5 free things to see and do in Helsinki

05/09/2014 12:00 AM

05/08/2014 4:00 PM

Helsinki is known as an international capital of design, and Finland is one of the eurozone’s wealthiest nations. But despite that upscale reputation, the city offers a wealth of experiences that are light on the wallet. In summer, glorious sun-filled days draw picnickers to every available last patch of grass. The city also has a timeless maritime character, with its location on the Baltic Sea offering views of the bay filled with boats and dozens of tiny islands. There’s a cosmopolitan side to Helsinki too, with striking architecture and street art as far as the eye can see.

Here are a few adventures to be had for free.

•  Park Avenue: You know summer has arrived in Helsinki when trendy young urbanites blanket every corner of Esplanadi Park and set up picnics. Known locally as Espa, the charmingly small park is also the hot spot for free outdoor concerts.

For a different kind of adrenaline rush, head to the hillside amusement park of Linnanmaki, where a high observation deck offers a panoramic view of the city. Admission to the park, tower and even some (though not all) of the rides are free of charge.

For complete serenity, try the manicured botanical gardens at Kaisaniemi Park, where hundreds of exotic plants populate the greenhouses that are maintained by the University of Helsinki.

•  King of the castle: Though the grounds are as lavish as any royal residence, there are no castles on Suomenlinna Fortress, a star-shaped bastion built in the 1700s atop a cluster of six islands. Today, the only invaders of this UNESCO World Heritage site are visitors who explore the church, theater, craft galleries, and half a dozen onsite museums. There’s no entry fee to the island, though if you lack a boat of your own, there’s a small cost for the ferry ride over.
•  By the sea: The parks that envelop Toolonlahti Bay showcase the exotic plants of the Winter Garden, the quiet splendor of the Finnish National Opera House and the vastness of the Olympic Stadium, built when the country hosted the Summer Games in 1952. Locals bring their competitive spirit to the beach volleyball tournaments at Hietaniemi Beach.
•  Window shopping: If there’s only time for a single excursion, the place to go is the century-old Hakaniemi Market Hall, where 70 shops offer an endless array of knickknacks, such as local delicacies (reindeer meat and blinis), alpaca jackets, and toys and other handmade crafts. In summer, the open-air flea market at Hietalahti offers a bohemian feel.
•  Steaming: No visit to the country is complete without basking in a sauna, where an extra burst of heat is felt every time a shot of water is ladled onto hot stones. Saunas are a source of national pride and most private homes have them. Many hotels and hostels have them too, so you’ll likely have access to one as part of your overnight lodging.

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