Northern light gateways, winter skiing wonderlands, and hundreds of Baltic islands just brimming with art and culture, Scandinavia is a lusted travel destination and one on many travelers’ bucket lists. Choosing to head to Northern Europe is easy, but when it comes to Helsinki vs Stockholm, the decision isn’t quite as simple.
Located just across the Baltic Sea from one another, the capital of Sweden and the capital of Finland both paint perfect pictures of Nordic life, but they are more different than you might think. From the atmosphere to the accessibility and even the cost, what sets these vibrant cities apart might just help you decide on one.
Both unique archipelagic capitals consistently top the Global Happiness Report, so a Nordic city break is sure to spark joy, but should it be Helsinki or Stockholm that gets your pick? Find out in our guide.
Helsinki vs Stockholm: General Vibe
Two of the biggest and most influential Nordic cities, Helsinki and Stockholm have a lot in common. From the picturesque waterfronts to the old churches, vibrant design districts and happy populations, a holiday to either Scandinavian capital promises beauty and adventure. Still, this makes choosing just one even harder.
The capital of Finland is almost 550 kilometers away from Sweden. While the ferry crossing takes over 17 hours, you can fly from one to the other in just an hour, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have their differences.
Helsinki and Stockholm are both the most populous cities in their countries with bustling metropolitan areas, charming old towns, centuries of history, and plenty of tourist attractions, but Stockholm is slightly busier with a wider population of 2.5 million compared to Helsinki’s 1.5 million. Being the city with the largest area due to the 300 plus islands it occupies, Helsinki has a less crowded and less touristy feel than Stockholm.
Considered to be one of the world’s most liveable and joyful cities, Helsinki has a laid-back vibe. Its vast islands are a gateway to lush forests, coastal nature, golden beaches, and aurora borealis skies, but you won’t find fast-paced urban sprawl as you can in other major metropoles. In comparison, Stockholm isn’t chaotic compared to some capitals, but it can get crowded in summer. Active and energetic, Stockholm attracts five million visitors a year and might feel arguably less authentic in terms of representing Nordic life than Helsinki.
However, with 30 percent of Stockholm is made up of waterways and 30 percent of green spaces across 14 individual islands, Sweden’s capital is by no means an urban jungle and offers the best of both worlds when it comes to city breaks in Northern Europe. They both have their perks, but Stockholm is more varied.
Helsinki vs Stockholm: Culture
Scattered with Royal palaces, 13th-century architecture, gardens, and coffee houses, Stockholm offers an impressive range of cultural activities. The orange-hued city has a lot to say about Swedish history and it’s one of Europe’s premier museum hotspots.
Head to Djurgården and you’ll find the Vasa Museum, exhibiting the 17th-century Royal Navy of Sweden ship that sunk off the coast of Stockholm in 1628 on its maiden voyage. The Vasa warship was salvaged after 333 years on the seabed and can now be observed in all its 98 percent of original glory as of the best-preserved ship from this era.
Visiting Stockholm, you cannot forget about its most iconic former residents. The city was the birthplace of Swedish pop group ABBA and the ABBA museum in Djurgården offers an interactive journey through the musical careers of one of the world’s most beloved supergroups. Try on costumes, sing, play, and mix tracks, the landmark is no ordinary museum.
Check out the Royal Palace on the water’s edge, too, where the King of Sweden still resides, or Drottningholm Palace, the private residence of the royal family located just outside the city. There’s also City Hall where the Nobel Prize banquet is held every year, adjacent to the Old Town, known locally as Gamla Stan, the undoubted prettiest area of the city. Stockholm is punctuated with cultural delights. Still, Helsinki puts up a pretty good fight in comparison.
