Helsinki is a clean, walkable city that offers a host of affordable activities for families. From free transportation for small children to nearby islands perfect for picnicking, the capital of Finland makes it easy for visitors with kids in tow to enjoy a relaxing holiday. Kids Are a Trip contributor Heidi Gollub recently spent a few days there as a guest of Visit Finland and shares her picks for the best things to do in Helsinki with kids.
Tucked away in the northeast corner of the EU, Finland is home to the happiest people in the world. With 188,000 lakes and 74 percent of the country covered in forest, it’s easy to see why. “Everyman’s right” in Finland means you can walk freely in nature, anywhere you want. Pick the berries, eat the mushrooms, drink from the clear lake. The country is yours to explore.
Interest in Finland’s four major tourism regions—Helsinki, Lapland, the Finnish lake district, and the coast and archipelago—is growing in the United States. Americans are increasingly intrigued by Europe’s most heavily forested country, where Northern Lights dance in the sky over reindeer below. It’s a magical destination that I was excited to visit this fall, starting with a week in Helsinki.
Fun Places to Go with Kids in Helsinki
The best place to start your Helsinki sightseeing adventure is right in the heart of the city, down by the water. Here you’ll see the SkyWheel Helsinki, the only Ferris wheel in the world with a sauna car (one of the more than three million saunas in Finland) and you can watch the fearless Finns swimming in freezing ocean water at Allas Sea Pool. Stroll on to Market Square to shop in the open-air market that sells local delicacies, fruit, and souvenirs. Then, head indoors to shop food stalls in the Old Market Hall, built in 1889. There are stalls inside the market hall that sell high-quality food, plus there are restaurants and cafés to enjoy. The salmon soup at the sit-down restaurant called Story is perfect on a chilly day.
Helsinki Cathedral and Helsinki City Museum
A short walk will take you to the striking Helsinki Cathedral, a great spot for a family photo. Then, head across the street to the recently renovated Children’s Town exhibition, inside Helsinki City Museum. This museum is open everyday and admission is always free. Kids can learn a bit about the city’s history while playing with the interactive exhibits. There are wooden planks to walk, a boat to explore, costumes to try, and a puppet theatre. Adults interested in learning more about Helsinki’s history can continue on to other floors for more informative exhibits.
When visiting Finland, Moomins are a must. Helsinki is the birthplace of Moomins, the famous Finnish cartoon characters, so don’t miss your chance to enjoy a cappuccino with Moomintroll and friends. There’s a small play area inside this fun café and hot beverages come with a chocolate powdered Moomin friend sprinkled on top. You can walk here from the Helsinki City Museum.
When you’re ready to stretch your legs again, stroll over to Oodi, Helsinki’s central library, an architectural marvel that opened in 2018. In front of the building, kids can play on the fun playground and you can take photos with the “My Helsinki” sign. Inside, you can browse children’s books and comics, watch a movie, play board games, or grab a bite at one of the two cafés. Don’t leave before taking in the view from the third-floor balcony! There are tables and chairs if you’d like to have a picnic outside.
To sneak in a bit of shopping, swing by Stockmann’s, the largest department store in Helsinki. Buy some Finnish candy to try (there’s a whole aisle dedicated to black licorice). Then, let the kids loose in the play area on the sixth floor.
Linnanmåki Amusement Park
At night, head to Linnanmåki Amusement Park. Admission to this amusement park is free, and there is a ride that small children can ride for free. But, if you have older children you’ll probably want to buy a ride wristband. There are several cool carnival rides, including a 66-year-old wooden roller coaster.
Getting Around in Helsinki
Kids age six and younger travel free on buses, trains, trams in Helsinki, as long as they are in a stroller. And guess what? Their accompanying adult travels free as well! Helsinki public transportation is easy and reliable—the Finns are known for their punctuality. But, once downtown in this vibrant seaside city, you can walk almost everywhere you need to go. You’ll see the locals out walking, biking, scootering, rollerblading, and even skateboarding. When it’s not too cold outside, sightsee on foot or hop on one of the 2,500 city bikes available to rent.
Explore More of Helsinki by Ferry and Bus
Once you’ve covered the downtown attractions, it’s time to head out on the water! The sea surrounds Helsinki on three sides and there are 300 islands in the archipelago, many of which are recreational areas accessible by ferry and bus. The Helsinki Ferry terminal next to Helsinki’s Market Square, makes it easy to access many of the islands around the city.
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress
To reach Sea Fortress Suomenlinna, a UNESCO world heritage site, you’ll need to take a ferry. Suomenlinna is located on six linked islands off the coast of Helsinki. (If you have a little one in a stroller, both you and your child can travel on the ferry for free!) Suomenlinna is a popular place for Finnish families to picnic in the summer, thanks to its cooler temperature. There’s a grocery store right off the ferry as well, which is convenient for buying lunch supplies.
Suomenlinna is a bastion fortress with an irregular shape and a unique history of defending three realms: Sweden, Russia, and Finland. But today, it’s just a beautiful place to walk around. 850 people live on the islands, so you can watch Kindergarteners playing in the schoolyard, visit Helsinki’s smallest library, or stop by the Toy Museum to buy a delicious, homemade cinnamon roll from the museum’s bakery. For daytime walking tours led by actors, or nighttime tunnel and cave tours by flashlight, make reservations in the Suomenlinna visitor center.
Another fun day trip by boat is the 130-year-old zoo on the island of Korkeasaari. The boat trip from Market Square only costs 3.50 euros each way (kids ride free). If you’re visiting in winter, though, you’ll have to take Bus 16 and walk over the bridge to the island, as the boat only operates in the summer. The zoo itself is open every day of the year, but some attractions, like the fun playgrounds with in-ground trampolines, sand, and water play areas, close in the winter.
Korkeasaari Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world and offers an enjoyable three-kilometer walk around the island to visit its 1,000 animal inhabitants. I’d recommend bringing a stroller to enjoy the two- to three-hour trek around the island the Helsinki zoo sits on. When you’re ready to stop for lunch, there’s a café and and a dining room where you can picnic while watching bears. There’s also a rustic hut with a grill if you’d prefer—just bring your own fire-starter and sausages.
The island of Vallisaari has only recently opened to the public, having been left in its natural state until 2016. Now you can visit by ferry from Market Square and picnic or dine in the island café.
Prefer to travel by bus? Take Bus 24 to Seurasaari Island to visit the open-air museum of historic wooden buildings, which have been transported from all across Finland. Like Suomenlinna, this is a popular recreational island that is perfect for a summer picnic.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
Hotel Katajanokka is housed in the former Helsinki County Prison. The 170-year-old prison building—protected by the National Board of Antiquities and Historical Monuments—reopened as a hotel in 2017. Guests here are invited to “escape the ordinary” by sleeping in (very comfortable) jail cells. They can also explore some of the original cells, which are located in the hotel’s basement. If you have older kids, they might enjoy hearing that the hotel is said to be haunted. But, ghosts aside, this hotel is located within walking distance of downtown attractions and serves a delicious, complimentary breakfast.
Flights to Helsinki
If you have plans to fly anywhere in Europe, consider taking advantage of Finnair’s Helsinki Stopover Program, which offers customers a free stopover in Helsinki for up to five days. Five days is plenty of time to enjoy all that Helsinki has to offer, before continuing on to your ultimate destination! It is very easy to reach the city center on the Finnair City Bus which goes between the Helsinki airport and Eliel Square. Finnair offers direct flights to Helsinki from Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City.
Looking for more fun in Finland with kids? Check out How to Plan a Road Trip to Finland in Winter and The Best Places to Visit in Scandinavia and the Baltics!