Top 10 Things to do in Helsinki with Kids – A Comprehensive Guide
My brother lives in Helsinki and my family is fortunate to have visited several times. It is an extremely family-friendly city that places a strong value on children, their well-being and overall comfort. Our children are never lacking for new things to do in Helsinki or places to explore, whether it’s a new museum or one of the hundreds of parks peppered throughout the city.
Finns love to take advantage of the long summer days by staying outside listening to music, drinking coffee at a café or just strolling around one of the many lakes. The official Helsinki website has a great map geared just to kids that outlines nearly every single kid-friendly park, restaurant, and museum. It is an invaluable map that I keep handy in my purse when we visit.
Helsinki is the capital of Finland or officially, the Republic of Finland, which is a Nordic country in Northern Europe. It shares a land border with Sweden, Norway and Russia. Finland has a colorful history, is rich in culture, and is the most sparsely populated country within the European Union.
There are two official national languages, Finnish and Swedish, and the indigenous Sami language is an official language in the area of northern Lapland. However, as Finnish is difficult to learn and understand, almost everyone in Finland, especially in Helsinki, speaks English.
Helsinki, the largest city in Finland, is a popular destination for those on a Baltic cruise. Its shoreline is adorned by around 100 kilometers of coast and over 300 islands of which many are accessible for recreational use. If you have the opportunity to visit Helsinki, I say go! My kids were begging to move there and, except for the rather long winters, I thought it could be a possibility!
With a dizzying array of activities to do in and around the city, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 things to do in Helsinki, Finland that your family will enjoy. All were given two-thumbs up by my hardest critics: my two young kids.
Tip: Buy the Helsinki Card. It has so many benefits, including free public transportation and deeply discounted admission fees to numerous attractions, that it’s worth its weight in gold.
1. Historic Suomenlinna
Suomenlinna, located off the coast of Helsinki, is an amazing place that both kids and adults will enjoy visiting. There is so much to see and do that I definitely recommend at least a half-day for exploration. Also known as the “Gibraltar of the Baltic,” Suomenlinna was founded in 1748 and is one of the biggest sea fortresses in the world.
In 1991, Suomenlinna became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is currently one of the most popular attractions in Finland. The fort is built on a cluster of rocky islands and is a perfect setting for a family adventure as it is comprised of 3.7 miles (6 km) of bastion walls, over 100 canons, mysterious tunnels, museums, cafés and restaurants. Suomenlinna is meant to be seen on foot and because many of the roads are paved with cobblestones, you should wear comfortable walking shoes.
When you first arrive, be sure to stop by the Visitors Center where you can pick up maps in various languages. You can also download an app for your smart phone that is quite useful. Be sure to see the Suomenlinna Experience, a multimedia show with translations in English, about how the fortress was built and the cannonball attack by the English Navy in 1855. This was a great introduction to the island and my kids enjoyed it very much.
The best spot on Suomenlinna is King’s Gate. There is a whole warren of embankments and passages to explore, tunnels to run through and huge cannons to climb on. Stand on the ramparts at the southern tip of the island, facing out into the Baltic Sea, where you can imagine the English and French ships aiming their cannons at the fortress.
Suomenlinna is accessible only by water and open year-round. A ferry service runs from the Market Square to Suomenlinna throughout the year and is part of the public transport system. In the summer season, a water bus service to Suomenlinna is also available. The hours vary depending on the season, so please check the website for the most up-to-date-information.
Tip: Suomenlinna can be a challenging environment for people with impaired mobility because of the fortifications and rocky terrain. However, you can prepare ahead of time by downloading an app from their website that shows which paths to avoid. Please note these paths are not marked on the actual routes so you will need to figure this out ahead of time.
2. The Helsinki Zoo
The Helsinki Zoo is home to over 200 animals and is actually located on an island! You will find animals from the arctic tundra to the tropical rainforest. My kids particularly enjoyed the Bengal tiger and white snow leopard exhibits.
Not a fan of zoos? Protecting endangered species is a heartfelt matter for this zoo and they work with other zoos in Europe to form a network which strives to preserve a number of endangered species. You will find the rhino sign that will take you to the animals which belong to the zoo’s shared protection program.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes as the terrain can vary. The zoo is open year-round and the entrance prices are quite reasonable at 12 euros for adults and 6 euros for children. If you have the Helsinki Card, you’ll receive a discount of a couple euros.
It seems Helsinki has playgrounds on every block. Some even have little outdoor wading pools open in the summer. All of the outdoor playgrounds are free and your child can run, swing and jump to their hearts’ content. Every playground that we visited was in clean and excellent condition. Here is a list of the top playgrounds for kids:
- Tokoinranta Playground, Eläintarhantie 1 – This fun playground is situated in a beautiful spot beside the water and close to Hakaniemi Market, where you can go for snacks.
