If you are visiting Helsinki city in Summer you should almost have the place to yourself. Most Finns head off to their Summer Cottages in the countryside, especially during July. Helsinki becomes a ghost town except for the small army of young people who take jobs as summer workers.
A starting point for most tourists is some sort of Helsinki city tour but don’t get stuck in the city too much. Be sure to get out and enjoy some of the unique oddities of Finland. These usually involve sun, sauna, lakes/sea, Finnish food, and a bit of nudity.
Below are 12 ideas if you want to see and try something a bit different while in town. Most of them are reasonably priced or free.
1. Visit a Nuclear bunker
One of the advantages of living next door to a Nuclear superpower is that you get good at building cool nuclear bunkers.
Under the Finnish Civil Defense Act 1958, municipalities need to build bunkers for their inhabitants to withstand a 100 kiloton nuclear bomb. Finns being the resourceful people they are don’t let these bunkers sit empty. They have been converted into lots of different facilites. (video on the topic)
A few notable bunkers to check out:
2. Island Hop in the Espoo Archipelago
Scheduled boats run in the Espoo Archipelago between June and September (check the dates from the website). Adult tickets at the time of writing are €12 per day (hop on hop off) or €6 if you want to just go to the main island of Pentala. Kids under 18 are half those prices and those under 7 are free.
There are many places to catch the different boats from (see the route map below). The schedule is usually best on the weekends.
I recommend taking the blue line from either Kivenlahti or Soukka as that route has the most number of boats per day.
There is a full Archipelago guide here.
(Click to enlarge route map)
3. Swim in a lake and grill Finnish sausages
The best lakes around Helsinki are in Nuuksio National Park, about 35 km from downtown Helsinki. There is Public transport out there if you don’t have a car. The lakes mentioned here have grilling places and wood so you can start a camp fire and grill yourself.
Finnish sausages are not the nicest sausages you will ever taste but they are very deeply embedded in the culture. The most famous brand of Finnish sausages is Wilhelm. You can buy them from any supermarket. Don’t forget to also buy the Finnish Turun sinappi (Turku mustard).
Nuuksio National Park Lakes:
- Hynkänlampi – A 45 min walk from the Pirttimäki car park (also bus stop) at the top of lake Bodom. Take the blue track west around the loop (shortcut on the Green track back if you want). The track is well marked. (Best if you want a nice hike)
- Myllyjärvi – A 10 min walk from the Myllyjärvi car park. Just follow the path up the hill and when you see water turn right and walk across the rocks until you see the jetty. (Best if you want a quick walk. No official grilling place so bring your own disposable BBQ.)
- Haukkalampi – A 15 min flat walk from the Hukkalammentie small car park. (Also possible to catch a bus out that way but it’s a 30 min walk to the car park from the main road where the bus drops you off. (Good wheelchair access. Also, a nice circle walking track if you want to take it)
- Sorvalampi – A 2 min walk from the Sorvamäki car park. Especially nice in the afternoons an hour before the sun sets. You can swim or walk around to the opposite side of the lake where there is a big rock.
- Kaitalampi – A 5 min walk from the car park. This lake is very long and deep so great if you like swimming longer distances. (Slightly outside of Nuuksio bust still quite close. Grilling places available on the east side of the lake)
Other lakes that are closer to Helsinki and still reasonable to swim in (residential houses around them so not as clean)
If you are around Helsinki city you are better off swimming in the sea than any of the lakes. Outside of the Helsinki Metropolitan area all lakes are usually very good to swim in. Just make sure there is no build-up of algae.
4. Hang out at a Finnish library
With long cold winters, people in Finland, especially the youth have few places to go. Local authorities have worked hard to transform libraries into a social and interactive place where people can learn and spend time together.
Libraries in Finland go well beyond the usual books, periodicals and music to offer all sorts of opportunities to pursue hobbies ranging from playing musical instruments to woodwork and all the way to robotics and 3D printing.
There are places to watch movies, play video games or board games with friends or strangers. There are occasional performances, talks, exhibitions, and seminars.
