The Finnish capital may not attract as many visitors as other Nordic capitals, like Stockholm or Copenhagen, and that’s a shame because it has a lot to offer, even if you only have 48 hours in Helsinki. The city has a reserved, modern exterior covering a quirky, alternative heart and ultimately uniquely Finnish way of life.
If you have two days in Helsinki, this post provides a sample itinerary to follow that hits the highlights, as well as giving you a glimpse of the city’s coffee and sauna culture.
Contrary to what most people think, Helsinki is a year-round destination. You can have a great stay in both winter and summer, despite the freezing temperatures in Finland in the winter. I was very pleasantly surprised with my time in the city (and the coffee shops that were right up my alley).
Visit Helsinki in One Weekend
The Finnish capital sits on an archipelago of several hundred islands. Most of southern Finland is an archipelago, as Finland has the highest amount of islands of any country in the world.
The Helsinki metro area is home to 1.1 million people, approximately one-fifth the population of the country. So if you’re looking for the center of Finnish culture, design, and food, this is it.
48 Hours in Helsinki Itinerary
Arriving at Helsinki Airport
Like most airports in Nordic Countries, Helsinki Airport provides a fast train service right to the city centre. Follow the signs for the train and get an ABC ticket at one of the available ticket machines. A ticket from the airport to the heart of Helsinki costs around €4.10 at the time of writing.
Trains depart from the station every 10 minutes and get you to the main train station in half an hour. This provides your first opportunity for sightseeing.
Helsinki Central Station was designed by Eliel Saarinen, famed Finnish architect and father of another famed Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen.
In the front, you can see two giant male figures on either side of the door. These are known as the Lyhdynkantajat, or if you want a word you can pronounce, Lantern Bearers.
Morning: Sightseeing in Central Helsinki
The first morning you arrive in Helsinki, get to Helsinki Central Library Oodi (not to be confused with the Finnish Library). Take time to explore the space, which was created as a community gathering place for residents of Helsinki.
In addition to books and cafes, the library provides space to hang out in, classes in dance, art, coding, and a seemingly endless amount of musical instruments and other resources for locals to rent. Grab a coffee before heading back out in the cold. Take a look at the Finnish Parliament building across the street before continuing.
Then take a walk down Aleksanterinkatu, one of the main thoroughfares of the city. Take a detour slightly to the north, where you will find a giant square next to the main train station. Here, you can gaze at the Finnish National Theatre. Picturesque green trams barrel down this street, and plenty of shops, as well as city sights, are either on this road or just off it.
Ateneum Art Museum
Across the square from the National Theatre, you will find one of the most visited museums in Helsinki: Ateneum Art Museum.
This national museum is the premier art gallery of Finland. It focuses on Finnish paintings from the 1700s onwards.
Stop and take a picture of the Pohjola Insurance Building with its gothic exterior lined with monstrous faces. It’s just one of the many examples of strange but fascinating architecture in Helsinki. Then, continue walking until you get to Helsinki Cathedral.
Senate Square and the National Library of Finland
See the city’s crown jewel: Helsinki Cathedral
Almost every famous photo of Helsinki features Helsinki Cathedral looming over the rest of the city. Set on top of entirely too many steps, the white cathedral with multiple spires is an icon of the city that overlooks Senate Square.
If you’re here in December, you can also find the local Christmas Market in the square at the steps of Helsinki Cathedral. Nearby, you can also browse the shelves at the National Library of Finland.
Browse the Stalls at Market Hall
Combine sightseeing with a snack by having lunch at Market Hall. This market hall is right on the port and offers the best of Finnish food to visitors from all over the world. Get some traditional berry jams or other natural Finnish products.
I recommend having a salmon sandwich for lunch. Make no mistake, you will find salmon made in every way possible here in the market. Salmon seems to be a popular food in Finland, for good reason, as it’s a wonderful source of protein and nourishment found in abundance in the country’s cold northern waters.
