence in the architecture there.
7. Great coffee culture
Finland is one of the biggest coffee consumers in the world. Speaking as one who has a serious-borderline-obsessive addiction to the bean, I felt right at home. If I’m completely honest here, I found the coffee in Lapland left a lot to be desired, but Helsinki more than made up for it. You actually have to TRY to find bad coffee.
Pretty much no matter where I walked around Helsinki, I was sure of finding not only good, but exceptional coffee in a cute and cozy cafe. If that doesn’t bump a city up to my favorites list, I don’t know what will!
8. All of the colorful buildings
I don’t think I am alone when I admit that when I pictured Helsinki before, it was gray. I think there is a misconception because of the long winters, northern climate combined with its relative closeness to the former Soviet Union that people expect Finland to not be bright and colorful, but trust me, they’re wrong.
While I was in Helsinki I spent some time hanging out with local bloggers and photographers, like Omar El Mrabt. We spent an afternoon exploring some of the secret suburbs and wandering around his favorite spots as he showed me the colorful side to Helsinki that he loves.
However, don’t expect the locals to be dolled up in all colors. At least the winter fashion consists of a rainbow of navy, black and gray with the chance of seeing a blond American girl in a bright red Parajumpers parka.
9. Awesome museums
Helsinki has some pretty cool museums. Being a total nerd at heart, I really value my museum time, so I was stoked to spend my winter days getting lost among the exhibits. My favorite museum was the Sinebrychoff, a historic house museum downtown filled with old European master paintings, my favorite. Epic landscapes in an epic setting, I was in heaven!
I spent another afternoon learning about the history of Finland at the National Museum.
10. Helsinki is one big secret – shhh!
I feel like Helsinki is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. It’s not overrun yet with tourists and still has a great local and creative vibe to it. If you love that destination, head to Finland. Enjoy!
Have you ever been to Finland or Helsinki? Does a design focused city appeal to you?