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Helsinki has been the capital of Finland since 1812 and is located on the southern coast of the country, directly across from Tallinn in Estonia, with only the Gulf of Finland separating the two. It is also Finland's biggest city, with a population of 584,420. Helsinki Metropolitan Area, which includes a number of other cities (Espoo, Vantaa, Kirkkonummi, Kauniainen, Sipoo, Tuusula, Kerava, Järvenpää, Nurmijärvi, Hyvinkää and Vihti), has a population of around 1 million.
Located halfway between Stockholm and St Petersburg and with a coastal location that makes it seem as if the city is surrounded by water, it's no surprise that the city was founded as a fishing village and harbour. Taking a boat tour is a great way to get a better feeling for the city. The city itself consists of wide, often cobbled, streets, lots of parks and squares and generally gives an impression as a spacious city. As is the case for most Nordic cities however, Helsinki is compact and therefore easy to explore on foot or using public transport.
The city of Helsinki forms the core of Finland's largest urban area, known in Finnish as the "capital area" (pääkaupunkiseutu). Helsinki is bordered by the Gulf of Finland to the south, while the posh suburban city of Espoo, with the embedded tiny enclave city of Kauniainen, is to the west. The more industrialized city of Vantaa is to the north and east. Beyond these three, the suburbs rapidly give way to small towns, farms and forests, most notably Nuuksio National Park at the intersection of Espoo, Vihti and Kirkkonummi.
Within Helsinki itself, the city center is on the southern peninsula at the end of the city's main thoroughfare Mannerheimintie (or just Mansku). Both the central railway station and the main bus terminal are in the city center. Shopping streets Aleksanterinkatu (or Aleksi for short) and Esplanadi (or Espa) connect to Senate Square (Senaatintori), the historical center of the city.
Probably half of Helsinki's points of interest are located downtown. The Lutheran Cathedral with the surrounding buildings, dating from the early 19th century when Helsinki was made capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland, can be found here. Westwards there is what can be called the central business district with shopping and dining along the streets of Aleksanterinkatu and Mannerheimintie.
In the calm and affluent southern part of Helsinki you can enjoy the greenery of the parks and drop into a nice café for a cuppa coffee. And let's not forget about Suomenlinna, the fortress on an island which prides itself on being a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
For some great places for eating and drinking, head across Mannerheimintie and continue through Kamppi. Further west the former industrial part of the city, watched over by the cranes of the shipyard and industry chimneys you can nowadays glance over the modern architecture and out to the sea.
The western part of the city is a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city center. If you have the time, take a leisurely seaside stroll along the shores of Laajalahti bay, or if you're a sports buff, visit the great summer and winter sports venues which are concentrated in this part of the city. The list cultural and historical sights of western Helsinki isn't bad either - it hosts the National Opera, Hietalahti cemetery, the Church in the Rock, the museums of Natural History, Finland's National Museum and the home of the long-time president Urho Kekkonen.
If you, on the other hand, are interested in the more bohemian part of Helsinki and/or love to party you'd better head to the Inner East and districts like Kallio. The former working class part of the city is still today associated with counterculture and to some extent left-wing politics and is largely inhabited by students. Kallio is as close as one could come to a "red light district" in Helsinki. However, the Inner East part of the city also hosts the amusement park Linnanmäki and the old wooden neighborhoods of Vallila and Käpylä.
The eastern parts of Helsinki is mostly residential and probably the most culturally diverse part of the city, as recent immigrants from many parts of the world live here. In this part of Helsinki you can find the Helsinki Zoo, the huge shopping complex Itis, Finland's tallest residential building in Vuosaari as well as the northernmost metro station in the world in Mellunmäki.
The northern parts of Helsinki consists of highways, shopping malls and residential buildings. It connects seamlessly to the next city north of Helsinki - Vantaa. While not as culturally interesting as the other parts of Helsinki it offers some natural attractions like the Central Park and Helsinki's highest point Malminkartanonhuippu. In Vantaa you can learn more about science in Heureka, watch old and new architecture and simply enjoy the nature. Actually, if you are arriving by plane you will be passing through this area whether you want it or not, as Finland's largest airport, Helsinki-Vantaa, is located in this area.
In a way Finland's second largest city is "just" an extension of Helsinki. However, Espoo can pride itself on hosting Nuuksio national park (a great daytrip from Helsinki to experience the Finnish nature), Aalto University (formerly Helsinki University of Technology), two of Finland's largest shopping centers as well as some great museums and the Serena water park. Espoo also encircles the tiny city of Kauniainen.
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Porvoo is a a beautiful old medieval city with the old town built on a small hill next to a river. This is one of the most popular destinations for a daytrip from Helsinki and you can get there by regular buses (50 kilometres, roughly 1 hour) or by steamship (although the steamship is very slow and only goes in summer!). Unfortunately, because it is very popular it is also crowded during the high season.
