What To Do In Helsinki: An Itinerary For Finland’s Capital City In Winter

March 5, 2023
helsinki finland,things to do in helsinki,helsinki in winter,what to do in helsinki

“In WINTER?!?!”  I’m pretty sure that was the reaction of 97% of people when I mentioned that my next destination was Helsinki, Finland.  In the middle of February.

What to Do in Helsinki, Finland | A detailed guide to Helsinki in winter, how to spend a day or two in this city...where to stay in Helsinki, where to eat & drink, where to shop, & more! Things to do in Helsinki, Finland itinerary tips, the best cafes, Sebelius Monument. #helsinki #finland #wintertravel

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I’ll admit that it’s a more popular place to visit in the summer, when you can take advantage of all the amazing nature just outside the city.  Yet I still believe there are plenty of things to do in Helsinki when it’s cold, and that exploring the city in the offseason gives you a more “locals” glimpse of real life.

No matter the time of year, Finland’s capital offers good food, a cool culture, super friendly locals, interesting museums (though not my thing), and a love of design and unique architecture.

What to Do in Helsinki, Finland | A detailed guide to Helsinki in winter, how to spend a day or two in this city.

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Where to stay in Helsinki

I looked at several great choices (including several recos from locals), and we ended up at the absolutely lovely Hotel Katajanokka.  I definitely recommend it!

It’s in a great location, has got a very cool, modern vibe, and the rooms were comfortable and pretty spacious (for Europe).  Their breakfast spread (included with the room) was pretty impressive.  They have a sauna, fitness center, bar, and restaurant as well.  I booked on Booking.com, and you can look at TripAdvisor reviews too.

The other hotels on my short list were Hotel IndigoHotel Kamp, Scandic Paasi (looks super cool and has an ideal location between the city center and hip Kallio neighborhood), and the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel.

The Scandic chain in general is really good, we stayed at the Scandic Airport Hotel on our last night in Helsinki before an early flight, and it was really nice!  It was literally across the street from the terminal too, which made it super easy.

where to stay in Helsinki - Hotel Katajanokka

where to stay in Helsinki - Hotel Katajanokka

where to stay in Helsinki - Hotel Katajanokka

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What to pack for Helsinki in winter

I was a little nervous about packing for Finland in winter, though more because of visiting Lapland, vs. Helsinki.  You definitely need to pack appropriately for Helsinki in winter, but it’s similar to other Scandinavian cities.  Check out my more detailed packing list for Finland in winter, which covers this whole trip.

I have deep-dive posts on visiting Bergen (Norway) in winter and Iceland, as well as a super Arctic packing list (which would be super helpful if you’re also visiting Lapland on this trip).  I highly recommend reading those posts, as they’ll give you the in-depth info you need.

That said, here’s a shorter list of exactly what I ended up packing and using in Helsinki:

Exploring Helsinki, Finland, in winter...make sure you pack right!

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General tips for visiting Helsinki

Culturally, tipping is not a thing in Finland, and they don’t even give you the choice when you pay by credit card most of the time.  Finns consider it a nasty foreign habit and would usually rather you didn’t tip.  Service and taxes are included in prices by law in Finland.  You can carry some cash to LIGHTLY tip if you’ve received amazing service, but even then just round to the nearest €5 or 10, or add €1-2.

The Helsinki Card provides unlimited access to public transportation in the city, including the tram/metro and the ferry to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress.  It also gets you free or discounted entry to 25+ top attractions, and saves time. You can buy a 1, 2 or 3 days pass and save money getting around the city.

We visited Helsinki in winter, and noticed that all the locals carried around a tissue tucked into a pocket for the inevitable runny nose you get walking around in the cold.

Always keep an eye out for public toilets or use the bathroom when you are at a restaurant or store that has one for customers.  There are some good public toilets in parks as well, such as by Sebellius Monument/Töölö Bay.

Is Helsinki safe?  Generally speaking and compared to most cities, yes.  You’ll usually find that Scandinavian/Nordic countries have low crime rates overall.  However, you should always be aware of your surroundings when traveling.  English is also spoken widely and well throughout Finland, which is helpful if you run into trouble.

