Blog 4: A few days in Helsinki…some recommendations

We are now about one month from the start of the AIESEP 2024 conference. Many of you (I would bet the vast majority) will travel through Helsinki. I hope you have time to enjoy this amazing northern gem of a city either on your way to Jyväskylä or on your way back.


Below, I will present some ideas for things to do in Helsinki. Past blogs have talked about public saunas, where to stay for hotels and how to get to and from the airport, so I will skip that portion (all of the past blogs can be found at ). In this blog I am sharing suggestions from two points of view. One is mine, as I love Helsinki and make an effort to stay there a few days each year on my way to my family home in Eastern Finland. Some input is also provided from my spouse (especially in the bookstores and café’s sections). The second point of view is from my good friend Ari, who has lived in Helsinki for over a decade and has worked for a long time in the hospitality industry where he has consistently given similar advice to the many people who have come in to the bars/restaurants he’s worked at.


There is one very cool event I highly recommend (I am going) on Saturday the 11th of May in Helsinki. The band Steve’n’Seagulls is playing a live show in Helsinki. You may have heard of this band as they went viral with their covers of popular songs like AC DC’s Thunderstruck. Many of you may not have known that this is a Finnish band! They incorporate bluegrass, banjo, bottles, drums, and play heavy metal and other popular songs. It is NOT to be missed and is truly one of a kind. I saw them live in Los Angeles a few years ago and had a blast. Tickets are 38EUR and can be bought here.


Now, let’s get to Helsinki recommendations.


A quiet café to get a coffee and pastry:

Ari: In Finland, most cafés are quiet. Tip: There’s a place called “Free City” in the Redi shopping center, where there’s a quiet space. You can bring your own snacks. There are cafés nearby from which you can get coffee.

Risto: From me you’ll get a 2 for 1 recommendation! My suggestion is Cafe Aalto on the Esplanadi (the Esplanadi is a great small Central Park with cafes and restaurants on both sides.) The bonus is this is an Alvar Aalto designed building and the café is in the best bookstore in Helsinki (Akateeminen Kirjakauppa)! The cafe is upstairs. The bookstore also has lots of English/other language books if you forgot some reading material for the trip home.  Another spot would be just to go to Stockmann. Perhaps not for the coffee, but this is a historic shopping center in the heart of Helsinki. They have a great food hall downstairs and everything you ever need to buy. It’s been in continuous operation since the 1930’s.


Place to grab a beer:

Ari: Beer culture has taken big leaps in Finland. There are many beer restaurants all around the city. My own favorite is Restaurant Bruuveri in Kamppi. Kaisla in Kaisaniemi is also good.

Risto: First, I second both of Ari’s spots as he’s taken me to them, and they are great. My recommendation is Helsinki Bryggeri. This is right near the harbor market (a MUST see) and it’s a bit hard to find as it is inside a courtyard off a cobblestone street. After this, you can hang a right out the courtyard and walk to Senaatintori (The Senate Square).


So you want to dance the night away:

Ari: Apollo on Mannerheimintie or “Granny Tunnel” on Aleksanterinkatu suits well. The Granny Tunnel (Mummotunneli) is in a courtyard with several restaurants in the same area and live music in the summer. Be prepared to queue, especially on weekends.

Risto: I have not “danced the night away” in YEARS in Helsinki. But, if you read the major newspaper in Finland (Helsingin Sanomat) they will say the party scene has moved East to an area called “teurastamo” which is essentially the same as the Meat Packing District (e.g., New York) by name. Near that are also Post Bar and Ääniwalli.


Where to eat:

Ari: The restaurant scene in Helsinki is very comprehensive. You can find everything here. One of my favorites is Hills Dumplings on Kalevankatu. The city’s best Italian is found in Kalasatama, La Bella Trattoria. The portions are big, and it’s not overly expensive. They also serve lunch.


For a finer dinner, the perennial favorite is Gaijin on Bulevardi. It has a tasting menu of several courses. It’s pricey, but the food is really tasty!


For a quicker bite, I recommend the lunch restaurants found throughout the city. Many restaurants are buffet-style at lunch with several courses, and priced at 10-15€. All you can eat.


