This City Tips on Helsinki, a reader request, will be the first in a series of posts with no-budget tips for specific destinations. Leave your requests for further posts in the comments, and please add any overlooked tips for each city as well!
Finland borders Russia, Norway and Sweden and forms the scrotum of the Scandinavian phallus. Helsinki, the yellow dot in the map at left, was the most expensive city I’d visited till I flew from there to Reykjavik in 2006. (Iceland has a way of putting spending in perspective.)
The downtown area, between the port, railway and bus stations, is dominated by what Wikipedia tells me is well-preserved Functionalist architecture, which gives the inner city a definite 1920s-30s vibe (after having been there, I’m not certain what the band “Architecture in Helsinki” was trying to express by naming their band as such).
I’ll let your guidebook convince you why to go there and what to see. Heck, if you found this post, you’ve probably already decided to go. Instead, I’ll focus on the nitty-gritty, oft overlooked advice only one cheap-o can provide another.
Getting There and Away
To get from the airport to town, skip the expensive FinnAir airport bus and climb on regional bus 615, which takes you directly to the main train station. This is currently a 3.60 euro fare.
Alternatively, you can fly RyanAir or Blue1 to Tampere and take the train (2 hours, 25 euros one-way, 4 euros bus to/from airport) from there. Note that if you take the city bus, you should not plan to arrive to the airport more than 1.5-2 hours before your flight as the terminal will be closed!
Buses run every night between St. Petersburg and Helsinki. They line up in front of the Oktyabrskaya Hotel in the evenings and are run as “tours.” One-way or round-trip (returning in the afternoon of the day of arrival) costs 10 euros. There is no need to prebook; simply show up and choose your bus. Touts often stand at the above-ground metro exit kitty-corner from Moskovskii Vokzal (train station). It is probably better to find your own way over and select the bus you feel looks like it will be leaving soon rather than relying on the tout’s estimation.
As with all overnight transit, you cross the border in the middle of the night, must exit the bus, claim your luggage, and pass through passport and customs control first on the Russian side, then on the Finnish side. If you’re lucky, this will take 1-1.5 hours. After clearing Russian customs, the bus usually stops at the duty-free shop before proceeding to Finland. The bus arrives in Helsinki between 5 and 6 a.m.
These cheap buses are primarily used by female cigarette runners (hence the prompt return the next day). While I have only taken them to Finland, I believe you could also catch a ride in the early afternoon back to Russia for the same price. These buses park around the FinnKino, located in the downtown area of Helsinki.
If these times or the informality of these buses doesn’t appeal to you, you can always go Eurolines or take the train. In Your Pocket outlines all the bus companies running between the two cities, including their contact information; Rick Steves outlines the prices and pick-up locations for these buses, as well as compares the two trains running between the cities. If you understand Russian, you can now purchase Russian train tickets online here. Eurolines runs for 33/56 euros ow/rt before any discounts. The train will currently set you back 52 euros ow.
Helsinki has a large ferry port with regular service to/from Estonia, Sweden and Germany. You can find links to all of the companies here. Here you’ll find how to reach the ferries by public transportation. Note that there are three harbors; be sure you know which harbor your ferry leaves from!
I researched this quite heavily when I needed to get to/from Tallinn. The best deals are weekday returns, which run something in the mid-20-euros range. You will need to consider your preferred departure and arrival times, how speedily you wish to travel (smaller hydrofoils take 1.5 hours while larger ferries take 3), etc. As I remember, it was cheapest to book online, I believe three days prior to travel. Note that there is a limit for luggage on the hydrofoils.
The price of the ferries to/from Sweden and Germany will depend on the size and location of your cabin in addition to the above-listed factors.
I have almost always stuck to groceries in Finland, which with their higher prices seemed to push my food budget. There is a pretty good-sized K-Supermarket on the bottom floor of the Kamppi shopping center in the downtown area. The shopping center is open 9-9 M-F and 9-6 Sat, noting that the supermarket and restaurants are open later. If you’re coming from or staying near the airport, there is a huge supermarket (Prisma?) in the ginormous and aptly-named Jumbo shopping center out there.
I don’t think there is such a thing — alcohol is one highly-taxed commodity in Scandinavia. Helsinki is where I often saw natives on the Esplanade drinking their BYOB. If you must drink, you’re probably best following the natives’ example and buying your own at the grocery.
Find or add more recommendations at this new blog about Helsinki.
Get a couple of first impressions of central Helsinki from Conan O’Brien. (My favorite video clip is this one, which has nothing to do with travel, but is hilarious from 2:35 remaining, when Conan loses it.)