12 Places to take your tweens & teens to experience the history, culture & fun of Helsinki
If you’re planning a trip to Finland, chances are it will begin in the country’s capital and largest city, Helsinki. My family and I love Helsinki for several reasons.
Firstly, it’s doable. The entire population of the greater Helsinki metro area is around 1.5 million; that’s smaller than the population of metro Milwaukie. Most of the sights that you’ll want to see are easily accessible by walking or public transportation. And nearly everyone speaks English.
Secondly, Helsinki has a vibe all it’s own. While walking its streets, you’ll see Scandinavian influences in the pastel-painted buildings and Russian influences in the orthodox churches and monuments, but the Finns dominate the world of architecture and design in their own right. From the Marimekko textiles in the downtown stores (and on your flight, if you fly Finnair to Finland) to the futuristic design of the city library, a simply stroll around Helsinki is surprising, exciting, and new.
Thirdly, Finns have a connection with nature and the sea that’s apparent even in the middle of Helsinki. Make sure you make time to explore at least one island in the archipelago surrounding the city.
No matter where your travels take your family in Finland, budget at least two days to explore Helsinki. Here are 12 places to visit with kids, especially those hard-to-please tweens and teens.
KidTripster Tip: If you plan on seeing more sights than are listed here, you may want to buy the Helsinki Card. It covers admission to 28 attractions and gives discounts to another 25, plus the card covers public transportation. The card can be purchased for 1, 2 or 3-day sightseeing. If you plan on using the card to cover your transportation from the airport, purchase it online in advance. Cost: Varies.
KidTripster Tip: If you don’t buy the Helsinki Card, plan to purchase a single day or multi-day transit card. You can do it at a kiosk or on the HSL app. The card gives you unlimited access to the trams, buses, and most ferries, making traveling around Helsinki seamless.
Photo courtesy: Visit Finland
1/Suomenlinna Sea Fortress & neighboring islands
Opened year-round, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is one of the most popular attractions in Helsinki. The fortress was built in the mid-18th century when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom. It was later attacked by the Russians and surrendered. In 1991, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Especially during the summer, the island serves as a getaway for locals looking for recreation and relaxation, though you may be surprised to learn that the island does have year-round residents.
Once you arrive, stop in the visitor center to get your bearings. While the site itself is free to visit, you can pay extra for a guided tour (mostly during summer), or you can download a free app to guide you. One tour that’s particularly popular with families and should be booked in advance is the English-speaking tunnel tour on Fridays at 5:30 p.m. (summer only). Tour cost: Youth about $4; Adult about $12, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: While your teens may not be very interested in the exhibits at the Suomenlinna Toy Museum, it’s worth going there for the cinnamon rolls in the adjoining cafe. Owner Petra makes them fresh every morning. Honestly, they’re the best rolls that we tasted in Finland… and yes, we did a lot of taste-testing!
To reach the island, you’ll need to take a ferry operated by the Helsinki Region Transport Authority (HSL). Depending on the season and time of day, ferries run one to four times per hour from morning until night. You can catch the ferry at the docks on the east side of Market Square, opposite the Presidential Palace. The ferry arrives at the main pier on the north side of the island. No tickets are sold on board. You need to purchase them at the HSL ticket machines. The trip takes about 15 to 20 minutes. For a look at the timetable, click here. Have your cameras ready to take photos of Helsinki from the water. Note: during the summer, the last ferry doesn’t depart the island until 2 a.m. Cost: Youth (under 7) Free; Youth (7-16) about $3; Adult about $5, depending on the exchange rate. The ferry is included when you purchase a HSL transit card.
From May through September, a waterbus service also runs between Suomenlinna and the mainland. Click here to see the timetable. Cost: Youth (under 7) Free; Youth (7-16) about $4; Adult $8, depending on the exchange rate.
After you’ve visited Suomenlinna, consider island-hopping to nearby Vallisaari, Lonna or Seurasaari Islands.
Photo courtesy: Juha Kalaoja/Visit Finland
2/Amazing architecture & design
As I mentioned, the Finns are on the cutting edge when it comes to modern architecture. You’ll see examples all around Helsinki. There are two places in particular that I think your teens will dig.
