What to do in Helsinki – 4 low-cost activities

Flying to Finland – depending on where from, of course – can sometimes be pricy. That’s why it’s always a good idea to know what to do, in Helsinki especially, that won’t need us to spend a fortune once we’re there.

In this list, we present to you 4 big ideas of what to do in Helsinki on the cheap:

Visiting parks and churches

Helsinki’s surface is one third green parks, and if you have driven in Finland you’ve surely noticed that the country is almost entirely a forest. There are 11 big parks just within in the city of Helsinki, and these parks were built at different times over the past centuries. Each one follows the park-building canons of the times when it was built, which makes visiting them a history lesson on its own.

With so many parks, you know that there will always be one nearby to have a seat, relax and admire. These are the parks within the city: Helsinki Central Park, Eläintarha, Esplanadi, Helsinki University’s Botanic Garden Kaisaniemi, Kaivopuisto, Korkeasaari, Kumpula Allotment, Linnanmäki, Tuhkimo, and finally Uutela. Also, don’t forget to check out the Winter Garden (address – Hammarskjöldintie 1), the botanical garden of Helsinki, which has no entry fee.

What to do in Helsinki: walk the Esplanadi park
The Esplanadi park, a popular spot in the center of Helsinki. Source (CC: by).

If you are into this particular kind of park, the amusement park of Helsinki also has no entry fee. It has 11 free rides and the rest have a small additional charge. Nonetheless, even without taking a ride on any of the attraction, it’s a great place to hang and meet locals.

Another thing that could answer the question of what to do in Helsinki includes a visit to one the city’s famous churches and cathedrals. For example, there’s the überdesigned Chapel of Silence. It has free entry as well and its design – as well as the materials it was built with – is spectacular. In addition, there are three more iconic churches in the city: Temppeliaukio (Lutherinkatu 3) – also known as the Church of the Rock – the white Helsinki Cathedral in the Senate Square, and the reddish Uspenski Cathedral, located near the market square. The last two of these churches lie in the main center of Helsinki.

What to do in Helsinki: visiting churches
The Temppeliaukio church. Source.

Helsinki museums are free

Helsinki has 7 big museums (the city Museums website has addresses and opening times), all of which are free of charge.

Other kinds of museums that don’t belong to the city museum network also have free entry at certain times. For instance, the Kiasma contemporary art museum, located at Mannerheimplatsen 2 can be visited for free on the first Friday of every month, between 5 and 8:30 p.m. The Museum of Cultures is also free.

And if you ask yourself what to do in Helsinki with the kids, there’s always the “Children’s Town”, where they can run free in a historical setting. It has shops decorated in the stlye of the XVII century, schools from the last century and much more to discover. It is inside one of the 7 museums in Helsinki, at Aleksanterinkatu 16–18.

What to do in Helsinki: Museums
Children’s Town is here. Perfect for visiting Helsinki with the family. Source.

What to do in Helsinki: free music

If the answer to the question of what to do in Helsinki has for you the word “Music” written all over it, the El Espa Stage is a good place to start. It’s in the Esplanadi park and is a space where each year between May and August, around 200 groups from Finland and abroad gather to play their music. With plenty of different music styles on offer, artists that are just getting started as well as some more established ones play in this relaxed and green scenario. On its website, you can check out all of the related events.

On the other hand there’s also the Helsinki Music Centre (Mannerheimintie 13A), or the Finlandia Hall (Mannerheimintie 13E), the latter designed by Alvar Aalto. It’s true that for these, you will have to pay an entry fee for the concerts, but you can check out their impressive architecture from the outside…

And two very cheap touristic tours

What to do in Helsinki: take the tram
A tram in Helsinki. Source.

If you want to visit everything in the center of Helsinki in the easiest way, tram lines 2 and 3 let you do just that.

In 1 hour, the tram goes through the city’ most recognizable spots. It isn’t free, but almost: it costs around 2 Euro and follows the honour system of public transportation of Helsinki (meaning that there are no barriers to entry, but that your ticket can eventually be checked).

Another great tour is taking the ferry from the Market Square and going to Suomenlinna island, a world heritage site that is definitely worth your time, and features a very well kept old fortress that used to defend the city in the early XIX century. The cost is the same as the tram if you take the public transport ferry, or you can go with the HKL ferry line for €3.60 return.

