Helsinki is many things but what you'll find about the Finnish capital is that it's 100% friendly and easy to explore. From the boulevards, green spaces, magnificent architecture, and the dotted archipelago that were splashed into the Baltic Sea, this is a city you'll fall in love with so much that you wish you could stay longer – at least that's how I felt!
The last time I was in Scandinavia was when I studied in Lund, Sweden and once I stepped off the plane, I felt at home again. There's something about being in this part of Europe that is so refreshing. The only remorse I had with this 3 day Helsinki itinerary was that I wish I had more time before the start of the PING Helsinki conference.
Helsinki is quirky. Helsinki is pristine. Helsinki is a haven for design. Helsinki is naturally beautiful.
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Where to stay in Helsinki?
Here's what we're covering:
- The 3 Day Helsinki Itinerary
- What I loved about the Helsinki Card?
- Where Did I Stay?
- Map of Helsinki in 3 Days
In search for a cost-effective way to see all the main sights in the city, I stumbled upon the Helsinki Card and the 72 hour pass including transportation to and from the airport with the Region Upgrade. I'm normally not one to use city passes but it provided access to all the places I wanted to visit. I made it a mini-challenge for myself when I landed in the city – how much could I see while the card was active and how much money could I save?
What's a Helsinki Card?
It turned out to be way simpler than I ever thought it could be. It's a tap-friendly card that once you activate, gives you access to all transit in the city and can be scanned to get you into many of the attractions for free. For 74 EUR, keep on reading to find out if it was worth it!
The 3 Day Helsinki Itinerary
Here's a detailed view of what I did in Helsinki and how I managed to squeeze in as much as I did.
Day 1 – Let's See What Can Do With A Few Hours
Upon arrival in Helsinki's international airport, I made my way down to the basement level at a place called Airpro. When ordering my Helsinki Card, there were options to mail it but since I had ordered pretty last minute, the pick-up at the airport option made the most sense. All I had to do was show my printout of my voucher and the attendant was able to find my card all set up and ready to go.
The Helsinki Card also comes with a few books and pamphlets which I know is advertised as freebies but to be honest they're nothing different from the types of books that you can get at the visitor centre. That said, it was nice to have it all in hand which allowed to hit the road right away.
Since I landed in Helsinki mid-afternoon, I knew that there wasn't much time to fit anything but I was determined to not let the day go to waste!
I found my way to the train and since I had added the “Region Upgrade” to my card (74 EUR total), I could take the train all the way from the airport since it's not considered to be in the core Helsinki zone. I just tapped my card at the little blue machine and my 72 hour clock started.
With my bags with me, my first order of business was to drop them off at the aparthotel I was staying at (more on that below).
Funny thing is that I was all sorts of confused trying to find the Forenom, but I was at first a little confused how to get there because there is a subway and there's also the tram. I took the metro to get there but soon learned that the city's tram system is much more expansive and provided route flexibility than the subway.
Taking a look at all the free activities that are included with the Helsinki Card, I spotted that there was one museum that was open late and that turned out to be the museum of contemporary art, the Kiasma (official website for Kiasma).
Even though I only had 2 hours to see the whole museum, I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I especially loved photographing and filming the foyer that was built to combine the design aspects of light, shadows, lines, and curves. All of the installations were incredibly captivating and mind boggling at the same time.
I stayed until the museum closed at 8PM and then made my way over to Cafe Bar No. 9 where I had the most unique Pollo Limonello pasta.
HEADS UP: Once you tap your card for the first time, your card is activated.
HEADS UP: For tram, metro, or train transit, look out for the tiny kiosk machines. It's all honour system in Helsinki so just tap before you get on.
Day 2 – I See A Fortress
Like what I did there with the header? See…Sea? Okay, I tried!
Before coming to Helsinki and doing any research, I had no idea about the history of everything the now-independent country of Finland had gone through through the ages. My favourite part of the trip was hands down the second day where I got to take a short ferry over to the island of Soumenlinna, often referred to a Sea Fortress. Of course the ferry ride was just a simple tap and I was on.
Soumenlinna is set on a cluster of islands that are part of Helsinki's archipelago off its coastline and as I learned from the guided tour and museum that were all free thanks to the Helsinki Card, resulted in the building up of Helsinki as a city, and besides Gibraltar is biggest fortress in Europe.
I spent a good 4-5 hours on the island, starting from one end and making my way down all the way to the southern tip which is where the fortifications can be found. The Soumenlinna official website is handy so take a look before you go.
In the middle of the grounds is the Soumenlinna Museum (8 EUR) which is where I used my card to gain access to the museum that had a well-produced film about its history. This is also the meeting point for the walking guided tour (11 EUR). This was a more interactive way to see portions of the island where our English-speaking guide talked us through what life was like on the island centuries ago.
Unfortunately the Military Museum and Submarine Vesikko were closed since it wasn't quite summer season yet.
Back at Market Square which was filled pop up stalls, I wandered aimlessly and grabbed a ton of great photos of harbour including the ferris wheel.
The one thing I remarked was just how so many Finns were out in the sun, grabbing a coffee or sipping on wine on, picnicking, sunbathing, or swimming in the Allas Sea Pool. You'd think it was 30 degrees C out there but it was only 16 degrees C. They sure take advantage of warmer weather like it's nobody business.
As the sun continued to stay hovered above the sky with the already long days of May, I walked over to Senate Square to sit on the steps of Helsinki Cathedral, to watch all the people come and go in the square.
To try something a little different, I took the tram up to BLINIt, a restaurant specializing in Russian crepes called Blini which was remarkably good.
HEADS UP: I couldn't believe how long the days were in May. Sunrise was easily before 5AM and the sun lingered to around 10:30PM which is great because it gives you a lot of time to explore the city.
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Day 3 – Cruising The Canals
One of the bigger valued items that is included in the Helsinki Card is the Canal Route Cruise by Helsinki Sightseeing so I planned around making it to the 10:30AM departure time.
In an hour and a half, this boat cruise takes you on a loop that passes through more islands that make up the archipelago. Going beyond Soumenlinna, it was incredible to see how you could literally go from the city to islands of wilderness and islands made up of cottage properties and sail boats. The other highlight was seeing the icebreakers stationed in Helsinki. Turns out, the Finns have made this a niche of sorts and build many of the world's icebreakers.
The only problem was that it was insanely windy and cold up at the top. I toughed it out for the whole cruise but I was definitely not prepared for the teeth cutting wind.
With this being my last full day on my own, I still had so many other spots I wanted to hit up so after returning from the cruise, I jumped on the Hop On Hop Off bus (30 EUR) at the stop near Market Square.
Like everything else, everyone knew what to do with the Helsinki Card. When I boarded the bus, the driver pulled out his mini barcode scanner, scanned my card, and that was it!
With Hop On Hop Off, I was able to visit the beautiful neighbourhood of Eira, the Rock Church, the Bad Bad Boy statue/fountain, and Sibelius Monument. This was actually the first time I've ever done one of these busses but I have to say, it was super convenient to see all of these things in the span of 4 hours. It gets you to all the things you want to see without having to figure out all the different trams you have to connect to make it work.
The most impressive out of all of these sights was definitely the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Church) (3 EUR). I'm normally not that easily impressed by churches but this one dug out of solid rock and its copper dome, exposed rocks, and concrete beams is truly an architectural marvel.
I closed my day at the Design Museum (12 EUR). Despite only having one hour before closing time, there museum wasn't overwhelmingly large so I had plenty of time to see all the various exhibits. For me, the Design Museum reinforced Helsinki and Finland as a leader in modern design where I learned that almost all the iconic contemporary minimalist furniture that I can conjure up all originated here. Oh and I also had no idea that those orange scissors by Fiskars that I grew up with at school were also created in Finland.
For dinner, I tried the “In-N-Out of Finland”, Friends & Brgrs (check out their menu). My honest opinion is that the burgers were very good but they still have a bit of work to do with their fries which were a bit over-fried.
HEADS UP: My only gripe with Hop On Hop Off is that it was sometimes hard to find the pick up spots especially if you weren't dropped off there in the first place. So for instance if you get dropped off at Stop 5 and decide that it'll be a good idea to walk to Stop 6 to see something along the way, it might be hard to figure out where to exactly go. I probably should've had the map with me but even having data was no use because they don't show up on Google Maps.
HEADS UP: If you're borderline near the end of bus operation for the day, it is hard to tell when the last bus will hit each stop. I ran into a situation where I had finished at Bad Bad Boy and waited at the stop for 15 minutes before making the realization that the last bus may have gone by. There was no way to confirm this and so I decided to make it on foot to the Design Museum.
Day 4 – Squeezing In A Little More
I originally had the crazy plan to do the Panorama Sightseeing Bus Tour to really maximize the value of the card but I had second thoughts because 1) I wanted to sleep in and 2) I didn't think I'd see anything new on this sightseeing bus tour.
Instead, for they final day of my 3 day Helsinki itinerary, I took the tram to see the other contemporary religious building called the Chapel of Silence. It's an odd-shaped chapel that is entirely made of wood and curved like an egg that stands at the edge of an urban square. Amidst the urban clamour, anyone can enter in to concentrate on the natural elements of its cocoon and be at peace in the silence that echoes off the fir walls.
A perfect way to end the 72 hours would've been with a ride back up to the airport but since PING Festival was next, I used the Helsinki Card to move my luggage over to the Clarion Hotel. No regrets though because the 7.50 EUR single ride from the airport in the city more than made up for the extra cost of the Region upgrade which was an extra 6 EUR.
TIP: When planning your trip, know that all museums are closed on Monday. As a result, plan to spend Mondays doing non-museum attractions.
What I loved about the Helsinki Card?
I'll be honest, I was a little apprehensive at first about the Helsinki Card because I wasn't sure how easy it would be to use. I was half expecting to explain how the card works to vendors or have to deal with really annoying redemption processes but after using it myself, I have to say that they've set up quite the perfect little operation.
What made the card great:
- Easy pick up at the airport
- Truly tap and go
- Transit system recognizes the card and doesn't require a separate card
- All attractions have their own barcode scanner for seamless entry
- Eliminates the hassle of having to buy tickets at each attraction and in many cases you can bypass all lines
- Can easily see the whole city with the card if you plan it strategically
How much money did I save?
So how much money did I end up saving? The Helsinki Card with Region Upgrade cost 74 EUR but I easily got 130.40 EUR in value from the card.
Yes that's right, that means I saved 56.40 EUR thanks to the card!
Explaining the Region Upgrade
I was a little confused at first as to whether I needed this or not so let's explain what this upgrade is for.
- All the activities and attractions in the city are located in the “Helsinki Region”.
- The airport is located in the “Vantaa Region”.
- The standard Helsinki Card only works in the “Helsinki Region” so if you want to include the train into the city you basically need the Region upgrade.
- This is worth it because the upgrade is only 6 EUR and the train ride into the city is 7.50 EUR
- The Region upgrade also gives you access to Espoo and Kauniainen regions although the truth is that you'll unlikely head over there.
Now don't be confused with this map like I was. If you look at the dotted lines, you'd think it's just a cute heart but it's actually the lines for the train into the city. It's merely saying that train starts at the airport in Vantaa and ends up in Helsinki.
Where Did I Stay?
During my 3 day Helsinki itinerary, I had the opportunity to stay at two contrasting properties. While I was in the city leveraging the Helsinki Card, I opted for a budget accommodation and for the conference, I was put up at the Clarion Helsinki.
It may be labelled a hostel but it's far from your typical hostel. It's closer to an apartment hotel but since it's a shared bathroom, you probably couldn't call it that either. True to Scandinavian standards, the private room I had for one was incredibly clean and so too were the bathrooms. The unique thing here is that it's totally for the anti-social person. It's not like a hostel because there are no social activities and there is no front desk. You get a code to access the building and your room so it is all self-serve which I loved. A brilliant idea!
The epitome of a posh hotel. Somehow, Clarion managed to convince the city to build its tallest building and as a result, this hotel has the best views of the entire city. Up on the top floor the bar and beautiful pool offer amazing panoramas that I recommend going to for sunrise or sunset. I was highly impressed by the rooms as well which are decked out in expensive modern furniture like the iconic Eames Lounge Chair. It's clean, modern, spacious, and very comfortable.
Get The Helsinki Card
As you plan your trip to Finland, make sure you order your Helsinki Card ahead of time so it's ready for you when you land.
Map of Helsinki in 3 Days
I have marked all of the important pins of places covered by this 3 day Helsinki itinerary. If you have data when you're travelling there, you can use this with the Google Map app. Simply maximize this map and create a copy to your account.
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