First, the library. Stick with me here! Oodi (Töölönlahdenkatu 4), Helsinki’s central library, is like no library that you’ve ever seen before. This striking building made from glass, steel, and wood is just as interesting on the inside as it is on the outside. Simply walk in and explore its three floors. Then grab a coffee in one of the cafes and sit down. You’ll see that the Oodi is not only a library but a central gathering place for Helsinkians.
KidTripster Tip: Outside the library, you’ll find a jungle gym like no other. I’m serious when I say it’s more for teens than toddlers. There are large gaps where a small child could fall through. Challenge your older kids to get from one side to the other. Honestly, I couldn’t do it!
I also recommend seeing Amos Rex (Mannerheimintie 22-24), a modern art museum. Before your teens roll their eyes, let them know that they don’t have to go in. Instead, check out the exterior. It’s a playful, outdoor landscape straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Perfect for an Instagram photo, you’ll see local kids here on bikes, scooters, and skateboards.
KidTripster Tip: If your kids have some serious skills (read not for novices), you could rent one of the city scooters around the corner and let them have at it.
Note: For reference, a photo of Amos Rex is at the beginning of this article.
3/Unique churches & cathedrals
Ok, I know what you’re thinking, “My teens aren’t into seeing churches or cathedrals.” To be honest, mine aren’t either. However, these churches make my list because of their distinct design aesthetics.
First on the list is Helsinki Cathedral (Unioninkatu 29) on Senate Square, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and typically pictured in any skyline photo of Helsinki. It’s a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral, originally built as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. You’re free to roam inside from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at no charge. During the summer, a small shop and cafe operate in the back corner of the cathedral where you can grab a coffee or ice cream.
KidTripster Tip: If it’s winter and you’re looking for warm shelter while touring, step into the Helsinki City Museum. There’s an exhibit here, “Time Machine,” that takes visitors on a 3-D, virtual reality-assisted tour of Helsinki through the ages that your teens may find interesting. If you’re traveling with younger kids, too, you can spend some time in Children’s Town. The museum is located between Helsinki and Uspenski Cathedrals. Cost: Free.
Next, take a look at Uspenski Cathedral (Kanavakatu 1), the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe. While less than 2-percent of Finland’s population belong to the faith, it’s a visual reminder that the country was once ruled by Russia. The red brick cathedral with its golden cupolas photographs like a painting.
The next church is my personal favorite and distinctly Finnish in its design. Kamppi Chapel of Silence (Simonkatu 7) is a rounded church with no corners. The exterior is made from spruce; the interior is alder, and the inside door is ash. It’s meant as a place of quiet meditation. In fact, our guide told us that commuters are encouraged to stop here on their way home from work to decompress; staff members are on standby to talk to anyone who’s struggling with stress. You’re free to enter, but you need to be absolutely quiet and don’t take photos. Kids fighting? Send them in here!
The last one is the church that I still can’t pronounce - Temppeliaukion Church (Lutherinkatu 3). Fortunately, everyone refers to this Lutheran church as “the church of the rock” or “rock church.” That’s because architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen built the sanctuary directly into a giant boulder. It has excellent acoustics and is a venue for many concerts. Cost: about $3/person, depending on the exchange rate; however on the day that we visited, no one was collecting admission.
KidTripster Tip: After you’ve seen the inside of the church, exit and walk around to the back of the church. Climb up the hill, and you’ll find yourself in a small park that sits on top of the church roof.
Photo courtesy: Liling Pang
4/Linnanmäki Amusement Park
Finland’s oldest and most popular amusement park, Linnanmäki, is located in the Alppila quarter of Helsinki, just a 10-minute tram ride from the city center. Here you’ll find over 40 rides plus games, cafes, and restaurants. Don’t miss the wooden roller coaster, Vuoristorata, built in 1951. I’m not going to lie; I don’t think this coaster would pass inspection in the USA. I’ve never flown out of my seat so far! But everyone lived, and it was a lot of fun.
KidTripster Tip: To avoid any disappointment, check online in advance regarding each of the ride’s height restrictions.
