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Helsinki: Is It the Ultimate Destination for Families?

June 09, 2019
12 min read
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If you're looking for that happy place for your family vacation, Helsinki is the ultimate destination to bring your kids. Don't take my word for it: according to the United Nations 2019 World Happiness Report, Finland is the Happiest Country in the World.

On our most recent trip there, two things made me feel incredibly comfortable traveling with my family. First, the city is extremely easy to navigate, partly because of its size. Helsinki has only about 625,000 citizens spread across 82 square miles, and the city's public transportation system, which crisscrosses the city, is easy to understand. Second, I loved the people. Everyone we met, from housekeeper to boat captain, was gracious, friendly and welcoming. We truly understood why Finland was awarded this happiness title.

Visiting at any point of the year will have its advantages, but we found springtime to be ideal. The weather is no longer freezing cold and tourists are few. Hotel rates are also reasonably priced and using your points and miles is far easier than during the peak summer season.

Helsinki's Market Square is fun day or night, and a ride on the SkyWheel offers great views of downtown. (Photo courtesy of Elise Kulmala)

Helsinki With Kids

While visiting Helsinki, we discovered a ton of low key and enjoyable family activities. Here are some of my favorite top-rated destinations for kids of all ages:

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For the Little Ones

Helsinki Zoo — One of the oldest zoos in the world, Helsinki Zoo was established in 1889 and is home to more than 150 animal species. The zoo sits on an island and is reachable from the city by ferry. Hours vary from 10AM-4PM in winter to 10AM-8PM in summer and admission is about $18 for adults and $9 for kids 4-11. Purchase tickets online for a small discount.

The Zoo in Helsinki is a great place for kids to enjoy the animals and run off some energy. (Photo courtesy of Mari Lehmonen)
The Zoo in Helsinki is a great place for kids to enjoy the animals and run off some energy. (Photo courtesy of Mari Lehmonen)

Sea Life Aquarium — I don’t know about your family, but our kids have always been fascinated by aquariums. Sea Life in Helsinki offers a variety of tanks filled with colorful fish and even sharks. There’s also an ocean tunnel at Sea Life where you can walk below the sharks ... if you dare.

Admission is about $17 for adults and $13 for kids. Buy tickets online for a discount. For an extra five euro, get your kids the "Sea Life Ranger" pack which includes an activity book, magnifying glass, collector's cards and more. (That sounds fun for adults, too.) Hours vary from 10am–5pm to 10am–8pm depending on the season.

Kids love the Sea Life aquarium in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo courtesy of Sea Life Helsinki Aquarium)

For the Bigger Ones

Suomenlinna Sea FortressSuomenlinna is an 18th-century military sea fortress built to protect what was then part of Sweden from the invading Russians. Now it’s a World Heritage Site, complete with military museums, nature areas, and centuries-old artillery and defensive walls. There’s even an antique toy museum. The fortress is open daily, but hours and admission vary depending on the season and the specific area you wish to visit.

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Helsinki's Suomenlinna Fortress is impressive any time of year. (Photo courtesy of Jussi Hellsten)

Library Oodi — The brand-new Oodi Central Library in Helsinki offers way more than books. This architectural masterpiece boasts cafes, recording studios, sewing machines, 3-D printers, a room for gamers, heat-transfer machines, meeting rooms, a kids play area, and, yes, even books. The library is open 8am–10pm during the week and 10am–8pm on weekends and admission is free.

Library Oodi is worth a visit for the design alone. (Photo courtesy of ALA Architects)

For Kids of All Ages

Amusement Park Linnanmäki — With free entry, Linnanmäki has a fun vintage feel left over from its 1950s roots. With rides for kids of all ages, Linnanmäki is very popular whether you want to ride an old wooden roller coaster or a modern-day version. The park is open seasonally with varying hours so be sure to check before visiting.

The famous wooden roller coaster at Linnanmäki joins more modern rides for tons of fun. (Photo courtesy of Jussi Hellsten)

Porvoo — Located about an hour outside of Helsinki, this picturesque medieval town is known for its historic Old Town, with cobblestone streets, old red wooden buildings and tons of charm. Porvoo is also known for its chocolate factories, and there are several to visit that the kids will love.

The signature red buildings in Porvoo were originally built as warehouses in the 1800s. (Photo credit: Jussi Hellsten)

How to Get to Helsinki

Although Helsinki International Airport (HEL) is the largest airport within Finland, you are pretty much locked into the Oneworld Alliance if you are looking to fly nonstop. Within the US, Finnair flies nonstop routes from San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD), Miami (MIA) and New York (JFK). This means you can use miles from American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia or Alaska Airlines.