Other Finnish adventures you’ll love:

Experiencing a Traditional Finnish Sauna (Löyly Sauna in Helsinki)

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What To Expect Driving In Lapland In Winter (Finland, Norway, Sweden)

A Day Trip To Charming Tallinn, Estonia

What To Expect Taking The Helsinki-Tallinn Ferry

Packing List: What To Wear In Finland (& Estonia) In Winter

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - exploring the city in winter

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Should I visit Helsinki in winter?

Helsinki in winter can be magical!  Sure, it’s cold and can be gray, but there are fewer crowds, lower prices, and if you get snow it can be beautiful.  It’s definitely worth a visit in winter.

We visited in mid-February, which is truly the dead of winter in Helsinki.  It actually was rainy vs. snowy, and not bitter cold…this made walking around easier, though meant that our photos were kind of gray and dreary rather than having that “magical winter” feel.

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - exploring the city in winter

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How to get around Helsinki

It’s easy to get around Helsinki, and we did it mostly on foot.  Because we were staying centrally, we just walked most places.  But you could take the tram as well, it’s well connected to many of the main attractions like Uspenski Cathedral and Market Square.  Fun fact: Helsinki has the world’s northernmost metro line.

And when needed, you can taxi or Uber around just fine (including to and from the airport). 

There are also local taxi companies and apps such as FixuTaxi that you can use (usually a fixed fee to and from the airport if booked through their app or using the queue at the airport).  My hotel also called us a taxi and confirmed the price beforehand.

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - exploring the city in winter

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - exploring the city in winter

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Helsinki is also connected by ferry to a handful of cities, including Tallinn, Stockholm, Mariehamn & Travemunde.  We took the ferry to Tallinn for the day, leaving on a early boat and coming back late evening—it’s amazing being able to go to another country just for a day or two!

Note, there are three different ferry companies operating out of Helsinki, two of which are in one port and one that’s in a different one.  Check all three companies’ schedules to figure what works best for you, and make sure you are VERY sure which ferry terminal you should use!

Read more on taking the Helsinki-Tallin ferry here!

Helsinki is an easy ferry ride to nearby countries, like Estonia

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Souvenirs to consider buying

There are a number of fun things you can pick up in Helsinki to remember your trip.  I personally love to find a beautiful coffee mug or cool pint glass to use at home.  You’ll also see a lot of woodcrafts, wool sweaters (or other items), Mutka mittens, foodstuffs, and many reindeer-themed items.

Three of the best places to find souvenirs are Hakaniemi Market, Kauppatori Market Square (often just called Market Square), and Old Market Hall.  There is a wide variety here, and they offer eating options as well.

A guide to Helsinki, Finland - where to shop & what to buy

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Things to do in Helsinki

So now you’re here in Helsinki, what should you do??  We were there three nights but really only one full day with how our itinerary worked out.  But as I’ll show below, we really were able to make the most of one day in Helsinki!

Below I’ll talk in-depth about what to do in Helsinki, but first I’ll mention one major thing we DIDN’T get to do.  Visiting Suomenlinna Sea Fortress was on my must-do list, as Helsinki’s top tourist attraction.  The fortress was founded in 1748 on a cluster of islands right off the coast of the city, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

However, it’s best visited on a calm sunny day as the wind can make it very cold and most of the site is outside.  As we didn’t have good weather for it and had a short time in Helsinki, we skipped.

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - exploring the city in winter

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Visit a public sauna

You’ll quickly learn that sauna is LIFE in Finland!  It’s a core aspect of the culture, with many people having saunas in their homes and most taking saunas at least once a week.  So I wanted to make sure it was part of our Finland itinerary, and researched the best saunas in Helsinki.

That brought us to Löyly Sauna just a few hours after landing, for a nighttime sauna session.  Löyly is a traditional wood-fire sauna perched right on the Baltic Sea, with fantastic views during the day, and immediate access to the freezing water for a shocking plunge between sauna sessions.

We had a great time at Löyly, including taking two separate plunges in the frigid Baltic Sea!  You can read much more about our experience—including a video of said plunges—in this post.

There are many great public saunas to choose from, and two others I’d considered were Kotiharjun Sauna (the only remaining public wood-burning sauna in Helsinki, dating back to 1928) and Allas Sea Pool (a new spa complex with large pool area and saunas that looks beautiful).

