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We were scared to go to Helsinki at Christmas. Don’t get us wrong.
We added Finland to our wish list way back in April after we ate our first korvapuusti in Portland during the breakneck US road trip that kicked off our adventure to taste the world. It’s not that we didn’t want to go to Helsinki.
Our issue, or to be specific Mindi’s issue, was the December timing. Would we be able to handle the frigid weather and short winter days?
The potential intensity of the Helsinki winter weather was the concern that loomed in our minds as we flew from Barcelona’s warm Mediterranean climate to the cold Baltic climate of Helsinki. Finland is famous for its northern location. Plus, it’s the home city for Santa Claus.
Our concern, or dare we say fear, regarding the weather was completely justified.
We wondered if we would even want to leave the warm hotel room to explore Finland’s winter wonderland capital city. Plus, we knew that the days would be short, unlike the endless Finnish summer days.
Long story short, we loved being in Helsinki for the holiday season. And it wasn’t that cold after all.
What’s So Great About a Helsinki Christmas?
Maybe it’s the proximity to Santa Claus’ Lapland home close to the North Pole in northern Finland, but there’s something magical about the Helsinki Christmas. The city is decked out with festive decorations that light up around 3:00 pm when the sun starts its daily decline.
Yes, Christmas Day in Helsinki is one of the shortest days of the year.
Christmas markets dot the city, offering loads of shopping options, and the seasonal food is scrumptious. But the best part of the Helsinki Christmas may be the Christmas sauna, or at least it was for us.
Visiting Helsinki during Christmas can present some challenges due to businesses being closed for the holiday. Be sure to check restaurant and museum websites for the latest information so that you don’t miss out on your top destinations.
Even with the closure challenges, cold weather and shorter days, you should absolutely travel to Helsinki for Christmas. Here are the things you can’t miss during your Helsinki Christmas visit.
Helsinki has multiple Christmas markets, both indoors and outdoors. We checked out a few, but our favorite was the big Helsinki Christmas Market at Senate Square.
We loved the dozens of vendors selling folksy handcrafts, stylish pottery and warm winter gear. We could have easily bought gifts for our entire extended family at this Helsinki market, but we abstained since we’re not going home any time soon.
Instead, we bought glögi, the traditional Finnish holiday drink with mulled wine, almonds, raisins and sometimes vodka. (Sorry folks! This version did not contain liquor due to legal restrictions.)
We had wanted to try glögi, and the Christmas Market provided the perfect opportunity for our first taste of the warm elixir.
Perhaps it was our glögi-induced glow that attracted the reporters to interview us about market security, or maybe it was our American accents. Either way, we were featured in Finland’s leading newspaper, the morning Helsingin Sanomat.
Helsinki is a pretty city with a well-maintained waterfront and interesting art deco architecture, but it’s hard to imagine the city looking any prettier than it does at Christmas time. Lights adorn every street, especially Alekanterinkatu which is dubbed Christmas Street during December.
We especially loved the sparkly reindeer in Esplanade Park. We nicknamed them Randy and Rocky. Shh, don’t tell them that we ate their cousins during our Christmas Eve dinner.
One of the best parts of a Helsinki Christmas celebration is the food. Helsinki residents enjoy special treats in December, culminating in a big Christmas dinner on the 24th.
After eating many of these foods all week, we celebrated the actual holiday with a bang at Hotel Katajanokka, a hip hotel located in a former prison right in the heart of Helsinki.
We partook in the hotel’s traditional Christmas buffet filled with a wide variety of Finnish specialties like pickled herring, roast beef, reindeer pâté and salmon as well as traditional Finland Christmas food delicacies including rutabaga casserole and baked ham.
Hotel Katajanokka is located at Merikasarminkatu 1, 00160 Helsinki, Soome.
The most famous, and possibly best, Finnish pastry is the danish-like, soft, buttery korvapuusti, which can be found year round though in more abundance at Christmas time. Star-shaped and filled with plum jam, the Joulutorttu is more unique to Christmas time, so this is the pastry to eat in Helsinki in December.
Who are we kidding – we didn’t meet a pastry in Helsinki that we didn’t love from fruity raspberry layer cake to paper-thin gingerbread cookies flavored with a hint of lemon. Do not miss the pastries in Helsinki!
Known as riisipuuro in Finland, rice porridge is a special breakfast item during the holiday season in Helsinki. Hot and hearty, milky rice porridge is highly satisfying, especially when topped with sugar and cinnamon. We liked adding stewed fruit to our rice porridge for extra flavor.
Rumor has it that one blanched almond is hidden in each pot of rice porridge, bringing good luck to the person who finds it. We never found an almond in our rice pudding, but we still felt lucky to be in Helsinki for Christmas.
After we finished the savory part of our Christmas buffet, a server confided in us that ham is the most traditional Christmas protein in Finland. Luckily we had eaten some ham along with salmon, herring, beef and reindeer.
Don’t worry, we ate some veggies too – we promise.
We were surprised to see three different casseroles at the Christmas buffet. One smelled the most enticing, and that was the rutabaga casserole. We later learned that this particular casserole is a Christmas staple in Helsinki.
Glogi is the traditional Christmas beverage in Helsinki that we drank at the Christmas Market. It’s like a mulled wine but with almonds and raisins. For extra zing, some people add vodka. With or without the additional spirit, glögi is a warming way to toast the holiday.
It’s a tradition in Helsinki for locals to start Christmas Eve day with a soak in a blistering hot sauna and an ice-cold dip in the Baltic Sea. After doing some research, we chose Kulttuurisauna for our Christmas sauna experience.
We had wondered if this Helsinki sauna would be open on the holiday. As it turns out, Christmas Eve day is the sauna’s busiest day of the year.
Mindi chose to forgo the Finnish ice bath since she hates being cold. Daryl, in his desire to experience Helsinki like a local, jumped into the freezing water, letting the icy liquid reach his neck for about 10 seconds.
Daryl could feel the tingling of tiny pins against the skin of his legs as he thawed out in the warm confines of the social sauna clubhouse. He felt like an honorary local if only for the Helsinki Christmas.
Kulttuurisauna is located at Hakaniemenranta 17, 00530 Helsinki, Soome.
Helsinki Christmas Ferry to Tallinn Video
Plan Your Helsinki Stay
We stayed at two awesome hotels during our week in Helsinki and loved both of them.
The Aallonkoti Hotel Apartments, an apartment-style hotel with an on-site sauna, is just a short walk from the central train station. Solo Hotel Albert is a stylish hotel located just a hop, skip and jump from Kaffa Roastery.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.