Perfect for a short break, Helsinki is a pocket-sized metropolis and easy to explore on foot
The word for Helsinki is ‘classy’. There's chic Scandinavian style in the shops, wide boulevards lined with cafes, impressive contemporary architecture, and everyone speaks English.
When Finland was being geologically formed it must have had a turbulent journey. Approaching the country by air, the coastline appears to be scattered hither and thither with minute chunks of rock - many of which seem hardly big enough to accommodate even a small tent. The creation of the country itself was equally turbulent. Founded by Sweden’s King Gustav in 1550, it did not gain independence until 1917.
Helsinki became the official capital from 1812 onwards and compared with most European capital cities, it has very few really old buildings apart from two dating from the 18th century. Most were destroyed by the Russians. However, there are some very grand buildings and the Finns are justifiably proud of their contemporary architecture.
In the old days, the houses were all made of wood and many were destroyed by fire as well as a result of their long history of war. The city was devastated during the Second World War and there are some buildings still showing the damage of gun fire. Not only was there physical damage to the city, but a chunk of the country was lost to Russia in 1944. The map of Finland looks like a lady dancing - unfortunately Russia commandeered one of her arms.
The music of the Finnish composer Sibelius is played in concert halls around the world. There is an interesting modern sculpture in Sibelius Park, erected in his memory.
For a taste of the past visit the open-air museum on Seurasaari, a small island reached via a bridge. The island is home to some interesting traditional buildings brought here from different regions of the country, all situated in a natural landscape surrounded by trees. Some are very beautiful, particularly the 17th-century Karuna Church and Bell Tower. You will also see small red squirrels who will feed from your hand. This species has died out in other parts of Europe.
The most impressive reminder of the past, however, is the huge sea fortress, Suomenlinna, founded in 1748 as a bastion on six islands off Helsinki and a listed World Heritage Site since 1991. To begin with, it defended Sweden against Russia for sixty years. It is reached via a short ferry ride from the city’s Market Square. Once there you will see why it was such a successful defense - the walls are enormous and cannons are situated at strategic points all around the island. It’s easy to find your way around, as there are blue signposts you can follow; there’s also an information centre and a couple of cafes.
Other things to see in Helsinki
- The Cathedral and Government Palace in Senate Square.
- Market Square: by the water is a colourful market selling traditional foods and handicrafts; it also has places to eat.
- Esplanade Park, in the heart of the city: a beautiful place to relax, with an open-air stage for live concerts, folk dancing, etc (all free).
Out of town
- Take a trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia - it’s a quick boat crossing, lasting only one and a half hours.
- For something further afield, how about spending the weekend in Russia? It’s only five and a half hours by train to St.Petersburg (visa required).
Hotel Haven: this new, five-star hotel in Market Square has 77 rooms, a gym and a spa.