Read about visiting a traditional Finnish sauna here!

Doing a Finnish sauna is a must! What to do in Helsinki, Finland

Doing a Finnish sauna is a must! What to do in Helsinki, Finland

Doing a Finnish sauna is a must! What to do in Helsinki, Finland

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Uspenski Cathedral

One of the largest Orthodox churches in western Europe (and home to many icons and paintings), Uspenski Cathedral’s red brick, green trim, and golden cupola provide a very different visual feel than other churches in the city.  The Russian influence is unmistakable.

We didn’t go inside (they weren’t open at the time and we had a packed schedule), and the gray sky didn’t do it any favors.  I’m guessing it would look amazing against a blue sky.  Otherwise, snap a pic and move on.

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - see Uspenski Cathedral & Helsinki Cathedral (two very different styles!)

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - see Uspenski Cathedral & Helsinki Cathedral (two very different styles!)

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - see Uspenski Cathedral & Helsinki Cathedral (two very different styles!)

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Helsinki Cathedral & Senate Square

Part of the Torikorttelit Historical Centre (the city’s historical central area), Helsinki Cathedral is hard to miss.  Interestingly, to me, it doesn’t look like a cathedral at all…it looked like a government building.

The Lutheran cathedral stands in the middle of Senate Square and is one of the most photographed buildings in Finland.  The historical center surrounding the square has plenty of cute design shops, cozy cafes, and more to explore. 

While you’re here, sit a spell at Café Engel—we had a delicious breakfast, coffee, and pastries with a view of the cathedral!

What to Do in Helsinki, Finland | A detailed guide to Helsinki in winter, how to spend a day or two in this city...where to stay in Helsinki, where to eat & drink, where to shop, & more! Things to do in Helsinki, Finland itinerary tips, the best cafes, Sebelius Monument.

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - see Uspenski Cathedral & Helsinki Cathedral (two very different styles!)

Things to do in Helsinki, Finland - see Uspenski Cathedral & Helsinki Cathedral (two very different styles!)

What to Do in Helsinki, Finland | visit Helsinki Cathedral

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Esplanade Park

Next, wander just south of Senate Square to Esplanade Park.  It’s a popular place to stroll, people watch, and relax, though was less inviting on a cold, dreary day.

Known as “Espa” locally, this main city walkway runs between Erottaja Square and Market Square (which we’ll talk about shortly), and has a cute little fountain with barking seals.

What to do in Helsinki, Finland - Esplanade Park is a central people watching place

What to do in Helsinki, Finland - Esplanade Park is a central people watching place

What to do in Helsinki, Finland - Esplanade Park is a central people watching place

What to do in Helsinki, Finland - Esplanade Park is a central people watching place

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Old Market Hall

On a mission for both coffee and some souvenir shopping—not to mention, an excuse to get out of the cold—we headed into Old Market Hall.

The market opens at 8:00am, though quite a few of the shops and restaurants aren’t open til more like 10:00 or 11:00.

A guide to Helsinki, Finland in winter - Old Market Hall is great for souvenir shopping, coffee, & a snack

A guide to Helsinki, Finland in winter - Old Market Hall is great for souvenir shopping, coffee, & a snack

A guide to Helsinki, Finland in winter - Old Market Hall is great for souvenir shopping, coffee, & a snack

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This market has been running since 1889, and is a great place to find local delicacies like cinnamon buns (pulla), salmiakki (salted licorice that’s disgusting), reindeer snacks, cold smoked salmon, and much more.

What to do in Helsinki, Finland in winter - Old Market Hall is great for souvenir shopping, coffee, & a snack

What to do in Helsinki, Finland in winter - Old Market Hall is great for souvenir shopping, coffee, & a snack

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You can also shop for local crafts, whether wood, wool, ceramics, or something else.  And there are several different cafes and restaurants if you’re looking for something to eat.  

We stopped for coffee at Story, which is right in the center of the market, and it’s an adorable little spot worth a visit!

What to do in Helsinki, Finland in winter - Old Market Hall is great for souvenir shopping, coffee, & a snack

What to do in Helsinki, Finland in winter - Old Market Hall is great for souvenir shopping, coffee, & a snack

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In addition to some souvenirs, I bought some different flavors of that salmon you see above.  But since I was just drinking coffee, my stomach wasn’t quite there yet.

So once we left the market hall and headed over to nearby Market Square a bit later, I pulled out the salmon right on the harbor and tried it out.  DELISH!  But then I had salmon hands, so ick.

She eats salmon by the seashore - enjoying the Helsinki harbor

She eats salmon by the seashore - enjoying the Helsinki harbor

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Buy local crafts in Market Square

Visiting Market Square (also called Kauppatori) is a must!!  We were able to stop by for about 20 minutes, but wish we’d had more time to explore.

The market is located right on the harbor, in the city’s main town square.  Each day (seemed like starting around 11:00am), cute little pop-up shops appear that sell souvenirs, fresh fish, fruit and veggies, coffee, glögi (hot spiced wine, usually both alcoholic and non options), and more.

It’s a great place to buy Finnish souvenirs and support local merchants and artists, try some salmon soup and rye bread, and is also where you’d catch the ferry over Suomenlinna Fortress.

What to do in Helsinki, Finland in winter - Market Square is great for souvenir shopping, snacks, fish, & more

What to do in Helsinki, Finland in winter - Market Square is great for souvenir shopping, snacks, fish, & more

What to do in Helsinki, Finland in winter - Market Square is great for souvenir shopping, snacks, fish, & more

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Go on a café crawl

One of the favorite facts I ran across in my pre-trip research is that Finns are the top consumers of coffee in the world, with 8-9 cups per day considered normal.  THESE ARE MY PEOPLE!

And if you’ve been following me for a while, you know that one of my stated life goals is to eat all the pastries in all the places 🙂  So I wanted to try out as many as I could.  Here are some I recommend, and I speak more to these places at the end of this post, which covers where to eat and drink in Helsinki.

  • Café Engel is super central and has a great little menu.  Their coffee was delicious, it was the best cinnamon bun I had, and I loved trying the traditional Carelian pastry.
  • Ekberg 1852 is one of Helsinki’s best-known cafes, founded in (yup) 1852.  They have a great selection of Finnish baked goods (including delicious cakes) and breakfast and lunch as well.  (Note, there is a separate entrance for table service)
  • Story is a cute café in the Old Market Hall, worth a stop while shopping.
  • Kanniston Leipomo, a tiny, adorable historic bakery founded in 1914 in the very heart of Helsinki (there are now a few locations).  Delicious pastries!
  • Ipi Kulmakuppila is located in the trendy Kallio neighborhood, with a cozy but bright feel.  They have a mostly vegetarian menu (including many vegan treats) and good coffee.
  • A few others I didn’t get to try out were Café Kokko, Café Regatta, and Cafe Success.

One of the best things to do in Helsinki is a cafe crawl, trying all the coffee and cinnamon buns

One of the best things to do in Helsinki is a cafe crawl, trying all the coffee and cinnamon buns

One of the best things to do in Helsinki is a cafe crawl, trying all the coffee and cinnamon buns

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Sample Finnish chocolate

You can’t go anywhere in Finland without seeing Fazer chocolate on the shelves.  It’s the most popular brand, and we made sure to pop into the Karl Fazer café to see everything they had.

There are some crazy flavors (caramel popcorn chocolate, anyone??), and because we’d been obsessed with eating the Finnish cinnamon buns and cardamom bread, we couldn’t resist the pullava flavored chocolate (cinnamon bun flavoured toffee pieces).  We thought it would be terrible, but it was actually good!

We didn’t get a chance to try them, but you should check out some of the smaller independent chocolate shops in Helsinki as well, such as Petris Chocolate.

Things to do in Helsinki - Fazer chocolate is a Finnish institution

Things to do in Helsinki - Fazer chocolate is a Finnish institution

Things to do in Helsinki - Fazer chocolate is a Finnish institution

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Enjoy the design of Helsinki Central Station

We didn’t go inside, but the Art Nouveau exterior of Helsinki Central Station is worth a quick stop.

We’d also heard that nearby Kamppi Station had awesome artwork (called Roots of the City), but we wandered all around the station and couldn’t find it.  Maybe look up ahead of time where and how to find it?