Seurasaari is an open air museum to the northeast of the city centre on the small island of Seuransaarenselka, which is connect to Helsinki by a bridge. In the museum you can see a collection of buildings coming from all over the country. It gives an impression on how people lived in rural Finland in earlier times. Some buildings can be visited from the inside as well. The museum is opened between 15 May and 15 September.
Jean Sibelius was Finland ’s most important composer, and wrote pieces such as Finlandia. Nowadays his villa Ainola on the shore of Lake Tuusula is an excellent place to visit for a daytrip.
The building of Sveaborg started in 1748 under an order from the Swedish King Fredrik I. During that time the frontline between Sweden and Russia had moved close to from Helsinki. Sveaborg was to protect the shipping channels to Helsinki and act as a landing place for troops arriving from Sweden. After Finland's independence the Swedish name Sveaborg, was changed to Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nowadays the island is a popular getaway from the city, and can be reached by the ferry service which leave at the market square. If you have bought a day ticket for the public transport, the ferry is free of charge. On the island the Suomenlinna Museum tells you about the history of the place.
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Helsinki enjoys a slightly warmer climate than other places as far north, thanks to the influence of the Baltic Sea and Gulf Stream. During winter (December to March), temperatures are around zero or slightly lower on average during the day, though can plummit to -30 °C during some colder nights. Days are around 6 hours long due to the winter solstice. In summer (June to August), Helsinki has much longer days (up to 18 hours) and temperatures range between 18 °C and 22 °C, with nights around 10-15 °C. The absolute high and low are 32 °C and -34 °C to give an idea of what you might expect! Precipitation is around 650mm a year with most of it falling during the second half of summer and during autumn. Spring is fairly dry and snow is possible from November to early April. See the Finnish Meteorological Institute website for a Helsinki weather forecast.
The major airport in Helsinki is the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (IATA: HEL; ICAO: EFHK), located about 20 kilometres from Finland's capital. The main airlines that fly in and out of Helsinki are Finnair, Scandinavian Airlines, and Blue1. Quite a few other regional airlines and budget airlines also have service to Helsinki airport, which makes it possible to travel to many places in the world to and from Helsinki with relative ease. Also note that there might be more affordable flights to nearby airports in Turku and Lappeenranta.
To/from the airport
There are several daily connections from Helsinki to all major cities within Finland. The only direct international trains are the ones to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia. Between Helsinki and Moscow, there are direct daily overnight trains with 'The Tolstoi', taking roughly 13 hours to cover the routes. Trains are fast and comfortable. There are two daily trains ('The Sibelius' and 'The Repin') between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, both travelling during the day and evening. One train is Russian, the other one is Finnish. Both trains take about 6 hours to cover the route. Trains also stop in Lahti, Kouvola and Vainikkala in Finland and in Vyborg in Russia. Since 2011 there is a fast train that covers the route between Helsinki and St. Petersburg in about 3.5 hours!
Driving to Helsinki from other European countries is a long trip, and you need to either drive around the Baltic sea, or drive through Russia. The other option is to get on one of the ferries to Helsinki or Hanko, or if you cross the sea from Sweden, one of the ferries to Turku.
Eurolines provides services to and from Russian cities like St. Petersburg, connecting with Helsinki. Two daily buses provide services to Vyborg and St Petersburg from Helsinki, one of which originates in Turku. Check Matkahuolto for more information about prices and schedules.
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Helsinki has well established boat connections to nearby capitals Stockholm (Sweden) and Tallinn (Estonia). Nearby Hanko is the arrival place of many of the ferries from for example Germany and Poland among other countries.
Helsinki is relatively small and easy to get around, but finding a parking place can sometimes be a nightmare and does not come cheap.
Helsinki has one metroline running from east to west (partly) under the city. For visitors this line can be ignored. Trams and buses run across the city, making it a good way to get around town. Tramline 3T and 3B are circular lines, linking most of the sights in Helsinki.
The city centre is compact enough to explore by foot. Because the city has plenty of parks it is very enjoyable to walk in through Helsinki. You can explore most of Helsinki by foot in about 2 days, 1 if you rush it and only stick to the highlights.
Some of the sights (like Suomenlinna Sea Fortress and the zoo, called Korkeasaari) can be visited by boat. If you buy a ticket for public transport that lasts multiple days, trips by boat can be included in the ticket. There are also special daytickets for Suomenlinna only which cost about €5. Nearby Porvoo and Loviisa can also be visited by boat. The J.L. Runeberg travels between Helsinki and Porvoo several times a week in the summertime.
Helsinki has a free-bike plan. At some points in the city you can grab a bike, pedal around, and place the bike back at one off the other points. Although these bikes are available, it can be hard to find one.