Architectural must-sees in Helsinki include the Helsinki Cathedral, the ‘Rock Church’, the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Parliament House, and the UNESCO World Heritage sea fortress of Suomenlinna. Nicknamed the “white city of the north”, the light-colored granite from which much of Helsinki is constructed plays a big part in its spectacular beauty. Tuomiorkirko, the Helsinki Cathedral, is a neoclassical Lutheran church that rises tall above all of the city’s other buildings in its bright splendor. The iconic facade and tall green domes were constructed in 1852 and the cathedral is a cultural landmark, concert building, and conference hall in the center of the city.
Temppeliaukio Church, another Lutheran place of worship, was built into solid rock and is a sight to behold, while Linnanmaki, Finland’s most popular amusement park is also worth visiting. What’s more, it’s known for donating most of its proceeds to the Finnish child welfare system.
Helsinki also has a thriving museum culture with the well-connected islands exhibiting a great variety of old and new with a focus on art and design. Kiasma is a playground for contemporary art aficionados and Amos Rex steps it up a notch with a collection of futuristic pieces and exhibitions. There’s also the Designmuseo in Kaartinkaupunki, an ode to the Finnish aesthetic and Scandinavian style with clothing, prints, furniture, and more. It’s no surprise that Helsinki and Stockholm are highly-rated capital cities and you can learn about the rich culture of both Finland and Sweden in them, as well as enjoy the centuries-old history of both cities that is readily on display for visitors.
Helsinki vs Stockholm: Food
They might be just across the Baltic, but one area where these two capitals diverge is the food culture. Situated on vast waterfronts, there are some similarities in local ingredients, but the culinary traditions of Swedes and the Finnish are just as unique as their languages.
Nordic food is typically comforting, tailored around the cold, dark winters and blustering maritime climates of Northern Europe. Expect pickled fish, rye bread, beetroot salads, and hearty meatballs on menus across this region, but Finnish food is much more similar to German and Russian cuisine while the smörgåsbord of unique Swedish dishes is more quintessentially Scandinavian.
Kjøttboller, otherwise known as Swedish meatballs, are one of the most globalized elements of the Stockholm diet, and yes, they’re even better here than from the Swedish home store supergiant Ikea. Seafood also plays a huge role in the culinary scene, as it does in Helsinki, while Crayfish is a favorite in Stockholm and Baltic Herring, prepared in a variety of ways, is a firm Finnish favorite but also popular for pickling in Stockholm.
In Helsinki, grilled sausages are the Finns’ answer to Swedish meatballs, cooked over an open fire in the summer months at outdoor barbeques, grills, and food stands all over the city. The Finns love salted black licorice too, although they’re more inclined toward unsweetened food than the Swedes who add plenty of spices and syrup to their rye bread.
Around Hantverkargatn is the best area in Stockholm to sample the local restaurant scene, although you’ll find more international options here than in Helsinki which is arguably more authentic. Kauppatori Square is a must-visit for foodies in Helsinki with great street food stands, cafes, and bars, as well as Helsinki’s Old Market Hall which is also surrounded by some great fine-dining options.
Helsinki vs Stockholm: Nightlife
Helsinki isn’t best known for its nightlife, but there is still plenty of variety for evening entertainment. Things tend to be quite quiet during the week and with its extreme seasons, the nightlife changes depending on the climate and time of year. Still, there are a number of nightclubs dotted around the city and karaoke is also a popular event in Finland, with bars roaring to life on the weekends.
You can always enjoy a few drinks in a pub no matter what night of the week, and once summertime hits, the drinking and partying hit the outdoors. The beer gardens and bars are easy to traverse in walkable Helsinki and you won’t have to look too far for a good evening lineup.
Still, it’s hard to compete with Stockholm. The thriving nightlife draws all sorts of tourists from stag groups to young backpackers. The Old Town is known for its pub culture and a number of nightclubs, but the best late-night entertainment can be found just north of the Old Town on the mainland where some of the best venues in Scandinavia are located. Check out Slakthuset, Under Bron, and Kraken for all-night parties and indie events.
