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What really struck us on our first visit, and even more strongly on subsequent trips, is that Helsinki is a city with a strange melange of identities. Maybe it's the Russian influence (St. Petersburg is less than a seven-hour drive from Helsinki). Maybe it's the strong appreciation of contemporary design -- the city is home to Marimekko, world-renowned for its boldly patterned textiles; Kalevala, known for distinctive bronze and silver jewelry; and Iittala, known for glassware. Or it could be the dark, cold and snowy winters that last half the year (fortunately, this is not the season for cruising), making folks here just a little bit wacky. This is, after all, the place where one annual festival features the tossing of Finnish-made Nokia cell phones and another popular mainstay is a wife-carrying competition.
Finland is cut off from Nordic neighbors like Sweden and Norway because of its near-inexplicable language. (It originated as an oral language, rather than a written one, so it's very difficult to follow.) The country itself, which was juggled back and forth over the centuries between Sweden and Russia, is also one of Europe's newest; independence from Russia was achieved in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution.
The historic Helsinki (it was founded in 1550 by Swedish King Gustavus Vasa) offers monuments such as the Lutheran Cathedral (Lutheran is the "state" religion), the onion-domed Uspenski Cathedral (it's Orthodox) and the neo-classical buildings in and around Senate Square. The sleek Helsinki can be found at Kiasma, the avant-garde Museum of Contemporary Art, and at the Design Museum. You can really feel the different identities on a trip around Helsinki.
Helsinki's other major plus is that it's bounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea. In summer Helsinki's waterfront is the liveliest place in Finland -- whether you're soaking up the sun at a cafe, riding the ferry to the island housing the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, or taking a boat tour of surrounding waterways.
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In Helsinki, most people speak both Finnish and English (and possibly Swedish, as well, because Finland officially recognizes Finnish and Swedish as national languages). However, if you explore much beyond the city's borders you'll find that English has less of a presence.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is euro. Get money from ATM's, which are plentiful in the main shopping areas.
Anything that's reindeer-related (from reindeer skins to etched crystal to magnets). And anything from Marimekko (we particularly like the packets of colorful paper napkins for $5 a pop).
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships enter and exit between a series of small islands (get your cameras ready!) and dock at the commercial port, which is about a 15-minute taxi or shuttle ride to the heart of Helsinki.
There isn't much to see or do at the pier (though there is a small Internet cafe there). On the ride to Helsinki, keep an eye out for the famous Kvaerner Masa shipyard, located not far from the pier. If you're lucky you might spy a cruise ship or ferry under construction.
Cruise ships typically offer a shuttle (most charge $5 - $10) between the ship and Kauppatori Market Square (at the harbor end of the Esplanade) or the Swedish Theatre (at the upper end of the Esplanade). Both are central meeting places in Helsinki. Taxis also line up at the cruise ship terminal; a cab to Market Square or the Swedish Theatre will run about $15. The city is very walkable, and once downtown, you'll also find a good trolley system (there is no direct service from the pier). At the Swedish Theatre you can catch hop-on, hop-off, double-decker tourist buses that take you to the major sights (for about $25).
Boat tour options abound and range from hour-long samplers of Helsinki's waterways to full-day outings. All depart from Market Square and offer commentary. Some offer lunch.
The city's waterfront is not only the take-off point for boats and ferries, but is also home to both indoor and outdoor markets (some vendors even sell their wares from boats). At Market Square (open Monday - Friday 6:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. - 8 p.m.; Saturday 6:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.), locals and tourists alike shop for flowers, fresh fruits and fish (herring is a local delicacy). There are cozy cafes that are terrific places for a quick coffee -- and it's a great place for people-watching.
Senate Square's prime attraction is the historic Lutheran Cathedral (Unioninkatu 2-9, open from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily). Another religious place worth visiting, also from the 1800's, is the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (Kanavakatul 1, Monday - Saturday from 9:30 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Sunday noon - 3 p.m.). The funky Temppeliaukio Church (Lutherinkatu 3, Monday - Friday from 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Sunday from 12:45 - 1:45 p.m. and 3:15 - 5:45 p.m.), is dubbed the Rock Church because it has been carved out of solid rock (it is a considerable walk to this church, so a cab or trolley may be advisable).
Museum-goers who want to know more about Finland's history should check out the National Museum of Finland (Mannerheimintie 34, Tuesday - Wednesday from 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. and Thursday - Sunday from 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.). Attracting quite a bit of notoriety is Helsinki's relatively new Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma (Finnish National Gallery, Mannerheiminaukio 2, open Tuesday - Saturday from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. - 8:30 p.m.). To learn about Finnish modern design, check out the Design Museum (Korkeavuorenkatu 23, daily 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.). Music lovers will want to visit Sibelius Park on Mechelininkatu (again, a long walk from downtown), home to an unusual monument featuring hundreds of steel pipes, that pays homage to the most famous Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957).
