5 free things to do in Helsinki

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People cool off on a hot summer day in Esplanade Park in Helsinki, Finland. Sun-filled days often draw picnickers to every available patch of grass in the park.  MARTTI KAINULAINEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
MARTTI KAINULAINEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
People cool off on a hot summer day in Esplanade Park in Helsinki, Finland. Sun-filled days often draw picnickers to every available patch of grass in the park.

HELSINKI — Helsinki is known as an international capital of design and Finland is one of the eurozone’s wealthiest nations. 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 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 the city, too, with striking architecture and street art as far as the eye can see.

Here are a few adventures to be had for free.

1 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 lives up to its short name.

Sandwiched between parallel streets that are lined with cafes and shops – think of home-grown design brands including Marimekko and iittala – it’s also the hot spot for a number of free outdoor concerts and one of the most vibrant parts of town.

For a different kind of rush, head over to the hillside amusement park of Lin­nan­maki, where the observation deck of a 173-foot tower offers a panoramic view of the city. Admission to the park, tower and some (though not all) of the rides is free.

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

2 KING OF THE CASTLE: The grounds are as lavish as any royal residence, but 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. One museum is an entire submarine.

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. The particularly adventurous can even stay the night at the fortress’s hostel – not free, but potentially priceless.

3 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 held the Sum­mer Games in 1952.

At the end of boulevards leading from the park next to the bay, locals bring their competitive spirit to beach volleyball tournaments at the man-made and ever-popular Hietaniemi Beach.

4 WINDOW SHOPPING: Nestled in the heart of the city, and just steps away from iconic spots such as Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square, the fashion-forward Kluuvi shopping center showcases trendy items that aren’t available anywhere else in the country. During summer months, the open-air flea market at Hietalahti offers a more bohemian feel and a glimpse of the everyday objects that are desired by many Finns.

But if there’s time for only a single excursion, the place to go is the century-old Hakaniemi Market Hall, where 70 shops offer an endless array of knickknacks, local delicacies (including reindeer meat and blinis), alpaca jackets and other regional specialties from the northern Lapland to the north, and toys and other crafts that have been handmade from local fir.

5 STEAMING: Finally, no visit to Finland is complete without basking in a sauna, where an extra burst of heat is felt every time a shot of water is ladled onto piping hot stones.

Saunas are a source of national pride and most private homes have them. Many hotels and hostels have them too, so in all likelihood you’ll have access to one as part of your overnight lodging.

There’s also a new public facility called Kulttuurisauna that was built as a result of Helsinki’s holding the 2012 World Design Festival, but admission is 15 euros, or about $20.


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