Risto: First go to the Harbor Market (Kauppatori next to the harbor) – get Muikku (dish of small fried fish found in the lakes of Finland). Eat them whole and eat under the netting as the seagulls will grab them out of your hand if you walk around. If that doesn’t fill you up, walk 200m and you will see the Vanha Kaupahalli (Old Market Hall) – it is a very distinctive building and great to look at from the outside but inside is the true gem! Two halls of markets, café’s and restaurants. My favorite is to stop at Soppakeittiö (Soup Kitchen). If you end up there, order the salmon soup. It’s a traditional Finnish soup not to be missed. You could also eat straight from some of the market hall shops as they serve anything from gravlax to reindeer!


You have two hours to walk around:

Ari: A two-hour walk, of course, depends on where you are at the time. But if you’re in the center and the weather is good, then start walking along the shore from the South Harbor (where the Harbor Market is) towards Kaivopuisto. The shore route opens up to a beautiful sea view to the Baltic Sea. Along the way, there are several terraces where you can stop for coffee.


Risto: If the weather is good, jump on the metro toward Espoo and go to Lauttasaari. Only a few minutes from the city center. Then walk along the path to the Ravintola Kasinonranta. There is a big kid’s playground right outside and a sandy beach (though I doubt it’s going to be swimming weather yet!). You can then walk all around the border of the island and always be either in the forest of looking at the Baltic Sea.


Hidden Secret of Helsinki

Ari: I don’t now about a “hidden secret,” but the Finnish Sports Museum is located at the Olympic Stadium. It shows an interesting history about Finnish sports. At the same time, you can visit the Stadium’s tower to view the scenery and there you’ll probably find information about the stadium’s history as well. This stadium hosted the 1952 Olympics.


Risto: If you are doing Helsinki on the way back from AIESEP I suggest (well my cousin actually suggested this!) Seurasaari. It’s Finland’s national open-air museum. VERY COOL space to go with swimming areas, and historic buildings etc., but it opens for the summer season on May 15th. Here is how to get there.

Another spot, which isn’t really “hidden” is Hietalanden Kauppahalli. It is an indoor food hall that has cool shops and restaurants. Whereas the market in the harbor can be filled with tourists due to it’s proximity to the cruise ships, this market hall is also popular with locals.


Final Notes:

When you go to Helsinki (or Finland in general here) is a checklist for the adventurer in you who wants to feel Finnish:

  • Drink a Lonkero (a gin+ grapefruit draft drink developed for the 1952 Olympics)
  • Eat a Korvapuusti (cardamom cinnamon pastry roll) with a coffee
  • Eat Salmiakki (a traditional Finnish salty licorice). If you haven’t found this, come see me at my poster presentation at AIESEP I will have some for you and I will also point you to the nearest trash can if it doesn’t suit you. I’d say my introduction success rate of salmiakki to foreigners stands at a solid 22% approval rating all time
  • Chocolate! I would suggest you find Fazer milk chocolate (in the blue wrapper). The candy isles in Finland are next level.
  • Eat salmon soup.
  • Go to a sauna. In your hotel, a public one, at someone’s cabin, on a sauna boat, in your AirBnB, at Burger King (just kidding they shut that one down last year) or wherever you find one please don’t leave Finland without trying one out!
  • Enjoy the outdoors. There is no bad weather in Finland…Just a poor choice of clothing. Embrace the weather and it will love you back. Don’t let a bit of rain get you in a sour mood. Go find a nice café with an AIESEP colleague and share your story!
  • Find quiet time. To fully embrace your inner Finn you must learn to be content in silence! Finns don’t do small talk. That is sometimes perceived as rude by foreigners. Finns are VERY nice, but it’s just not part of our culture to say “hey, how are you?” or nod and say hello to a complete stranger when walking down the road. [American’s just gasped in horror!] However, if you need directions somewhere or help in general, almost all Finns are very happy to help and most can do so in fluent English (and Swedish, and probably a third language also). And, once you get talking to Finns you will find them to be humble and honest. They will gladly share about their story and will be interested to learn yours!


See you in Finland!

Picture of Risto Marttinen

Risto Marttinen

Risto Marttinen is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at George Mason University in Virginia, USA. He earned an Ed.D. from Columbia University Teachers College in 2015. His research revolves around implementing sustainable and educational after-school physical education programs in elementary and middle schools. These programs specialize in sports and fitness in under-served communities while reinforcing character development and academics. Additionally, he conducts research on the integration of academic subjects and technology into PE. Risto also sits on the board of directors and is the Secretary General for AIESEP, the chair for the SIG 93 (the special interest group for PE) for AERA and a past facilitator for the PETE Collab

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AIESEP was founded in Lisbon in 1962, with the intent of bringing together scholars in the field of physical education and sport to share knowledge and engage in quality research.

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