Both American Airlines and Alaska Airlines require 30,000 miles one way for an economy-class seat while British Airways and Iberia are distance based. This means you'll pay more Avios points from the West Coast than you will if you are flying from the East Coast. Some things to know: The Iberia Avios program only allows you to redeem for a round-trip flight when flying a partner airline, and the British Airways site does not always show partner award availability. Here is the best way to find availability.

British Airways Avios is a transfer partner between both American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, while Iberia Avios is only a transfer partner with Ultimate Rewards. Both programs have the same Avios currency and you can easily transfer points back and forth between the two programs. You'll also find that, at many times throughout the year, there are some generous transfer bonus opportunities (such as the current 30% bonus between Chase and British Airways Avios).

Once you arrive at the Helsinki Airport, there are two easy and economical ways to get to the city center — either by bus or train. The Finnair City Bus leaves from Terminal 2 every 20 minutes and takes between 25–30 minutes. The cost per adult is 6.80 euro (about $8) one-way, children ages 6–16 travel at half-price and those under 6 are free. Or, you can take the Helsinki Airport Train, which runs every 10 minutes during peak hours and will take approximately the same 30 minutes to get to the Helsinki Central Station. The cost is slightly less at 4.60 euro (about $5) one-way, children ages 7–17 receive a 50% discount and those under 7 are free.

Where to Stay in Helsinki

Helsinki offers a variety of choices for hotel stays, and surprisingly, there are actually a few points-friendly accommodations large enough for a family. To find a hotel that can fit a family of four in Europe is very rare without having to burn a ton of points. We've highlighted the best options below:

Radisson Blu Aleksanteri Hotel, Helsinki

Radisson is one of the few options in Helsinki were you can use a reasonable number of points to book yourself into a family room. Radisson properties are very prominent throughout Scandinavia and you'll find four of them right in the heart of Helsinki. One property in particular stands out for those looking to book with points. The Radisson Blu Aleksanteri Hotel, Helsinki requires just 55,000 Radisson Rewards points a night for a family room. A standard room at this property costs 44,000 Radisson Rewards points, so for just 11,000 more points a night your family can actually find a hotel that fits up to four guests.

The Radisson Rewards Premier Visa Signature is also offering the largest welcome bonus we've ever seen — 120,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days. This particular welcome bonus will give you two free nights in Helsinki in a family room.

(Photo courtesy of Raddisson Blu)

Clarion Hotel Helsinki

If you have Choice Privileges points at your disposal, the Clarion Hotel Helsinki is a great hotel to fit a family of four. One of the benefits of using Choice points is that a standard room costs the same number of points as a larger deluxe room or even a suite. This particular hotel offers two different room types that will accommodate a family of four. Both the one double bed, deluxe room and the one double bed, one-room suite allow you to have two rollaway beds in your room. For only 20,000 Choice Privileges points per night, this might be one of your best options when visiting Helsinki, pending availability. Best of all, guests get complimentary breakfast.

There are many ways to earn Choice Privileges points, including the Choice Privileges Visa Credit Card, transferring your American Express Membership Rewards at 1:1, Amtrak Guest Rewards points at a 1:3 ratio (only for Amtrak Elite members) or purchasing points during one of their more lucrative bonus promotions. The only issue with this program is that you can only redeem your points 100 nights out.

(Photo courtesy of Clarion Hotel Helsinki)

Hotel Katajanokka

Marriott has three properties in Helsinki, and the Hotel Katajanokka is unique. This prison-turned-hotel is a 15-minute walk to the city center or you can take the tram that stops right outside the property. A Category 4 hotel, you'll only have to redeem 25,000 Marriott points for a free night stay. Unfortunately though, when using points, you are limited to just two guests in the room. If you are traveling with a baby or prefer to book two rooms anyway, this is still a good option because of the low number of points required.

The other two Marriott hotels are more inside the city center, but are slightly more expensive at 35,000 Marriott points a night. These properties include the Hotel St. George and the Klaus K Hotel, which are right next door to one another and part of Marriott's Design Collection.

Since all properties are priced at 35,000 Marriott points or less, they are the perfect opportunity to use your free-night certificate from certain Marriott credit cards.

The Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki was converted from a former prison, and some of the details are still intact. (Photo courtesy of Hotel Katajanokka)

Bottom Line

With the plethora of activities and the warmhearted people, Helsinki is the ultimate European destination to bring your kids. You can also make it part of a broader European trip as every city has their own culture and charm. For all the reasons mentioned above, we truly loved our family vacation to this city and highly recommend it to all families.

Keep planning your European trip:

Featured image by Suomenlinna (Photo credit: Jussi Hellsten)