Welcome to Helsinki in winter. The first snowflakes in a variety of shapes, no two the same, fall at an average rate of 1.2 metres per second. Shortcuts through parks are covered in seconds as the landscape puts on its beautiful white winter coat
White winters are always greatly anticipated in Helsinki. Of course, if the weather is mild, at least the golfers are happy – and the bears at Helsinki Zoo, who can put off hibernating for a while. The dependable squirrels on the recreational island of Seurasaari change their fur to a lighter shade regardless of the weather – snow or no snow. Regardless of the snow status, a trip to Helsinki in winter is a must.
In the city centre, Aleksanterinkatu is transformed into the city’s official Christmas street with bright lights and Christmas trees decorating the façades of the historic buildings. The seasonal window display at the legendary Stockmann’s department store delights passers-by from one generation to the next.
The first snowflakes in a variety of shapes, no two the same, fall at an average rate of 1.2 metres per second. Shortcuts through parks are covered in seconds as the landscape puts on its beautiful white winter coat – at least until the next fog, wind and sleet.
Independence Day officially begins on 9am on 6 December, when a massive 64-square-metre Finnish flag – the size of a decent apartment – is raised atop Observatory Hill. As the sun sets in the afternoon, a torchlit parade of students marches towards Senate Square, and the oldest cobblestoned streets in the city are covered in television cables – ready to broadcast the annual ball at the Presidential Palace. The streets are all but empty after 6pm, as the vast majority of locals make themselves comfortable indoors to watch the festivities unfold from the comfort of their home sofas.
On St. Lucia Day, 13 December, Helsinki Cathedral is filled with bilingual locals as a young maiden is crowned with a wreath of candles. Angelic choirs bring light to the darkness, as does the lighting technician on the crane outside the cathedral with his spotlight. On the darkest day of the year, 21 December, Helsinki gets exactly 5 hours and 49 minutes of daylight.
On the days between Christmas and New Year’s, Aleksanterinkatu is once again filled with shoppers running about with giant paper bags, as locals and visitors alike make the most of the post-Christmas sales.
Helsinki bids farewell to the old year and rings in the new year with fireworks in the main squares, atop hills and along the shoreline. The most impressive display can be enjoyed at the city’s official New Year’s Eve celebrations, which have been held since 1938, but boisterous celebrations are also held throughout the usually quiet suburbs.
When the early spring sun once again shines in your eyes and the sea has frozen over solid, locals eagerly head outdoors to enjoy long relaxing walks to the outlying islands. More adventurous types head to the Old Town Bay and Munkkiniemi shoreline for some fast ice sailing, while others head out onto the ice in the Töölönlahti bay for a spot of ice fishing. A tourist exploring the city is amused by the sight of a local dressed in a blue and white woolly hat and carrying a pair of skis, heading out to the forests of Keskuspuisto (Central Park) on tram number 10.
Signs of winter in Helsinki:
✔️ Cross-country skiers in Keskuspuisto (Central Park)
✔️ Sledding hill in Alppipuisto park
✔️ Snowmen in courtyards
✔️ Christmas decorations in windows
✔️ Snowploughs out early in the morning
✔️ Long johns
✔️ Ice fishing on the Töölönlahti bay
✔️ Walking on the frozen sea
✔️ Kick sledding at Suomenlinna
✔️ Icebreakers clearing the shipping lanes
✔️ Taxi stands with long lines of Christmas partygoers
You can read more about Helsinki's annual rhytms and other tips for urban explorers in Helsinki in Meiju’s book Olet tässä (Helsinki) published by Avain in 2008.