This article was written in collaboration with Helsinki Partners. As always, all opinions are our own and we would never endorse a destination or partner that we didn’t fully support. Helsinki is absolutely rad and a must see experience! Before visiting Helsinki be sure to check out local COVID regulations regarding opening hours and restrictions that may be in place. All information is correct at the time of writing, but may change over time. We’ll do our best to update when needed.
Helsinki was always one of those travel destinations that was on our radar, but that we truly didn’t know much about. Aside from 24 hour sunlight in the summer and icy cold plunges in the winter, we weren’t very familiar with Finland or its capital, Helsinki. The closest we’d ever been up north was our trip to Estonia. We expected a bustling metropolis with fabulous architecture (probably thanks to the indie pop band Architecture in Helsinki).
And while both those things are true (especially the architecture), we were happily surprised to discover that Helsinki is truly one of the top sustainable and outdoor travel destinations in the world! We learned that the Helsinki archipelago consists of more than 300 islands and that Finland itself is about 75% forest, much just outside of the city center of Helsinki. A true adventure traveler’s dream.
The city of Helsinki is doing its part for sustainability, with a goal to become carbon neutral by 2030. From the public transportation to the local food choices, we were excited to explore the city’s eco-friendly options during our stay.
Exploring Sustainable Helsinki
Helsinki, although a booming metropolitan hub of Scandinavia, is a relatively small city and easy to explore. This is made especially easy by an elite public transport system that is not only cheap and efficient to use, but also helps promote sustainable travel and reduces carbon emissions.
During our week in Helsinki we used everything from trams and trains to buses and ferries to explore the city. It was as simple as downloading the HSL app, filling in your payment details and purchasing the ticket you need. Made even easier by the fact that Helsinki has fast and free internet hotspots throughout the city.
A short 15 minute ferry ride from downtown Helsinki is the stunning Suomenlinna Island (still within the Helsinki district). This UNESCO World Heritage Site served as a sea fortress back when Sweden originally ruled over the region, and the fortification of the region was a major contributing factor to Helsinki being able to grow into the capital city it is today.
After its construction in 1748 by Sweden it traded hands with the Russians back in 1808, before finally being claimed by Finland after independence in 1917. For this reason the island has a unique blend of architecture and cultural styles that fall into the different periods of ownership.
Nowadays the island is home to about 800 local residents and roughly 500 worker. It’s also a popular visitor attraction, accounting for about one million visitors yearly, including both international tourists and locals. Go for a walk along the fortified walls and take in the stunning views of the Helsinki backdrop and other islands scattered out towards the sea. In the winter the snowy landscape was truly breathtaking, and we can imagine it’s equally gorgeous in the warmer months There’s a walking route that takes you through all the historical areas of the town. There are also a number of cafes on the island to stop off for a hot beverage on those cold mornings.
Helsinki Central Library Oodi
Ok stop right there, I know what you’re thinking… ‘why would I want to visit a library?’ Well the answer is simple, the Oodi Library is by far the coolest library we’ve EVER visited around the world. To start, the outside is a grandiose masterpiece of Finnish design. Inside there are three levels of literally every public service you could imagine.
Record a new song in the audio studio, cook up a group meal in the industrial kitchen, play video games with your friends, 3D print, make clothes on the sewing machines, enjoy multiple different work spaces and conference rooms, utilize an auditorium and so much more in this incredible space. And if you weren’t impressed yet, there are also automated robot librarians that drive around the multiple floors and return books to their section. Rad!
This one’s for all you Christmas fanatics out there (i.e Christine) who love the European style Christmas markets come December time. We arrived in Helsinki in early December, which was perfectly timed to experience the city embrace the winter wonderland theme of Christmas.
And it truly is a wonderland, with its brightly decorated trees, a magical Merry Go Round and artisans selling their crafts. After you do a bit of shopping, go to one of the stalls pouring hot cups of glögi (mulled wine) and grab a cup (you can choose between alcoholic or non-alcoholic!). Then pick up some hot food like the traditional Karjalanpiirakka (rice pies) and plop yourself down inside one of the heated seating areas, complete with reindeer fur to sit on (it keeps your bum warm!). These magical little cabins are the perfect escape from the cold while chatting with friends over a hot delicious beverage.
One of the best things about local markets, which is especially applicable to Helsinki’s Christmas markets, is the opportunity to support sustainable shopping by buying from local artisans. By buying local you help support local economies, small business and reduce shipping emissions from buying foreign made products. We also loved being able to chat directly with the people who made the crafts and hear their stories and the story behind their products.
Alvar Aalto Studios
If the name sounds familiar it’s probably because you’ve come across iconic architecture, furniture, glassware or any other number of creative concepts from the world renown Finish designer Alvar Aalto. Located a short public transport distance from downtown Helsinki you’ll find Alvar Aalto’s studio, which doubles as a historical museum to his amazing work and fully functional contemporary architecture studio.
Alvar Aalto pioneered a lot of the famous chic, minimalist concepts that you associate with Scandinavian design, with many of his 1930s and 1940s designs still being extremely popular and prevalent in homes and businesses around the world.