Youth get dedicated teenage rooms where they can be louder than usually allowed. There are pool tables or table tennis and other active games. Volunteers also get involved supporting different activities including speaking Finnish with immigrants to help them integrate and improve their skills.
Some good examples of these interactive libraries include:
5. Have a proper Finnish Sauna experience
Odds are if you haven’t been naked with a bunch of strangers or sat on a bench so hot it burns your bum you haven’t had a proper sauna experience. Finns like the sauna temperature between 70°C – 100°C. Visits to the sauna usually last less than 5 min followed by a plunge into cold water.
Most public saunas in Finland segregate men and women. It is expected that individuals are naked for hygienic reasons. Community saunas do not segregate male and female and swimsuits although frowned upon are optional.
About as authentic as it gets is Sompasauna which is a community-run sauna by the sea in Helsinki. (pictured above right. A short video) Entry is free but you need to bring your own water to wash after you dip into the sea. The sauna is usually already going and there is sufficient wood there brought by volunteers but feel free to also bring some.
Other good saunas include:
- Arlan Public Sauna – In the Kallio district in Helsinki. Opened in 1929 it is one of the oldest continuing saunas. It costs €12. You can sit outside to cool off but there is no lake to plunge into (Here are the opening hours. They are not open on Mon and Tue)
- Kaurilan Sauna – Located in the north of Helsinki. It is an authentic wood sauna. It costs €16. (Here are the opening hours. The sauna is usually privately booked but they have specific public times for women and mixed sauna)
- Cafe Kuusijärvi – Located in the north east in Vantaa. This place is great for ice swimming in the winter but is open all year. They have two electric saunas per sex running – one at close to 100°C and the other at a milder 70°C. Entry is €6 for the electric saunas and €12 for their smoke sauna which is unisex (swimsuits mandatory). Here is the website.
- Löyly Sauna Complex – Located in the heart of the city. Probably the fanciest and least authentic experience. It cost €20. You also need to book your time in advance. (here is the website) If you fear public nudity this is the one for you as they force everyone to wear swimsuits.
6. Take a canoe out for a picnic
The best place in Helsinki to rent a canoe or kayak from is the Regatta Cafe Boat rental. (here is the website) 2 hours rental is usually under €35 per boat.
There is a Rajasaari dog park island which can be circumnavigated or the more distant Seurasaari Open air museum island if you are feeling more energetic. Both routes are shown here.
Boats can also be rented from the following places around Helsinki:
- Hakuna Matata SUP Rental – On Töölö bay right in the middle of the city. Slightly more expensive than Regatta boat rental. (Here is the website)
- Natura Viva Rentals – On the far east side of the city in Vuosaari. They have a good range of gear and are reasonably priced. (here is the website) They also do more expensive half-day tours with kayaks to Nuuksio National Park.
- Skipperi.fi – This is a good option if you want to rent rowboats. These guys have boats in different locations. You have to sign up for €25 for the season. They also have power boats but it’s a bit more complicated and expensive to hire those.
- JVDeal Oy Rentals – Located in the west of Espoo. They also hire Jetski’s if you are feeling lazy. (here is the website)
7. Ride an Icelandic horse
It’s hard in Finland to find riding schools that are interested in one-off visitors. They usually have regular students who pay a monthly fee.
Talli Fageräng is a rare exception that allows people to book a one-off ride on their Icelandic horses.
They cater to experienced and novice riders. Children are also welcome but they need to have the written consent of their parents. The website is here.
Icelandic horses are very lovely. They are popular in Finland because they are hearty and handle the cold weather easily. They happily live outside all year round. Their temperament is very gentle but they can be a bit stubborn or mischievous like you might expect from a pony. (There is a Finnish horse breed called the Finnhorse but mot so many riding schools have them)
- The maximum weight for a rider is 80 kg
- Maria doesn’t like to take last minute bookings plus the place is popular so book your ride a couple of weeks in advance
- Some of the horses are a little bit older which makes them good for novice riders
- The ride is mostly a trot or walk so lower your expectations if you are an experienced rider. You will go as slow as the most inexperienced rider. (Maria might be able to help you find a more experienced group)
- Makes sure your travel insurance covers horse riding
Updated: Another place recently discovered is Vantaa Iceland Horse Stable (Fagur). They also seem to have similar services. Prices start at €45 for an hour. They can be contacted via email or phone (040 845 2828 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
8. Do a Treetop Adventure
If you like climbing up in the trees and are not scared of heights one of these two places could be good for you. They have courses at difficulty levels.