Helsinki vs Stockholm: Getting Around
Both Helsinki and Stockholm are very walkable cities. Central Helsinki is compact and the bus system doesn’t even run right in the middle of town, while Gamla Stan has a lot going on, very close together. Although, outside of the Old Town, Stockholm is more dispersed and takes more effort to get around.
The efficient metro lines, bus routes, commuter rails, trams, and ferries in both cities are simple to use, although Helsinki’s metro, the most northern in the world might we add, is often deemed the easiest. Scandinavian is also known as the cycling capital of the world, and both cities are accessible by bike. You can rent a city bike for around $5 a day in Stockholm, but as little as $10 a week in Helsinki, and public transport passes go for around $30 for three days in both capitals.
There’s little to complain about in the way of public transport, although taxis are slightly more expensive in Stockholm, much like most things. Helsinki is just slightly more walkable with its contained center and well-connected islands and fewer crowds make navigating the integrated public transport network a breeze.
Helsinki vs Stockholm: Cost
Scandinavia is notoriously pricey and both Stockholm and Helsinki consistently make lists of the most expensive cities in the world. The Nordic countries are always grouped in terms of steep prices and high taxes, but these cities might be more accessible than you think. If your budget is the only thing stopping you from visiting, the slight difference between Stockholm and Helsinki in terms of average costs could open the door to Scandinavian travel.
Depending on where you’re coming from and the time of year, flying to either the international airport in Helsinki or Stockholm shouldn’t cost too different. You might find a budget airline offering a promotion, but average prices across the year are much the same. Make sure to research in advance though, and see if you can snap a deal as random discrepancies in flight prices could make all the difference to the cost of your holiday.
The next big expense after travel is your accommodation. Mid-range hotels in Helsinki range from $50 to $200 a night, averaging $113 for a standard double room. In Stockholm, this is marginally higher, between $60 and $220, although with more variety the average is slightly less at $98 a night for a double. Vacation rentals in Helsinki range between $140 and $450 a night but $160 to $520 in Stockholm with a more competitive Airbnb scene.
Restaurant prices, groceries, and alcohol are similarly priced in both capitals, but Stockholm comes out marginally more expensive on all accounts with a six percent markup on average for food and drinks compared to Helsinki. Local transportation also costs as much as half in Helsinki as it does in Stockholm.
Overall, travelers can expect to spend around $1,200 per person for a seven-day trip to the Finnish capital, which is $2,300 for couples and $4,450 for a family of four. This amount goes up to around $1,500 for solo visitors, $2,600 for couples, and $4,800 for families in Stockholm, making Sweden decidedly more expensive on average.
Helsinki vs Stockholm: Our Verdict
There’s little to complain about when it comes to Helsinki vs Stockholm. Both cities are a picture of Nordic life and give visitors a good taste of the Scandinavian style. You can fill your days with sightseeing and collapse into one of the plentiful cafés in either city after learning all about the unique culture of these green lands. Stockholm has a slightly broader appeal if you’re after a classic city getaway with a bustling center and noteworthy nightlife, but design lovers will fall at the feet of Helsinki and there is plenty of style smattered around this picturesque archipelago.
How long do you need in Stockholm?
Stockholm is a sprawling capital and you could spend months here and still not uncover all of its secrets, but if you’re rushed for time, three days is a good amount of time to cover the main attractions. The city is well-connected and easy to get around. However, if you’re coming in the summer and want to explore more of the surrounding islands, four to five days is better.
When is the best time to visit Sweden?
Stockholm has a maritime climate with pleasant summers and chillier winters with shorter days. The best time to visit is between May and September when highs reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit and there are plenty of blue skies. If you want to skip out on the school holiday crowds and peak summer pricing, avoid July and August, even though these are the hottest months.
Is Helsinki safe?
Finland, like the rest of the Nordic countries, is an extremely safe place to live and Helsinki is one of the world’s most crime-free capitals. Pickpockets do operate in touristy areas and drunken tourists can be tricky to navigate, but the city is safe at night and also for solo female travelers, with the transport being very efficient and violent crime rates being among the lowest in the world.