The Finnish capital’s coastal location makes it an ideal base from which to explore the astonishing natural beauty of its maritime surroundings. It’s also very conveniently linked with all the major capitals and cities situated on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Scheduled cruise ferry service operates between Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn, so choosing this means of transportation for your arrival or departure will provide you with an opportunity to admire the austere beauty of the Baltic coast.
The city was founded by King Gustav I of Sweden in the 16th Century as a rival to the Hanseatic city of Tallinn, then known as Reval. Plagued by disease, poverty and military conflict, for a long time Helsinki remained a small coastal town. It only began to thrive after the completion of the Sveaborg naval fortress (also known as the Suomenlinna) and the 1809 formation of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, when it was chosen as the capital.
The relocation of the national university (today the University of Helsinki) to Helsinki in 1827 marked the beginning of a whole new era in the history of the city. The presence of a university confirmed the city’s new role, and the following decades saw Helsinki developing in an unprecedented way, laying the foundations for the birth of a world-class capital nearly a century later.
Innovative architects such as Eliel Saarinen authored utopian plans of urban expansion for Helsinki, but none of these designs were ever fully realised. The architecture of Helsinki remains a symbol of Nordic modesty and refinement. This rapid transformation is clearly visible in the appearance of the contemporary Helsinki’s city centre, which was almost entirely rebuilt in the Neo-Classical style. As a result, it very much resembles St Petersburg, and in the past was often used by filmmakers as a substitute for the Russian cities they didn’t have access to in the Soviet era.
Despite the turbulent first half of the 20th Century and the destruction it suffered during World War II, Helsinki continued to grow steadily. The population in the metropolitan area tripled during the urbanization wave of the 1970s, and in the ‘90s the Finnish capital became one of the fastest-developing cities in the European Union. However, the metropolitan area of contemporary Helsinki is the second-most sparsely populated European Union capital after Brussels.
Many of Helsinki’s main attractions are, in one way or another, connected with the sea. The top sights include the Suomenlinna naval fortress and Seurasaari Island with its open-air museum and extensive parks. Locals are known to spend sunny days at Helsinki’s main beach, located in the district of Toolo and popularly called Hietsu. In summer, the warmth and midnight sun inspire many citizens to linger at numerous cafe terraces until the early morning hours, an activity that you certainly wouldn’t expect of residents of the North. During the cold, dark winters, you can join in one of the most unusual activities to make these dull months exciting – take a walk across the frozen sea.