How To Do Helsinki On A Budget
The Debrief: Finland is notoriously pricey. Here’s how to do the nation’s super-cool capital without crying about your overdraft on the flight home
Illustration: Livi Gosling
Did you know that Finland’s only technically sort-of in Scandinavia? Its capital, Helsinki, is closer to St Petersburg in Russia (241 miles) than it is to Stockholm (302 miles).
The coastal city therefore has a little bit of east and a little bit of west and we LOVE it – especially those saunas – but it’s known for being expensive. And that we don’t love THAT so much.
Here’s how to have a Helsinki break without wanting to stick pins in your eyes when you get home because you can’t afford to get back from the airport.
Norwegian does flights from London Gatwick to Helsinki for under £93 return, depending on when you book. We found ours on Kayak, which is always excellent for finding cheap deals. Not bad, and it’s only two hours and 45 minutes away, too.
Where to stay
Finnish hospitality is a little more, um, basic than the UK’s. Avoid central chain hotels, which aren’t that cheap, either – unless you’re a massive fan of carpets with migraine-inducing patterns. Instead, stick to good old Airbnb, where entire homes and flats are available from around £33-80 per night, a cost you spread between guests – and many include the all-important sauna (more about those later). This one is handily located in the Design District and is all yours for £83 per night, with sauna and Instagrammable decor included.
If you’re looking to go cheaper, the ultra-modern Vuokrahuone hostel does 'shared alcoves' for £18 per night. These are like a double bunk bed, which could be fun if you’re going with a friend or lover, right? OK, there might be other people sleeping on top or below, but potential new Finnish buddies…
Helsinki has a network of cute, green trams, and a two-hour ticket comes in at under £3.
Fins are obsessed – seriously, obsessed – with the ritual of stripping off and getting into a small, hot, dark space with their friends and family to sweat out the toxins and hangovers – saunas are an excellent solution to too much Finnish Karhu beer (which translates as “bear beer” – cute).
The sauna obsession is probably because it’s bloody freezing in Finland, but Finnish ladies have LOVELY skin as a result – and it’s time we got on board.
There are 1.3 million saunas in Finland, so there’s a fair few to pick from, but we loved the Finnish Sauna Society, which is around 20 minutes on the bus from central Helsinki. You get to choose from six traditional saunas, and you can go swimming in the nearby lake after to cool off, all for £7 – and can stay as long as you like.
Or check out the Culture Sauna in trendy Kallio – we dare you to go in naked, like a local, and whack each other with vistas (branches made of dried birch).
Things to do during the day
Visit the Fortress of Suomenlinna for your history fix. It’s an 18th century fort in Helsinki’s harbour and a UNESCO world heritage site, which puts it on a par with the Great Wall Of China. Plus it’s free to get in. Bonus. Take the blue route, starting at the Jetty Baracks up to the King’s Gate for a nice mile’s walk. Now you’ve earned your dinner.
We also loved Burgher’s House (free entry) for more brainfood. Now a museum, the house is the oldest surviving wooden building in the city, and dates from 1818 – inside it’s like going right back to the early 19th century. And check out the National Museum Of Finland for exhibitions that’ll tell you about 10,000 years of Finnish history (£6 to get in). Yes, it’s definitely now time for a beer.
And in the evening
We recommend hitting up the cool Kallio district for grungy, studenty Helsinki that’s off the tourist path. You’ll find Notting Hill vibes, but with a laid-back edge, on streets like Helsinginkatu and Vaasankatu. Shops and cafes nestle in between clubs and bars like Siltanen (where you can get Vietnamese food when you’re not on the dance floor) and the super-trendy Bar Molotow is great for cheap Finnish beer.
Beyond Kallio, we also liked Navy Jerry’s for cocktails and loads of navy kitsch and Motown music, and We Got Beef is the dive bar to be in if you want live music and cheap drinks (and a banging hangover, because it’s open until 4am. And that’s when you’ll NEED that sauna the next day).
Check out Cafe Tin Tin Tango in Töölö for brunch – they do mean croissants and coffee (and have a laundrette in the back, if you’ve run out of clean knickers).
For lunch we recommend Hymy – a raw food cafe that does the best brownies EVER, as well as salty spinach and tomato pies and fresh juices at decent prices. And head to Sandro’s in Kallio if you’re after something non-Finnish – their Moroccan fare of a salad, soup and a warm lunch dish will only set you back £9.
Skip expensive dinner and head to an indoor market like Old Market Hall, for soup, cheese and wine, instead. And try out the deep-fried sugar buns with a coffee in Kallio’s Hakaniemi Market Square if you’ve got a sweet tooth. They made our wisdom teeth hurt but they tasted GOOD.
If you’ve got any leftover Euros from all that penny-pinching then make sure you visit shops like Hoochie Mama Jane, Frida Marina and Ansa Second Hand in Kallio. Who says budgeting isn’t cool?
Like this? You might also be interested in:
Follow Rosie on Twitter: @RGIZZA
Illustration: Livi Gosling
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating