Layover Guide: Helsinki, Finland

Another contribution to the layover guides is here! This time with a shorter than usual layover guide to Helsinki, Finland, a major spot for flights between the U.S. and Europe.

On my layover, I was traveling back from Oslo, Norway to San Francisco, California, and had about 5 hours to kill. Normally 5 hours would not be enough to go out and explore a city, however, the Helsinki airport was not very large and the distance between it and the downtown area was pretty close and easy to access.

If you are like me, and can’t stand the idea of missing out on a chance to explore a different culture, language, food, or a few vistas when the opportunity arises, then read on below!

How to get to Helsinki’s city center

There is a commuter train that links the Helsinki airport with downtown Helsinki. The trains are part of the HSL system, and you can take either the I or the P. Just follow the signs in the airport to the train! The trip takes about 30 minutes and if you are traveling from Europe, you won’t need to go through customs as long as the country you are flying in from is part of the Schengen Region. Technically there is a ticketing system on the train however I was unable to figure out where to buy a ticket in either direction and no one ever seemed to check or collect.

What to do when you get there

Food

Depending on the time of day of your layover, the obvious first step is to grab some food. If you don’t have a lot of time, something quick and easy is better than a more formal sit down affair. I was in town in time for lunch so I headed towards the waterfront and grabbed some traditional Finnish lunch which came with grilled fish and potatoes.

Waterfront along the Baltic Sea.

I bought some fresh fruit at the farmer’s market to add as a dessert as well. The market by the waterfront, otherwise called Kauppatori, gives you the opportunity to glimpse some traditional Finnish gifts as well as people watch. Not far away, there is an outdoor pool and hot baths that locals indulge in year-round. On a longer layover and if you have a bathing suit in your carry on luggage - definitely check this out!

Food and shopping at Kauppatori.

To See

With only a few hours, there isn’t too much to ‘do’, but there is lots to see! Helsinki is an incredibly walkable city, and fortunately, many of the main tourist sites are all located close together. Not far from the Kauppatori market, you can head over to a number of historic churches to take in their architectural design and charm:

  • Uspenski Cathedral: this cathedral is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. The design is very Russian and reminds you just how close this small Scandinavian country is to the Motherland!

  • Helsinki Cathedral: a few blocks back from the waterfront, this cathedral has a completely different look and feel than that of Uspenski. It is a stark white design instead of the colorful Russian orthodox approach. It is however modeled off of another similar cathedral in St. Petersburg. It sits inside the Senate Square, which offers traditional Finnish architecture, close to many of the other attractions.

Next, wander the streets on the main downtown area. With many shops, particularly pattern design ones, you can get lost wandering the narrow alleys. Alternatively, since this is a main tourist area, there are some larger chain shops you can enjoy. In general, the architecture is interesting, colorful, and distinctly European.

Need a map to get you there? Check out this map I created with labels for all the above sites!

Have you done a long layover in Helsinki and have more to contribute? Let me know in the comments!