What You Mustn’t Miss on a Helsinki Coastal Walk
What I love about Helsinki is the ease with which one can navigate the city on foot. For the visitor who has seen all the must-sees (the two major cathedrals, the rock church, Suomenlinna, the railway station and the Sibelius monument), a relaxing walk among the city’s early modern architecture can be very enjoyable to round up a short stay or Helsinki layover. There are other routes on the internet that cover other bays and parks; mine follows the coast of the south harbour (Eteläsatama).
TL;DR: Old market hall, views of Suomenlinna and other islands, sculptures, Kaivopuisto park, Ursa Observatory, maritime memorial, Löyly sauna
Total walking time: 1 hour
Sights along Helsinki’s Southern Coast
Kauppatori and Vanha Kauppahalli
The walk starts at the touristy market square (kauppatori), where you can get reindeer meatballs and fried vendace in the summer. The old market hall (vanha kauppahalli) is just a few yards south. It’s a pretty building but many of the stores cater to tourists too. Reindeer kebabs? Canned bear meat? You can find them here at airport prices.
Follow the footpath that passes the Linda Line and Olympia ferry terminals. You wouldn’t know by looking at the former that it was the proposed site for a Guggenheim Foundation museum. The Helsinki city council rejected the plan in December 2016, but not before a lot of data and ink was spent debating or protesting the project online and in the press.
The harbour is littered with islands and islets, the biggest of which is Suomenlinna. It’s recognisable by the neoclassical church at the top of the hill. Read more about the sea fortress and how to get there in this post. Don’t forget to look back from time to time for the views of the city skyline.
In the summer, locals swarm to parks like Kaivopuisto (on your right), even if the skies are grey and the temperature is on the wrong side of 10 degrees. You quickly learn that nothing gets between Finns and the precious little daylight they enjoy throughout the year. The Ursa Observatory in the heart of the park opens on Sunday afternoons for solar viewing in the summer; during the winter months, it’s used for nighttime viewing. The observatory, the spa, the Suomenlinna church and Helsinki cathedral all share the same architect (Carl Ludvig Engel) and neoclassical design.
The next notable landmark is this memorial to seafarers, in particular, those who perished in the 1979 sinking of M/S Malmi. Looking inland, the spire of the Mikael Agricola Church is unmissable among the Art Nouveau apartment buildings.
All along the coast, you’ll encounter joggers and people walking their dogs. There’s a joke out there about Finns finding it too warm for even shorts when the temperature rises to 0 degrees in winter. Perhaps it’s true but no one seemed to want to demonstrate it in front of me.
St Bridget Park (Pyhän Birgitan puisto) features the sculpture Onni (“Happiness”), which depicts two larger-than-life figures looking out to sea. There’s just enough space between the two for a couple to join them – if you ignore the little knob and the freezing temperatures in winter.
The walk ends at Löyly, a new sauna that also houses a restaurant. Since its opening in 2016, it has won awards and nominations for its bold and environmentally-conscious design. It’s a great way to experience a smoke sauna if your accommodation doesn’t have one, and you can go for a dip in the sea (or an ice hole in winter) afterwards. Unlike the other (and older) public saunas in Helsinki, you keep a bathing suit on throughout. It’s great if you are a little insecure or shy, but it’s not for me. Instead, I was content to enjoy the view of the harbour from the roof.
To head back to central Helsinki by another route
As you backtrack from Löyly, turn left at the junction after the St Bridget Park (where the little beach is) and follow the road. Then, turn right onto Bulevardi when you reach Hietalahti harbour. Follow the road past the Hietalahti market hall, the old church and the Esplanade and you’ll be back at the kauppatori.