The cool thing about the Aalto studio tour is that the building itself is a living representation of his work. Each intricate design choice has a function, both inside and outside of the studio. Inside you’ll find a collection of his own personal furniture and have access to the rooms where all the magic happened. Being in the studio where the master himself held his brainstorming meetings we felt a rush of creativity and inspiration in the presence of Alvar Aalto’s work.
Helsinki Sauna Experiences
When we were first contacted by the Helsinki tourism department, admittedly, we didn’t know a lot about the city, nor the country. We knew about the Northern Lights, that it’s cold in the winter and that the sauna reigned supreme!
After learning a lot about Helsinki in the couple of weeks we were there, we can confirm one thing for sure, Finish people LOVE saunas. Not only is it a huge part of their culture, but it makes up a large part of their everyday life as well. Fins claim to be the inventor of sauna, with historical evidence of saunas in the region dating back to over 2000 years ago.
All over Finland you can find saunas in different shapes and sizes. From fancy 5 star hotels, to shacks by the lake. A sauna is more than just a hot building; it’s a lifestyle, a community gathering place and a way to connect with the elements.
If you’re looking for your first ever sauna experience you can’t go past Löyly in Helsinki. More than just a beautifully designed sauna, this place also has a restaurant and bar onsite and is the perfect spot to gather with a few friends.
There are two saunas on site, one that seems a bit more contemporary and doesn’t get as hot, and one for the die-hards who are looking to turn up the heat in this dimly lit sweat box. Once you’re ready to get out of the heat we highly recommend taking advantage of the harborside plunge into the ocean to cool yourself down. This is made especially unique in the winter time when the water freezes over and you dip yourself down into the world’s biggest ice bath to experience the intense change of bodily temperature made famous by Scandinavian sauna culture.
After dipping into the ocean head back to the warmths of the common area and grab a fireside beer to sit around and chat before heading to the sauna for round two, three or four.
We HIGHLY recommend doing the ocean plunge. It’s a thrilling experience that you can only have in a location like this! You literally feel like you’re being dipped into a Slushie. It was a bit treacherous during the winter at night, so we recommend going with a buddy. There is a ladder to lower yourself down. Hold on to the ladder because the current does push and pull you a bit.
And in case you are unsure about the sauna logistics (like we were), here’s how it all works. There is a women’s and men’s locker room. You’ll receive a key for a locker to put your belongings in and a small towel to sit on in the sauna. You’ll change into your swimsuit in the locker room, then after a quick shower, you’re ready to roll! Besides the locker rooms, the rest of the sauna areas are co-ed. Everyone was wearing some form of swimsuit.
For those looking for a more rustic, authentic sauna experience we recommend checking out Sompasauna, just outside of downtown Helsinki and easily accessible by bus. Unlike Löyly you won’t find a flashy new restaurant, a bar serving up cold beers or warm showers. In fact, you won’t find any running water at all.
This 24/7, community run and 100% free sauna is about as local as it gets. On site you’ll find three different sized saunas on the edge of the river. There’s an outdoor changing area, some stairs that go down to the water so you can dip after the sauna and some communal areas for sitting around and socializing. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own resources to help contribute to the sauna space, such as wood and water.
Everything at Sompasauna is about community and helping out. In fact, when I visited the sauna for the first time I was actually the one to light the fire and get the sauna going for a couple of other people that were gathered around chopping wood, cleaning the sauna and helping out.
Saunas are mixed gender, and while bathing suits are completely acceptable, you will find quite a lot of people sharing the sauna in the nude. But don’t be shocked, this is 100% a part of Finnish sauna culture and one to embrace if you’re feeling up to it.
Sustainable Eating in Helsinki
When it comes to chowing down, Helsinki has it all. A Scandinavian cultural hub of eating awaits those looking for seasonal, sustainable and super delicious meals while visiting Helsinki. While each restaurant has their own flare and preparation styles, we did come across quite a few common dishes like cold whitefish starters with roe, salmon, fresh leafy salads, Jerusalem artichoke, sea buckthorn berry desserts and different variants of reindeer cooked, stewed and braised.
Another great thing about restaurants in Helsinki, aside from their delicious food, is how a lot of them prioritize supporting sustainable eating by only working with seasonal menus. This includes utilizing sustainably sourced meats that are readily available, sourcing locally grown produce and growing some of their herbs and leafy greens.
Another one of Helsinki’s premium lunch and dinner spots, EMO promises to provide world class dining with local Finnish delicacies. The space itself is gorgeous and upscale. They have an a la carte menu on offer, but if you’ve got the time and want to experience the flow of the dishes we’d recommend ordering the three and five course set meals.
The menu changes to accommodate what’s in season and available, but expect to see rich flavors like truffle, duck, pheasant and venison mixed with delicious renditions of potato, garlic, celery, mushrooms and other local vegetables.
Located in Katajanokka, just a short walk from downtown and the ferry harbor, is the incredible restaurant Nokka. This rustic restaurant, based in an old harborside warehouse, leans into the sea theme with an anchor, old polished wood and has a large glass panel showcasing the buzz and excitement in the kitchen.
