Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is a treasure trove for lovers of history and all eras of architecture and design. Dubbed the “white city of the north” due to its buildings constructed from locally available light-coloured granite, it was built in a Neoclassical style, modelled off of the then Russian capital, St Petersburg–constructed, like Helsinki, at the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea.
Helsinki was shaped by Finland’s powerful western and eastern neighbours—Russia and Sweden. From about 1560 to 1658, Sweden dominated Northern Europe, creating an empire centred in the Baltic Sea and capturing territory in Germany, Norway, and Denmark—until Russia’s Peter I (the Great) challenged Sweden’s domination and declared war. In 1748, a fortress called by the Finnish people as Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg for the Swedes), was constructed outside the harbour to protect the settlement from Russian attacks.
The Great Northern War lasted 21 years and ended with the incorporation of the region into the Russian Empire. In 1812, the Russian tsar Alexander I moved the capital of Finland from Turku to Helsinki, causing Helsinki’s population to grow. Finland would be under Russian control (with nominal autonomy) until its independence in 1917.
Helsinki is a vibrant, laidback city with much to offer, whether you go on a bike tour, a hop-on hop-off double-decker bus tour, or walking tour with a local guide. As home to Finland’s largest international airport, Helsinki has excellent flight connections with the rest of the globe, and can also be reached by ferry from Tallinn, Estonia; Stockholm, Sweden; and St Petersburg, Russia. A cruise down the shore of the Baltic Sea is also a great experience to or from Helsinki.
On your tour of Helsinki, don’t miss Helsinki Cathedral, a distinct landmark of Helsinki on Senate Square. It was originally constructed, starting in 1830, as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who served as Grand Duke of Finland. Helsinki’s Parliament House is also an architectural wonder, combining Neoclassicism with 20th century modernism.
At the turn of the 20th century, Finnish architects, inspired by the nationalist movement, designed in art nouveau style, incorporating influences from Finnish folklore and nature into the ornate style. Particular highlights include the Central Railway Station (1914), and the National Museum of Finland, which displays scenes from the Kalevala on the ceiling of the entrance hall. Helsinki is also home to much of Finland’s most innovative modern architecture projects. See the Alvar Aalto-designed Finlandia Hall (1971), and make sure to visit the home he shared with his wife Aino (an innovative modern architect in her own right), now restored as a museum dedicated to their life and work.
Helsinki was declared the World Design Capital in 2012, and remains a centre for innovative architecture today. Most notable is the Amos Rex gallery, opened in 2018. Designed by the local architecture firm JKMM, the museum is entirely underground, with windows emerging like bubbles up into Lasipalatsi Square above.
Helsinki is full of antique stores packed with mid-century modern pieces and lesser-known contemporary designers working in the same spirit. The Design District Helsinki guide is a fantastic resource for finding many of the city’s most interesting designers, along with some of the best eateries and boutique hotels.
Helsinki is also a cultural capital, home to two symphonies which perform at the Helsinki Music Centre concert hall, and several museums, including the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.
After your city tour, you may also consider a couple of day trips from Helsinki. The city is a good base to explore nearby towns, such as Porvoo with its beautiful Porvoo Cathedral, and the former capital of Turku, which has traces of pre-Russian Finland.
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