Early Afternoon: South Harbor Waterfront
Relax at a Finnish Sauna
Take part in Finnish sauna culture by visiting Allas Sea Pool, or if it’s summer and the wheel is open, Original SkySauna, both just a few steps away from the market. These are two of the most prominent saunas in the city.
Allas Sea Pool has saunas and an outdoor pool as well as other spa services. Original SkySauna provides a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as you get to bask in a sauna while going around on a Ferris wheel.
It may not be a traditional Finnish sauna, but if you have just 48 hours in Helsinki, it’s worth it. You can gaze at the city center from above while enjoying a sauna experience. What’s more Finnish than that?
Of course, there are plenty of other public saunas you can visit in the city. But if you want to try to incorporate a sauna visit into a weekend of running around Helsinki, this may be the best bet.
Take a quick walk around the island of Katajanokka, one of the best examples of surviving Art Nouveau architecture in Helsinki. The island is small and has only a few streets, so it shouldn’t take more than half an hour or so to admire the beautiful architecture found in this part of the city.
Then, stop by Uspenski Cathedral on your way out. This Greek Orthodox church is dedicated to Dormition of the Theotokos, and bears a distinctive red design with cyan rooftops that make it a jewel in the Helsinki skyline. Uspenski Cathedral also happens to be the largest Orthodox church, not only in Helsinki, but in the entire country of Finland.
To finish up your sightseeing day before dinner and drinks, head to Suomenlinna Fortress in the late afternoon. It’s the only UNESCO World Heritage Site within Helsinki.
A ferry service runs from Market Square to the island the fortress is located on one to four times an hour. The short ferry ride lasts 15 to 20 minutes each way. Suomenlinna is actually spread out among six linked islands, which still form a part of the Helsinki archipelago.
Built in the 1700s, the Suomenlinna Fortress was erected by the Kingdom of Sweden as a defense against Russian forces. Sweden controlled Finland at the time, part of the reason Finland continues to count Swedish as an official language next to Finnish.
Prices for transport can vary, but the ferry cost 5 euros when I traveled.
The fortress still stands as a great relic of Finnish history, offering insight into bygone eras of Helsinki. There are also plenty of history museums you can visit on the island to take a deeper dive into Helsinki’s past.
Night: Eat and Drink in Helsinki
If you want to splurge on dinner, Ravintola Savoy offers incredible views over the city, while Kappeli provides a beautiful dining experience right on the city’s famous Esplanade Park. Both are a little pricey, but worth it.
Lastly, you can also try Grön, a vegan Michelin-star restaurant that is also one of the most exciting restaurants in the city. If you only have 48 hours in Helsinki, make reservations for most of these establishments ahead of time, as they can fill up quickly, especially in the high season.
For something a little easier on your wallet, try Ravintola Kuu for upscale Scandinavian cuisine and Restaurant Lappi for traditional cuisine from Lapland. This way, you can get a taste of northern Finland right in Helsinki.
If you want cocktails with a gorgeous rooftop view, head to Ateljée Bar. It’s a relatively upscale cocktail bar many Helsinki residents dress up for.
Morning: Design District and Cafes
Walk around the gorgeous Design District of Helsinki, where you can also stop by the Design Museum. This intriguing Finnish museum is devoted to industrial, fashion, and graphic design.
Helsinki was home to some of the most famous designers and architects in the world, including Eero Saarinen and Alvar Aalto. It continues to be one of the design capitals of the world.
Then, check out one of the countless coffee shops on the streets around the district. Finnish people drink the most coffee per capita in the world, so they know how to serve a good brew. If you have just 48 hours in Helsinki, you need to visit as many cafes as possible.
For one of the most popular and top-quality coffee shops in town, try Kaffa. It’s a premium coffee roastery with friendly, knowledgeable staff, a roaster on the premises, and some of the best brewed beans in Helsinki.
In the Design District neighborhood, you can also try Daebak, Cafetino, or Enchante Cafe. See if you can order a Korvapuust, or traditional Finnish cinnamon buns, along with your hot coffee.
If it’s summertime, try the Cafe Regatta further west. This cafe is housed in a cute little red cottage situated right on the sea, with outdoor seating. With warm weather, you can also spend time exploring Kaivopuisto Park to the southeast, one of the many great parks in Helsinki.