Do you have another recommendation for what to do in Helsinki that is cheap, low cost or free? Help us out with your favourite Helsinki tourism tips in the comments below.

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How to photograph the Northern Lights

We already spoke about the Northern Lights a couple of times here at Big in Finland. For instance, we told you about the forecast and predictions to not miss them if you are in Finland. We gave you the, statistically proven, list of best places to see them in Finland and Lapland and the best moments of the year. But once you are there and actually seeing the Northern Lights, what you probably want to do is to snap a great photo. And since now is one of the best times of the year to see them, here it comes: a guide on how to photograph the Northern Lights.

Photographing the Northern Lights

I haven’t been so lucky to see the Northern Lights yet. The only time that this phenomenon happened while I was in Finland, I was sleeping and I missed the chance. What a pity, I think every time I remember it. Since it’s one of the things I still have to do, I want to be prepared and I want to know how to photograph the Northern Lights in the best posssible way.

I am not the best photographer – in fact I am more drawn to Polaroids lately than to digital cameras. I went from having a half-decent fixed-lens camera to simply snapping photographs with my Nokia 625 (with which I am quite content). But when I finally encounter the Aurora Borealis, whatever camera is at hand, I want to be able to put the right settings to the camera in order to take the best possible picture.

Now that the Spring equinox, one of the best moments to see this phenomenon, is approaching, I thought it to be a great time to write this post. Let’s go.


This Northern Lights photograph was made with 30 seconds of exposition, f/2.8 and a 160 ISO Source (CC: by-nd).

The recommended settings: how to photograph the Northern Lights

The number one advice is of course to have a tripod. The Northern Lights are only seen at night and the light they emit, while being well visible for a human eye that is used to darkness, is not enough for a camera and any movement of the hand will make the photo shaky.

It is possible that the tripod will freeze at some point and will be hard to close, so you should take two if you can. Be careful with the moving top of the tripod, its head, which can also freeze. If you can snap the photo with a cable, do so, because it’ll reduce the camera movement even further.

The best camera, of course, is one where you can select the shutter time manually. Between 5 and 40 seconds are the best settings to photograph the Northern Lights. Try different times and check out the results.

A lens brightness of f/2.8 or faster will give you the most professional results. Regarding the film, an 800 ASA or equivalent in ISO (800 too) will provide the best results.

A photo of the Northern Lights above Ruka, Finland
6 seconds, f/3.2 and ISO 800. Source (CC: by-sa).

Northern Lights in the Oulanka national park
8 seconds, f/3.5 and ISO 400 with an Olympus E-M5 camera. Source (CC: by).

The lens focus should be adjusted to “infinite” or right before infinite. If your lens is a wide-angle lens, the photos will be even more spectacular. It is also good to include part of the landscape in the photos instead of photographing nothing but the sky. The trees or hills will provide a visual reference for the size of the Northern Lights and the photos will be better.

If your camera is digital you can choose the option of noise reduction and set the white balance to “automatic”.

Two things to pay extra attention to: The batteries last much shorter in he cold and it is recommended to take several of them. You should also be careful with the condensation on the lens: As it happens with the condensation on glasses when you go from one temperature into another, the lens will also get covered with condensation if you change temperatures. You can carry the camera in a bag to reduce the effect.

Incredible Northern Lights photography
A great photo of the Aurora Borealis. Source (CC: by-sa).

TL;DR : Summarizing

All said, the idea is to have the camera prepared beforehand at home or in the hotel. Start with an exposition time of 30 seconds. Make sure that the film is ISO 800 and with f/2.8. Put the camera in a bag to prevent condensation of the lens and have a tripod ready. Have a couple of battery sets ready, since cold drains batteries faster.

Of course, make sure you are prepared for the cold. Our post for what to wear in the Finnish winter will come in handy.

If you want to dive deeper into how to take photos of the Northern Lights, I would recommend to go to the source of the photos in this post and to click on “additional info“. You can then see the EXIF data of the pics and get an idea of how others did it.

