If you’re reading this and have heard of the term “spoonie” before, you’re in luck: You’re about to read the first travel guide to Helsinki that’s specifically targeted to people like me and you.
If you haven’t heard the term before: “Spoonie“ is used to describe someone with a chronic illness - that can be anything from crohn’s or colitis (the latter is what I’m living with), to lupus, endo… the list goes on! Due to the illness, many spoonies experience a lack of energy, along with possible dietary restrictions, which makes travelling even more stressful than it already is.
In this spoonie travel guide to Helsinki, I’m therefore going to present the city in regards to how easy it is to visit with a chronic illness: What kind of activity is there to do on a day when you just don’t have much energy available? Where can you take a break and enjoy a packed lunch with foods you know you tolerate? Where you can you visit the restroom?
Scroll down to read the answers to these and more questions and don’t forget to share the article with anyone you think might benefit from it!
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Before we dive into it, just a little disclaimer: Obviously we’re all different and so are our illnesses and needs. If you find the sights/activities presented in this guide too restrictive, make sure to check out my other articles about Helsinki and Finland, and if you have a question about visiting the city that’s not covered by this guide, make sure to leave a comment below or send me an Instagram DM and I’ll make sure to help out as best as I can!
1. Sights that don’t require a lot of walking or standing
While Helsinki is quite a compact capital city that can easily be explored on foot, the kilometres quicky add up on a day of sightseeing in the city. In fact, on my very first day in the city almost 2 years ago, I walked 13 kilometres and could definitely feel my feet ache the next day. Thus, you might want to take it easy - especially if you’re having a bad day if your illness is flaring up.
#1 - SkyWheel Helsinki
The SkyWheel of Helsinki enables you to admire the view of the city from above. While there are, of course, cheaper (aka free) ways of doing so, the two other ways I can think of feature a bar - not exactly child-friendly if you’re travelling with kids in tow and also not something that you can do in the morning or at midday.
The SkyWheel is therefore a great alternative and it doesn’t even have to be expensive either. A ride on this ferris wheel is free during the summer with the Helsinki Card.
#2 - Old Market Hall
The Old Market Hall of Helsinki from 1888 is not only a sight but also a foodie heaven. Browse all the different food stalls and try the best that Finnish cuisine has to offer - from reindeer meat to Karelian pies. There are, of course, also cafes/restaurants in the market hall where you can sit down to have a bite.
Basically, you could spend a couple of hours in here if you’re really hungry…
#3 - Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square
The main sight of Helsinki certainly is the senate square with the cathedral. You’ll probably spend a while photographing the cathedral from all angles (though, you can also visit the inside of it as long as there’s no service going on), but you can also just sit on the cathedral steps and take a break or have a picnic.
#4 - Temppeliaukio Rock Church
Another fascinating church to visit in Helsinki is the rock church of Temppeliaukio. The church was built into the rock in 1969 and covered by a dome that is partly made of glass. Come here in the morning to enjoy the light that makes its way through the dome, or visit during one of the many concerts that are being held in the church.
#5 - Sibelius Monument
Another of Helsinki’s most visited sights is the Sibelius Monument - a sculpture by the artist Eila Hiltunen, dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was built in 1967 and has since then attracted thousands of tourists to the Sibelius Park at the shoreline.
If you get tired, hungry or just need a place to sit, Cafe Regatta - the city’s most popular and most instagrammed cafe - is just a stone’s throw away.
2. Sights that are particularly “spoonie-friendly”
To be fair, Helsinki is not only super walkable but also super accessible for those who can’t walk far or at all. Most of the city’s attractions and museums are wheelchair-friendly, so that you shouldn’t encounter many issues.
Some sights and attractions, though, are a bit more accessible and flare-up friendly than others. These are some of them:
#1 - Löyly & Allas Sea Pool
Dealing with muscle pain after a long day of sightseeing or because you’re having a flare-up? Do as the Finns do and relax in the sauna! Now, there are multiple saunas spread all around Helsinki (and Finland for that matter - did you know that there are 2 million saunas all over the country?), but the two biggest are Löyly and Allas Sea Pool.
The latter is situated right by the harbour of Helsinki, next to the SkyWheel, so you can’t miss it! This sauna also comes with a few chilly pools of ocean water of the Baltic Sea next door as it’s a Finnish tradition to take a cold plunge after having been to the sauna.