This amusement park is run by the Children’s Day Foundation that raises money for child welfare work in Finland. So know that your admission fee is going to a good cause. Cost: Single ride about $10; Full-day ride wristband about $46; Evening ride wristband (valid last 3 hours of the day) about $36, depending on the exchange rate. Actual entrance to the park and some kiddie attractions are free.
Plan to spend two to three hours here. It makes for a nice evening activity, especially during the summer when it’s still light late into the day. The park is open May through October.
Photo courtesy: Linnanmäki
5/Food halls & markets
Hungry, yet? Stop in at Vanha Kauppahalli, or Helsinki's Old Market Hall (Eteläranta 125), one of the city’s indoor food halls. It’s conveniently located at the South Harbor docks where you catch the ferry to Suomenlinna. Inside, you’ll find various food stalls and restaurants. I particularly like the Story Restaurant. For lunch, order a bowl of salmon soup and plate of fresh bread.
Also at South Harbor, you’ll find an outdoor market with fresh fruit and souvenirs. It’s convenient albeit a bit touristy and expensive.
To say Finns love their saunas would be an understatement. In a country of 5.3 million people, there are approximately 2 million saunas! Using a sauna is a daily ritual; it’s part of who the Finns are. In fact, if you really want to freak out your teenagers, tell them this little fact: Finnish families sauna together in the buff. Yep. I spoke to one Finnish mom who told me that her two teenaged sons think nothing of it, nor does she.
As a tourist, by all means, be Finnish and use the sauna. But don’t worry about getting naked; it’s perfectly acceptable for you to wear a swimsuit.
Your hotel likely will have a sauna, if not a private sauna in your room. If you rent a lake cottage outside of Helsinki, you’ll have a sauna. In fact, we rented a wilderness hut in Nuuksio National Park. It didn’t have running water or electricity, but it did have any entire building dedicated to a wood-burning sauna!
Other options for experiencing Helsinki’s sauna culture? Your kids may enjoy visiting Allas Sea Pool. The outdoor pools - cold seawater, warm water, and children’s pools - are alongside South Harbor. After you take a dip, you can head to the single-sex saunas, or vice versa. And then repeat. There are on-site restaurants, so you can make an afternoon or evening of it. Cost: Youth (0-2) Free; Youth (3-12) about $8; Adult about $15, depending on the exchange rate.
7/Nuuksio National Park
Finns are very connected to nature. Camping, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and foraging in the forest - these all are things that Finnish children grow up doing. In fact, 70-percent of the country is covered by forests. Just 45 minutes from the Helsinki airport, you can find yourself in Nuuksio National Park, one of Finland’s 40 national parks.
Spending a day - or better yet, two days - in Nuuksio National Park is sure to please your adventurous teens. In addition to the activities listed above, I’d recommend changing up your accommodations. Luxury lake cottage at Hawkhill? Secluded wilderness hut with no electricity or running water rented by Natura Viva? Or how about sleeping in a tent suspended in the trees at Eco Camp. I’ve stayed in them all and can highly recommend each experience.
8/Helsinki Christmas Market
If you happen to be visiting Helsinki over the holidays - perhaps as a stopover on your way to Lapland - be sure to join the festivities at Helsinki Christmas Market in Senate Square, right in front of the picturesque Helsinki Cathedral. My family so enjoyed walking among the more than 100 stalls along with other Finnish families. Find a handcrafted gift, take a spin on the old-fashioned merry-go-around (free), and fight the chill with a cup of hot glögi (Finnish mulled wine). The santa - or joulupukki as he’s called in Finland - who stands outside a small wooden house is incredibly convincing. The market runs from the beginning of December until a few days before Christmas.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to walk down nearby Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki’s official Christmas street, with it’s overhead strings of lights. The tradition dates back to1 949 and was meant to bring hope after the darkness of World War II.
KidTripster Tip: Bundle up when touring the Christmas Market. Once the sun sets around 3 p.m., it can get quite nippy.
Check out our recommendations for designer hotels in Helsinki that accommodate families. Click here.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah wouldn’t mind returning to Helsinki again to give the Oodi jungle gym another try.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.