Wondering what to do in Helsinki in winter? Here is my guide of the best things to do in Helsinki during winter.
Helsinki is booming. I first went to Helsinki on a press trip in 2016, and I was surprised to see how much the city had changed in just 18 months. Even in the dead of winter, the city was full of life. Locals weren’t hibernating and hygging at home, the bars and restaurants were packed.
I have always been a fly by the seat of my pants traveler. I end up meeting people along the way and using their recommendations to decide how I want to spend my time. When Charles and I were in Tallinn, Estonia on New Years Eve we ended up meeting three guys from Finland, who kindly entered their top picks for where to eat and what to do in my phone. Thanks to their help we got to see Helsinki more like a local – and we loved it. Here is what to do in Helsinki in winter.
What to Do
Go to a Sauna
I am listing this first because I think it is the #1 thing you should do. When I went to Helsinki in 2016 we didn’t have time to go to a sauna, so we made a point to go this time around. (Plus, the two most popular public saunas in Helsinki hadn’t opened yet). The Finnish guys that we met in Tallinn highly recommended Löyly, a sleek new eco-friendly wood heated sauna that opened in June 2016. It is located just beside the chilly Baltic sea, so you can take a dip when you get too hot. We both managed to dip into the 36 degree water three times, something I am quite proud of.
There are 3.3 million saunas in Finland, which is a lot considering that the country’s population is just 5.5 million. Saunas are a big part of the culture in Finland, and a nice way to experience Helsinki like a local. Löyly’s saunas are co-ed which makes it a perfect option for couples who want to hang out together. If you have a group of friends, you might want to consider reserving the private sauna. In addition to the two saunas (one hot, one extra hot), Löyly has a rooftop terrace where you can lounge in warmer months, a restaurant, and an area with a fireplace where you can hangout and drink beers in between sessions in the saunas.
Löyly is popular, so you should make a reservation. A two-hour reservation costs just 19 Euros. We left Löyly feeling relaxed and warmed up from inside out, which is just how you want to feel in the dead of winter in a Nordic country. Oh and you might be curious, yes, you will need to wear a bathing suit. (My husband tells me that this isn’t always the case with public co-ed saunas in Europe [insert shocked face here]).
Another popular public sauna is Allas Sea Pool (pictured above), which is just beside the Ferris Wheel in the harbor. Like Löyly, the saunas are public, and Allas is located on the Baltic so you can hop in to refresh yourself. Allas offers a wide variety of events ranging from wine and stretching to skinny dipping.
Visiting this group of six small islands off the coast of Helsinki is listed as one of the top things to do in the city. The island was used as a maritime fortress during the Swedish era and today you can explore the fortress, visit the church with a lighthouse beacon on top of the dome, drink beers at the brewery, and learn about history at the museum. Suomenlinna fortress is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and you can easily spend half at day there.
We lucked out when our time in Helsinki coincided with Lux, a pop up display of light installations that takes over downtown for one weekend a year. There were 11 installations in total, all within a short walking distance from eachother, and thousands of people quietly and calmly walked through the streets to see them all. The installations ranged from lights made out of found objects hanging from trees to elaborate light displaying being projected onto some of the city’s most famous buildings.
Where to Eat and Drink
Visit Helsinki kindly made us reservations at Yes Yes Yes, which the guys we met in Estonia told us is currently the #1 restaurant in Helsinki. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that it is a vegetarian restaurant, which was refreshing after eating many meat based meals during our trip.
The restaurant is so gorgeous that you would have no idea that the space used to be home to a McDonald’s. The restaurant opened in November of 2017, and serves small plate meals meant to be shared. We feasted on dishes like avocado, pistachio, and parmesan dip served with homemade tandoori bread, a rigatoni with squash, ricotta, and tomatoes, and a cauliflower steak with blue cheese and burnt lemon. The restaurant has plenty of vegan options too.
This was one of the best meals that we ate during our trip. Roster is part restaurant, part bar, and part lounge that opened in June 2016 – seriously a lot has happened in Helsinki since I visited in May 2016. It is also completely gorgeous, vintage pieces are combined with modern accents to create a restaurant that feels like home with velvet booths and golden metallic light fixtures. The menu changes weekly, and emphasizes farm to table meats and seafood. I had a delightful risotto with parmesan and toasted almonds.
Sometimes you just want pizza, and our hotel recommended Pjazza. I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t point out that food in Helsinki can be very expensive (but, the food is excellent). Pizza at Pjazza was the most affordable meal we had, and we genuinely enjoyed the authentic Italian style thin crust pizza.
After loving our experience at Löyly, we put our full faith in the recommendations given to us by the guys we met in Estonia. They told us to go to Kallio, Helsinki’s bohemian/hipster neighborhood where the bars give off a punk 90s vibe. The guys specifically recommended Siltanen, a space with communal tables lit by surgical lights hanging from the ceiling. We enjoyed sipping on local beers and hanging out in the bar surrounded by locals. Siltanen serves food too, and it looked very good, just we had just eaten.
From Siltanen we walked down the street to a punk rock bar where the tattooed bartender with a mohawk told me about how much he loved going to a Chicago Bears game. This place was packed and they have a big selection of beers, including local brews.
This restaurant is located in the Old Market Hall where they serve breakfast, lunch, and pastries. I had a veggie burger composed of perfectly roasted vegetables piled on top of one another. It is incredible easy to find great vegetarian food in Helsinki.
Where to Stay
Opened in summer 2015, this is regarded as Helsinki’s best hotel. It’s centrally located, and has trendy/quirky furnishings with a modern meets Art Deco style. The least expensive room options are for a Comfort King and Comfort Twin room. We travel in Europe frequently, and it can be rare to find a hotel that doesn’t up-sell you in order to get a king sized bed. The room also had a desk and plenty of space. The breakfast, which was included, was plentiful and served in the bright beautiful onsite restaurant. Rates start at $154 a night.
This hotel opened in 2016 and is also located right downtown, just around the corner from Lilla Roberts. We were staying one night in Helsinki before going to Lapland, and then two more nights in Helsinki after Lapland so I thought we would check out two different hotels. Since we were in F6 for just one night, I booked a Deluxe room which had a couch and sitting area. Like Lilla Roberts, breakfast a big breakfast buffet was included in our stay. Rates start at $180 a night. If you are torn between Lilla Roberts and F6, you really can’t go wrong, pick the one with the better rate.
Last time I was in Helsinki I stayed at Hotel Katajanokka, which is housed in a former prison. The hotel was just embarking on a renovation and today the rooms look beautiful. I should mention at the junior suites have their own private saunas. This hotel also has one of the most amazing hotel breakfasts that I have ever experienced. I am not a morning person and the massive breakfast buffet made me excited to start my day. Rates start at just $133 a night.