Despite low temperatures and snow underfoot, life goes on during the winter in the Nordic countries. That’s especially true in Helsinki, which has the coldest average winter temperature of all the Nordic capital cities yet offers plenty of winter attractions for the hardy visitor.
While the record low in Helsinki was −34.3 °C (−29.7 °F), temperatures are likely to be far milder than that, albeit still below freezing.
There is snow in Helsinki during the winter but the time it arrives is not always consistent. By mid-January snow is all but guaranteed, but it often arrives earlier. A white Christmas isn’t guaranteed, but they are more common than not.
If you like the idea of exploring Helsinki in the winter, here are ten must-visit places and experiences in the Finnish capital.
Before you think about getting cold, this is how you warm up! The Finnish sauna is a national icon, with many private apartments and vacation cottages featuring one. They can also be fond in hotels, campsites, swimming pools and even office buildings.
A surprising fact for visitors given the Nordic reputation of standoffishness is that public saunas are surprisingly social places. Curious? Visit Finland has published this handy guide to must-visit saunas in Helsinki.
If you visit one on the traditional Saturday night, be prepared to chat. You may also be persuaded to do as the locals do and follow up a sauna visit with a quick dip in the ice cold ocean.
Helsinki ice park
If you arrive into Helsinki by rail, the ice park is one of the first things you’ll see. The large skating rink is a great place to test your skating skills against the experienced locals.
There are skates available to rent. Just be sure you’re wearing appropriate clothing, especially woollen socks.
Helsinki City Museum
Warm up indoors while getting an introduction to Helsinki at the free city museum. A city is defined by its people and so the museum places the city’s residents front and center by highlighting personal memories of everyday life over the years.
The museum’s collection of photographs is impressive as is the ‘children’s town’ exhibition, in which everything that’s on display can be touched.
Helsinki Winter Garden
Although open year-round, the glasshouses of the Winter Garden are a popular winter destination. During the Christmas and New Year year period, the gardens are decorated for Christmas. In a garden, that means traditional Christmas flowers such as azaleas, amaryllises and hyacinths.
Discover Nordic minimalist design at the spectacular Oodi library. Elegant lines of wood, glass and steel welcome you inside the modern library that stocks books in 20 languages.
While this is a relatively peaceful library, there are two coffee shops including one with a view on the top floor. Although Helsinki is not short of cafes, this one is well worth a visit.
Catch an ice hockey game
Ice hockey is supremely popular in Finland. Considered Europe’s second best domestic competition, the Finnish Elite League (Liiga) features 15 teams of which just one, HIFK, plays in Helsinki. Tickets can be purchased in advance online for HIFK games, which take place at the 8,200-capacity Helsinki Ice Hall.
Dive into design
Whatever time of year you visit Helsinki, a visit to the design district is a must. Nordic design is known the world over and Helsinki is one of the best places to discover why.
Start at the Design Museum for context, then make your way around the dazzling range of art, design and interiors stores that line the walkable streets of the design district.
From December 1 to 21, Senate Square hosts the capital’s Christmas market in the shadow of Helsinki Cathedral. More than 100 stalls offer homemade gifts, Christmas decorations and local food. Santa Claus pays a visit every day.
If you happen to be in Helsinki on December 13, make sure to visit the market. On this date, the newly crowned St. Lucia descends the cathedral’s stairs in a symbolic procession that draws crowds of Finns to the market every year.
Meet reindeer at Nuuksio Reindeer Park
While they are an icon of the region, you probably wouldn’t expect to meet reindeer when visiting Helsinki. You do have to head about 18 miles outside of the city, but it’s worth the journey to visit Finland’s southernmost reindeer park in Nuuksio.
Open most weekends, a ticket to the Reindeer Park includes lichen for feeding the reindeer and a chat with staff about the animals. Campfire coffee and buns are served in an atmospheric canvas tent.
Matka travel fair
Matka is the largest travel fair in the Nordic region that’s focused on the people who actually travel. Almost 1,000 travel agents, destination reps and tourism organizations from over 80 countries gather to give lectures, presentations and discuss their travel opportunities with the traveling public on hundreds of stalls.
Matka 2023 takes place from January 20-22 at the Helsinki Messukeskus expo and conference center.