Helsinki is built on a series of islands, so you’re pretty much bound to take to the water at some point during a trip.
Seeing the city from the sea and exploring its many islands and waterways is the best way to really get to know Helsinki’s hidden side.
And there’s no shortage of watery ways to get around. From calm canal cruises to an adrenaline-fuelled hovercraft ride, there’s something to suit all moods.
And, of course, top of the day-trip list is a trip to Tallinn in Estonia, just two hours away by boat.
See Helsinki by canal boat
A great way to get to grips with Helsinki is to see its highlights from a canal boat. This 90-minute cruise runs along the city’s coast taking in sights such as the city zoo, the Suomenlinna Fortess and the leafy Degerö Canal.
It’s a great introduction to Helsinki, and the commentary gives you a good insight into the city’s fascinating history.
Head onto the ice by hovercraft
For a real adrenaline rush, this four-seater mini hovercraft trip blasts out through the freezing waters of the Helsinki archipelago and over snowy land. The hovercraft can break through the sea ice or even race across it, if it’s thick enough.
You’ll be kitted out in a super-warm survival suit before jumping into the icy waters to float around surrounded by chunks of ice.
And running across bobbing ice rafts holds no fears, either – if you fall in, your survival suit can keep you warm for up to four hours.
The trip ends with a warming meal – barbecue or salmon soup – cooked over an open fire, surrounded by snow and ice.
Is the Helsinki Card worth buying?
Read this guide to see how much you could save during your trip!
Go sightseeing by RIB
This guided RIB tour takes you round some of Helsinki’s main sights, that are best viewed from the water.
A knowledgeable guide will give you all the info and history on sights such as the Uspenski cathedral, Market Square, the City Hall, the Presidential Palace and the Allas Sea Pools.
And once you’ve left the city limits, the RIB can speed through the archipelago to visit some of the more far-flung islands dotted with pretty summer cottages, pristine beaches and wooded inlets.
Take the ferry to Suomenlinna
The world’s largest sea fortress, Suomenlinna was built in 1748 on five interconnected islands to protect Helsinki from attack. It’s a great place to wander around, visit the fortress and museums and admire the views back over the city.
Hourly ferries run from the mainland to Suomenlinna, but if you’re short of time, you can visit it on this five-hour guided tour which includes the ferry trip, an informative guided walking tour of the fortress and a bus trip around the city’s highlights too.
Take a day-trip to Tallinn
If you only have time for one day trip from Helsinki, it’s got to be to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Although it’s just a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland, this medieval city is a world apart in terms of atmosphere.
Shut away behind the Iron Curtain until 1989, Tallinn’s well-preserved old town now has Unesco-heritage status and its cobbled old streets and squares are great for exploring and browsing.
You can still walk round sections of the 14th-century town walls, or head up to the top of St Olaf’s Church spire for great views down over the town, the harbour and the huge Gothic church itself.
This day-trip costs a bargain £23 return and gives you up to ten hours in Tallinn to explore.
Join a booze cruise to Tallinn
Delightful though Tallinn’s sights are, they are not always the main reason that many Finns take the ferry to Tallinn.
Alcohol is way cheaper in Estonia and on the ferry than in Finland, and Finns often use the trip as a booze cruise to stock up on their favourite tipple (or just drink it all in transit).
If you travel out on a Friday evening or at the weekends, you’ll almost certainly be surrounded by revellers and may well find yourself caught up in the party boat atmosphere.
So bring a large bag with you, and head down to the on-board supermarket with everyone else. For more on the Friday night booze cruise, see our post on Getting from Helsinki to Tallinn.
Kayak and sauna on the Seabiscuit
Two for the price of one! You’ll set off for a chilled cruise on a big boat, then take to the water yourself for a gentle paddle round round some of the archipelago’s islands.
This boat trip on the Seabiscuit takes you out into Finnish archipelago, with eight kayaks and a wooden sauna on board.
Once you’ve moored up on a beautiful island, you can kayak along the shore, exploring the uninhabited beaches and inlets of the coastline.
Afterwards, take a dip in the bracing waters then warm up in the cosy on-board sauna, followed by a tasty barbecue.
Explore Helsinki by kayak
For something a little more energetic, you can take to the sea on a guided kayak tour. This three-hour trip paddles gently through the clear waters of the archipelago, passing rocky islands and sandy beaches en route.
You’ll be picked up from outside the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in a mini-bus and taken to the kayak centre, where you’ll be kitted out with all you need for the trip.
No previous experience is necessary – the tour is suitable for all abilities and all the equipment is provided. Grab your paddle, head out onto the water and enjoy the scenery gently floating by!
Take a RIB to an island cottage
Spend the afternoon on a private island doing as the Finns do every summer – exploring, hiking, foraging and swimming.
After an exhilarating RIB ride through the archipelago, you’ll land on the island, where the owners will show you around, cook you a barbecue lunch and share the natural beauty of their island with you.
If you fancy it, you can also have a session in their wood-fired sauna followed by a quick dip in the sea!
Go ice-swimming in a survival suit
Not exactly a boat trip, but we couldn’t resist including this amazing sea floating experience that takes place all year round, including in the height of winter surrounded by ice.
OK, so you don’t have to go the full Wim Hof and swim in your trunks – you’ll be kitted out with state-of-the-art survival suits that will keep you warm while you bob around in the arctic sea and leap on and off icebergs.
You don’t even need to know how to swim – the neoprene suits will keep you bouyant and experienced instructors are on-hand to help with breathing techniques and building confidence.
It’s an exhilarating experience that’ll convert you to the joys of cold water swimming in no time.