A 15-minute ferry ride away, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a must-do. This UNESCO monument, dating back to 1748, is set on a series of interconnected islands. Within the walls are numerous historic buildings and museums. Start at the Visitors Centre (Inventaariokamari) and work your way through museums such as: Suomenlinna Museum (11 a.m. - 4 p .m., Tuesday - Sunday) which displays military artifacts; the Suomenlinna Doll and Toy Museum (11 a.m. - 4 p .m., Tuesday - Sunday) and the Coastal Artillery Museum (11 a.m. - 4 p .m., Tuesday - Sunday), among others. The fortress is also a residential community -- and there are numerous cafes and restaurants as well as a brewpub.
We usually don't tell people to see train stations, but don't miss the one in Helsinki. It's our very favorite building in town, with an unusual, dark monumental design with giant Egyptian figures out front that have inspired set designers -- including those who created Gotham for the first "Batman" movie.
Helsinki, for lovers of art and artisan crafts, is a fabulousshopping destination. The newly designated "design district" offers numerous boutiques showcasing work from young Finnish designers -- head to Uudenmaankatu Street. The Esplanade, in the heart of the city, is Helsinki's version of Paris' Champs d'Elysee (it's a great place to pick up finds from Marimekko and Iittala; both have stores here). If there's a live concert (often at lunchtime there are free performances of dance and music), plunk yourself down in the grassy park or at one of the sidewalk cafes. Don't miss Stockmann, the city's most elegant department store. Beyond the usual fare it's got a nice array of Finnish made housewares (candlesticks and the like) and craft items from around the country, including Lapland (the northernmost part of the country and, supposedly, the home of Santa Claus). It's also got a huge bookstore with a good selection of works in English.
Been There, Done That
The Linnanmaki Amusement Park (Tivolikuja 1, open daily from 10 a.m.) features water slides, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel and an arcade. The park, set on a hilltop on Helsinki's outskirts, also offers a gorgeous view of the city.
On an island of its own just spitting distance from downtown, highlights of Korkeasaari, Helsinki's zoo (10 a.m. - 8 p.m.; "water buses" depart from Market Square every 30 minutes) include lynxes, wolves, vipers, brown eagles and, yes, reindeer.
Porvoo, Finland's second oldest town, is an hour's drive from Helsinki. With its preserved wood houses, Porvoo offers more of a sense of historic life in Finland than does Helsinki (many of whose wooden structures burned down in the 19th century). It's also a fun place to poke around in side streets, shop at one-of-a-kind boutiques and lunch in restaurants that serve traditional Finnish cuisine. During the summer months there are waterbuses that take the scenic route from Helsinki and offer a half-day there.
Highly recommended: Heureka, the Finnish science center, has more than 200 exhibits, many of them interactive. It's located in Vantaa, less than 10 miles from Helsinki.
For a casual sandwich on the go, head for the indoor hall at Market Square.
For Scandinavian-style gourmet lunching, Savoy (Etalaesplanadi 14, open Monday - Friday from 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.) and Sundmans (Etelaranta 16, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.) are good bets. Ravintola Teatteri (Pohjoisesplanadi 2, open daily from 11 a.m.) is a happening, bustling brasserie.
For a leisurely lunch and a chance to sample Italian cuisine with Finnish influences, head to chic Sasso (Pohjoisesplanadi 17, open Monday - Friday from 11:30 a.m. - midnight, Saturdays 1 p.m. - midnight).
Staying in Touch
Aim for CompuCafeHelsinki (Annankatu 27).
Best Choice for Getting Out of Town: After a short city highlights tour, take a 45-minute drive along the picturesque coast to the popular artistic center of Porvoo, a colorful, cobblestoned town that dates to 1346. Check out the Old Quarter and visit the art shops.
Best Choice for Adventure Seekers: Get outfitted with protective gear, board a special rubber boat with a fiberglass reinforced hull and powerful engine, and take a fast ride through the Finnish Archipelago. Full throttle is 40 knots, and yes, getting wet is part of the fun.
For More Information
On the Web: Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau or Finnish Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Baltic Ports
The Independent Traveler: Europe Bargains and Features
--Updated by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of "Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call."
Images of Lutheran Church and the Esplanade appear courtesy of Comma/Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau. Image of Market Square appears courtesy of Juhani Seppovaara/Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau. Images of the Contemporary Art Museum and the Sibelius Monument appear courtesy of Matti Tirri/Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau.