Passing through Helsinki (Finland) and only have a few hours to spare? Stuck in a long and boring transit at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport? Fret not! Make good use of your time and explore the best of central Helsinki in 4 hours or under!
Helsinki is Finland’s largest city and its capital; the latter a title it has held since 1812. Founded in 1550, Helsinki (also known as “Daughter of the Baltic”) has long been the political, financial and cultural hub of the country. Its importance and fascinating history are evident by the historical monuments/buildings that dot the city central.
Located at the tip of a peninsula in southern Finland, Helsinki is well-connected (in both historical and transportation terms) to Stockholm and St Petersburg.
“Helsinki is located some 80 kilometres (50 mi) north of Tallinn, Estonia, 400 kilometres (250 mi) north east of Stockholm, Sweden, and 388 kilometres (241 mi) west of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Helsinki has close historical connections with these three cities.” (Source, Wikipedia: Helsinki)
My 8 hours transit at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport
While flying from Reykjavik (Iceland) to Singapore using Finnair in Jul-2014, I had the unfortunate (or fortunate on hindsight) opportunity of being assigned an 8 hours transit at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. True to my foolish nature, I had initially planned to laze away the 8 hours in the airport. That was until the astute part of me realized the possibility of pulling off a brief whirlwind tour of central Helsinki.
Upon checking the transport options between the airport and Helsinki central, I figured that if I took the airport bus (~35 minutes per way), I would be presented with a comfortable 4 hours window of opportunity (to tour the city) while still able to return to the airport 2 hours prior to my next flight. I required no further invitation.
Getting from Helsinki-Vantaa Airport to Central Helsinki
Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is located 18km north of central Helsinki. There are a couple of ways to get from the airport to city central.
During my visit in 2014, options include taxi, local buses and the Finnair City Bus. I opted for the Finnair City Bus as it seemed the most convenient method (€6.30 per way, frequency every 15 minutes, free wi-fi onboard, about 35 minutes to Central Railway Station).
Update (Sept-2015): As of July 2015, there are direct train services between Helsinki-Vantaa Airport and Helsinki Central. (source: finavia)
Self-tour of Central Helsinki
Helsinki is a very compact city. Many of the interesting and historical sites in the city central are located in close proximity and can be explored comfortably on foot. Below is the list of places I’ve explored (in chronological sequence) during my 4 hours self-tour of the city central at a leisure pace.
#1: Central Railway Station (Rautatieasema)
From the airport, the end point of Finnair City Bus is at Helsinki’s Central Railway Station. My self-guided tour of the city central would start here.
“All long-distance trains throughout Finland and the Russian cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg terminate in the heart of the city at the Rautatieasema (Central Railway Station). This station also provides easy interchange to the metro and tram lines.” (Source, Wikitravel: Helsinki)
The Central Railway Station is within short walking distance to the Central Bus Station at Kamppi Center, which is the terminal station for international and domestic long-distance buses.
#2: Esplanadi Park
Originally opened in 1812, Esplanadi Park is a very popular park in the city. Scenes of locals having picnics and music performances are common. During my visit, the park was filled with locals and tourist enjoying the summer sun.
#3: The Market Square (Kauppatori)
A stone throw away and on the eastern end of Esplanadi Park is my favourite spot, the famous Market Square of Helsinki.
“From spring to autumn, the Market Square is bustling with activity with vendors selling fresh Finnish food and souvenirs. There are also many outdoor cafés at the square.” (Source, Wikipedia: Market Square, Helsinki)
I was particularly excited by the stalls selling grilled seafood. Being a seafood lover, I couldn’t contain my excitement (and drool). After deciding on a particular stall with “better ambience”, I ordered 2 portions of grilled seafood and a bottle of beer. The seafood was great, serving relatively large and pricing reasonable. The dining area of the stall is nothing more than a few tables/chairs under the shelter of a tent. In spite of the simplicity of the setup, I greatly enjoyed having a meal in such interesting surroundings.
If you’re planning to visit the market, do leave enough space in your stomach for a meal there! Definitely a place worth visiting, not least for the seafood! (Note: Opening hours)
#4: Finnair Skywheel
Located on the eastern end of the Market Square is the conspicuous Finnair Skywheel.
Though not exactly a cheap attraction (adult ticket is 12 EUR), it does obviously offers a great view of the entire area. If you’re in the area and short of time for exploring, hopping onto the skywheel might offer you an easy way of having a quick aerial view of the area.
Word of advice: Get your photographic gears ready before boarding the skywheel. The duration of the ride appears to be rather short; you wouldn’t want to waste your time getting the camera ready while in the cabin.
#5: Uspenskin Cathedral
A short distance north of the skywheel is the Uspenskin Cathedral, which is located on a hillside.
“Completed in 1868 in the Katajanokka district of Helsinki, the Uspenski Cathedral is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. With its golden cupolas and redbrick facade, the church is one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history.” (Source: www.visithelsinki.fi)
#6: Senate Square + Helsinki Cathedral
A quick stroll away from the Uspenskin Cathedral is the Senate Square, which is the oldest part of central Helsinki. The main attraction of the square is without doubt the Helsinki Cathedral, which is situated on its northern end.
“The square is dominated by four buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel between 1822 and 1852: Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland. Helsinki Cathedral is arguably Finland’s most famous and photographed building; it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2002.” (Source: www.visithelsinki.fi)
“A statue of Emperor Alexander II is located in the center of the square. The statue, erected in 1894, was built to commemorate his re-establishment of the Diet of Finland in 1863 as well as his initiation of several reforms that increased Finland’s autonomy from Russia.” (Source, Wikipedia: Helsinki Senate Square)
After a brief stop for photo-shoot at the square, it is time to head back to the nearby Central Railway Station for my return bus trip to the airport.
Total time spent: 4 hours.
Map of the visited sites
|#1: Central Railway Station (Rautatieasema)|
Central Railway Station (Rautatieasema)
|#2: Esplanadi Park|
|#3: The Market Square (Kauppatori)|
The Market Square (Kauppatori)
|#4: Finnair Skywheel|
|#5: Uspenskin Cathedral|
|#6: Senate Square + Helsinki Cathedral|
Senate Square + Helsinki Cathedral
Being a compact city, central Helsinki is definitely convenient and easy to explore even for the unprepared. A tourist map is essentially all that is required for the impromptu visitor to find his/her way around this wonderful Nordic city. The close proximity of the main attractions makes exploration on foot easy.
Even though I spent 4 hours to explore the city, my guess is the same trip could be done in under 2 hours if adopting a “touch-and-go” approach.
So the next time if you’re in Helsinki and have a few hours to spare, go ahead and check out the city! You might be surprised by how much you can discover.
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