I recently went on a business trip to Hamburg and when booking my return flight to Shanghai, I noticed that the cheapest flight had a 20-hour layover in Helsinki. Yes, please! The company saves money and I can squeeze in some low budget city tripping during the weekend! Everyone happy!
Is a 20-hour layover in Helsinki enough? Definitely! Type in Google “Top things to do in Helsinki” and the results might not immediately make you super excited to go visit this city.
Unless you really can’t get enough of churches and cathedrals, then 20 hours might be tight. If, however, visiting only one or two churches is enough for you, then great, book that flight already! Also, there’s a reason why Finnair is promoting these layovers on trips from Europe to Asia. The city really isn’t that big and 20 hours is enough to see its main hotspots.
As I only had 20 hours, I wanted to make sure my hotel was centrally located and close to the Central Station to go to the airport the following day. I ended up choosing Hotel Finn and I was happy with that decision. Finnish people are very friendly, and so were the lovely people at this hotel. My room was huge, it had all the necessary amenities and even though they didn’t offer breakfast in the hotel, they did have an agreement with breakfast places in the same street where you could enjoy an affordable breakfast buffet at a discounted price.
10 Things to do in Helsinki in 20 Hours
Wake up early and start your day with a typical Finnish breakfast. The Finns rarely eat anything too sweet as their first meal of the day, so forget about your typical pastries or bowl of cereal, and instead think cold cuts, cheese, vegetables,.. While I’m used to eating something rather sweet, I might consider having a more balanced breakfast like the one I enjoyed in Helsinki from now on!
Go for a walk through the Esplanadi Park on your way to Central Square. Often dubbed as the “heart of Helsinki”, this park is a fun place to simply hang out, listen to street musicians or enjoy all kinds of performances. This is also the place to go to get an idea of Helsinki’s beautiful historical architecture.
Have a look at what the food stalls offer on Central Square. I didn’t buy anything but it’s the perfect place to get yourself some typical Finnish souvenirs or fresh food. For those who want something a bit more special, several stalls also sell moose meat. I personally didn’t think the market was all that impressive, but that may be due to the fact that I was there during the week.
Old Market Hall
Only a short walk from Helsinki’s Central Square is the Old Market Hall. It’s a beautiful building full of interesting food stalls and the perfect place to sample some Finnish delicacies. Whenever I go on a holiday, visiting local (super)markets is always a must on my to-do list to get to know the city’s food culture.
Allas Sea Pool
Stare at the people (but not in a creepy way) who go swimming in the outside swimming pool in the freezing cold weather at the Allas Sea Pool. If I had more time, I definitely would have loved to take part in a typical Finnish sauna experience!
From the Allas Sea Pool, cross the bridge to go to the Uspenski Cathedral. The inside of this Eastern Orthodox cathedral is pretty impressive and, built at the top of a hill slope, it offers a nice view over the city and its harbour. Admission is free of charge, so it’s definitely something you cannot miss during your Helsinki visit!
After a visit to the Uspenski Cathedral, go for a stroll around the harbour area. As I got there quite early, a lot of restaurants hadn’t opened yet. I can imagine this place must be booming during cozy warm summer nights.
Cross the bridge again and go through that one street that makes for a perfect picture of the Senate Square with the Helsinki Cathedral in the background. The street is called Sofiagatan.
Go inside the Helsinki Cathedral, the city’s main landmark that rises above all other buildings. Spoiler alert: it’s nicer from the outside.
Lunch at Story
Go back to the Old Market Hall and order the salmon soup and rose lemonade at Story, and send me a picture of it. I’m currently craving this dish as I’m writing this. Try going early or a bit later, as the seats are for everyone in the market, so it gets crowded real fast.
Bonus! I you have some more time on your hand, go to the Ateljee Bar for spectacular views over Helsinki!