If you love exquisite design, it’s tempting to make a beeline for the galleries and museums. But just simply soaking in the city’s enthralling architecture deserves to be top of your list of what to do in Helsinki. Finlandia Hall is an excellent place to start: now housing the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, this acclaimed 1970s structure by Finnish design genius Alvar Aalto is an ice-cool lesson in geometric precision and clean, straight lines.
Temppeliaukio Church, an architectural child of the 60s, makes for one of the most dramatic things to see in Helsinki. Built into the city’s bedrock, its walls of rough, unfinished stone support a roof of warm copper. Concerts are regularly performed here, showing off the superb acoustics of this unique space, making it one of the most rewarding things to do in Helsinki for music lovers.
Older attractions in Helsinki include, the sprawling 19th-century neoclassical Senate Square, at the heart of the oldest part of the city. Bordered on all sides by grand neoclassical buildings mostly built in the 19th century, this is where Cold War thrillers Gorky Park and Reds were filmed, with the square standing in for Moscow and St Petersburg.
The UNESCO world heritage site of Suomenlinna is an 18th-century sea fortress built across six islands, and it’s definitely one of the most fun things to see in Helsinki for kids. They’ll love exploring the cannons and crumbling turrets, not to mention climbing inside the Vesikko, Finland’s only remaining World War II submarine. You’ll also find a fascinating military museum and, for contrast, Lelumuseo, a vast private collection of dolls and teddy bears open to the public.
Wondering what to do in Helsinki to relax after a day of sightseeing? There’s nothing more Finnish than a sauna. Kotiharju, in the trendy Kallio district, is the oldest wood-burning sauna in the city and one of the most traditional things to do in Helsinki.