- Kaivopuisto Playground, Puistokatu 4 – Kaivopuisto is one of the oldest, most beautiful and popular parks in Helsinki. It has everything from green lawns to rocky cliffs, and the view to the sea is wonderful. The playground in the center of the park is guarded by a great dragon, and a wooden owl, cormorant and kingfisher sit on their perches watching what’s going on below them. Near the playground is a giant outdoor chess area and public toilets. In the summertime there are also ice cream kiosks — yum!
- Observatory Hill Playground, Tähtitorninkatu 1 – At the playground on the top of Observatory Hill, where astronomers observe the stars at night, you can enjoy great views to the sea in the daytime.
- Sinebrychoff Park, Punavuori, Bulevardi 40 – Many years ago Nikolai Sinebrychoff built a brewery and house here. For his back garden he laid out a pretty geometric park complete with ponds, an observation tower, beautiful flowers and benches to sit on. Greenhouses were added later. Today Sinebrychoff Park also has a fun playground, a public toilet and the Café Fanny.
- Tehtaanpuisto Playground, Punavuori, intersection of Sepänkatu, Laivurinkatu and Tehtaankatu – Tehtaanpuisto Park has a large and modern playground, next to which there is also a football field that is used for ice skating in wintertime. Inside the towering church on the other side is the Café Agricola, which serves delicious lunches and snacks until 5 pm.
- Taivallahti Playground, Töölö, Pohjoinen Hesperiankatu 22 – This large and well-equipped playground is situated in a beautiful area in Hesperia Park close to Töölönlahti Bay. There are plenty of toys and a separate area for small children.
- Liisanpuistikko Park is a lovely green area between Maneesikatu and Liisankatu. From the Pohjoisranta shoreline you can cross a bridge to Tervasaari Island. Walking along the waterfront you can also admire the historic wooden ships.
- Lahnalahti Playground, Lauttasaari, Lauttasaarentie 40–42 – Lahnalahti Park is central to the 1950s-60s milieu of the Lauttasaari district. The park is in three sections with a playground and playing field divided by a green park area. The playground has lots of sand, playhouses and rides. You can climb and play ball. Across the road and by the shoreline you will find even more fun, including a big pirate ship and swimming beach.
4. Heureka – The Finnish Science Center
The Finns are known for their world class educational system and take pride in that fact. They put a strong emphasis on science and technology and it is showcased in their amazing science center. Heureka is located a bit out of the city center, but absolutely worth a visit if you have time. It is situated in the Tikkurila district of Vantaa and is open year-round.
Everything at Heureka is in Finnish, Swedish and English. There are a wide range of thematic exhibitions and a permanent main exhibition. In the summertime there is also an outdoor exhibition area called Galilei Science Park. There is so much to see and do that our family returned several times during our visit. Our family’s favorite exhibit was the moon-walk exhibit. Parents can strap their kids in a harness which allows them to feel what it’s like to walk on the moon. My personal favorite exhibit was riding a bike across a tight rope suspended about 25 feet up. That proved to get my heart racing a bit!
We visited Heureka at least four times for several hours and each time we saw something new. They do have a little café in which to relax and recharge along with a souvenir shop full of amazing science activities and toys available for purchase. The bathrooms are fully equipped with changing stations and even little toddler potties!
Visit the Heureka website for the most up-to-date hours and admission prices.
5. Linnanmaki Amusement Park
My kids checked off several amusement parks during our trip to Europe but Linnanmaki was one of their favorites. It isn’t huge like Disneyland or Magic Mountain but definitely provided a lot of fun and entertainment for the whole family. Even better is that it’s free to enter the park and there are several rides which are free! However, children older than age 3 will likely not be entertained solely by the free rides.
You can buy tickets for each ride at designated kiosks but I recommend just buying an all-day pass. Not only will you save time by not standing in line for more tickets (because trust me…you will want more…) but ultimately money. It’s a better bargain to just splurge on the all-day pass which is less expensive then admission to most amusement parks in the U.S. Be sure to ride the Panorama Tower, which is free, for amazing views of the city! If you are a believer of Santa (and who isn’t?), be sure to visit the “official” Santa near the main entrance. The kids will get a kick out of visiting his charming little cottage and for a fee get a picture as a keepsake.
Linnanmaki is open year-round but hours vary depending on the season. Please visit their website for the most up-to-date information.
6. The Finnish Museum of Natural History
Every kid loves bugs, rocks and dinosaurs. Mine are no exception so it was assumed we would explore the Natural History Museum one afternoon. The museum is divided into three main attractions: The Natural History Museum, the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden and the Kumpula Botanic Garden. We spent the majority of our time in the Natural History Museum and the kids were so hungry after exploring everything, that we left for a late lunch before we could see the other two attractions.
