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When I visit a city, besides visiting the main tourist attractions, I usually like to see some places that can make me feel the true spirit of the place I'm visiting.

As an example, if you visit Pisa the square of the leaning tower is of course the main attraction but the inhabitants of the city usually go out in other zones, some of them quite far from the common tourist tracks. In Budapest you can find people playing chess at the thermal baths, and so on.

Now I'm planning to visit Helsinki and I'd like some suggestion about what are the places and the activities that most of the inhabitants love. For example: do they gather for picnic in certain areas? Do they have trip to some zones of the city? Is there something that if you see you say "this could be Helsinki and only Helsinki"?

To narrow the question and be a little bit clearer, I'm not speaking about particular events but just common life of the ordinary inhabitants of the city.

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This recent New York Times blog entry might offer some ideas. –  Ilmari Karonen Aug 13 '12 at 23:43
    
@IlmariKaronen, put your comment as an answer, it is probably the most precise answer to this question. –  shard Aug 18 '12 at 8:39
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4 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

As Ilmari commented, the recent NY Times travel blog post by "frugaltraveler" is very good. It even mentions my favorite bar, Pub Magneetti. I like his other recommendations too: free concerts & somewhat hippie atmosphere at Alppipuisto; public sauna in Kallio; berry-picking).

Some more ideas below. Many of these may not be "only in Helsinki" things, but stuff I love about this place anyway. (I've lived in Helsinki for almost 14 years.) The sea and nature spots are never far even in central Helsinki; for me a big part of the spirit is related to that.

On a warm summer day, head to Suomenlinna for a picnic [map]. It's truly a unique place for this, and a Unesco World Heritage site too. Buy some strawberries from the Market Square before boarding the ferry. Maybe hit the supermarket on the main island for some food, beers or ciders. (What locals do anyway.) When leaving, please take your trash with you. :-)

enter image description here
Photo: Michal Pise, Wikimedia Commons

Go to Hietsu (Hietaniemi), the most famous sandy beach in Helsinki, a walking distance from centre [map]. The beach itself (or the cool water) may not impress you much, but on hot days it's a really lively place with a mostly youthful crowd. Besides sunbathing, you could join some of the many groups playing beach volley.

...Or if it's Sunday, come to the park very close to Hietsu at Hesperiankatu & Mechelininkatu [map] to play ultimate frisbee with local & visiting couchsurfers, starting 3pm. Then, continue to Töölönlahti: at the amphitheatre behind the National Opera [map], there's a (free) salsa party on summer Sundays starting 6pm. Whether you dance or just hang around, the atmosphere is lovely.

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Salsa at the Opera. Photo by me.

On the opposite side of Töölönlahti, overlooking the bay, there are some lovely old villas. Go to Café Sininen huvila ("blue villa") to have a coffee and read a book perhaps. [map]

Besides Hietsu, good places for swimming and spending a summer day are the city's two public open-air pools: the Swimming stadium [map] and Kumpulan maauimala [map] (admission 3.60 €). To me, these places feel somehow "traditionally Finnish", in a good way. There's a sauna too, of course. The one in Kumpula is farther from centre, but located in a charming residential area with wooden houses. (Only downside is that it can get too crowded sometimes.)

Climb to the rocks in Vallila [map] to watch the sunset and views over the beautiful old wooden buildings of this working-class neighborhood turned hip. (Combine this with visiting Pub Magneetti at Mäkelänkatu 20.) Or for a sunset in more bourgeois environs, try Munkkiniemi on the western side of Helsinki peninsula, just where tram 4 terminates [map]. There's a lovely (and expensive) café with a terrace there, or you can just hang around on the seashore.

enter image description here
Sunset at Munkkiniemi, August 2012. Photo by me.

For a proper nature retreat, you could do like the NYT blogger and head to Sipoonkorpi, but it would be somewhat easier to reach Uutela nature park in eastern Helsinki by the sea (take the metro to Vuosaari, then walk) [map]. Nuuksio in Espoo is also great for this though a little farther away [map].

If it's your cup of tea, getting drunk—and getting to know locals in the process—is obviously one of the most popular ways to feel the spirit of Helsinki. Tour the (relatively) cheap bars in Kallio, for example, and head to city centre for later-night action. If it's Thursday, go to "Kalle" (Kaarle XII) which for some reason is packed (only) that day (go before 10pm to avoid a long queue). (Alcohol is generally expensive in bars/clubs; what Finns commonly do is pre-drink at a house party or a park or something.)

Follow the events organised by We Love Helsinki collective. All kinds of urban culture, parties, bike trips, artsy events. Really fun stuff. (Find someone to decipher the Finnish for you.)

NB: almost all of the above is quite summer-specific. But then Helsinki is at its best in summer and that's when most tourists come here. In winter, you could try ice skating at Rautatientori, the square next to central railway station (admission 5€ + skate rental 5€). (I'll edit this later if I forgot something.)

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Just some of my favourite things anyway. Of course this is all very subjective. –  Jonik Aug 19 '12 at 13:19
    
Btw: the weekdays and times I mentioned (salsa, ultimate, etc) have remained the same for past several years. (I'll edit the post if those change.) –  Jonik Aug 19 '12 at 13:20
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Now I want to go to Helsinki! –  hippietrail Aug 19 '12 at 20:01
    
Thanks for your answer Jonik, now that I've been in Helsinki for a few days and I hit a lot of the spots you suggested I think that your answer have to be the accepted one. –  shard Aug 24 '12 at 10:38
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First of all let me say I am not from Helsinki, or even a Fin myself. But I have visited several times.

You mention local people places, here's a Google map I made with some marked spots.

The fortress island to the south is not a place where locals venture much. But I thought I'd still point it out. If you're interested in that sort of thing it might suit your fancy.

The huge ferries going Sweden-Finland arrive in the morning around 08.00 local time and leave 12 hours later. With this knowledge you can follow the stream of tourists to the market or use it to avoid just that. I also bring it up because it is something of a phenomenon to have two such small countries as Finland and Sweden ferry so many people back and forth, it is a very common quick vacation get away for locals on both sides.

All the things on this map are within easy walking distance and can comfortably be visited within half a day. Straying from them is suggested for some great architecture if nothing else. I cannot say much more about where the locals gather up. There is an amusement park, but I've never been there.

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@hippietrail Thanks for the edit, I should have thought about that. :) –  Alendri Aug 19 '12 at 20:09
    
Yeah, Esplanadi (the park/street right in the centre) and Tervasaari (marked as "Park island" on your map) are indeed nice places! The amusement park is called Linnanmäki, and yes, it's a nice (and crowded) place too; though it's been a few years since my last visit. –  Jonik Aug 21 '12 at 19:47
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Helsinki (and Finland itself) has been characterized by a number wild, free-spirited innovators. Two main sites illustrate this point:

One is the so-called rock church. It was built at the location of a huge rock that no one thought could be moved. The architects were laughed at for "trying." But they didn't MOVE the rock, they carved the church out of the rock itself, using the remainder as a structure, and won their bets. [map]

Temppeliaukio Church
Thanks to Wikipedia/Wikimedia

A similar exhibit is the Sibelius sculpture "organ pipes." They are "pipes" of all shapes and sizes, carved out in an apparently random fashion, and floating in air. [map]

Sibelius monument
Thanks to Wikipedia/Wikimedia

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When I visit a new city I like to go to a large shopping center and just sit on a bench there - and watch the people passing by. First, I'm more interested in people than places. Secondly, this way I'm not tireing out my feet.

In Helsinki I would go to one of those big department stores or similar. Picking three in the city center, and near to each others, I name Sokos, Forum and Stockmann. (map)

I think people make the city, not the buildings.

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