Helsinki, the Finnish capital, remains a slightly enigmatic Nordic (note: not Scandinavian) city, more under the radar than neighboring Stockholm or Copenhagen. But people are beginning to discover its virtues, notably that it combines the best of a city—extraordinary architecture and design, great museums and restaurants—with unadulterated nature, including thick forests right in its heart. One of the best things about Helsinki is its vibe: laid-back but technology-forward, with a very creative spirit. It is the home of Nokia, Angry Birds, and Marimekko. And it's just a little quirky. You only have to see the Finns’ fascination for tango to get an idea.
Helsinki was also tailor made for a layover. Helsinki-Vantaa International airport (HEL) is a hub serving some 140 destinations and it’s quick and easy to zip out of the airport into town for a sauna and some ice swimming, a bowl of outstanding salmon soup, or a bracing walk in an urban forest.
But if you’re still not convinced that you want to venture out, or don’t have the layover hours, the airport has plenty to keep you busy—from resting on chic Nordic designer chairs to to inventive dining; Airport eateries included the largest Ajisen Ramen restaurant in the world or ones that serve reindeer charcuterie, and pretty much everything in between.
- VISA REQUIRED: No
- MINIMUM CONNECTION TIME, INTERNATIONAL TO DOMESTIC: 40 mins
- MINIMUM CONNECTION TIME, INTERNATIONAL TO INTERNATIONAL: 40 mins
- MINIMUM TIME TO LEAVE THE AIRPORT: 6 hrs
Finland is in the Schengen Area so US citizens do not need a visa for stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period.
Minimum layover times
To make an international to international connection: 40 mins
Passengers coming from the US and connecting onward to elsewhere in Europe will have to pass through immigration first; there is a fast track for connections.
To make an international to domestic connection: 40 mins
Passengers coming from the US and connecting onward to another airport in Finland will have to pass through immigration first. However, if you’re coming from the Schengen Area you won’t have to do so, and the minimum connection time will dip to 35 minutes
To leave the airport and explore for part of the day: 6 hours
Again, this depends if you’re already in the Schengen Area or are just arriving. If it’s the latter, you’ll need a bit more time. But if you’re coming from, say, Norway and laying over in Finland on your way home, you’ll already be in the Schengen Area, so connecting will take slightly less time.
Either way, six hours minimum is a safe bet. This will allow you a few hours in the city plus time to go through immigration entry and exit procedures and then ample time to get back to the airport, go through security, and get to your gate.
- 30-45 min to deplane and go through immigration and customs
- 30 mins to transit to downtown
- 2.5 hours to explore
- 30 mins to return to airport
- 2 hours to go back through security, get to your gate, and board the plane
Getting from the airport to the city center
- TRAIN: 25 mins
- BUS: 30 mins
- TAXI/UBER: 25 mins
Getting from the airport to the city center is incredibly easy.
Trains leave every 10 minutes, take about 25 minutes and cost €5 Euros. Go down to the train level and hop on a B or F train. You can purchase tickets in the station or on the HSL app. You can also take a Finnair bus to town for €8 or take a taxi, though this is by far the most expensive option at around 45 euros.
How to spend a short layover at the airport
At Vantaa, you can view art (Art in the Airport gallery is near Gate 37); have a massage, or nap in one of the airport’s napping pods (try GoSleep Pods in Terminal 2, 3rd floor Airside). In the Non-Schengen area, passengers can hang out in the Olohuone Maja, an airport living room that gives you a ready idea of great Finnish design. There are excellent dining options with vegan restaurants and other eateries offering Finnish specialities as well as the standard airport chains.
How to spend a short layover outside the airport
The train takes you to Helsinki Central Station, an Art Nouveau building designed by famed Finnish-American designer Eero Saarinen. The beautiful design of the station has made it a tourist attraction in itself, and much of what the culturally-inclined visitor might want to check out is within minutes of the train station. The Ataneum Museum is just across the street, and offers a comprehensive look at Finnish Art through the centuries.
Also opposite the train station is the Töölönlahtia, an upscale neighbourhood of green space and lakes, as well as a great array of top tier cultural offerings. These include the buzzy, innovative new Oodi Public Library, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, and Finlandia Hall, designed by legendary modernist Alvaar Aalto. You can also take a brisk walk around the lake. It’s a great way to sample the way city life and nature coexist seamlessly in the city. If you are a real Aalto fan, have lunch at the Savoy restaurant on the stylish artery of the city, Esplanadi. The Aaltos designed the classic eatery some 80 years ago. The famous Aalto Savoy lamps got their name from the restaurant and still lights up its interior.
Another option is to make your way to the harbor to see ferries crossing to Tallinn or Stockholm, the local sailboats doting the shore, or, in winter, the mighty and fascinating icebreakers clearing the way for ships. Next to the harbor is Market Square ("Kauppatori"in Finnish) and the recently restored historic Old Market Hall for a fantastic array of Finnish foods.
How to spend an overnight layover in Helsinki
In the summer it’s light almost round the clock and there’s a very festive atmosphere among the local population who have endured the long and dark winter months (you can join in the party vibe, drink champagne on a cafe terrace, or enjoy ice cream from the many ice cream kiosks that pop up on city streets in summer).
Have a sauna; you can’t really come to Finland without experiencing one. (There are almost as many saunas as people in the country). You can find saunas in the most unexpected places. There’s even one in a Burger King. But one of the best options is at Allas Sea Pool, a year round outdoor swimming and sauna complex by the harbor built right into the Baltic. While doing laps you come almost nose to nose with passengers on Ferries on their way to Stockholm. There’s a large and expansive restaurant and deck to chill in the sun with a beer and a burger.
Walk and shop around the Design District and check out the neighborhood’s very cool Jugendstil architecture (Helsinki has more Art Nouveau buildings than Barcelona or Budapest). From the harbor take a fifteen minute ferry ride to Suomenlinna, a UNESCO Heritage site. It’s an outdoor museum that tells the fascinating military history of Finland which was part of Sweden for 500 years then Russia for another century before becoming independent in 1917.
As the world’s capital for heavy metal music, Finland is home to some of the world’s best metal artists and more underground metal bands than any other country. Check out Helsinki’s legendary Tavastia Club, or head to Bar Loosister in the hipster Kallio district. Finns also love Karaoke. Karaokebar Pataassa in the Kruununhaka area is a classic karaoke bar with music, microphones and drinks. It’s cheesy but fun.
Need to Know
- CURRENCY: Euro
- LANGUAGE: Finnish and Swedish
- SAFETY: A+
- COST: $$$ (out of $$$$$)
- BEST TIME TO GO: Apr–Oct
Finland uses the Euro. It’s easy to change money at the airport or withdraw cash from an ATM. ATM’s are widely available in the city (and usually offer a favorable rate.) That said, Finland is very much a cashless society. Credit cards are accepted and used almost everywhere even at small ice cream stands.
Like most Nordic countries, Helsinki can be pricey. But the budget-minded traveler can still get by very nicely. The city center is a good place to base yourself, and Solo Sokos Hotel Torni is a good hotel option with prices starting at about €157. (And insider note: A public restroom on the top floor has one of the best views in the city. People come here just to use it.)
You’ll find drinks lean toward the expensive; a half liter of beer rings in at around €6.75. A mid-range meal out can cost from €25 up. A good choice is Hello Stranger, offering great international cuisine that won’t deprive you of so many Euros. You can also try sapas (Finnish tapas) at the excellent casual chic restaurant Juuri. But if you are determined to try New Nordic cuisine, the good news is that the top notch Scandinavian eateries that have earned Michelin stars in Helsinki are easier to get into and typically less expensive than their Danish, Norwegian or Swedish counterparts. Grön and Olo are two such restaurants worth the splurge.
Weather & Best Time to Go
Each season has its own charms. Summer is really something special in Helsinki. Days are warm (typically in the mid-70s), and the midnight sun is not a myth. Come out of a restaurant or bar at 11 pm and you’ll feel like it’s the middle of the afternoon, the sun is shining so brightly.
