Helsinki is cold at the best of times, and for travelers this usually means winter visits are out of the question. For those brave enough to bare the cold, winter in Helsinki offers a whimsy that only arrives in the dead of winter and can charm cold-haters into blissful warmth.
The Finns don’t just survive winter; they enjoy it. Although Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real issue for natives, maintaining a positive attitude, Vitamin D and a good winter jacket are all you need to come out on top. As a visitor, first focus on becoming one with the -20C temperatures and mass quantities of snow, they will end up being some of your favorite qualities about the city.
Once you’ve decided to brave the cold, take a walk to Squirrel Island (Seurasaari) to check out the open-air museum of Finland’s general history. A great escape from the bustle of the city, Squirrel Island provides an excellent historical playground blanketed in crisp layer of snow and you guessed it, squirrels. Instead of following the marked bridge path, follow a more efficient shortcut by crossing the frozen Baltic Sea. You likely won’t even notice you’re walking on water; the ice is entirely packed down with snow!
For another look at the coastline, walk along the Eastern seaboard down the esplanade by the university and enjoy watching the arriving and departing cruise ships crack through the frozen sea. Then grab lunch on a docked ship or shop along the promenade for traditional furs and Finnish delicacies (warning, it tends to reek of fresh fish). It’s always windy on the coastline, so dress appropriately.
If you want a better look at the crackling sea top, use your daily metro pass to take the 15-minute ferry to Suomenlinna Island. The icebreaking ships make the path first so the ferry can slide through without a Titanic-like situation on its hands. Despite this, throughout the short journey you can hear and feel the ice crackling under your feet.
Construction began on this Swedish-era fortress in 1748, and has since belonged to neighboring nations Sweden and Russia before Finland took power in 1918. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site where visitors can take an historical walk through its stone walls, explore the church, harbor, used cannons and other former military equipment. Don’t be surprised to hear that over 800 people still live on this tiny island, so take note of where you’re wandering and respect their properties.
If the cold hasn’t gotten to you yet, hop on the lime green bus (from the central station) to Korkesaari, the Helsinki zoo situated on its own private island! Sound like paradise? This zoo is one of the oldest in the world and despite its chilly location, features exotic animals from across the globe, often rescuing wild animals from the surrounding areas. In winter many of the zoo’s animals are hidden away in hibernation, but this is the best time to see Finland’s arctic natives at their happiest. The white tigers and reindeer are especially exciting to see up close, but full disclosure: Santa doesn’t live here.
Since the winter season occupies over six months of the Finns’ year, they’ve got how to enjoy it down to a science. When it comes to sustenance to survive, they don’t shy away from coffee or alcohol. Check out the Regatta Café at Sibelius Park (by the Sibelius monument) for the only place (possibly on earth) to pay its patrons to have coffee refills. You read that correctly. If you want a re-fill on your hot cup-a-joe, these friendly staff will happily pay you five cents to stick around and enjoy their quirky, charming hut right on the docks of the West coast of the city. Finland in fact has the highest consumption of coffee rates in the world, I wonder why…? Indulge in their homemade cinnamon rolls (korvapuusti), hot berry juice (glögi) or a sausage to roast on their outdoor bonfire. This place is a favorite with the locals, and an excellent spot to start your cross-country ski tour over the frozen sea or take a wind-stopping ride in a Finnish rocking-ski chair.
Once 3:30pm comes along and the sun disappears for a long, cold night, it’s in perfect Finnish style to head to a bar to warm up from within. If you’re an early bird, Baker’s Bar & Restaurant is the place to be. From 5:00-6:30pm Tuesday-Saturday, enjoy €1.50 champagne in a wicked atmosphere! You’ll meet an eclectic mix of locals, from students and shoppers to corporate suits and ties – it’s an hour and a half of bubbly fun. For a wilder late night scene, check out the favorite among students, Onnela or the indie-fav Tavastia (be sure to see if any bands are playing as entrance prices skyrocket). The Tiger, a rooftop nightclub with trashy tiger heads floating from the ceiling and a karaoke room, has €1 beers on Sundays and a magic view of the city below.
After a night of partying a sauna is the cure. If you’re feeling courageous (maybe still a little bubbly from the night before?), try jumping into the frozen sea for a dip in between sauna sessions. These two things might not sound complimentary, but you really can’t have one without the other. Following the age-old Finnish tradition of ice swimming, a sauna is frankly necessary. Running between a hot sauna and icy water is said to be exceptional for your health, both physically and mentally. It can also strengthen your heart, energy levels, immune system, and clearly, develop your courage. Find a spot on the Helsinki coastline that is marked a safe place for a dip (most of these have saunas near by) and take the plunge. Your body will feel numb, sure, but it’s not as bad as you might think. Note: don’t dunk your head underwater or you’ll loose too much body heat. Also, being naked in Finnish saunas is the norm and being clothed is actually frowned upon, so don’t be shy! Check out Rastila Campsite in Vuosaari, just east of the city center.
Helsinki is one of the world’s smaller cities, and “seeing” everything in a day or two is not uncommon. If you’ve had enough of the bustling core, head up North to the city of Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. A 12-hour train’s ride or a brisk flight away, it’s absolutely worth the trek. Cross into the Arctic Circle, meet the Sámi indigenous people, visit Santa Claus in his North Pole hideaway, and look up for the northern lights (aurora borealis – best seen between December and March). There are endless activities available to encourage your enjoyment of winter in Lapland, but my hands-down favorite is dogsledding. Being whisked away by your very own pack of husky dogs through the whitest of white surroundings, across frozen lakes and into what feels like Dr. Seuss’ next book, this will be the best money spent on your trip. Most companies provide all necessary gear to keep you warm and safe; so don’t worry about freezing solid. Check out Bearhhill Husky for your adventure. They’ll pick you up at your hotel, feed you lunch, let you take care of the dogs (sure, there’s a little poop-picking up) and train you on how to be a true Finnish sled guide (musher). A helpful tip: when your eyelashes inevitably freeze and they start feeling heavy, simply close your eyes hard and lightly touch your fingertips to them. Painless melting!
If you’re sitting at your computer and shivering at the looks of all this snow, try to get past it. Helsinki is meant to be experienced in winter, the season that procures the most exciting elements for adventurers. Seemingly small and with not much to “see” per say, Helsinki will surprise you. Once you’ve got a warm jacket, go become one with the whimsy of winter in Helsinki.
Photos courtesy of Melissa Cash.
– Melissa Cash