I wasn’t sure what to expect from my day in Helsinki. In the words of one friend, Finland’s capital is “boring, boring, boring.” How damning! But another friend told me, “I loved it and I think that you will too.”
Helsinki, also known as the “Daughter of the Baltic”, occupies a peninsula and a fringe of several small islands. Surrounded on three sides by water, this natural seaport was founded by King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden (to which Finland belonged for many centuries) as a new trading post in southern Finland in 1550. The aim was to woo trade from the Estonian city of Tallinn, thus challenging the Hanseatic League’s monopoly on Baltic trade.
Today, Helsinki is known for not only its stunning natural environment but also its architecture, sauna culture, design scene and its unique gastronomy. But if like me, you are visiting Helsinki on a cruise and have only 24 hours or less to explore it, you will need to make some tough choices.
To help you make the most of your one day in Helsinki, here are some essential practical tips, including how to get from the cruise terminal, and my pick of what to see and do, framed within an easy walking tour.
How I visited Helsinki on a cruise
- Cruise operator: Celebrity Cruises
- Cruise ship: Celebrity Silhouette
- Time in port: 7 am – 3.30 pm
Getting to central Helsinki from the Hernesaari cruise terminal
The good news is that most of Helsinki’s main attractions are scattered over a relatively compact, and therefore walkable, area. The bad news is that unless your cruise ship berths at South Harbour, which is easy walking distance of the market square, you will not stumble across these attractions straight off the ship.
Larger cruise ships park up at Hernesaari cruise terminal, which is around 3 km from the centre of town. Here are your options for getting to and from this terminal.
I walked from Hernesaari cruise terminal into the centre of town. At an easy pace, this took me around 45 minutes. It is a lovely walk along the waterfront and was one of the highlights of my day in Helsinki.
Bus #14 will bring you to the centre of town in 15 minutes. The fare was €2.80 (cash only from the driver). A day ticket is also available for €8.
To return to Hernesaari cruise terminal, pick up the bus near Temppeliaukio Church, at the end of my walking tour, or at Kamppi metro station. Buses are frequent (every 10 – 15 minutes).
Cruise shuttle service
A local tour operator provides a multi-stop shuttle service, departing every 20 minutes. This costs USD 20 for a day pass; USD 10 for a one-way journey.
Hop on hop off buses
A red hop on hop off (HOHO) bus covering 22 stops also runs every 20 minutes.
This HOHO bus ticket costs €30.
What to see during one day in Helsinki
So now you know how to get from the cruise terminal to central Helsinki, let’s take a look at how you could use your precious time onshore. I did a self-guided walking tour which took in most of the sights that I wanted to see.
Starting from the market square, at a relaxed pace, this will take you three hours, more if you decide to linger, stop for a coffee or bite to eat or go off-piste. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
Helsinki walking tour map
To help you on your way, here’s a map of my Helsinki walking tour. Zoom and scroll on this map to pick out the walking route if necessary.
Now, let’s take a look at the Helsinki highlights that it covers.
Kuappatori (market square)
Helsinki’s waterfront market square, framed by stately 19th Century buildings, is a good place to start. If you are making your way from Hernesaari cruise terminal on foot, it will be the first landmark that you will come across.
The air perfumed with the scent of wild strawberries on sale from many stalls, this is a great place to pick up reasonably priced, handmade wooden souvenirs and jewellery.
If you haven’t had enough of being on the water, you can also pick up a sightseeing boat tour from here. I had and I didn’t.
Uspenskin Katedraali (Russian Orthodox Cathedral)
East of the market square, you can’t miss the gold onion domes of Uspenskin Katedraali, Helsinki’s 19th Century Russian Orthodox Cathedral.
Unfortunately, the ship docked on a Monday when the cathedral was shut. Therefore, I did not have a chance to take a peek at its reportedly lavish interior.
Time for a coffee break?
Of course, you don’t have to do this now but, for me, it was now coffee o’clock. Helsinki is known for its great cafes so try to fit in a pit stop somewhere along the way.
I can recommend the fantastic coffee and chilled-out vibe at Johan and Nyström, which I stumbled upon by accident. It’s around the corner from Uspenskin Katedraali at Kanavaranta 7C.
Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral)
Refreshed, my next stop was Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral. In contrast to the red-brick exterior of Uspenskin Katedraali, this is a stately, shimmering white neoclassical building.
Direct your gaze heavenwards to the zinc statues of the 12 apostles on its roof.
Helsinki’s train station
Whilst I am partial to a grandiose church or two, Helsinki’s train station was my favourite building.
Designed by the architect Eliel Saarinen, his Neoromantic temple to transport is recognised as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations. This glorious Art Nouveau building, opened in 1919, is clad in Finnish granite and is known for its clock tower and its two pairs of statues, holding spherical lamps, that grace its main entrance.
This was the “What the heck?!” moment on my Helsinki walking tour.
Opened in 2018, Amos Rex is an underground contemporary art museum, topped by five conical domes rising from the surface of Lasipalatsi Square. Resembling a gleaming lunar landscape, it has rapidly become a Helsinki landmark and is selfie-central.
Yes … another church. But you don’t see too many churches hewn out of solid rock.
With a gleaming copper dome covering its 25-m diameter roof and slatted windows allowing the light to play patterns across its floor, this is an extraordinary building. It will cost you 3 Euro to enter but is worth every cent.
Is Helsinki worth visiting?
I neither loved Helsinki nor did I find it boring.
Surrounded by water, Helsinki is in a spectacular location. However, after a devastating fire in 1808, the city was rebuilt by the Russians in the typical 19th Century modern European style, all large boulevards and squares. Therefore, the city does not have the medieval charm of its erstwhile rival Tallinn.
But I do think that you need more than one day in Helsinki to uncover its treasures. Given more time, I would have loved to explore more of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture, of which I had only a tantalising glimpse. And I did not have time to explore its islands and Suomenlinna, the maritime fortress built during the Swedish era.
Ultimately, visiting Helsinki on a cruise just gives you time to scratch the city’s surface but, as another friend would say, this will give you a reason to make a return visit.
Helsinki – Practical advice for cruise passengers
Language – Finnish, Swedish. English widely spoken.
Currency – Euro. However, cards are widely accepted, even as payment for small purchases such as a cup of coffee. Therefore, I did not bother getting local currency and used my card instead.
Tipping – As a service charge is added to your bill tipping is not expected in Finland. However, if you feel that the service was exceptional, you can leave a small tip.
Getting around Helsinki – As most of the main sights are grouped close together, your best bet is to get around on foot. However, if your feet are tired, the city has an efficient bus, tram and metro system
The Helsinki Card – Similar to that available in Copenhagen, this discount card gives you free admission to over 25 of Helsinki’s tourist attractions as well as a free bus tour of the city. At 42 EUR for a one-day card, it is expensive, and as I was spending just one day in Helsinki I felt that I would not get value out of the card.
However, depending on how long you are in port for and where you plan to visit, you might arrive at a different conclusion. Think about where you might be able to visit and how much individual tickets and transport will cost compared with the cost of the Helsinki Card.