Why I’d have another Helsinki city break

As someone who errs towards a degree of shabby chic when choosing city break destinations, I wasn’t sure how good a match me and Helsinki would be.

I needn’t have worried. Helsinki managed that brilliant trick of balancing “everything just works”, without being glossed and polished to within an inch of its life. Here’s why I would happily return to Helsinki for city break round two!

Helsinki’s urban planning and infrastructure

I’d like to borrow some of Helsinki’s urban planners, please!

OK, so Helsinki doesn’t have the same space restrictions caused by the (rightly) protected higgledy-piggledy ancient architecture of many European towns and cities. However, the Finns have done a brilliant job of making use of the spaces they have. They seemed designed to be used by everyone – and they were!

The car is not king

Helsinki has whole areas designed around pedal- and foot-power instead of cars – bike lanes and footpaths separate from main roads. The result: loads of people of all ages walking and cycling.

A cyclist on a Helsinki city bike goes past some cool street art

A cyclist pedals past some very cool street art on a Helsinki city bike

Helsinki does have cars, it’s just not over-run with them. So much so that when we were walking around during what should’ve been rush hour, I thought it must be a public holiday.

Helsinki street scene with cars and bikes

Cars – yes. Cars everywhere – no 🙂

As well as being healthier, the lack of cars had the added advantage that I could hear myself think. I could have happily heard both sides of a conversation on my phone whilst walking in the city centre. That’s a very unlikely possibility in the UK.

Public transport in Helsinki

I know Helsinki isn’t unique in having integrated public transport and ticketing, but the fact it does makes travelling and journey planning a whole load easier.

We used the Whim app to get public transport tickets (mobile tickets are cheaper), and also to plan our journeys. Not having to spend half an hour figuring out which bus or tram stop we needed was a welcome change from most cities I’ve visited.

Helsinki’s mobile tickets for Zone 1 are €2.20 and for Zone 2 are €4.20. They’re valid for 80 minutes across all public transport.

Disclosure: Whim provided us with App travel credit for this trip.

We used Zone 2 buses (for the airport), trams and the Suomenlinna ferry during our stay. You can also use Whim for the Helsinki city bike scheme, for taxis and for car hire.

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry on our Helsinki city break

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry

Ticket checks on Helsinki’s public transport seemed irregular, but they do happen so don’t be tempted to cheat the system!

Outside of the city, Helsinki also has several commuter train lines, which we used to get to Lahti for our RedBull 400 ski jump run.

Helsinki has a sense of collective responsibility

The Finns really seemed to care about their environment. And by “their”, I don’t just mean things that just impacted them personally.

Little things I really noticed. Cafes and bars were all self-serve, and everyone tidied up after themselves. If there was a rack for dirty crockery, you could be sure pretty much everyone would use it. Certainly far more than at home.

A more obvious social policy is a bottle deposit scheme, which was easy to use even as a visitor. Simply pay a deposit by default on plastic and glass bottles, then take the empties to a recycling receptacle that spits out a voucher to redeem on your next shop. Simple.

We used the Insight Guide to Helsinki for our trip. We also love this foldable coffee cup, to get into the Helsinki spirit of reuse and recycle! Buy through these links to help the site, at no extra cost to you.

Something else that really struck me was an apparent lack of homelessness in Helsinki – was that really the case or was I just looking through the city with rose-tinted glasses? Intrigued, I did a bit of research when we got home.

It turns out that Finland is the ONLY country in EU where homelessness is decreasing. And they do that by … providing the homeless with a home.

Not exactly radical, but in Finland they’ve figured that homeless people are more likely to access support services when they’ve got a stable environment to live in.

High quality … everything!

The easiest example of quality in Helsinki I can think of is the food. There was not a soggy sandwich in sight. Processed food just didn’t seem to be a thing. (hallelujah!)

Outdoor food stalls - a Helsinki city break

Helsinki has plenty of popular outdoor food stalls. Fresh fish soup, yummy bread and coffee were €10.

