Finland’s capital city is off the more familiar tourist routes in Europe, so you probably won’t have many friends giving you tips on what to do there. But it’s a good city to enjoy with the whole family, with a good mix of made-for-kids attractions and others with plenty to keep them interested. Begin at the tourist office, where you can pick up a kid-friendly Helsinki map listing attractions, museums, cafes, restaurants, skate parks, playgrounds and special family offers.
The city sits on the Baltic Sea, and the center curls around its harbor, where you’ll find a busy daily market. This is a good place to provision for a picnic in one of the city’s many parks, or to take to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, a short boat ride from the harbor.
One of the world’s largest sea fortresses, the fort on Suomenlinna was built by the Swedes, who owned Finland then, to scare off the Russians, who eventually captured both the island and the rest of Finland. The kids can hear all about this at the visitors’ center, where a film in English brings the story to life. Two museums explore life of the soldiers, officers and others who served here and another museum, set in an old Russian villa, is devoted to toys and dolls. The World War II submarine Vesikko is open to tour, and smaller buildings house glassblowers and other craftspeople who demonstrate their skills. Nearly four miles of bastions and ramparts with dozens of cannons and spooky tunnels are there to explore, and if it’s not picnic weather, there are cafés. In the summer there are often children’s performances here.
Known for its work in breeding and preserving endangered species, especially big cats, the zoo is another attraction on the island. Highlights are the rare snow leopards, Amur tiger, Siberian tiger (only a few hundred of these remain) and the equally rare Asian lion from India. Arctic animals include Polar fox and musk ox, whose protection from icy winters includes fur a yard long. Tropical animals from the Amazon rainforests are housed in a micro-climate house, in an environment of more than 1000 different rainforest plants. The kids will like the ride there by boat, or you can get by bus or metro if you don’t mind about a mile walk.
Linnanmäki and Sea Life Center
Admission to the amusement park is free, and there are a few free rides and a playground for younger children. Other rides and the monorail charge and all the income goes to the Finnish child welfare organizations that run the park. If you’re planning to be there for more than a few rides, a day pass is the best choice, and saves time standing in line for individual ride tickets. The Panorama Tower has sweeping views of the city. The Sea Life Center, part of the amusement park, is an aquarium that highlights species especially threatened by pollution and other human-caused environmental hazards.
A low-key place best suited for younger children, the water park is a short way out of town, but you can get there by bus No. 339. It’s a good alternative when the weather turns hot in the summer, or a warm place to play on an icy winter day. For kids under age 4, it’s free.
For swimming and beach play time in the summer, Unnisaari Island is just off the southern tip of the city and reached by boat from Kompassitorilta, near Kaivopuisto Park. Unnisaari has a sandy beach with lifeguards, along with a café and restaurant. The beach is well-protected and a good one for children.
Yet another attraction on an island, this one accessed by bus 24, the outdoor museum village includes 87 historic buildings from all parts of Finland. The village groups around a working farm where livestock and crops are raised using old methods. By contrast to the simple farmhouse is the elegant interior of the 18th-century Kahiluoto manor house, and the oldest building is the wooden Karuna church from the 1600s. Regular workshops, demonstrations and programs highlight folk life and traditional skills.
If you run out of things to do, you can always take the two-hour ferry ride across the Baltic to the medieval city of Tallin, in Estonia. Once there, a hop-on-hop-off bus tours the city, and fare includes admission to your choice of two attractions. There are plenty of things for the kids to do on the boat.
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