I’ve been very lucky to visit Helsinki twice now: once towards the end of summer and most recently at the beginning of winter. Both visits were drastically different, but absolutely beautiful.
It’s a city with two stories. So, let’s take a look at Helsinki in both winter and summer.
Helsinki is a wonderful city located on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea. The capital and largest city in Finland, Helsinki regularly ranks as one of the most livable cities in the world.
Helsinki in summer is vibrant; the Finns take full advantage of the long summer days and the city is full of people buzzing around. Buses and walking tours crowded the city streets and it felt like there were a million things to see, do, and experience. The city felt alive, exciting and full of possibilities.
When we visited in winter it felt quite the opposite. The days were short and often it felt like we were the only people around (perhaps this is because we were there over New Years and most Finns were still on holidays). There were no bus or walking tours being offered during our visit, but we still managed to see as much of the city as we could – it just took a little bit more creativity. Most of our exploring was done on foot. When the temperatures got too cold or the snow started to blow we hopped on one of the many trams, which squired us around the city allowing us to see the sights from the comfort of the warm car.
The city in winter felt calm, serene and at times quiet. Although there was much to see and do, the darkness would set in around 3 PM and by 5 PM the city was completely enveloped in it, forcing us inside. From the comfort of a restaurant or perched atop a bar stool, we’d marvel at just how dark it was and how the city lights would bounce off the falling snow. Despite being cold, there was something magical about Helsinki in winter.
The Sibelius Monument is a very unique attraction located in Sibelius Park in the Töölö district of Helsinki, just a short tram ride and walk from the city centre.
Unveiled in 1967, the Sibelius Monument is dedicated to Finnish composer and violinist Jean Sibelius. It consists of a series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. I’m convinced that if the wind is blowing just right you can hear music, but I have no proof to back this up – maybe just wishful thinking.
The Sibelius Monument is incredibly popular with tourists. In the summer, the park was lined with tour buses with many waiting to find a spot. The monument itself was crowded with people; everywhere you looked were tourists with more flooding in by the minute. I don’t have a single picture from that first visit without others in the background.
When we visited in January, we were one of two couples there, and the other couple didn’t last long—it was -10C and windy so you can’t really blame them. Without the crowd of tourists, we were able to explore the monument and really get up close and personal with it. It was nice to have the spot all to ourselves, but at the same time the silence was almost eerie.
An inhabited sea fortress spread across six islands, Suomenlinna was built in the mid-18th Century to defend the Kingdom of Sweden (which Helsinki was a part of at the time) against the Russian Empire.
After the Finnish gained independence in 1917 the fortress was renamed and served as a garrison and a harbour. Following WWII the role of the fortress steadily declined until 1973 when it was converted for civilian purposes.
Today, Suomenlinna is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki and is home to some 850 inhabitants. In both summer and winter the Suomenlinna ferry was packed–I was actually surprised at how many people were making the New Years day trek given that it was cold, cloudy and the wind was blowing.
In summer, the island felt full of people. Everywhere you turned there was a small group exploring and taking it all in. In winter, despite the ferry being full, the island felt empty. We explored for over an hour and really only bumped into other people a handful of times.
Helsinki is a city that tells two very distinct stories. It’s a city that takes on a different persona depending on the season: Summers are vibrant, bright and full of excitement; winters are tranquil, mysterious and peaceful. It’s a beautiful city that has taken my breath away with each visit. It’s unlike any city I’ve explored and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit this unique northern capital again, no matter what the season or what stories it wants to tell.
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