In winter, of course, it’s the opposite, with little sunlight (about 4 or 5 hours around the winter solstice) and temperatures that hover around the freezing mark. But there are saunas to warm up in, and coffee to drink in cozy cafes. There’s even a chance of seeing the Northern Lights. And in December, a lovely Christmas market in Senate Square draws scores of locals. Spring and autumn are great times for exploring the surrounding islands.
Finland is one of the safest countries in the world. The visitor should feel secure in most neighborhoods of Helsinki, on the streets or in the subway. Of course, as anywhere, some degree of awareness of surroundings is a good idea. There are always going to be people stumbling out of bars late at night a little overquenched. Helsinki is no exception.
The streetcar is a pride of the city. Efficient, charming and easy to navigate, it’s the best way to get around. Its eleven lines are made up of both vintage and new trains. (Great for photo ops). You can get a day pass at the airport or pay for an individual ticket. A single tram ticket, valid only on the streetcar, is slightly cheaper than a Metro ticket (which is valid on both forms of transportation.
The Metro system is equally efficient, and easy to understand. It has only two lines but they go throughout the city and well into suburbs. It costs €2.90. A bit of trivia: Helsinki’s underground is the northernmost Metro system in the world.
Food & Drink
Finnish food is fresh, healthy and delicious. It’s based on fresh fish, herbs, berries and sustainable meat. In summer months, everyone goes berry picking, and endless varieties of berries are abundant in shops and markets. In fall, it’s the same with mushrooms.
Sample traditional Finnish food at the very good, if somewhat touristy, Savotta (traditional can mean bear or reindeer meat, but there's also fresh caught fish for the less adventurous). The restaurant overlooks the landmark gleaming white Helsinki Cathedral.
Don’t miss salmiakki, the salty licorice in one of its forms: ice cream, chewy candies or a liqueur that is a national obsession (Chances are you will be repulsed by the salty treat. Finns expect you to be and love laughing at the look on visitor's faces after they've tried salmiakki.) If you do take a liking to it, you can stock up on this and other items—like jars of herring, or tins of reindeer meat—at the historic and recently restored Old Market Hall. While there, stop at Story restaurant for a delicious bowl of salmon soup, an iconic Finnish dish, served with excellent Finnish rye bread.
The Finns are also huge coffee drinkers. Coffee shops are everywhere and few are bad. Try a korvapuusti (cinnamon bun) with your cup of joe.
Finnish and Swedish are the official languages. Don’t try to master very difficult Finnish beyond hello (“hey”) and goodby (“hey hey”). And if you learn to read signs that say ravintola (restaurant), kahvila, (cafe) and baari (bar), you’ll never go hungry or thirsty. But, really, everyone speaks English. They might even be insulted if you ask if they do.
Helsinki has some extraordinary architecture including some unique modern churches. Tempelliaukio—the Church in the Rock—is carved out of bedrock, and looks like a crashed UFO. Amos Rex is a new underground art gallery that is the talk of the town. Löyly, an architecturally-designed sauna on the edge of the sea, is the place to try both a traditional and smoke sauna. When you get too hot you can jump in the Baltic to cool down. Or, try the old school Kotiharjun Sauna in the gentrifying Kallio neighborhood. Just look for the towel-wrapped bare chested men sitting on the steps outside the sauna enjoying a beer and sausages between sauna sessions.
Take in a hockey game. Finland is one of the countries that supplies players to the NHL and hockey is a near religion here. Enjoy a game, but don’t make any superior NHL remarks. Finns are insanely proud of their national and local teams.
The SkyWheel at the port area is Helsinki’s answer to the city observation wheel. And even if it has a particularly Finnish twist—one of the cars is a functioning sauna—it’s expensive and not really worth the time. You also have to reserve in advance.
The Design Museum is another spot to skip if you’re short on cash or time. Although it’s housed in a wonderful old building, design enthusiasts might be disappointed with the museum’s curatorial offerings. And if you’re not into design this museum isn’t likely to win you over. (It has a great gift shop though.) Instead: take a walk around the Design District where the museum is located and peek into the unique shops.