17 Magical Things to Do in Helsinki in Winter

“Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass. Welcome.”

These are the actual official words of Finland’s tourism board in 2016 and I have to say… they aren’t entirely wrong.

Helsinki in winter is rough, significantly colder than my previous forays into Nordic winter travel when I visited Stockholm in the winter.

And winter in Helsinki was dramatically colder and wetter than nearby, lovely Tallinn, where I had just come from via ferry.

Planning your wintery Helsinki trip in a hurry? Here are my quick picks.

 ❄️ Best Helsinki Tours & Experiences
1. City & Suomenlinna Guided Tour (Helsinki’s UNESCO site!)
2. Helsinki Architecture Tour (the best of the city’s design!)
3. Helsinki Card (free public transit and museum entry!)

🛏️ Best Helsinki Hotels
1. Hotel St. George Helsinki (lovely design hotel with lots of art!)
2. Scandic Simonkenttä (mid-range Nordic chain hotel)
3. Eurohostel (budget hostel with free sauna!)

Arriving in Helsinki by plane? Book your airport transfer here with Welcome Pickups.
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However, Helsinki residents are hardly fazed by the rough winters, and the city goes about business as usual even on the darkest and iciest days of the year.

Plus, there are plenty of lovely indoor things to do in Helsinki (and some cool sights worth braving the cold temperatures for) so you’ll be able to escape the cold periodically.

The best tip I have for surviving Helsinki in winter is to make like a Finn and drink all the coffee and take all the saunas.

There’s a reason that Finnish people drink the most coffee per capita in the world, and that reason is winter. Also, there are more saunas than cars in Finland – yes, seriously.

There are 2 saunas for every 5 Finns, so yea, this is definitely a country that takes its saunas seriously (it even has a city that its designated the Sauna Capital, Tampere!).

Without further ado, here are my tips for surviving – and even enjoying – Helsinki in winter.

And if Helsinki is just your first stop on a Finland winter itinerary, Rovaniemi in winter is likely up next — read this post to help you plan the winter in Rovaniemi and Lapland portion of your trip, too!

17 Things to Do in Helsinki in Winter

Day-drink some glögi at the Christmas Markets

View of the Helsinki winter Christmas markets during the evening hours with gorgeous little red chalets and a Christmas tree.

Like many countries in Europe, Finland has joined in on the Christmas market fever.

Unfortunately for me, however, I just happened to miss out on it arriving in the last week of November.

You see, I attended the opening night of the Christmas market in Tallinn the week before, so I assumed mayyyybe I’d be able to see the Helsinki market when I arrived there later that week.

Nope – no dice. The Helsinki Christmas market has one of the shorter running periods.

This year, it’s open from December 1–22, 2023. Still, if you happen to be in Helsinki in December when it’s still open, this is one of the top things to do!

Considered one of the oldest Christmas festivals of its kind in Finland, the Christmas Market starts on December 1st, a day known as Little Christmas in Finland.

This is the perfect time to go shopping for unique trinkets and handcrafted souvenirs, as well as traditional festive Christmas foods and drink – especially hot mulled wine, called glögi in Finnish.

Winter in Finland is harsh and long, and because of this, Finns love having something to celebrate in the winter — hence all the Christmas cheer!

Take a frosty day trip to Suomenlinna

Frosty waters with ice blocks and snow-covered island fortress of Suomenlinna near Helsinki in winter

While Helsinki’s winter temperatures are daunting, and seeking refuge in cozy museums or cafés is tempting, it’s worth the effort to visit Suomenlinna, even in winter.

A key storyteller in the tumultuous narrative of Finnish history, characterized by conflict and survival, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a unique testament to Finnish heritage.

From its origins in the mid-18th century, this monumental sea fortress has played a crucial role in defense strategies, repelling numerous historical invasions.

Spread across six interconnected islands, the fortress is a blend of human ingenuity and natural island topography, creating a barrier that sheltered Helsinki from potential aggressors.

The outdoor walking trails offer a gorgeous journey through park areas, linking historical structures like the King’s Gate Drawbridge and various intriguing sites.

View of some of the key buildings and structures on Suomenlinna in the winter with misty waters and snowy island

For a respite from the cold, the Suomenlinna Museum provides historical insights, while the Submarine Vesikko offers a glimpse into naval history aboard a restored 1930s submarine.

If the cold becomes truly biting, the Suomenlinna Brewery, located near the ferry terminal, promises internal warmth via a selection of diverse beers on tap!

Despite winter’s grip, Suomenlinna remains readily accessible via regular ferry services from Market Square. Allocate several hours, or even half a day, to fully appreciate the breadth of this historical marvel.

While visiting on your own is definitely possible, a guided tour greatly enhances the knowledge you get from one of these tours.

I recommend this tour, which includes a guided tour of Helsinki via bus as well as a tour to Suomenlinna plus roundtrip ferry tickets.

Note that this tour only runs 4 times a week: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Book your Helsinki city & Suomenlinna tour today!

Check out the Helsinki Cathedral by day or night

The white architectural facade of the Helsinki Cathedral with the Christmas tree lit up in front of it.

Helsinki is celebrated for its forward-thinking vision when it comes to design and architecture, and the modern-looking white Helsinki Cathedral stands as one of the city’s prime examples of Neoclassical architecture.

Interestingly, while the word cathedral makes most think of Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, Helsinki’s Cathedral is actually part of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran sect.

It’s the brainchild of the German architect Carl Ludvig Engel, and since its construction in the mid-19th century, the building has undergone several name changes.

For visitors braving the Helsinki winter, the cathedral offers a beautiful sight day or night, whether its the Christmas Markets of December or the Lux Festival in January (2024’s dates are January 3rd through 7th), when the cathedral becomes a canvas for captivating light installations!

Take a traditional Finnish sauna at Löyly

The Helsinki public sauna area with ice swimming outdoors and a Ferris wheel behind it

Going to a Finnish sauna is a very special thing to do and clearly, if you go to the trouble of visiting Helsinki in the winter, you should at least get to enjoy this traditional piece of Finnish culture!

I had never been to a Finnish sauna before, but it’s a really incredible experience!

The best place to experience the Finnish sauna culture is Löyly, a gorgeous blend of modern architecture and sauna culture!

The sauna is public, with separate locker rooms and showers but a shared sauna room (mixed gender) – therefore, bring appropriate swimwear.

A two-hour sauna session costs 23 euro and includes a towel, seat cover, soap, and shampoo.

Each additional hour is just 10 euros, so you can really make a day of it if you like for not too high a cost.

I recommend you book in advance online; however, walk-ins are available if there are spare lockers.

Take a Finnish food tour

Samples of Finnish food like caviar, smoked fish, potato, bread, etc. on a Helsinki food tour

For a nice way to warm up in winter, taking a Helsinki food tour is a great way to get insight into Finland’s culinary traditions.

Guided by a local foodie, you can savor lunch at a local restaurant and taste traditional treats from the Market Hall.

You’ll taste a few quintessentially Finnish treats, like cold-smoked reindeer meat from Lapland, the unique ‘bread’ cheese, the deliciously tangy cloudberry jam, and Finnish coffee.

Along the way, you’ll learn stories of Finland’s past and present through its food, allowing the food to illustrate the story of the Finland.

Go on a Helsinki architecture walking tour

Modern design black spiral staircase in the new Oodi library in Helsinki Finland

Helsinki deserves its reputation for architecture and design, home to an eclectic mix of architectural styles that is rare to see within a single city.

From the elegance of Neoclassicism and the boldness of Gothic Revival to the intricate designs of Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, and the minimalism of Nordic Classicism and Functionalism, the cityscape of Helsinki narrates a diverse architectural tale.

The best way to understand Helsinki’s design scene is through an immersive architecture walking tour through its most impressive landmarks, led by an expert guide.

This tour showcases the best of the best of Helsinki, including the genius designs of the National Library of Finland, Central Railway Station, Oodi Public Library, the Chapel of Silence, and Kiasma, among others.

You’ll get to explore the interior of unique structures like the Rock Church and the iconic Finlandia Hall and learn about famed architects such as Engel and Saarinen, understanding their contributions to the city’s architectural legacy.

Catch both sunrise and sunset

View of locals of Helsinki walking around and going about their day in the winter as the sun rises late in the morning

One of the fun things about visiting Helsinki in winter is that it is easy to catch both sunrise and sunset on the same day.

The short days come with a positive trade-off: ample prime-time photography hours, but without the insanely early wake-up calls.

In December, sunrise is roughly between 9 AM and 9:30 and sun sets around 3:15 PM — so it’s very easy to catch both sunrise and sunset in a single day, not to mention the lovely twilight and blue hours.

In fact, I really suggest doing so — you’ll want to maximize your sunlight hours, or you risk getting your Circadian rhythms totally out of whack as I did.

Stroll around a festive Senate Square

Adorable paste colored Christmas market stalls in baby blue, pink, yellow and green as the sun sets in Helsinki

While you don’t want to be outside for too long in the Helsinki cold, Senate Square is certainly worth braving for a short visit, even on the darkest and coldest of days.

Whether you visit independently or as part of a city tour it’s worth a visit for its history and atmosphere.

Senate Square in Helsinki has been an important trade center for centuries and is still the heart of life in Helsinki’s center.

In winter, it’s mostly Christmas markets, but there’s usually still a few vendors after the Christmas market is over.

Still, more people visit the market hall (below) in the winter because it’s, well… freezing out.

Shop and sample at the Old Market Hall

A festive decorated Market Hall in Finland with Christmas trees and Christmas lights

The Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli in Finnish) has been around since the last years of the 19th century, but it’s been renovated very recently to renew its splendor.

It’s conveniently located very close to Market Square, and it’s a place to find some of the finest Finnish gourmet items.

There are numerous vendors for all sorts of local specialties, including freshly caught fish from the Baltic Sea and Finnish soups to warm you up from the cold.

There are also unique and unusual items for sale, such as moose meat and reindeer gloves, that have a distinctly Finnish feel!

Warm up in the Helsinki Design Museum

Winter view with snow of the famous Helsinki Design museum with some cars in front on a early evening view

Over the last few decades, design has become synonymous with Scandinavian and Nordic countries, and Helsinki is no exception to this rule.

Aesthetics are simply big in Helsinki and so it follows that there would be a museum dedicated to Helsinki’s crush on design.

And it makes sense: just like Danes love their hygge (just see Copenhagen in winter for the proof), Finns also stay indoors for a large portion of their winter.

You might as well be indoors in a delightfully cozy, soul-warming, aesthetically pleasing environment!

This museum is one of the most unique ones in Helsinki, featuring all sorts of photographs and design items that exemplify

The building was constructed in the late 19th century by architect Gustaf Nystrof to be a study collection for arts and crafts, but in the late 20th century, it transitioned into a full-fledged design museum.

Winter Tip: Planning on visiting several museums and attractions in Helsinki?

They tend to add up quickly, so I recommend using a Helsinki Card to save money and encourage you to sightsee more.

By spending the money in advance and having it as a sunk cost, you’ll be less likely to skip worthwhile sights in order to pinch a few pennies, which will improve the quality of your time.

This card includes lots of museums and attractions, as well as free public transportation and lots of discounts. It’s available in 24, 48, or 72 hour increments.

Explore the Helsinki Art Museum – in or outside its walls

Photo Credit: Leena Karppinen / Helsinki Marketing

You could say that the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) is one of the largest in the world, because HAM calls itself a “museum the size of Helsinki.”

With nearly half of its 9,000-piece collection spread throughout the city in key locations, that is a fair claim to make!

Possibly one of the most unconventional museums in the world, HAM doesn’t have a singular dedicated building.

That’s because its works are proudly displayed all over the city, with the idea that the people actually own the works.

With literally thousands of works displayed across parks, offices, streets, libraries, and more, this museum presents Finnish art both in and outside of the museum walls.

While you definitely could technically “see” the HAM Helsinki Art Museum without ever stepping into its walls, the central building is definitely worth a visit and the 18 euro admission charge, especially if it means getting warm!

Tip: Admission is also free on the last Friday of every month!

Admire the works at the Ateneum Art Museum.

The lovely Finnish National Gallery, hosted at the Ateneum Art Museum, is another excellent choice for a way to spend a winter day in Helsinki to get out of the cold.

Housed in a 19th-century architectural masterpiece designed by Theodor Höijer, the museum features a diverse array of works from the 1800s through the 20th century.

It features prominent Finnish artists like Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Helene Schjerfbeck, while also honoring international talents such as the Impressionists, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin.

General admission costs 20 Euros, or it is free with a Helsinki Card or a Museum Card.

Check out Helsinki’s more contemporary artistic side.

Many of the old-fashioned art museums have the same few dozen artists in common — but the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (Nykytaiteen Museo Kiasma in Finnish) promises something unique to Helsinki.

The contemporary wing of the Finnish National Gallery, tickets cost 20 Euros or are free with a Helsinki Card or Museum Card.

Housed in a strikingly modern building designed by the American architect Steven Holl, Kiasma challenges traditional expectations in art with a diverse array of thought-provoking contemporary works.

The museum’s collection and exhibitions reflect a commitment to diverse perspectives and mediums, with their exhibits designed to provoke dialogue about modern issues and art’s role in life.

Kiasma features an ever-changing exhibitions of Finnish and international artists as well as its own permanent collection.

Visit the Helsinki Winter Garden

Cactus in Talvipuutarha Helsinki Finland at the Helsinki winter garden succulent display area

The Helsinki Winter Garden, or Talvipuutarha in Finnish, is a lovely green oasis amidst the city’s stark white snowy winter landscape.

Established over 125 years ago, this garden features over 200 plant species, and it’s a delightful contrast to the icy Finnish winters.

Housed within a beautifully preserved glasshouse, its three distinctive rooms display a wide array of flora, including exotic plants and succulents, seasonal flowers, and palm trees.

Best of all, it’s absolutely free!

Head out to Nuuksio National Park

A snow-covered landscape of evergreen trees as well as a snowy bridge in a national park near Helsinki Finland in winter

One of the best things about Helsinki is how close to nature the city is!

Not only is it right on the Baltic Sea, but Helsinki is also close to a stunning national park, as well as lovely Finnish Lakeland.

The gorgeous Nuuksio National Park is located very close to Helsinki, perfect for an easy trip into the Finnish snow-covered landscape without straying too far from the city.

From Helsinki, you can simply catch a regional train to Espoo and then head onto the national park either independently or on a guided tour.

This tour runs throughout the winter season (though it can often sell out, so buy in advance if you want to go!)

Explore the charming city of Porvoo

If you want to visit one of the most picturesque towns in Finland, you should add a day trip to Porvoo to your Helsinki winter itinerary.

An old and historic town merely 50 kilometers from Helsinki, Porvoo has been an inspiration for Finnish artists over the centuries, and when you visit, you’ll see why.

It’s hard to say what’s the most charming about Porvoo: its crooked and peculiar cobbled streets, its lovely red shore-houses painted in honor of King Gustav III of Sweden, or the way nature and landscape meld together as if a painting.

You can easily visit Porvoo by train, which costs around 10 Euro each way when booked in advance online.

However, you can also take a guided day tour from Helsinki, which may be more convenient for some people who prefer a little more guidance when it comes to understanding the history and top sights of the town.

It does sell out in advance because the groups are rather small, so book here if you want a guided tour.

Head across the Baltic to Tallinn for even more winter magic!

One of the incredible things about Helsinki is that you are just a 2-hour ferry ride from the capital of another amazing country, Estonia.

Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval Old Towns, and so it has a certain charm to it that Helsinki can’t quite replicate – especially when Tallinn is coated in snow.

As I mentioned earlier, Tallinn also has earlier Christmas Markets, so if you are a little too early for the Helsinki markets, it can be a good day trip to make!

But even if it’s out of Christmas market season, Tallinn is worth visiting for its stunning colorful buildings, its unique sense of preserved history, the interesting museums, and the vibrant street art on the streets of hipster Kalamaja.

Plus – it’s decidedly cheaper than Helsinki (I wouldn’t blame you for bringing some beer back with you over to Finland like the Finns often do!) so it is a great day trip if you are on a budget.

The ferry is affordable and runs frequently.

You can easily book your ferry tickets online via GetYourGuide if you plan to visit Tallinn independently (book online here) or you can opt for a day tour that includes a guide (which you can find here).

Where to Stay in Helsinki in Winter

Budget: Eurohostel

Want a cheap option but also to feel like a little bit of a baller with a free morning sauna?

Look to Eurohostel, which offers clean, wallet-friendly dorms, singles, doubles, and triples – perfect for a variety of budget-seeking travelers!

Located in Katajanokka, Eurohostel is an easy walk or tram ride to all of Helsinki’s main points of interest.

Check availability and prices here!

Mid-Range: Scandic Simonkenttä

I’ve stayed at a number of Scandic Hotels in the Nordics and I always find them to have a fantastic price to quality ratio.

There are a handful of great-looking Scandic options in Helsinki, but the best location in my eyes is Scandic Simonkenttä, located in Kamppi in the city center, a short walk from Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square.

It has a gorgeous boutique design in the lobby and common spaces, spacious rooms, elegant room decor, and best of all – free sauna and gym access.

Check availability and prices here!

Luxury: Hotel St. George Helsinki

For a sleek, boutique 5-star design hotel full of Finnish art, look to Hotel St. George Helsinki in the trendy Kamppi area.

The building dates back to the 1840s and has been renovated beautifully to feature tons of luxe amenities like on-site restaurants, bars, and even a bakery, plus a sauna, indoor pool, gym, and spa.

The bathrooms feature marble floors, a rain shower, and luxurious free toiletries.

Some of the suites have perks like balconies or terraces (though in winter this may not be so useful!) and the St. George Suite even has a private sauna — though the prices for this suite may make you sweat!

Check availability and prices here!

4 thoughts on “17 Magical Things to Do in Helsinki in Winter”

  1. I see you have had quite an adventurous time at Helsinki, Finland! The structures of the Helsinki museum and cathedral really look beautiful. I must say you are a wonderful photographer. I also liked the way you shared with us your stay at Helsinki in winter. I learnt a lot from your post and will definitely visit Helsinki with family and friends!

    Reply
  2. I just booked flight to Helsinki on 21/01/20(my birthday) for 5 days…I know what you mean by calling us badass lol, my friends thinking I must be crazy but hey, I cannot wait truly..I also want to go to Lake Bodom, my fav.band is children of bodom, I am glad I found you web site 🙂 Pat.

    Reply
    • Hi Pat, that sounds absolutely amazing — enjoy your trip and don’t worry too much about the weather, it’ll be amazing! Just be sure you make the most of the limited daylight 🙂

      Reply

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