The approach to the cruise port of Helsinki is spectacular. Occupying a peninsula that is studded with over 300 islands, the so-called Daughter of the Baltic is surrounded on three sides by water.
This natural seaport was founded by King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden (to which Finland belonged for many centuries) as a new trading post in southern Finland in 1550. The aim was to woo trade from the Estonian city of Tallinn, thus challenging the Hanseatic League’s monopoly on Baltic trade.
Today, Helsinki is known for not only its stunning natural environment but also its architecture, sauna culture, design scene and its unique gastronomy. But if you are visiting Helsinki on a cruise and have only 24 hours or less to explore it, you will need to make some tough choices.
Make the most of your cruise stop in Helsinki by exploring its highlights on this free self-guided walking tour.
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Helsinki Free Self-Guided Walking Tour
Make the most of your cruise stop in Helsinki by following my free self-guided walking tour. As your time in port will be limited, I have deliberately pared this walk down to include only the best things to see in Helsinki in a day (or less!).
Let’s face it; you are on a relaxing cruise. You won’t want to be rushing from one attraction to another onshore.
This walking tour starts from the market square and is around two miles (3 km) in length. At a relaxed pace, it will take you 2 – 3 hours, more if you decide to linger, stop for a coffee or bite to eat or go off-piste.
But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
Helsinki walking tour map
To help you on your way, here’s your Helsinki walking tour map.
It’s easy to get step-by-step directions. Simply click on the image and it will bring up a live Google Map.
Kuappatori (market square)
Helsinki’s waterfront market square, framed by stately 19th Century buildings, is a good place to start. If you are making your way from Helsinki West Harbour Cruise Terminal on foot, it will be the first landmark that you will come across.
The first thing that hits you is the aroma of wild strawberries, on sale at many of the market’s stalls. But this is a great place to pick up reasonably priced, handmade wooden souvenirs and jewellery.
If you haven’t had enough of being on the water, you can also pick up a sightseeing boat tour from here.
I had and I didn’t.
Uspenskin Katedraali (Russian Orthodox Cathedral)
East of the market square, you can’t miss the gold onion domes of Uspenskin Katedraali, Helsinki’s 19th Century Russian Orthodox Cathedral.
Unfortunately, the ship docked on a Monday when the cathedral was shut. Therefore, I did not have a chance to take a peek at its reportedly lavish interior.
TIME FOR COFFEE?
Helsinki is known for its great cafes so try to fit in a pit stop somewhere along the way. I can recommend the fantastic coffee and chilled-out vibe at Johan and Nyström, which I stumbled upon by accident.
It’s around the corner from Uspenskin Katedraali at Kanavaranta 7C.
Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral)
Your next stop is Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral. In contrast to the red-brick exterior of Uspenskin Katedraali, this is a stately, shimmering white neoclassical building.
Direct your gaze heavenwards to the zinc statues of the 12 apostles on its roof.
Helsinki’s train station
Whilst I am partial to a grandiose church or two, Helsinki’s train station was my favourite building.
Designed by the architect Eliel Saarinen, his Neoromantic temple to transport is recognised as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations. This glorious Art Nouveau building, opened in 1919, is clad in Finnish granite and is known for its clock tower and its two pairs of statues, holding spherical lamps, that grace its main entrance.
This was the “What the heck?!” moment during my day in Helsinki.
Opened in 2018, Amos Rex is an underground contemporary art museum, topped by five conical domes rising from the surface of Lasipalatsi Square. Resembling a gleaming lunar landscape, it has rapidly become a Helsinki landmark and is selfie-central.
Yes; another church. But you don’t see too many churches hewn out of solid rock.
With a gleaming copper dome covering its 25-m diameter roof and slatted windows allowing the light to play patterns across its floor, this is an extraordinary building. It will cost you 3 Euro to enter but is worth every cent.
Organised Day Tours of Helsinki
But perhaps you don’t fancy going it alone on a self-guided walking tour and are looking for other things to do during your cruise stop in Helsinki.
Taking a shore excursion is an obvious solution but can be extremely expensive. Often, a better option is to arrange an activity through a local tour operator.
GetYourGuide is my go-to platform for sourcing and booking activities when I travel. Not only do they have a broad choice but they also offer risk-free cancellation within 24 hours of your activity.
Here are a few Helsinki activities that could fit with your time in port.