Löyly on the other hand is a little bit further away from the city centre but definitely worth the bus ride. They have traditional wooden saunas and afterwards, you just take a dip in the actual, sometimes partly frozen over, Baltic Sea. Be careful, though - the railings of the staircase might be frozen over in the winter too, so it might be challenging to get out of the water again.
I may or may not have almost drowned there, lol, so maybe just don’t take a plunge on your own in the dark in winter. I’m sure glad I didn’t…
#2 - Suomenlinna Sea Fortress
Suomenlinna is an old sea fortress from the 18th century that can be found on an island in the bay just outside of Helsinki’s city centre. In order to get here, you have to take a ferry, which is super scenic and relaxing (and free with the Helsinki Card!).
On the island itself, you can either visit one of the many museums (for instance Suomenlinna museum, the toy museum or the military museum), visit the old church or just wander around the fortress, take in the views of the Baltic Sea and maybe have a picnic. In summer, there are even open-air theatre performances to watch.
You can find restrooms at the tourist information right by the pier or at Suomenlinna museum, though there are also restrooms available along the King’s Gate in the very south of Soumenlinna fortress during the summer months. There’s even a small grocery store on the island (by the pier) as 900 people actually live there year-round. So, in case you get hungry, you can buy some snacks and enjoy an outdoor picnic, or you can also visit Walhalla restaurant, cafe Piper, cafe Valimo or Suomenlinna Brewery.
You can easily spend an entire day on the island during the summer, but you should also at least brace the cold for a few hours when visiting Suomenlinna in winter - it’s worth it.
#3 - Seurasaari Island
Seurasaari is an island just north-west of Helsinki and an absolute gem year-round. There’s an open-air museum on the island where they have the best Midsummer celebrations in town, and while the museum is only open during the summer, the island is also totally worth a visit in winter to stroll around.
There are several great picnic stops, benches and even fireplaces on the island, so that you get to take breaks in between hiking, and there are also several cute cafes scattered near the little bridge that connects the mainland of Finland with the little island.
#4 - Oodi Library
Oodi is the new public library of Helsinki and has quickly become one of the city’s main attractions due to the building’s unusual architecture. The library isn’t just an architectural highlight of Helsinki and a good place to study, though - it’s also a great place to take a break from all the sightseeing as Oodi is pretty close to the shopping mall Kamppi, as well as the city’s popular museums Amos Rex and Kiasma.
There are restrooms (accessible ones) on all floors, as well as a restaurant and cafe, where you can also always find a small selection of gluten-free and vegan options. Then again, from the seating facilities on the upper floor, you have quite a nice view of Helsinki from above.
#5 - Helsinki City Winter Garden & Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden
The best thing to do on a chilly and grey day? Visiting a botanic garden! The summer temperature paired with lush plants and flowers is certainly going to help you relax and soothe that muscle ache after long days of exploring.
There are two places to visit in Helsinki for this tropical experience: Helsinki Winter Garden and Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden, both situated right by Töölö Bay.
#6 - Kiasma & Amos Rex
Kiasma and Amos Rex are two of the most popular museums to visit in Helsinki and fortunately, they both aren’t just very accessible and interesting, but also situated right across the street from each other, meaning you can make a day (or half-day depending on your speed) out of it.
Amos Rex has only opened in 2018 and is an art museum out of the ordinary. You never quite know what to expect at Amos Rex as exhibitons change regularly. Kiasma on the other hand is a museum of contemporary art and the city’s most visited museum to date.
#7 - Boat Sightseeing Cruise
Honestly, what better way to explore a city if you’re experiencing muscle ache and are a little low on energy than by a boat cruise? You can join 90-minute cruises that take you to admire Suomenlinna Sea Fortress from the water, as well as the charming Degerö Canal.
#8 - Helsinki City Museum
At Helsinki City Museum, you can learn more about the history of the city and while this museum is as accessible as any in Helsinki, it comes with the added advantage of providing a super cosy lounge area. Plus, entrance is completely free!