The four course menu rotates depending on the season, taking into account local produce and the availability of meats. And when we say four courses what we really mean is closer to 6 or 7, because in between the courses, fun little pallet cleaners and pre-dishes come out to keep you busy. At around $100USD for a four course meal it’s a little on the pricier side, but the quality of food and care that goes into the preparation was phenomenal. If you’re planning a nice dinner out in Helsinki, we recommend this as our number one choice.
One of the first things you’ll notice when walking into the restaurant are the greens growing in the cabinet, which work to really emphasize Nokka’s commitment to supporting sustainable eating. Not only that, but it makes the food taste so fresh.
With three shops scattered around the city, the funky secondhand store Relove is revolutionizing the thrifting scene in Finland. The downtown location is nestled in an old department store that overlooks the bustling city center. But it’s not just the upmarket thrifting that draws a crowd to this shop, it’s the colorful, cute as pie, Instagrammable cafe that serves up big healthy breakfasts, smoothies and sweet treats.
Come for the cafe and stay for the clothes, or the other way round, but whatever you do, give yourself time to kick back in the cafe and enjoy the space and delicious food. Chic Scandinavian designs and retro looks await in this TikTokers heaven.
Located just a 5 minute walk from downtown is an amazing restaurant called Kuukuu. Open from 12pm-9pm everyday we recommend checking this place out for lunch. Its bright, stylish interior is the perfect spot to nestle in with a glass of wine over lunch and take your time enjoying the set menu.
This self described ‘informal and relaxed’ restaurant is buzzing with warm hospitality, free flowing conversations and a warmth that radiates from the kitchen. This is also where we first tried reindeer, diving head first into a braised reindeer heart dish that was succulent and soft.
This 1930s style restaurant is both cozy and classy in its interior, dishes and atmosphere. Located about the Amox Rex Art Museum (also worth a visit if you’re into contemporary art) it overlooks the busy street below and is a great spot for lunch.
Lasipalatsi has both a la carte and set menu options to choose from, alongside a wide selection of pairing wines to accompany the meal. The peppered reindeer fillets with onion consomme was one of the best meals we ate while in Helsinki.
Sustainable Accommodation in Helsinki
Just like the restaurant scene in Helsinki, accommodation is in abundance and has something to suit every traveler’s budget. Whether you’re looking for the world class hotel experience, a cozy little Airbnb or a studio all to yourself, Helsinki has you covered.
Our first stop in Helsinki was the beautiful Noli Studios in Katajanokka, located across from the ferry harbor and a short 10 minute walk to central Helsinki. With all the polished services of a hotel, what really sets Noli Studios apart from a hotel are the creature comforts of staying in your very own home.
Studios come fully equipped with a kitchen (we’re talking fridge, stove top, all the utensils, toaster, kettle, the works) and the bathroom even has its own washing machine. It’s amazing that they’ve been able to fit into this self-sufficient space to provide you with everything you need.
And whatever you can’t find inside the room is most certainly offered in the common spaces. Downstairs in the common area you’ll find an even bigger kitchen area, work spaces and private meeting rooms, access to a gym, a steam room and a hot tub. There’s also games, a billiards table and lots of fun areas to socialize with other guests.
A couple of other things we loved about our stay at Noli Studios are the events they put on to bring the community together. From tree trimming to a paint and sip night, there was plenty to do while we were there. They’re also working towards being carbon neutral and have sustainability initiatives in place to reduce their carbon footprint.
Marski by Scandic
After spending a few nights at Noli Studios we were ready to check out the hotel scene in Helsinki, and what better place than the iconic Marksi by Scandic smack bang in the middle of all the downtown action.
The Marski Hotel first opened its doors in 1962 and has been a primary destination for visitors to Helsinki. This elegant hotel draws a lot from Finnish culture in their decorating, art and photography that hangs from the walls. In the last couple of years the hotel also underwent a huge renovation and has reopened with a fresh new look.
There’s a gym, sauna, work spaces, the award winning Kuusi Palaa restaurant, the Marski Bar, a cafe and an art gallery to explore while staying at the Marski by Scandic, but the thing we love most about the hotel is their commitment to sustainability. The hotel is Nordic Swan Ecolabel certified, which requires constant monitoring of efficient energy and water consumption, chemical use and waste sorting. They also prioritize organic, seasonal food and have a great vegetarian selection.
Ok, actually there is one other thing we loved about the Marksi, and that’s the incredible breakfast buffet! With a plethora of food options it’s the perfect place to start the morning before heading off on a day of exploring.
A little more off the grid in both location and style, Majamaja is a sustainable traveler’s delight! This self sustaining seaside cabin incorporates the science behind green design, but also integrates seamlessly into the natural environment.
This is truly a one of a kind place to stay. The architecture of the cabin is based on resource optimization. It reminded us of vanlife, in that each and every bit of space has a function. Even the floor boards can be lifted up for additional space underneath!
But more than just incredibly functional, this accommodation is cozy and stylish. One of our favorite features was the big picture window facing the ocean. Why watch TV when you have such a beautiful vision right in front of you? There is a two night minimum and we recommend booking far in advance because it does book up!