Can you ‘do’ Helsinki in a day? You won’t see everything the city has to offer on a Helsinki day trip from Tallinn, but you’ll get a taste of Finnish culture before returning to the cheaper and more laid back Estonia. It’s the best of both worlds for travellers on a budget.
Getting There and Getting Around
There’s more than one ferry company going from Tallinn to Helsinki, but some aren’t so reliable; you could risk being stranded overnight on the wrong side of the water. I chose a two-hour crossing with Tallink (€32pp), having paid online and checked in online to save a few extra Euros. The crossing was smooth, but the facilities weren’t brilliant (limited food choices, few seats and hardly any toilets). However, you can sit in the food court area by Burger King without buying anything, and nobody bats an eyelid.
Try the 07:30 crossing if you’re gung-ho, but otherwise the 10:30 is more reasonable; you depart from Area D of the Tallinn ferry terminal. Unfortunately, the terminal in Helsinki is quite far out from the sights (check on a map and you’ll see – closer terminals are available but don’t actually serve this ferry company). I walked to and from central Helsinki, but on reflection I’d suggest taking a bus, tram or taxi.
Some side-streets are hard to navigate as they don’t bear much resemblance to the layout on city maps. Luckily the main streets are much more straightforward, but it’s a shame that going off the beaten track is much harder to do. Luckily, English is spoken everywhere, so don’t be afraid to ask for directions. See the Visit Helsinki website for more tips.
Sightseeing in Helsinki
The Päivälehti Newspaper Museum (Ludviginkatu 2-4, free entry) might sound dry, but it’s fascinating – and not just for journalists! This is an absorbing and stylish museum, where most exhibits are interactive and available in different languages too. Topics include global technology, infographics, media censorship and the history of a major Finnish newspaper; find out more here. Wander around the neighbouring streets afterwards, as they’re part of the design district.
HAM, the Helsinki Art Museum (Tennis Palace, Eteläinen Rautatiekatu 8, tickets €10/8), is the usual mix of brilliant and disappointing contemporary and 20th century art: you will love and hate exhibits in equal measure, but you’ll also learn loads about Finnish artists. Plus, anywhere with a food-related acronym surely gets a thumbs-up, right? Look out for the not-so-well-signposted third floor, which I nearly missed altogether. On the way to HAM, pop into the Central Railway Station, which is the city’s most visited building.
Helsinki City Museum (Aleksanterinkatu 16, free entry) recently hosted the touring Museum of Broken Relationships. A permanent exhibition describes Helsinki through residents’ eyes. Prefer something more obscure? The Hotel and Restaurant Museum (Tallberginkatu 1G, tickets €7) is probably niche enough. It’s holding a ‘Women in Work’ exhibition, highlighting underappreciated women’s roles in hotels and restaurants, until 8th January 2017.
If you’re not a museum fan, catch a ferry from Market Square to some of the nearby islands. One of the most tempting, Vallisaari, has only recently opened to the public, having previously been occupied by the Finnish Defence Forces. It’s full of wildlife and a complete contrast to Helsinki, but just 20-30 minutes away by boat (return tickets €7).
Shopping in Helsinki
Because both countries use the Euro, you won’t need to change any money for your day trip. This makes it much easier than border hopping from Copenhagen (Denmark) to Malmö (Sweden), for example, where currency isn’t interchangeable, despite some travel websites’ claims.
There are loads of recognisable high street shops in Helsinki but time is of the essence, so don’t visit them unless you love a brand. Instead, support local designers and ethical labels such as Globe Hope (Aleksanterinkatu 28), which sells upcycled fashion made from car tyres, computer circuit boards, Army uniforms and more. Next, pop into Uff charity shop (Fredrikinkatu 36 and other locations), Pure Waste Concept Store (Yrjönkatu 34), and Remake Store (Annankatu 13), then track down antiques shops in Korkeavuorenkatu. Just be aware that many places close at 16:00 on a Saturday and Sunday and don’t open at all on a Monday. How they make money is beyond me…
Obviously the Moomins are a big draw for tourists shopping in Finland. Pick up some Moomin memorabilia at Iitala Helsinki Esplanadi (Pohjoisesplanadi 25), a classy homeware store established in the 1950s. Also find Moomin souvenirs at the HAM shop, as HAM displays some of creator Tove Jansson’s paintings and rightly celebrates her work.
Your independent shopping adventure continues at Antikvariaatti Senaatti (Sofiankatu 8), in the Tori Quarters, which might not look like much from the outside, but sells a wealth of second-hand books at decent prices. Lastly, Weird Antiques (Tyynenmerenkatu 6) is probably my favourite shop, and an unexpected treat close to the ferry terminal. The owner is obsessed with Americana, so cowboy/bowling/baseball shirts are all on offer, alongside old truck stop signs, Hawaiian kitsch and fairground machinery, and a ton of LPs. It’s a must for any vintage fans.
Eating Out in Helsinki
Even buying a bottle of water or a snack is more expensive than in Tallinn. If you’re used to London prices, you’ll be less shocked by the mark-ups here (€6-7 for a pint), otherwise bring some supplies with you. Cheap-looking kiosks can have steep prices too, but shop around and you might find a bargain.
I splashed out on a cinnamon roll and an iced coffee in an iconic café, which came to the equivalent of £10. Even Londoners would baulk at that price. Café Engel (Aleksanterinkatu 26) overlooks Senaatintori, or Senate Square, in a building that dates back to 1765. The façade was designed later by Carl Ludwig Engel, who also worked his magic on the Dome of Helsinki and several university buildings. The views of the cathedral, and the opportunities for people-watching, make this a great place to stop and refuel.
Alternatively, try Café Esplanad (Pohjoisesplanadi 37) which is open until 21:00 every day. For meals on the hoof, Helsinki has several market halls adjacent to each other: the Old Market hall, the Hietalhati and the Hakaniemi. Anyone planning a summer 2017 trip should consider the island restaurants, open from May-September; book before you travel, then enjoy dinner at the waterside.
A day trip to Helsinki from Tallinn is definitely possible and worth the jam-packed schedule to see more of the sights. Don’t miss your chance to discover a bit of Finland.