In coffee shops, freshly made sandwiches on granary bread and plated salads were the norm. On proper crockery.

The coffee was good too, though we’d expected that, as the Finns are apparently the biggest consumers of coffee per person in the world.

It’s true that some of this quality does come at a price. However, Helsinki wasn’t as bank-breaking as we’d anticipated. Prices for food and drinks were around 25% more than in the UK. Coffee shops were self-service, so no tipping required. Oh, and reindeer tastes goooood 🙂

For drinking at home (or in your Airbnb apartment), buy stronger booze like wine and spirits from an Alko off licence. Only beer and cider are sold in supermarkets. Alko stores close on a Sunday; and only open ‘til 6pm on Saturdays (8pm Monday to Friday). Not that we fell foul of this when being quite ready for a night in with a bottle of wine after competing in the RedBull 400. Oh, no, sirree!

If you fancy a tipple when you’re out and about in one of Helsinki’s many green spaces, there are plenty of uber-cool bars where you can quench your thirst.

Even the souvenirs in Helsinki were classy

There was not a dodgy fridge magnet in sight in Helsinki. I mean, how fabulous are these reindeer socks?

Reindeer socks - a quality Helsinki city break souvenir

Reindeer socks, €6 from Helsinki airport

For other lovely craft shopping, the Hakaniemi Market Hall is home to high quality goods as well as the ubiquitous Moomin souvenirs, which are something of a national obsession in Finland. It’s also a rather fine place to have a coffee and watch the world go by.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Kallio, Helsinki (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link) and flew to Helsinki with Finnair from Manchester. Book your flights via Skyscanner. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.

Take me back!

It’s safe to say my slight worries that Helsinki might be a bit too stale for me were well and truly allayed. This was my first ever trip to Scandinavia, and I’m already asking: when can we go again?

Have you visited Helsinki? What’s made you think “yay” or “nay” to Helsinki as a potential city break destination? Share your views below.

Go on, check these out too ...

, , , , ,

4 Responses to Why I’d have another Helsinki city break

  1. jJanne 20 June 2018 at 7:51 pm #

    Hi Julie. Thank you for this. Being a Finn it’s great to read blogs like this. And you certainly are the first Brit I know to appereciate delicious reindeer. A long time ago pIaying a kind host, I took some Brits out for a bit of rudolf and, oh no, it did not go down… (very well) at all. PS. And Tampere rocks. That’s why I live there:) If you have a soft spot for lakes, Tampere is located right between two of them.

    • Julie 20 June 2018 at 9:12 pm #

      Thanks Janne 🙂 What’s not to love about reindeer?! Having said that, I did draw the line at eating guinea pig in Peru, but only cos I had one as a pet as a child. Anyway, Rudolph was indeed scrumptious and I would highly recommend folks give it a go 🙂 I’m sure we’ll make it back to Finland and see some more of the place – we were seriously impressed 🙂

  2. Andy Holt 20 June 2018 at 12:50 pm #

    An interesting read . . . never been to Helsinki, but is on ‘the list’, however have done a few bits of Finland many years ago (travelled feom Tampere to Oulu and to Rovanemi above the Arctic Circle.

    Another trip worth doing is heading across to Tallinn – you can get the boat from Helsinki (or just fly direct). Tallinn is well worth a visit.

    You might want to give Norway a go too, again, like Finland it is all very well organised and things just seem to work (and whatever the weather). Our last trip there, travelling from Oslo, to Trondheim and Bodo by train and then by the Hurtigruten boat to Tromsø was fabulous – but chuffing expensive .

    Andy

    • Julie 20 June 2018 at 2:13 pm #

      Thanks Andy,

      I keep hearing good things about Tampere. Lahti seemed lovely from our short trip there (the lake was beautiful), and I understand Espoo is another “must do”. So many places … 🙂

      Tallinn is on the list for next time; it sounded great for a (long) day out from Helsinki. I’ve been rather put off Norway due to the chuffing expensive-ness, but those fjords do look incredible!

      Happy travels,

      Julie

Comments or questions? Share them here :)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: