We recently took our three children to Helsinki, for a week-long summertime city break. Someone had been kind enough to offer our boisterous family of five the use of their city-centre flat. And so, before this person could change their mind, we all packed our bags and went to the capital for some metropolitan fun.
Prior to arriving in the city, however, some troubling questions crossed our minds about spending this much time in Helsinki with our kids (an unruly set of youngsters, aged 11, 9 and 4). Would we find enough to keep them occupied? Would they all be suitably tired by bedtime? Would we spend a small fortune on entrance fees, eating out and the daily purchase of ice cream for five? Would my wife and I go slowly insane spending seven nights in a cosy studio apartment filled with little boys, all snoring, wheezing and breaking wind? It was a risky venture to be sure, but it was too late to back out now.
We resolved not only to have a great time in Helsinki, but to spend as little as possible, and to make sure our children collapsed in an exhausted (but blissfully quiet) heap at the end of each day. That was our mission, and in the end, I’d say we made a pretty good job of it.
On the first morning of our Helsinki holiday – while our kids squabbled energetically over breakfast, as we all sat knee-to-knee around a titchy dining table – it was already clear we’d need to spend the maximum amount of time outdoors, and a minimum amount of time in the tiny flat. So without further ado, we set off for a nice walk by the seafront. We started at Löyly – a recently built public sauna, restaurant and bar, all made out of timber – and what’s more, made in a cool and stylish way that Finns seem very good at. The five of us spent a while messing about at this intriguing and quite funky wooden structure. We clambered up to the roof terrace for the tremendous sea views, we lounged on comfy deck chairs and peered at distant sailing boats, we even checked out the snazzy interior design of the bar area…and then we decided to leave before anyone tried to make us buy anything.
For the next few hours, we slowly followed the seaside path back to the city centre. The route took us past photogenic harbours, busy outdoor tennis courts, trendy seafront cafes and edgy skate parks, and lots of smiley people out enjoying the sunny weather. We also passed several bustling ice cream kiosks, but after seeing the price of one cone, then being shocked after multiplying that amount by five, we kept on walking (me grumbling about the cost of ice cream, the children grumbling about their skinflint parents) until eventually we stopped to rest on a bench and ate a tasty (and economical) packed lunch. We continued our walk by the sea, occasionally stopping to take photos of the pretty yachts and pleasure boats. Then eventually, as our legs got weary, we sat down on a grassy hill in Kaivopuisto – a large park to the south of the city centre, with lots of winding paths, an observatory and plenty of space to let the children run about.
As our children’s complaints about the lack of ice cream were now reaching fever pitch, we were forced to give in, but – and this is a great tip for visiting Helsinki with kids – we ignored the pricey kiosks and bought five delicious and reasonably priced cones from a nearby supermarket instead. And everyone was happy with that. Even the skinflint parents.
The next morning, pleased we’d managed to fill all of the previous day with sunshine, fresh air and hours of walking, we decided to try more of the same. It was time for a trip to Korkeasaari, which is an excellent zoo, located on an island, and highly recommended if you visit Helsinki with kids. You can take a boat there from the city’s main harbour, but as we had a car with us, we decided we’d drive (you can park close by, then cross a footbridge to the zoo), making sure we got there early enough to grab a space in the free car park. We’d also made sure to buy our tickets online beforehand, because that’s cheaper and you don’t have to queue at the ticket booth. Then we had a happy time wondering around admiring the lions, tigers, camels, bisons, racoons and all sorts of other wonderful creatures (they’ve even got yaks). We found a spot to enjoy the sea view and stopped for another low-cost lunch (there are some very nice cafes at the zoo, but continuing our mission for a cheap family getaway, we brought some sandwiches).
We continued to the monkey enclosure (sadly, they were all hiding), then went to see the bears (happily, all in plain sight and having a nap), and then onwards to the Tropical House, where we got to admire all the creepy snakes and spiders. We also got to peer at some fluorescent and poisonous frogs from the Amazon, a pair of serene turtles and a gang of cheeky looking meerkats. Finally, after deciding to skip the gift shop, because we didn’t want any animal-related merchandise (even a soft cuddly moose), we chose to make our own souvenir by cramming into a photo booth at the same time. The resulting picture strip made a funny memento of the day, and something to put on the fridge door when we got home, next to all the random lists and cheesy magnets.
The old town of Porvoo, was somewhere we’d always wanted to visit, and as it’s less than an hour’s drive from the city, it was easy to include this trip in our Helsinki holiday – and it was another opportunity to give the kids a day’s worth of exercise. We got there early, found a free car park, then crossed the river into the charming cobbled streets of this well-preserved timber town. We started at the market square, then sauntered past all the pretty gift shops and cafes, trying our best to avoid a sizeable foreign tour group, all wearing bright yellow vests. They kept wondering into our photos and seemed determined to follow us wherever we went. We dived into a small chocolate shop, hoping we’d lost them, but unfortunately, they piled in there too and everyone found themselves uncomfortably squashed against the display shelves. There was a moment – as we were trying to squeeze our way back outside – we thought we’d never make it out alive!
After finally shaking off the yellow-vested tourists, we continued to Porvoo’s quaint 15th Century cathedral. We sat a while in the hushed atmosphere admiring the simple Lutheran interior, while our children giggled noisily on a pew, then went back outside and found a suitable bench for another packed lunch. We carried on exploring and headed into the picturesque maze of old streets and houses behind the cathedral. It was going well until one of the kids managed to get a big splinter after leaning on some ancient wooden gate. His distressed wails echoed loudly off all the surrounding yards and walls, drawing the attention of passers-by, and probably waking several old people from their daytime nap. But eventually, after being assured his hand could be saved, our son calmed down, and we all sauntered back to the car. Despite the odd splinter and a bothersome herd of tourists, we all agreed it had been another great day out for the family.
Not too far from the centre of Helsinki, down a country lane and across a bridge, is Seurasaari, and the place we chose for our next day trip. It’s an open air museum, on a tranquil tree-covered island, where you can stroll about and stare in wonder at the collection of eccentric old buildings, gathered from all over Finland and then lovingly rebuilt on this pleasant park. If you choose to pay the museum entrance fee (it’s optional), you get to see inside some of these old churches, manor houses and farm cottages. But if you’re happy to forgo seeing the museum interiors and meeting staff dressed in period costume, you can just enjoy the lovely island setting free of charge.
Seurasaari’s a great place to visit if you’re in Helsinki with kids, because you can let them loose, as you spend hours exploring all the paths, quirky buildings, rocky shores and beaches (one area of the island is actually a nudist beach, but thankfully this has been considerately hidden behind a tall fence to avoid any unexpected encounters with bare butts), but one of the main treats of the island is the wildlife. Seurasaari is home to the tamest birds and squirrels you’re ever likely to meet, and if you remember to bring along some nuts and seeds with you, you’ll have animals literally eating out of your hand.
Another day, we decided to visit the Töölö area of the city and explore the harbour. Our first stop was the Sibelius Monument, an interesting abstract metal sculpture, commemorating Finland’s most famous composer, and an essential stop on the itinerary for serious tourists determined to ‘do’ Helsinki. Indeed, we had to wait patiently to take some photos, as the place was crowded with visitors from overseas, grinning and chatting away, holding selfie sticks and not shy about shoving us out of the way if we got in the way of their shot. Fortunately, the site is set in grassy parkland and the kids enjoyed a bit of running about and clambering over some giant rocks, until the tour group shuffled back to their coach. We quickly took a few holiday snaps before the next group arrived.
After that, we all strolled across to the sunny seafront and followed the terraced walkway until we reached one of Helsinki’s most charming eateries. At first glance, Café Regatta looks like a rickety old shed, but when you get close, you see that it really is a rickety old shed, but also a characterful coffee shop, set in a waterfront yard full of outdoor furniture, a place to grill sausages and a little potato patch (not sure why they have one of these, but the kids seemed very interested and we had to stop the youngest from tugging the plants out the soil). We loaded our tray with plenty of plump sugar-coated korvapuusti (a Finnish cinnamon bun) and crowded round a picnic bench, where we enjoyed the sea view and reflected on our trip. As we happily sat and ate our snacks, we all agreed that life in Helsinki’s really not too bad.
While it’s great to spend time in Finland’s wonderful maritime capital, it’s also worth remembering that the rest of the country has plenty to offer visitors too. If you’re planning a busy family trip to Helsinki, why not combine it with a calm and relaxing stay in a lakeside cabin. After you’ve enjoyed exploring the city, take your loved ones out to a country cottage and relax surrounded by nature and the magnificent landscape of lakes and forests.
Here’s 5 other highlights from our trip to Helsinki with kids:
1. Oodi, a state-of-the-art library
Helsinki’s impressive central library was voted the best new library in the world in 2019 and it’s not hard to see why. As well as cool and stylish timber architecture, there’s plenty of space, light and comfy places to enjoy a good book. Don’t miss the trendy cafe and terrace, overlooking the Finnish parliament.
2. Helsinki City Museum
This is where our kids enjoyed some excellent child-friendly exhibitions, including the Time Machine, where they got to wear VR goggles and experience a stroll through early 20th Century Helsinki. The museum is located in one of the oldest blocks in Helsinki, almost directly opposite the cathedral and Senate Square. All exhibitions are free of charge.
3. Amos Rex
A new museum in Helsinki for lovers of modern art. If your kids aren’t really into that, or if you don’t want to pay the entrance fee, the recently revamped yard to the rear features a number of funny concrete mounds with porthole windows to the museum below the street level. These are great fun for people of all ages to climb and clamber around on, all for free!
4. Main harbour / Esplanade Park
Enjoy the bustling waterfront, usually full of stalls selling snacks and knick-knacks. Then wonder into the nearby Esplanade Park, where you can often enjoy free live music, or just sit on a bench with your packed lunch and watch the world go by.
5. Riding on trams
Helsinki has a great tram network and it’s an easy way to get around. If you’re with some tired children and walking is no longer an option, just buy a tram ticket and enjoy the streets of this enchanting northern European city as you glide along the track.