Despite low temperatures and snow underfoot, life goes on during winter in the Nordic countries. This is especially true in Helsinki, which has the coldest average winter temperature of any Nordic capital, but offers plenty of winter attractions for even the most hardened visitor.
While the record in Helsinki was -34.3°C (-29.7°F), temperatures are likely to be much milder than that, although still below zero.
There is snow in Helsinki during the winter but the time it arrives is not always constant. In mid-January, snow is almost guaranteed, but it often arrives earlier. A white Christmas is not guaranteed, but they are more common than not.
If you like the idea of exploring Helsinki in winter, here are ten must-see places and experiences in the Finnish capital.
Before you think about being cold, here’s how you warm up! The Finnish sauna is a national icon, with many private apartments and holiday cottages owning one. They are also found in hotels, campsites, swimming pools and even office buildings.
A surprising fact for visitors given the Norse reputation for indifference is that public bathhouses are surprisingly social places. Curious? Visit Finland has published this handy guide to must-see saunas in Helsinki.
If you visit one on the traditional Saturday night, be prepared to chat. You can also be persuaded to do as the locals do and follow a visit to the sauna with a quick dip in the icy ocean.
Helsinki Ice Park
If you arrive in Helsinki by train, the Ice Park is one of the first things you will see. The large ice rink is a great place to test your skating skills against experienced locals.
Skates are available for hire. Just make sure you are wearing appropriate clothing, especially woolen socks.
Helsinki City Museum
Warm up indoors while learning about Helsinki at the free city museum. A city is defined by its people and therefore the museum puts the people of the city at the forefront 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 on display can be touched.
Helsinki Winter Garden
Although open year-round, the Winter Garden greenhouses are a popular winter destination. During the Christmas and New Year period, the gardens are decorated for Christmas. In a garden, that means the traditional Christmas flowers such as azaleas, amaryllis and hyacinths.
Discover Nordic minimalist design in the spectacular Oodi bookcase. Sleek lines of wood, glass and steel welcome you inside the modern library which stocks books in 20 languages.
Although it is a relatively peaceful library, there are two cafes, one with a view, on the top floor. Although Helsinki has no shortage of cafes, this one is well worth a visit.
Watch an ice hockey game
Ice hockey is extremely popular in Finland. Considered the second best domestic competition in Europe, the Finnish Elite League (league) has 15 teams of which only one, HIFK, plays in Helsinki. Tickets can be purchased in advance online for HIFK matches, which take place in the 8,200 capacity Helsinki Ice Hall.
Dive into the design
No matter what time of year you visit Helsinki, a visit to the Design District is a must. Nordic design is known around the world and Helsinki is one of the best places to find out why.
Start at the Design Museum for context, then browse the dazzling array of art, design and interior stores that line the pedestrianized 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 visits every day.
If you find yourself in Helsinki on December 13, be sure to visit the market. On this date, newly crowned Saint Lucia descends the steps of the cathedral in a symbolic procession that draws crowds of Finns to the market every year.
Meet reindeer at Nuuksio Reindeer Park
Although they are an icon of the region, you probably wouldn’t expect to encounter reindeer when visiting Helsinki. You have to head about 18 miles out of town, but it’s worth the trip to visit Finland’s southernmost reindeer park at Nuuksio.
Open most weekends, a ticket to the reindeer park includes lichen to feed the reindeer and a chat with the staff about the animals. Coffee and campfire buns are served in an atmospheric canvas tent.
Matka Travel Fair
Matka is the Nordic region’s largest travel fair focused on people who actually travel. Nearly 1,000 travel agents, destination representatives and tourism organizations from over 80 countries gather to give talks, presentations and discuss their travel opportunities with the traveling public at hundreds of booths.
Matka 2023 takes place from January 20 to 22 at the Helsinki Messukeskus Exhibition and Conference Center.