With the Pound and Euro toppling our dollar, head to Helsinki for free attractions, kid-friendly festivals, and outdoor fun.
Anyone who’s been to the pump lately knows that skyrocketing gas prices also means a dramatic increase in airfare. With fuel surcharges, taxes, and complicated fees, those bargain tickets are starting to look more like a mortgage payment than economical getaway. So when someone asks where you’re planning your next family vacation, Finland probably doesn’t come to mind. But with some planning and ingenuity, there are nearly unlimited no-cost activities to keep you busy and your wallet resting easy in the capitol city, Helsinki.
There’s lots to see and do in Helsinki, and with nearly 24-hours of daylight during midsummer, you’ll have the extended time to do it. But if you’re worried about navigating both the city and the language, take comfort with Helsinki Helpers. From June to August, this free service of specially educated helpers is ready and willing to assist visitors in up to 20 languages, including English, Japanese and Croatian. You can easily locate your own helper from 8am to 8pm in the city center, information booths across the city, and other key tourist areas including the Esplanade.
Art, Culture & Theater
As of January 2008, Finland has declared many of their city museums free to the public, year-round. This means more economical, educational, and colorful options for the traveling family. The Helsinki Children’s Museum (358 0 9 3107 1568) features interactive exhibits including mammoths and guinea pigs detailing the history of animals in Helsinki. The museum offers young explorers the chance to go on nature trips into the past to learn about ancient water monsters and animal life 150 years ago. The museum utilizes the help of children when staging their exhibition through discussions, activities, games, and excursions. Located in TuomarinkylÃ¤ manor Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki offers varied festivals from spring through fall, including special children’s performances. In summer 2008, pay a visit to Hippalot Arts Festival for Children (358 03 621 3026) for drama, workshops, visual art, dance, music, and circus in both Finnish and English. Or Vekara-Varkaus festival (358 0 17 579 4435) presenting rhyming and song contests for kids, free outdoor concerts and the Finnish Summersault Championships, dancing, workshops, and more. Visit www.festivals.fi for a list of upcoming performances
Opened in 2003, the Bank of Finland Museum (358 10 831 2981) gives a free and in-depth look at the history of money in Finland and abroad, as well as the role of the Bank of Finland in the European System of Central Banks. Kids are usually fascinated by the concept of different brightly colored money in other cultures, so give them a brief introduction before the trip by downloading the bank’s online teaching material. Located in Snellmaninkatu 2, 00170 Helsinki.
The National Museum of Finland (358 09 4050 9544) houses archaeological and ethnographic collections showcasing Finnish life from prehistory to the present day. Kids will enjoy pouring over the collection of coins, medals, decorations, silver and lots of cool weapons. There are also hands-on interactive exhibits where visitors can study the history of Finland and its culture. Free admission Tuesdays from 5.30pm to 8pm. Located in Mannerheimintie 34, Helsinki.
The eclectic and funky Contemporary Art Museum (358 0 9 1733 6501) exhibits both local and international contemporary art since the 1960s and currently has approximately 4,000 pieces on display, including American art. There’s also a Kiasma Theater offering seasonal performances ranging from “Call Cutta in a Box” and the “New Circus Festival” in Helsinki. Mannerheiminaukio 2, FIN-00100 Helsinki, Finland.
Keep an eye out for the internationally growing ArtParks (358 41 533 5206), designed with a respect for the environment in mind. Families can interact and learn about art in a natural setting and daily surroundings. Many of the commissioned ArtPark artists use damaged sculptures or found items to restore, recycle, and honor Finland’s natural beauty. Located in Pikku-Huopalahti
LinnanmÃ¤ki Amusement Park (358 9 773 991) will be a big hit with kids, but keep in mind while entrance to the park is free, the rides are not. So if your kids can’t bear the thought of visiting an amusement park without riding LinnanmÃ¤ki’s 41 rides, you may want to skip this free option. Otherwise, enjoy all the free fun the park has to offer from free outdoor performances, magic shows, clowns, window shopping, puppet shows, and more. Located at Tivolikuja 1 FIN-00510 Helsinki.