How to photograph Northern Lights
40 seconds, f/2 and ISO 100. Thus, the light of the photo. Source (CC: by-sa).

The main source of information for this article was wikitravel. And here you can find a very comprehensive guide if you already are an expert on digital photography.

What’s your best photo of the Northern Lights? Show off in the comments! Do you have any other recommendations?

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Kallio: Helsinki’s hipster neighborhood

Each city has a signature neighborhood where the people are young, good looking, and dress in the most fashionista way. You can see some Helsinki street styles on a page called Hel Looks, and you can find all the relevant boutiques in a single district, called the Design District of Helsinki. But all these hipsters reside, and have their shops, cheap bars and cool cafés in another part of Helsinki: the Kallio neighborhood.

Having a coffee in Kallio.

Preface: hipsters

I don’t like the word “hipster” very much, I don’t know why. Residing currently in Berlin, I’m confronted with it constantly, which is quite tiresome, especially when heard from tourists who came here attracted by things that they read online. They are the “post-hipster pack”, the followers. The pioneers came here between 2005 and 2007 when the word “hipster” was unheard of and it was better that way.

Hipsters in Helsinki
This is a photo that shows up when you look in Flickr for “Helsinki Hipsters”. Source (CC: by-sa)

The Kallio neighborhood in Helsinki

We suggest you start your exploration of the Kallio are where Google Maps puts its’ center and get lost in the area to find your most beloved corner by yourself. Google says the center is in the Suonionkatu street, next to the iconic Kallio church, and we believe it to be true.


See Kallio, Helsinki on a bigger Map

Gentrification happened to Kallio as it did to other blue-collard working class neighborhoods fairly close to the city centers.

It attracted students, designers and young artists (we are not sure how starving), that were in dire need of cheap bars and flats. These people brought onto themselves the carefully designed cool cafés and the young entrepreneurs and professionals, that had some money but still wanted to feel cool. Finally, all these people stay and start growing old, accumulating more money, and thus making the cafés become more expensive, the beers even more expensive, and the rents out of hand for most people.

Kallio, seen from the water.
Kallio, as seen from the water. Source(CC: by-sa)

It is “Ley de vida” (Law of Life) in the cities and the only thing you can do about it is to start looking for the next cool neighborhood or pay more. A process that ends when the city is expensive, everything is overdesigned and you can’t find a mom-and-pop style store anywhere. I have seen this happen in front of my eyes, and I am the “moving to the next neighborhood” kind of guy. So far.

Kallio isn’t that far into this process, luckily. It is near the city center and is accessible with the “touristic” tram (the one that passes through all the places that you must see in Helsinki), and thus it is one more stop for those who want to know the city center, in its widest meaning.

Kallio's park
A “Restaurant Day” in Kallio. Source (CC: by-sa)

I’m not going to suggest a list of bars and restaurants to check out. The best is to get lost in the area and go into the places that attract you by their look and atmosphere. There are no “must-see” places in Kallio, in my opinion, but there is so much diversity in terms of bars, restaurants, stores, boutiques, and thrift stores, that it is better to see and choose in the moment.

A restaurant in Kallio
Pic of the restaurant “Rytmi”, in Kallio. Source (CC: by)

Two specific tips, if this is what you are looking for. An iconic store called “Made in Kallio” (street: Vaasankatu 14), that combines a bar & café and a design shop; and also the Finnish saunas in the area to relax: They are called Arla (in the street Kaarlenkatu 15) and Kotiharju (Harjutorinkatu 1).

The hipster neighborhoods of other capitals in the Nordic Countries

If you are interested in the hipster ‘hood of other Nordic (or Scandinavian) countries, they are Södermalm in Stockholm, Nørrebro in Copenhague, Grünerløkka in Oslo.

Södermalm, in Estocolmo
Södermalm in Stockholm: filled with hipsters.

Do you like to go to the hipster neighborhood of a city you visit? It is usually a synonym of good cafés and good looking people, something that I can’t possibly object to.

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Public Saunas in Helsinki (and Finland’s oldest)

If you go to Finland I’m pretty sure you’d like to go to a real Finnish sauna.

If you never visited one we encourage you to try this Finnish tradition – and this enjoyment – because, if there is a word in the Finnish language that has consistently made it abroad and you already know, it’d be “sauna”. Imagine the cultural significance behind this achievement.