Visit the Rock Church
Walk north to get to Temppeliaukion Church. This interesting dome-shaped rock church is built right into the ground circularly. It’s one of the many examples of unique and forward-thinking architecture in Finland.
Lunch and Afternoon Explorations in Kallio District
Formerly a working-class Helsinki neighborhood that most bourgeoisie Finns turned up their nose at, Kallio District has emerged as an up-and-coming, laidback area with great restaurants, bars, and cafes.
Grab lunch at Restaurant Juttutupa, one of the oldest restaurants in the city. Then, in the late afternoon, stroll around the neighborhood checking out cool sights like Karhupuisto Park, one of the many cool green spaces in Helsinki, or try window shopping at vintage boutiques like Hippie Shake Records.
Dinner and Nightlife in Kallio
Grab a traditional Finnish dinner in the Kallio area, sampling Nordic cuisine like salmon soup. Or go for cuisine from almost any part of the world, as the Kallio neighborhood has a diversity of restaurants available.
At night, you can head back to the Helsinki city centre, or hang around the lively Kallio district, which is a pretty cool place at night with plenty of dive bars and clubs all around. For one of the best dance club complexes, head to Kaiku.
Day Trip Ideas
There are plenty of nearby destinations in and around northern Europe you can combine a trip to Helsinki with. If you have more than 48 hours in Helsinki, even just one more day, try taking a day trip. There are two great options you can choose from:
With a quick two-hour ferry ride, you can get to Tallinn and spend a good 6-10 hours in Estonia before heading right back to Helsinki. With just over 30 Euros each way, you can cross the Baltic Sea to visit a whole other country.
Tallinn is a beautiful city with medieval architecture and a fairy-tale-like atmosphere. A few hours gives you plenty of time to explore the cafes, buildings, and main Christmas market if you visit in winter. You can also visit sights like the House of the Blackheads.
Day Trip to Nuuksio National Park
If you have more days in Helsinki, you can also take a small day trip to see the Finnish countryside. Nuuksio National Park is just a 30-40 minute drive outside Helsinki. I went with a group and tour guide from GetYourGuide to spend a half day in Nuuksio and had a great time.
Walk among frozen lakes and snow-covered trees in the winter. Explore the green forest in the summer.
Transportation for 48 Hours in Helsinki
To get in and out of Helsinki from the airport or other parts of the country, you will have to go through Helsingin päärautatieasema, also known (in pronounceable terms) as Helsinki Central Station; the main train station of the city.
Otherwise, the center of Helsinki is easily walkable. You will also notice plenty of Finns on bikes, as cycling is big in Finland.
For those who would prefer not to walk or want to take a break, the tram and metro system is quite efficient. If you’re visiting, get a Helsinki Card with a duration of two days, which allows you access to the city’s top attractions as well as free transportation on public transport for 48 hours in Helsinki.
Otherwise, you will have to buy a ticket from one of the ticket machines (or the HSL app) for either zones AB, BC, or ABC. For most tourists, a zone AB ticket should work just fine, unless you plan on getting out to Espoo or the Airport.
Book Your Trip to Helsinki: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Unfortunately, Helsinki is not the best city for budget travelers. Since salaries are quite good in Finland, hotels and dining out are quite expensive.
Where To Stay for 48 Hours in Helsinki?
I stayed at Hotel Mestari and found the hotel to be warm, inviting, with comfortable rooms, and best of all, centrally located. From Hotel Mestari, I walked to pretty much every attraction and museum I wanted to check out in Helsinki. It was also quite affordably priced for a central hotel, at just over 100 Euros a night.
Otherwise, anywhere in the Kluuvi or Kamppi area is a great choice, as both are central neighborhoods in Helsinki.
If you’re looking for a more relaxed/young neighborhood slightly removed from the center of Helsinki, go up to Kallio. To stay in the design capital of Helsinki, check out hotels in Punavuori.
Have you been to Helsinki? What was your favorite sight in the city?