There are courses suitable for kids but a bit of confidence is needed as once they start the course they are clipped onto a cable and unless removed from it by staff, there is no going back.
The best place is called Adventure Park Zippy just north of Helsinki city center. (this is their website) They have some pretty cool zip lines between the trees. They charge €25 per person or €85 for a family of 4. You need to bring your own gloves or buy them for €4.
Another good option is Seikkailupuisto Huippu in Leppävaara Espoo. (this is their website). They have very good and high treetop courses. Prices for adults are €25 and kids range from €12 – €18 based on height.
Both places are very safe and provide all the safety equipment.
As a side note if you enjoy climbing, there is also a very good climbing gym called Kiipeily Areena in Ruoholahti in Helsinki city. It’s a pretty amazing place with some massive indoor climbs. They also have some easy climbs for kids. (this is their website)
9. Shoot off some rounds
Gun ownership in Finland is currently third highest in Europe just behind Montenegro and Serbia.
There is an active hunting and sports shooting community but gun ownership has been on the decline since rules tightened following a string of massacres over the last decade.
While it may be getting harder to own guns in Finland its not that hard to rent and shoot them. Nested in downtown Helsinki are two pistol shooting ranges run by Osuva Range and Training. (formally the Helsinki Shooting Club)
There is a mandatory 50 min introductory training session for €60 which includes everything (instruction, ammo, gun rental, target and range fee) After that it is €25 for range entry, €15 for gun rental and whatever the cost of your bullets are.
Be sure to follow instructions carefully. These people are still on edge after a crazy lady shot up a bunch of their people a few years back. (one of those massacres)
10. Take Road trip into the countryside
Finland has a bunch of very beautiful little roads that wind their way through forests and around farms.
The secret is to look for roads with 4 digit numbers. 3 digit roads can also be good. You can’t go wrong. Here are some good ones:
The Kings Road – a medieval postal route between Norway and Russia.
Pick it up from here in Espoo behind the old Manor house and head west. If you manage to follow the signs it should spit you out here near Järvikylä. From there head north west on the 1130 road.
Fiskars and Fagervik loop – two very nice traditional Finnish towns.
Make your way towards Lohja on the 1130. Get onto the 1070 north of Lohja and head north west. Intercept the 104 and head south west to Fiskars. From Fiskars head towards the 1103 towards Fagervik. From there follow the 1050 towards Ingå. From there make your way back to Helsinki (you can optionally also take a detour to Raseborg before you head to Fagervik)
Porvoo drive – also a lovely Finnish town east of Helsinki. The 1521 to Sippo is a good start followed by 1494 & 1491 (longer loop) onto the 1531 or directly from the 1521 onto the 1531. Once you hit Porvoo there are some nice roads south to the islands (1543, 1551, 1552) but they are one way so you need to drive back. To get back to Helsinki take the 170.
11. Eat some cheap Finnish street food
You probably won’t get sick but it sure isn’t healthy.
Finns love their greasy burgers overflowing with sauce, pickles, and mayonnaise, especially when they are on a bender.
This particular dish pictured on the right is called Makkaraperunat.
Just look for the words Grilli on a sign. They usually are open late at night to cater to their hungry clients when every other shop has closed.
The fewer the stars it has on google reviews the more authentic your experience will be.
Below are a few well-known ones:
12. Go on a Scenic flight
Finland is lovely from the air, especially when the weather is good. There are professional companies who offer scenic flights like Nordic Flight. (Update 2022: Seems they have gone out of Business)
If you don’t mind less experienced pilots who are building hours Wingly is a great platform for arranging flights with non-professional pilots who cost share the flights with you. €50 – €100 per person should get you a good adventure.