The Finnish capital surprises with its history and Russian influenced architecture, its culture and Nordic cuisine, and its long summer days.
By Nicholas Sterling
Helsinki—capital of Finland—is a modern European city on the shores of the Baltic Sea. This Nordic metropolis boasts more than 450 years of history and tradition; a young city by European standards.
Cozy and charming, travelers can explore it calmly and without stress. Compared to other major European capitals, such as London, Paris, or Madrid, the pace of life in Helsinki is quite relaxed , and most of the tourist attractions are within walking distance from each other.
The city is also full of beautiful open spaces: a third of the city is covered with greenery. The famous Grand Central Park —with lush forests that separate the city center from the suburbs built in the postwar period— expands towards the north and becomes—when the weather permits—a place to relax and enjoy the bucolic beauty of the surroundings.
Although it is said that the Finns are rather quiet, you will soon discover they are kind, fun-loving people, especially when they gather at any of the charming bars and nightclubs of Helsinki’s historic quarters.
The Helsinki archipelago consists of about 330 islands that offer beautiful and unspoiled venues for beach days or a weekend in the country. Some of the islands, such as Suomenlinna and Pihlajasaari, are accessible by regular ferry services.
Another unique feature in these latitudes is that—during the winter solstice—the day lasts less than six hours while during the summer solstice there is daylight for as many as 19 hours.
One of the city’s most picturesque places is Kauppatori, a bustling outdoor market by the harbor, where you can buy Finnish foods like the typical herring, fruit jams, pickles, and gourmet specialties like caviar and reindeer meat. At the market, you can and also enjoy delicious freshly cooked white sausage with mustard while listening to a live band.
Next to the market is the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, built in red bricks and featuring 13 green domes crowned by golden crosses. Its interior shows a clear Byzantine influence, with the walls lined with paintings and frescoes, the prevalence of gold and the strong aroma of incense. It was designed by a Russian architect and completed in 1868 when Tsar Alexander II was the Grand Duke of Finland. It is considered the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe.
From this emblematic religious symbol in Helsinki, you can see the Tuomiokirkko Lutheran Cathedral with its tall green dome surrounded by four smaller domes and massive columns that reveal a clear neoclassical style. It was built between 1830 and 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke Nicholas I, Tsar of Russia. Nearby, you’ll find the historic Senate Square, surrounded by beautiful and colorful antique buildings.
Art lovers will be delighted at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art located in Mannerheimintie Avenue, home to the collection of contemporary art of the Finnish National Gallery.
In the city center, we find Esplanade Avenue, lined with luxury shops, cafes and restaurants. Be sure to visit the Parliament and the Sami Rauratientori metro station, which served as inspiration for Gotham City in the movie Batman.
With a rich cultural life, convoluted history, and unique geography, Helsinki is an unforgettable destination. ■
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