3. Sights that might feel particularly challenging
Helsinki is, in fact, so accessible and spoonie-friendly that the only sight I actually can come up with is this one:
Ateljee Bar at Sokos Hotel Torni
The Ateljee bar of the Sokos Hotel Torni provides one of the best views of Helsinki from above - even the bathrooms there come with a view of the city! Unfortunately, in order to get to this rooftop bar, you have to climb 70 metres of spiral staircase that might be a little challenging for some.
A great alternative is thus the Sky Bar of the Clarion Hotel. You’ll get up there by means of a glass elevator, which means you can already enjoy the view on the way up.
4. Food Intolerance-friendly restaurants and cafes
#1 - Konstan Möljä
Buffets usually provide such a great selection of different foods and dishes that everyone can find something they like and tolerate. Konstan Möljä is no exception! The restaurant has a focus on traditional Finnish cuisine, meaning you’ll get to try reindeer meat, salmon or Karelian pies - depending on your preferences.
#2 - OmNam
OmNam is a 100% vegan restaurant with a focus on organic produce and ingredients, and also a good selection of gluten-free choices. It’s a little hidden in a backyard not too far from Helsinki’s main shopping mall at Kamppi, but so worth the chase! I visited the place on a Friday night and it was absolutely packed.
#3 - Karl Fazer Cafe
The Karl Fazer Cafe is the biggest of all Fazer cafes in Helsinki and here you can find some absolutely heavenly cakes and pastries - many of which also gluten-free, lactose-free or vegan. All cakes are clearly labelled in order to enable you to find what you tolerate quicker.
Thus, look out for (G) if you’re gluten-free, (V) or (M) if you’re vegan or dairy-free and (L) if you can only eat cakes made with lactose-free milk.
#4 - Ruohonjuuri
Ruohonjuuri is a health store where you can buy all kinds of vegan and gluten-free snacks and foods. Whether that’s to prepare lunch/dinner at your accommodation or to buy snacks for a picnic when you’re out and about, you can be sure to find exactly what you need at Ruohonjuuri. There are a couple different stores all over Helsinki, though the biggest one can be found close to the Kamppi shopping mall.
5. Overview of free and healthy tap water
There’s really no need to buy expensive bottled water in Helsinki (or Finland in general for that matter). Tap water is absolutely healthy and tastes delicious! You can refill your bottle at any cafe in town and the airport also has several cold and even hot water refilling stations.
6. Overview of public restrooms
If you’re living with an IBD or IBS, make sure to download the B&B app to show staff at cafes/hotels who usually deny non-customers/guests the use of their restrooms if you’re in desperate need of one.
7. What to do in case of emergency
If you find yourself or your travel partner in a life-threatening situation, call 112.
If you develop a serious flare-up that needs medical treatment, call the medical helpline at 116 117 (open all day, 7 days a week, and free of charge). The medical workers answering will tell you whether and where you should see a doctor. Remember to bring your European Health Insurance Card if you’re a EU/EEA citizen, so that you ony have to pay as much as the locals do and can possibly get reimbursed for all your expenses. As a traveller from overseas, you, unfortunately, have to cover the costs of urgent medical care yourself.
If you’re running out of medicine, you can find pharmacies all over Helsinki. They’re called “apteekki” in Finnish. During evenings/bank holidays, you should search for “Yliopiston Apteekki” as this particular pharmacy branch is also open then.
8. tips from someone who’s been there
#1 - Menus can seem confusing at first
Finland is quite the trailblazer when it comes to catering to people with food intolerances. Menus in restaurants and cafes usually state quite clearly which dishes you can safely eat and which you should better avoid. However, you might need to adapt to the Finnish way of labelling foods at first.
In contrast to many other countries where those dishes that do contain possible allergens, like milk or gluten, are labelled, Finland does it the other way round by labelling those dishes that do not. Confusing? For sure, but you’ll get used to it. This is what you need to look out for:
Vegan = vegaani (V)
Gluten-free = gluteeniton (G)
Milk-free = maidoton (M)
Lactose-free = laktoositon (L)
Low in lactose = vähälaktoosinen (VL)
#2 - Helsinki Airport is heaven
Not only does Helsinki Airport provide cold and hot drinking water taps, it also makes sure you’re as relaxed as you can be on your way back home (or elsewhere). There’s a massage parlour in Terminal 2 (uhm, yes please!) and you can also find sleep pods there that are free to use in the afternoon/early evening (amazing!).
More about Helsinki:
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