Helsinki has by far the best cosmopolitan restaurants in Finland, and is a good place to escape the usual diet of meat and potatoes... if you can foot the bill, that is. As usual in Finland the best time to eat out is lunch, when most restaurants offer lunch sets for around €6-10. Lunch sets are typically served from 10:30am to 2:00pm, but the times vary between venues. In the evening, only budget places are less than €10, while splurges cost well over €30 per head. Almost every place will have at least one vegetarian option.
A surprisingly large number of restaurants close down for a month or more in summer (July-August), so call ahead to avoid disappointment.
Budget choices are largely limited to fast food, although there are a couple of workaday Finnish eateries in the mix. In addition to McDonald's and its Finnish imitators Hesburger/Carrols, Helsinki is also full of pizza and kebab places, where a meal typically costs around €7-8 (sometimes as low as €4-5, especially in Kallio). A more healthy option is Unicafe, a chain of restaurants owned by the Helsinki University student union, which has around 10 outlets in central Helsinki and offers full meals from €5.70, including vegetarian options. There are also many other lunch restaurants for students that serve affordable food also for non-students. A good active listing of Helsinki's student restaurants and their menus as well as opening hours can be found at Lounasaika.net. During the lunch time, usually from 11AM to 3PM, most restaurants serves food for reasonable prices. Lunch restaurants and lists in Helsinki can be found at lounaat.info.
Two classes of fine dining stand out in Helsinki: fresh seafood and Russian. During the dark days of the Soviet Union, it was sometimes said that the best Russian restaurants in the world were across the border in Helsinki. For something authentically Finnish and uniquely Helsinki, try Vorschmack, an unusual but surprisingly tasty mix of minced lamb and herring, served with chopped pickles and sour cream (smetana).
Finland is the largest coffee consuming nation per capita and coffee breaks are written into law. However, in Finland most coffee is filter-brewed from a light, more caffeinated, roast that is quite different to what the rest of the world drinks. Finns often enjoy a bun (pulla) or cinnamon bun (korvapuusti) with their coffee.
In Finland commonly espressos and lattes are called "special coffees" and a large number of establishments that make such coffees have popped up all over town ever since the nineties when they arrived. One which will give any Italian cafeteria a go for their money is La Torrefazione next to Stockmann. In the more common cafeterias the normal light brew coffee is sold by self-service at the counter even at some more expensive cafeterias (there is only a handful of cafeterias serving to the table in Helsinki - this shows how commonplace coffee drinking is considered).
Helsinki has plenty of hip places for a drink. The main nightlife districts, all in the city center within crawling distance of each other, are around Iso-Roobertinkatu, the Central Railway Station and Kamppi. Helsinki's busy gay nightlife is centered mostly around Iso-Roobertinkatu and Eerikinkatu and surrounding streets.
The bar and club scene is great in Helsinki but comes with a high price tag. Many people just drink on the street during the long summer nights in order to save money.
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Internet is usually always broadband and fast. Most libraries have a free internet connection, so look for a sign "kirjasto" for a library. Internet cafes are not hugely popular, as most Finns have internet at home. Wifi hotspots are also increasingly common. 4G networks cover the capital region and major cities. You'll find wifi in many restaurants, cafes and in stations and on public transport.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The general emergency number is 112. Finland's country code is +358. The prefix for international calls (from local land lines) is 00, as in the rest of EU.
As you'd expect from Nokia's home country, mobile phones are ubiquitous in Finland. GSM and WCDMA (3G) networks blanket all of the country, although it's still possible to find wilderness areas with poor signal, typically in Lapland and the outer archipelago. The largest operators are Sonera and Elisa, a Vodafone partner, but travellers who want a local number may wish to opt for DNA's Prepaid package, which can cost as little as €6. Ask at any convenience store for a list of prices and special offers.
Public telephones are close to extinction in Finland, although a few can still be found at airports, major train/bus stations and the like. It's best to bring along a phone or buy one. A simple GSM model can cost less than €40.
Post is fast and reliable in Finland. You can receive mail simply by marking it Poste Restante, and the postal code of the town (check with the particular post office). First class stamps can be bought from machines or inside the office, and the fare is the same anywhere in the world up to 20 grams, so your postcards will be fine. The current rate for a stamp is €0.75. Heavier letters and postcards have different prices though, you can check them online at the Posti Website. There is also a 'track and trace' system available. Stamps are widely available and sold with the postcards, in kiosks, stationary shops and souvinier shops. Parcels abroad are expensive. You can buy all the packing from the post office, including boxes, tapes etc. For sending parcels internationally, you can also check companies like FedEx, TNT, UPS or DHL.
We have a comprehensive list of accommodation in Helsinki searchable right here on Travellerspoint. You can use our map to quickly compare budget, mid-range or top of the range accommodation in Helsinki and areas nearby.
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