Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is a fascinating city that is wonderful to explore both as a weekend break and as an interesting stopover destination. Due to its location high up in the Northern Hemisphere, Helsinki has huge seasonal changes in terms of climate and daylight hours. This one-day Helsinki itinerary is great for the summer when the days are long (18-19 hours of daylight!) and you have time to visit everything.
Whether you have a few hours between flights and want to choose some of the top attractions, are visiting for a few days or want to squeeze some sight-seeing while you’re on a business trip, this one day in Helsinki itinerary should give you plenty of ideas of what to see and do in the city.
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How to spend one day in Helsinki
Your one-day Helsinki itinerary will take you round some of the city’s best tourist attractions including historical buildings, churches, sculptures, and squares to give you a taster of the top spots. In between your cultural attractions you’ll want to pop in and out of Helsinki’s cafés, restaurants, and rooftop bars to try some local fare and take in the sights with a drink or a bite to eat. Baltic herring, pea soup, grilled sausages, and cabbage rolls are all savoury favourites and sweet treats like lingonberry pie and pulla (Finland’s version of cinnamon buns) are must-tries!
1. Central Railway Station
Helsinki Central Station, also known as Helsingin päärautatieasema, is the main train station in the city which thousands of people visit every day for both transportation means and as a tourist attraction. It is often featured in lists of the World’s Most Beautiful Railway Stations so it is well worth a visit.
The grand central station building was designed in an art nouveau style by Eliel Saarinen and the 48.5m clock tower is one of the city’s main landmarks. It is thought that around 400,000 people walk past and check the time here every day! The station also has two large “Lantern carrier” statues on each side of the main entrance which were designed by Emil Wikström as part of the Romanticism movement.
Helsinki’s Esplanadi is an urban park located in the heart of the city that is a favourite for both locals and tourists alike. Known colloquially as Espa, the Esplanadi is a lovely place to enjoy a stroll on a sunny summer’s day. The Esplanadi is situated between the Erottaja square and the Market Square and it’s, therefore, a picturesque way of connecting some of the city’s main sights.
If you do choose to visit Helsinki in winter, the Esplanadi is likely to be doused in snow and will feature Christmas lights and decorations which make it equally atmospheric and worthwhile visiting.
3. Market Square
Once you’ve walked eastwards down the Esplanadi, you will reach Helsinki’s Market Square. This is arguably the heart of the city where events and market stalls have been held for hundreds of years. There is always something different going on within the square so you might want to come and go here throughout the day (or over the course of a weekend if you’re staying longer).
Whether you’re visiting the market to pick up some snacks or souvenirs there are plenty of different stalls to fit the bill. The market square is also located right next to the harbor which allows you to connect to ferries to Suomenlinna, the Presidential Palace, and the Uspenski Cathedral.
Suomenlinna is one of the most fascinating sights in Helsinki as it is an 18th-century sea fortress situated across six linked islands. This fortress is quite unlike any other settlements across Europe, with interesting features like star-shaped walls, natural beaches, churches, and a museum. Suomenlinna can only be reached by boat but it is well worth a visit if you have the time.
Of course, Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist attraction, but what you might not know is that it is also home to around 800 residents!
5. Uspenski Cathedral
Uspenski Cathedral is a magnificent Eastern Orthodox church that is not only a tourist attraction in terms of its architecture, but it also gives an insight into the Russian impact on Finland. The grand, redbrick building stands proud against the neighboring buildings, and the golden cupolas glisten beautifully in the summer sun.
Uspenski Cathedral is over 150 years old and is considered the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. Inside the cathedral are a number of rare and valuable icons displayed on the alter and the colouful domes are intricately decorated with murals and mosaics.
Entrance to Uspenski Cathedral is free.
6. Senate Square
Senate Square in Helsinki is another huge focal point for the city as it is dominated by four buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel. These include Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland, and are supposed to represent the political, religious, scientific and commercial powers in the centre of Helsinki.
Senate Square also includes a statue of Alexander II as well as the Sound of the Senate Square installation which is a modern version of a glockenspiel that is played every day at 17.49. This is best heard from the middle of the square to really get a feel of the composition as it moves from building to building.
7. Helsinki Cathedral
The Helsinki Cathedral is one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks thanks to both its sheer size and its bright, white colour which is especially impressive in summer. The neoclassical church (now a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral) has a number of notable features including the large green domes, two free-standing bell towers, a sweeping staircase down to the square and larger-than-life sculptures of the Twelve Apostles guarding the city from the roof of the church.
The interior of the church is fairly simplistic in style but the organ is beautiful and if you can visit during one of the free organ recitals you’ll be in for a treat.
8. Temppeliaukio Church
The Temppeliaukio Church, also referred to as the Rock Church, is a relatively new addition to the city having only opened in 1969, despite having been originally designed back in the 1930s!
The Lutheran church is built directly into solid rock so the walls have a rustic, natural style, while the copper domed roof looks more like a sci-fi UFO than a church. This church is a completely unique work of architecture, with slatted sides allowing light to flood the building which changes the atmosphere depending on what time of day you visit.
The Temppeliaukio Church is now a popular tourist attraction thanks to its unique style and is often used as a concert venue due to its excellent acoustics.
9. Sibelius Monument
The Sibelius Monument, designed by Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen, is an abstract art monument in homage to composer Jean Sibelius. The Finnish composer once stated “Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.” and Hiltunen decided to commemorate this with a sculpture of a cluster of organ pipes.
Of course, critics were quick to comment that Sibelius has not composed much music for organs, so the designer added a second sculpture of the composer’s face next to the original so as to ensure there was no confusion as to who the monument was for.
The monument is a beautiful collection of around 600 abstract organ pipes put together in a soundwave pattern to represent the compositions created by the famous composer.
So, there you have it, the top sights that you should be able to see on a one-day itinerary in Helsinki. This will give you a great insight into the city’s culture, architecture and history and will leave you loving Finland’s capital and longing to return for more.
Where to stay in Helsinki
Here are my top tips on where to stay in Helsinki so you are well located for seeing the sights and enjoying the city’s food scene and nightlife.
The five-star Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorppa is one of the best waterfront hotels in the city with excellent views and a whole host of on-site amenities. It is located a short tram ride away from the city centre. The bedrooms are modern, clean and comfortable, as you would expect from a Hilton, and the large buffet breakfast offers you plenty of options to start your day off right. The Hilton also provides guests with access to a wellness centre including a gym, sauna and swimming pool so you can unwind after a day of sight-seeing.
Hotel Seurahuone is located directly opposite Helsinki Central Station so is ideally placed for exploring some of the city’s top sights. The building was designed in art nouveau fashion, with a castle-like roof, large windows, impressive interior domes and balconies, and intricate detailing throughout. The hotel features large bedrooms giving guests plenty of room to relax and guests can even choose their own menu to ensure their comfort is second-to-none. The staff at Seurahuone Helsinki are friendly, helpful and welcoming and will be able to assist you with planning your trip.