Things to do in Helsinki - enjoy the Art Nouveau exterior of Helsinki Central Station

Things to do in Helsinki - enjoy the Art Nouveau exterior of Helsinki Central Station

Things to do in Helsinki - enjoy the Art Nouveau exterior of Helsinki Central Station

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Enjoy the whimsical Sebelius Monument

First off, honestly, cab it.  It’s worth grabbing an Uber out here…we trekked it (while desperate for a bathroom) and regretted it, as there isn’t much to see on the walk.

Located in a park right on Töölö Bay, the Sebelius Monument is an abstract sculpture meant to resemble a sound wave made from clusters of organ pipes, and commemorating the famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. 

A Helsinki itinerary for winter - the Sebelius Monument is worth a visit

A Helsinki itinerary for winter - the Sebelius Monument is worth a visit

A Helsinki itinerary for winter - the Sebelius Monument is worth a visit

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It gets mixed reviews and certainly isn’t anything mindblowing.  But it is cool looking and I’m glad we came. 

Funny enough, Sebelius famously said, “Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”  So there you go.

A Helsinki itinerary for winter - the Sebelius Monument is worth a visit

A Helsinki itinerary for winter - the Sebelius Monument is worth a visit

helsinki finland,things to do in helsinki,helsinki in winter,what to do in helsinki

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If the weather is nice, you can enjoy Töölö Bay (Töölönlahti) while you’re here, and stop at Café Regatta.  It has great sea views (on a nice day), delicious cinnamon buns, and a quirky interior.

The weather was pretty gross so we didn’t do either.  Note, there are nice little public toilets in the park, which were lifesavers.

A frozen Toolo Bay in Helsinki

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Explore some of Helsinki’s neighborhoods

We visited Kallio with our last hour of exploration, but it was harder to find it as cute in cold rain, when just wandering around wasn’t in the cards.  Kallio is the hipster neighborhood, with up-and-coming trending cafes, bars, and shops, but still holding onto the grunge and dive-y places.

We ducked into one café that our Uber driver recommended, but they had no seating available, so dipped into Ipi Kulmakuppila instead.  It’s cute, bright, and cozy (more on it at the end of the post).

A Helsinki itinerary for winter - a cute cafe in Kallio neighborhood

Temppeliaukio Rock Church (totally skippable IMO)

All my pre-trip research suggested that Rock Church is a must-see.  It’s easily Helsinki’s most unusual church, excavated out of solid rock with a mixture of stone, copper, and glass inside.  

It certainly doesn’t look like much from the outside, and we went inside to the lobby and kind of peered back into the main church area…it’s a €5 entrance fee and it just didn’t look interesting.  Personally, I’d skip.

What to do in Helsinki - we thought Rock Church was skippable

What to do in Helsinki - we thought Rock Church was skippable

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Where to eat & drink in Helsinki

First, let’s talk WHAT you should eat and drink here.  Finnish cuisine has a lot of similarities to other Scandinavian and Nordic countries, though there are specific cultural nuances to Finland.

You’ll see the ever-present cinnamon buns and cardamom bread.  Finnish pastries are denser and less sweet than their southern European brethren.  You’ll of course see seafood in general (as they’re right on the water), and in particular delicious warm salmon soup, usually with fresh dill in it and served with dark rye bread.

I loved the traditional Karelian pastry, made with rice porridge in a rye flour crust and often topped with egg spread, butter, ham, or cheese.  Reindeer is also very common, whether as a filet or in a stew—and it’s delicious!

Another very strange Finnish delicacy is salmiakki, or salty licorice.  We found it absolutely disgusting 🙂 

And then there are drinks!  In the cold months, glögi is omnipresent…it’s like mulled wine, but is a concoction of berry juice (or sometimes apple) infused with warm spices like cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.  You’ll find both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions. 

I also loved Finnish gin & tonics, made with Nordic gins (Napue is common) and served with cranberries or lingonberries and rosemary.

helsinki finland,things to do in helsinki,helsinki in winter,what to do in helsinki

First, let’s talk breakfast, lunch, coffee, and pastries!  Our first stop was Café Engel, which has great views of Senate Square and a really good looking menu (including lunch, which looked delicious).