Public Saunas in Helsinki

There is one sauna per three Finnish people, or so the statistics say. Many homes come equipped with their own sauna, and for the ones that don’t there is probably one per building to be shared between everyone who lives there.

A private sauna in a home.

Since, at least for a visit, having access to these private saunas can be a bit difficult, those who travel to Finland and would like to get some steam going can go to the public saunas: the easiest way to get into one.

The most well known Helsinki sauna, the one that you probably have seen in pictures, movies or documentaries (for instance in the famous “Miesten Vuoro” documentary about men in the sauna), is the Kotiharju Sauna, open since 1928. Its now classic neon sign on the streets makes it a landmark, especially at night. The sauna is also so close to the street that you can go out and roll around in the snow during the cold months of winter or just to go out to be a bit more fresh in summer.

It is located in the street Harjutorinkatu 1. It opens from Tuesday to Sunday from 14h to 20h, and you don’t need to make a reservation if you want to use it along with everyone. If you want to have a private sauna, you can reserve it. It costs 12€ and you can also rent the material you need (including some birch branches to hit yourself or others). This is its website. The type of Finnish sauna, out of the three types, is the wooden version.

One note: it is divided between men and women.

The Kotiharju sauna
The Kotiharju Sauna. Source (CC: by-sa)

This public sauna that we are going to talk about is also located in the Kallio district of the capital of Finland. It is the Arla Sauna (street Kaarlenkatu 15).

This is its official website, where we can see that it is also from the 20s. Founded in 1929, it is also separated into a sauna for men sauna and one for women. The entry fee is 10€ and you can stay as long as you want for the price. You can go at any time between Wednesday and Sunday, from 14 to 20h, and you can also get a sweet massage on the premises.

Public sauna in a hotel building
A public Sauna in a Finnish hotel. Source (CC: by)

The Hermanni Sauna is another public sauna in Helsinki. Built in the 50s of the last century, also comes with different sauna rooms for men and women. For this sauna, the admittance fee is also 10€, but its unique selling proposition is that it’s the one that opens more often: Monday to Friday from 15 to 20h, and Saturdays from 14 to 18h. You can rent towels and you can eat something in there after the sauna. For instance: some Finnish Makkara (sausages).

This is its website and this is its address: Hämeentie 63.

The sauna? This way.
Follow the indications to get to the sauna. Source (CC: by)

Saunasaari is the last sauna we talk about that you can find in Helsinki, and it is special. It is a sauna-island. Let us explain.

It is located on an island 15 minutes from the center of Helsinki, when you take an aqua-taxi. It has different sauna rooms made out of wood, in the traditional way, and that you can rent individually for a day, catering included. The price, nonetheless, is a bit higher compared to the other places: 100 euros per person if you are in a 6 person group (but groups can be bigger, too). This is the official website.

Sauna in an island
Island + Sauna. Settings for a horror movie… or for a delicious afternoon. Mostly the latter. Source (CC: by)

The oldest public Sauna in Finland is in Tampere

We include Tampere in this post for two reasons: Because it is easy to reach from different places due to the fact that Ryanair flies there – and this city was highlighted by the company as one of the gems to discover in Europe -, and secondly because the oldest public sauna in Finland is located there. It is still in use more than 100 years later and you can visit it.

This Sauna is called Rajaportti (a word that means “door at the border”). It is in the outskirts of Tampere, in the street Pispalan Valtatie 9. Opened to the public since 1906 (Finland was still Russia back then), the type of sauna you can enjoy there is the wood sauna.

In the sauna room you have a löyly: a human-shaped carved stone that you can throw water into and that will produce steam continuously. It is also called “the spirit of the sauna“.

The dressing rooms are different for men and women, but the sauna room isn’t, making it different to the saunas we have seen in this post. The price per person is 5€ for each session, and it is only open for half of the week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The rest of the days you can rent it for your private use. There is also a café in the building and an available physiotherapist.

Sauna in Tampere
The entrance to Finland’s oldest public Sauna. Source (CC: by)

Have you ever been in a public sauna in Finland or in another country? How was the experience?

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