6 Things to Know Before You Go to Helsinki
This year marks Finland's 100th birthday and to celebrate, Finns are throwing a year-long party called Suomi 100 in honor of everything that makes the country great — it was also just named the fifth happiest country in the world. Thinking of planning a trip? Follow these six tips to make the most of your time there.
1. Lose the Guidebook
You don't go to Helsinki to see, you go to Helsinki to do. Instead of ticking the boxes and heading to this place or that attraction, step in stride with the Finnish lifestyle. By all means, peruse the stalls of Old Market Hall, brewpub-hop around downtown and take the ferry to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Suomenlinna, but to "do" Helsinki like a local? Visit Paloheinä to do some cross-country skiing — just prepare to be passed on the tracks if you're a beginner like me. There is no time for snapping selfies on these trails, folks. And to relax like a Finn, you'd better be down to sauna if sweating in a steam room followed by jumping in an icy body of water with total strangers is your cup of tea.
2. Public Transportation Is the Way to Go
Once you've landed at Helsinki Airport (HEL), you'll be about 30 minutes from the city center. Your cheapest bet to get into town is to catch the FinnAir bus; it's the same price as the city bus, but it makes significantly fewer local stops and offers free Wi-Fi — just buy your bus ticket from the driver when you board. Once you've dropped your bags in your hotel or Airbnb, your next stop should be the "R-kioski" convenience store, where you can purchase a public transportation travel pass at €8 (~$8.70) for the first 24 hours and €4 (~$4.35) for each additional day when you package the days together, giving you access to all city buses, trams, metro lines and even the (non-sightseeing) ferry. I found the trams to be the most frequent and fun mode of transportation — note that some tram lines stop running late at night, so make sure to familiarize yourself with alternate options or else you'll wind up paying for an expensive cab ride.
3. Cabs Are King
The taxi cab industry in Helsinki is heavily-regulated, and therefore quite expensive. However, if you're out enjoying the local brewpubs (more on that later) and you get to a tram stop only to find your line has stopped running until the morning, grabbing a cab is likely your next move. Know that taxis are not allowed to pick up passengers off the street, so instead of trying to hail one, look for the signs and head to a designated pick-up point — you'll likely see a pretty sizable queue of cabs waiting around. Also important to note: while Uber does technically exist in Helsinki, it's not that popular since drivers can be fined for not following strict rules or having the correct taxi permit.
4. Get Your History Straight
Street signs in Helsinki, like in many European cities, are found on the corners of buildings. Here, their names are also listed in two languages: first in Finnish, then in Swedish — a nod to the country's history as a former part of the Swedish kingdom. However, this lineage isn't to be confused with the ongoing centenary celebrations. Suomi — that's 'Finland' in Finnish — is taking place in honor of its independence from Russia.
5. Try the Beer and Whisky
Finland produces excellent beer as well as whisky, and you can sample much of the local stuff right in the city center. If you and your friends are interested in organizing a pub crawl, consider making stops at the following places: Bryggeri, a great spot for a large group as there are bars upstairs and downstairs, as well as an outdoor beer garden for those lucky enough to visit in the warmer months; Stadin Panimo, which is located in a seemingly-rundown industrial park but well worth the journey out of the city center; and Teerenpeli Helsinki, which not only offers a wide range of house-made beers, but also serves whiskies from its own distillery in Lahti, Finland. You'd be remiss to visit any of these fine establishments and not try one of the world's oldest beers, sahti — a mead-like beer that's flavored with juniper berries. This traditional Finnish beer is one of the very few primitive recipes still brewed in Europe today, and can be found in Finland's breweries, pubs or in Alko, the state-run liquor store.
6. Tipping is Optional
When your bartender pours your next pint, you might be searching for the tip jar, but more than likely, you won't find one. There isn’t a tipping culture here, but if you're feeling generous, round up your restaurant bill or leave a coin or two while you're waiting for your coffee. With a healthy national minimum wage, your server or barista doesn’t depend on it, but why not show your appreciation if you really enjoyed your experience.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Helsinki? Tell us about them, below.