Take a stroll through the ‘fish market’ otherwise known as Market Square. Smell fresh fish, watch vendors set up their Russian furs, delicacies, local treats, and dazzling jewelry. Local artisans knit hats and gloves on the spot while tourists and residents peruse the market for Sunday dinner, gifts, weekly groceries, and eclectic finds. Situated on the waterfront, kids will love running through the market and soaking up some local culture while Mom and Dad find one of a kind souvenirs. Located at the top of Helsinki’s harbor, open Monday through Saturday from late May to September.
When you need a break from the bustle of the city and free sight-seeing, stop at Lake Toolonlahti for a picnic and play. Hesperianpuisto Park houses a small sandy beach, small waterfalls and streams, rocks to climb, and playground. Even toddlers can find their own fun chasing the ducks and splashing in the water. For a splurge, there’s also pedal boats, rowboats or kayaks.
International language barriers aren’t an issue with the animals at the free Fallkulla Domestic Animal Zoo (358 0 9 3108 9095). Give your children a close-up look and opportunity for interaction with Finland’s traditional farm animals. The whole family can learn more about its sheep, goats, pigs, cows, chicken, ducks, geese and horses. Located in Fallkulla, Malmi FI-00730 Helsinki
The Seurasaari Open-Air Museum (358 0 9 4050 9660) is located on a quiet island within the district of Helsinki. With no permanent residents, the open-air museum takes center stage with a large collection of historical wooden buildings from across Finland surrounded by outdoor reaction area boasting hills, rocks, herb-rich forests, and wetlands. A summer festival also takes place every year complete with a giant bonfire. If you’re venturing to this island for a day of exploring, keep in mind there is a gender-segregated nudist beach located on the island, so careful not to let the kids wander too far. The island admission fee and museum are both free to those 18-years and younger. Seurasaari, FI-00250 Helsinki, Finland.
Helsinki’s Winter Garden (358 0 9 3103 9985) has been bringing together Helsinki locals and tourists for over a century. Despite its name, the garden is open for multi-seasonal self-guided tours through exotic plants, hundred-year-old camellia trees, Rose Garden, flowers, and gardens. During Easter, new baby yellow chickens hatch, drawing visitors looking for a spring treat. But to get into the Christmas spirit, come during December to the spectacular Christmas flowers in bloom. Closed for renovations until October, 2008. Located in City Center.
Step Back in Time
Get familiar with Helsinki’s historical architecture by paying your respects, for free, to the oldest building in Helsinki, the Sederholm House (358 0 9 3103 6529). Located near Senate Square, this stone 18th-century rococo style turned into a museum that documents the life of Johan Sederholm, a Counselor of Commerce from the early 18th century. Located in Aleksanterinkatu 16-18 Helsinki, Finland.
The unique Helsinki Street Museum (358 0 9 3103 6630) brings a hands-on approach to the history of street building and furniture in Helsinki. The Street Museum takes its visitors on a stretch of early 19th century unfurnished street to a nostalgic 19th century gas-lit street, and finally to a modern street from the 1930s. You’ll also get a look at the history of Helsinki’s departments of gasworks, the waterworks, public works department, and electricity works. Located in Sofiankatu, FI-00170 Helsinki
Sibelius Monument was designed by Eila Hiltunen and honors Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who lived from 1865-1957. Unveiled to the public in 1967, the abstract monument resembles an array of impressive organ pipes, welded together with the bust of the Sibelius on one side. Weighing 24 tons, kids will delight in trying to count the some 600 pipes. It’s one of Helsinki’s most popular statues and tourist attractions. The monument sits in an urban park, making it an ideal summer stop for a snack or picnic on your Helsinki tour. Located in Taka-Toolo, between Merikannontie and Mechelininkatu.
For more information about the City of Helsinki, free and low-cost family attractions, please visit www.visithelsinki.fi or call 877-GOFINLAND.
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