I had a caffe latte, Karelian pastry with egg spread (interesting, mild but a little rich), a cinnamon bun and lingonberry pie (cake).  All were delicious.  My cousin also had avocado toast that was delicious.

Coffee & cinnamon buns at Cafe Engel in Helsinki, Finland

traditional Karelian pastry at Cafe Engel in Helsinki, Finland

avocado toast at Cafe Engel in Helsinki, Finland

Next stop…Kanniston Leipomo, an adorable historic bakery founded in 1914.  The one we visited (I believe the original, in the heart of Helsinki) is tiny but we were able to get a seat.  They had all sorts of delicious pastries to try.

I had a mini runebergintottu (runeberg cake), kind of a dense almond cake with jam, and some sugar-coated cardamom braid along with my flat white.

Kanniston Leipomo in Helsinki, Finland

Treats at Kanniston Leipomo in Helsinki, Finland

Treats at Kanniston Leipomo in Helsinki, Finland

Ekberg Cafe 1852 is another must-stop, and a Helsinki institution.  We didn’t realize that there were two different Ekbergs side by side…we went into the first we found, but next door there is a cafe with table service.

We had just missed the lunch cut-off, but I devoured a yummy apple jam-filled donut and a cinnamon bun as well as a latte.  They’re supposed to have great cakes as well.

Treats at Cafe Ekberg 1852 in Helsinki, Finland

Treats at Cafe Ekberg 1852 in Helsinki, Finland

Treats at Cafe Ekberg 1852 in Helsinki, Finland

When we arrived in Kallio neighborhood in the cold rain, we ducked into IPI Kulmakuppila, which gave us a nice little respite from the rain.  They have a lot of gluten-free and vegan pastry options, and a mostly-vegetarian lunch menu.

Ipi Kulmakuppila cafe in Helsinki, Finland

Ipi Kulmakuppila cafe in Helsinki, Finland

Okay, let’s move onto heartier fare!  One night we had dinner at Restaurant Savotta, which has traditional Finnish food and a great vibe.  The elk burger was awesome, salmon soup was great, and the reindeer was good (though not as good as what we got at Lasipalatsi).  Awesome gin & tonic too.  Definitely reco getting a reservation!

We also stopped in for a quick late lunch at Lasipalatsi…honestly I’m not sure if we were in the right one as we realized later that there were two different entrances.  It was QUITE expensive and felt a bit fancier than we’d planned for.  We decided to split the reindeer filet with a reindeer tongue croquette and lingonberries.  It was DELICIOUS.

Reindeer at Latsipalatsi in Helsinki, Finland

Salmon soup at Restaurant Savotta in Helsinki, Finland

A Finnish gin & tonic at Restaurant Savotta in Helsinki, Finland

We also tried out Georgian Kitchen on our first night in Helsinki.  We were in a hurry and so had to choose things that would come out quickly.  We had the double cheese bread, and I had the lamb stew with a bread over it (chanahi?), as well as Georgian wine.

The food was well-prepared but felt a bit bland for me.  May have been what I ordered, or just not being familiar with Georgian cuisine as well.  The service and ambiance were awesome.  I’d definitely recommend this as a non-Finnish cuisine restaurant!

Dinner at Georgian Kitchen in Helsinki, Finland

Dinner at Georgian Kitchen in Helsinki, Finland

Dinner at Georgian Kitchen in Helsinki, Finland

So I think it’s clear—we were able to see and do SO much with just a day or two in Helsinki!  Even in winter, this city is worth a visit, and you can get a great feel for the Finnish culture.  Helsinki is also a great base for visiting Finnish Lapland, as well as taking the ferry to Estonia or Sweden.

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What to Do in Helsinki, Finland | A detailed guide to Helsinki in winter, how to spend a day or two in this city...where to stay in Helsinki, where to eat & drink, where to shop, & more! Things to do in Helsinki, Finland itinerary tips, the best cafes, Sebelius Monument. #helsinki #finland #wintertravel

Comments (1)

  • Chris

    May 11, 2023 at 10:13 am

    I’m considering visiting Helsinki on the way to Lapland next year (winter 2024). This is such a helpful guide, especially for food recommendations!

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