Helsinki guided walking tour
Benefit from the insider knowledge of a local guide on this customisable walking tour of Helsinki.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK
Panoramic coach tour of Helsinki
This is the perfect option if you have mobility issues or simply fancy a rest. This 1 hour 45 minute coach tour with audio commentary in 10 languages takes in the city’s major landmarks.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK
Helsinki tram tour
This is a fabulous eco-friendly way of seeing Helsinki. Accompanied by a guide, you will explore 7 different neighbourhoods, including some hidden gems, on one of the city’s trams.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK
How I visited Helsinki on a cruise
- Cruise operator: Celebrity Cruises
- Cruise ship: Celebrity Silhouette
- Time in port: 7 am – 3.30 pm
Is it Worth Visiting Helsinki on a Cruise?
I’ll level with you. I neither loved nor loathed Helsinki.
Helsinki is in a spectacular location and the approach to the cruise terminal is glorious. However, after a devastating fire in 1808, the city was rebuilt by the Russians in the typical 19th Century modern European style, all large boulevards and squares.
Thanks to this, the city does not have the medieval charm of its erstwhile rival Tallinn.
But I do think that you need more than one day in Helsinki to uncover its treasures.
Given more time, I would have loved to explore more of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture, of which I had only a tantalising glimpse. And I did not have time to explore its islands and Suomenlinna, the maritime fortress built during the Swedish era.
Plan Your Helsinki Cruise Stop
Where do cruise ships dock in Helsinki?
Helsinki’s main cruise terminals are South Harbour, West Harbour and Hernesaari.
South Harbour is within easy walking distance of the market square.
Larger cruise ships tend to berth at West Harbour or Hernesaari cruise terminals, which are 3 – 4 km from the centre of town.
How to get from Helsinki cruise port to the city centre
From the South Harbour, it’s an easy 15-20 minute walk to the city centre.
To reach Helsinki city centre from the West Harbour or Hernesaari cruise terminal you can walk, catch a public bus, use the cruise shuttle service or jump on a hop-on-hop-off bus.
Walking from Hernesaari cruise terminal to Helsinki city centre
I walked from the Hernesaari cruise terminal into the centre of town. At an easy pace, this took me around 45 minutes.
It was a lovely walk along the waterfront and was one of the highlights of my day in Helsinki.
Public bus between West Harbour & Hernesaari cruise terminals to Helsinki city centre
Bus #14 will bring you to the centre of town in 15 minutes.
A single fare is €2.80 (2022 price). A day ticket is also available for €8.
To return to the cruise terminal, pick up the bus near Temppeliaukio Church, at the end of my walking tour, or at Kamppi metro station. Buses are frequent (every 10 – 15 minutes).
Cruise shuttle service
A local tour operator provides a multi-stop shuttle service, departing every 20 minutes. In 2019, this cost USD 20 for a day pass; USD 10 for a one-way journey.
Does Helsinki have a hop-on-hop-off bus?
A red hop-on hop-off (HOHO) bus covering 22 stops runs every 20 minutes in peak season. An audio guide in nine languages is included.
In 2022, this HOHO bus ticket costs €32.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BUY YOUR HELSINKI HOHO BUS TICKET
Is Helsinki walkable?
As the city’s main attractions are concentrated in a small area, Helsinki is very walkable.
Is it worth buying the Helsinki Card if you have just one day in Helsinki?
The Helsinki Card is a discount card that gives you free admission to many of Helsinki’s tourist attractions as well as a free bus tour of the city. At the time, I felt that it was expensive and as I was spending just one day in Helsinki it would not have been of value to me.
However, depending on how long you are in port and where you plan to visit, you might arrive at a different conclusion. Think about where you might be able to visit and how much individual tickets and transport will cost compared with the cost of the Helsinki Card.
>>> CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION & TO BUY YOUR CARD
More Practical Information for Your Cruise Stop in Helsinki
Language – Finnish, Swedish. English is widely spoken.
Currency – Euro. However, cards are widely accepted, even as payment for small purchases such as a cup of coffee. Therefore, I did not bother getting local currency and used my card instead.
Tipping – As a service charge is added to your bill tipping is not expected in Finland. However, if you feel that the service was exceptional, you can leave a small tip.
Planning your Baltic Sea Cruise
Packing a good guidebook to allow you to explore the ports of call on a Baltic Sea cruise independently is a wise move. I can recommend this excellent Lonely Planet guide which I used when I was visiting these ports.
FIND OUT ABOUT THE OTHER STOPS ON THIS BALTIC SEA CRUISE
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
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