The Story of Bones was the kids favorite permanent exhibit followed by the World Nature exhibit. All of the exhibits are stunning and well arranged. You can borrow an audio box to carry around that describes each attraction in detail and is offered in several languages. The kids were constantly entertained and there are numerous interactive stations to keep their hands busy. We were very pleased with what we saw and will return to explore the other attractions on our next visit!
Please see the Finnish Museum of Natural History for exact location, hours and admission information.
7. Helsinki Music Center
Helsinki is well known for its music culture. The world renowned Sebelius Academy is located in Helsinki and attracts highly talented musicians from around the world. There is a strong emphasis on music in the Finnish educational system and all children are expected to take part in some form of music classes. It’s no wonder that the Helsinki Music Center is so popular with local families and visitors alike.
The Helsinki Philharmonic, Sebelius Academy and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra also reside at the Music Center. It is newly built in the heart of Helsinki near Töölönlahti (Toolo Bay) and made of copper and glass. Every day there are events and many of them are geared toward children. The café is a popular meeting place for young families and there is even a microwave for heating children’s food. You can enter the building for free but certain concerts often have a small admission fee.
You can visit the Helsinki Music Center website for more information about concerts, hours and admission.
8. Use Public Transportation
Normally when we travel, we rent a car. But let me tell you, car rentals are expensive in Finland! Public transportation is so easy even for someone that doesn’t know a lick of Finnish like me. The kids loved riding the trams and underground metro. A few times we just took a metro from one end of the city to the other just for the fun of it.
Single tickets can be purchased directly from the driver or at kiosks in the stations but it is easier to have the Helsinki Card, which allows free of charge public transportation within the city, and then you can just hop aboard trams, buses, the metro and even the ferry to Suomenlinna. Children under 7 ride for free and ages 7-16 are half of the adult fare. Little known fact is if you are pushing a pram you can also ride for free. Word of caution: Do not get caught without a ticket! Although it isn’t checked often (only once during my last visit), the 80 euro penalty is steep for trying to ride for free.
Tip: Make sure you flag down your bus! Just because you are waiting at a designated bus stop doesn’t mean your bus will automatically stop for you. Many different bus lines intersect their routes, and if the driver doesn’t see you wave for your bus, they will just keep going by. This happened to me once on a very windy and rainy day. As we stood cold and wet for a particular bus, I was excited when I saw it round the corner. I made eye contact with the driver but he just kept going. After I voiced a few choice words under my breath, a kind gentleman at the bus stop with us explained what I did wrong. I won’t make that mistake again!
9. Senate Square
A trip to Helsinki is not complete without a visit to Senate Square. Senate Square and its surroundings make up the oldest part of central Helsinki and are great examples of Neoclassical architecture. The square is dominated by four buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel between 1822 and 1852: Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland. Helsinki Cathedral is probably Finland’s most famous and photographed building and plays host to numerous music events throughout the year, showcasing its incredible acoustics.
The Senate Square also hosts a sound installation called the Sound of the Senate Square. It is a modern version of the European glockenspiel and can be heard every day at 17:49 as it travels from one building to the next. The composition runs for 5 minutes and 18 seconds and is composed by Harri Viitanen and Jyrki Alakuijala. The kids enjoyed the countdown to the music and loved how the music traveled.
If you happen to be there during the Christmas holiday season, don’t miss the Helsinki Christmas Market which is held annually in Senate Square. When I was there over Christmas a year ago, I loved sipping a cup of hot wine while viewing over 100 booths selling Finnish crafts and sweets.
10. Day Trip to Tallin, Estonia
Want to check-off another country on your bucket list in a short amount of time? A day trip to medieval Tallin, Estonia is just a two-hour ferry ride across the Baltic Sea and worth the visit if you have the time. There are several different ferries to choose from but we opted for the Tallink Silja Line. The express ferry, the Lindaline, cancels often due to weather and we didn’t want to get stuck overnight. The Tallink is a big cruise ship that even has sleeping cabins, but for the short ride to Tallin you don’t need one. There are restaurants, bars, duty free shopping and even a large children’s area. The kids were so entertained that when we docked they didn’t want to leave the ship!
Once you arrive in Tallin I would recommend getting a combination ticket which allows you to take the Tallin City Tour by bus and visit two museums of your choice along the way. Good options are the new Seaplane Harbour, KUMU, TV Tower and Open Air Museum. The ticket is valid for 24 hours after the first step aboard a sightseeing bus.
A few final thoughts for your visit to Helsinki:
- Free Wi-Fi in Helsinki: The city of Helsinki offers a free WLAN-service for residents and travelers alike. No passwords or registration required. Just look for “Helsinki City Open WLAN” from the available networks. This map shows the outdoor hotspots around Helsinki.
- What to wear: If you are visiting Helsinki in the summer, be sure to bring a jacket that can protect you from the wind, keep you warm in the cool evenings, and help you stay dry during sudden downpours.
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