Helsinki is a small, big city in the far north and a significant gateway between Asia and Europe. For centuries, Helsinki has been a meeting point and melting pot for eastern, western, southern and northern influences.
The King of Sweden, Gustav Vasa (1496–1560), founded Helsinki in 1550 as a competitor to Reval (Tallinn), a Hansa city by the southern Gulf of Finland. This started a dialogue, competition and collaboration between Helsinki and Tallinn. In recent visions, there have already been plans for a twin city: Hellinna/Talsinki.
Helsinki is called the “Daughter of the Baltic.” For centuries, the city has had a central role as one of the most important harbor cities by the Baltic Sea. The growth of Helsinki into a small town coincided with the construction of the Sveaborg/Suomenlinna island fortress in the 1700s. At the time, Finland was the eastern territory of the Swedish kingdom and the fortress was required as a defence. Peter the Great (1682–1725), the czar of Russia, had founded the city of Saint Petersburg and had interests to the Baltic Sea.
In 1809, Finland became an autonomous part of Russian empire after Sveaborg had surrendered without battle. Suomenlinna is now one of the major historic and touristic attractions of Helsinki, and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Few other architectural reminders of the Swedish era remain in Helsinki. In 1812, Russians changed the capital of Finland closer to their own territory, hence Helsinki became the capital of Finland instead of Åbo/Turku.
Helsinki has also been a home to many significant contemporaries and communities, as well as a travel destination. In addition to remarkable Finnish persons and celebrities, the then–future revolutionary leader, V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) hid in Helsinki at the beginning of the 1900s, before the dramatic events of the October revolution.
The legacy of C. G. E. Mannerheim(1867–1951), the “white general,” later bestowed the rank of marshal, can be seen in the history and streets of Helsinki. The main street in Helsinki is named after Mannerheim. The Mannerheim Museum can be found next to the Kaivopuisto park. This military leader, cosmopolitan and explorer also influenced the society, culture and culinary customs in an exceptional manner. A horseback statue of Mannerheim is located near the Central Railway Station, in front of the contemporary art museum, Kiasma.
Monumental, neo-classicist empire buildings of Prussian-born architect C. L. Engel (1778–1840) dominate the city center of Helsinki, around the Senate Square. Mr. Engel came to Helsinki via Berlin, Tallinn, Turku and St. Petersburg.
Other historically significant Helsinki architects are, for example, Theodor Höijer (1843–1910, e.g. the Ateneum building), Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950, the Helsinki Central Railway Station), Sigurd Frosterus (1876–1956, the Stockmann department store, or the “Harrod’s of Helsinki”) as well as architect trio Gesellius–Lindgren–Saarinen (the National Museum of Finland). Buildings designed by them can be seen – especially during the summer – on a walk around town.
Helsinki is one of the world’s finest cities featuring Art Nouveau (or Jugend) architecture. Finland and the Helsinki region are also pilgrimage destinations for friends and fans of functionalist architecture and the works of master Alvar Aalto (1898–1976, e.g. the Finlandia Hall and many buildings in Otaniemi R&D&I area, Espoo). In the recent decades, the city’s architecture has also exhibited postmodern playfulness and an experimental attitude.
3. Helsinki’s nature: sea, islands and mainland
Although some refer to it as “crowded Finland” (Ruuhka-Suomi in Finnish), nature, flora and fauna are strongly present in the Helsinki region. The charming Finnish capital is surrounded by the sea; parks, forests and islands (saari in Finnish) are also a part of the city’s everyday luxury.
In Helsinki, you can often sense an idyllic – yet dynamic – “rurban” feeling (a combination of the words “rural” and “urban”). Nature, silence and a relaxed tempo are always present, but on the other hand, new technology and digital services are combined with the city space and even nature experiences. Take your smartphone or tablet with you and visit the Nuuksio National Park in Espoo, for instance, or one of the islands in the vicinity.
Here are some of my favorite Helsinki “rurban” destinations: Bulevardi, Katajanokka, Töölö, Sinebrychoff Park, Seurasaari, Tervasaari, Uunisaari, Suomenlinna, Hietaniemi Cemetery, Hietaranta Beach, Lauttasaari and Hotel Rantapuisto (Vuosaari).
4. A compact city: easy to get around and fantastic views
Helsinki is a “small, big city” that has been developed a lot during recent years. The city has also visibly become more international. New trends in architecture, design, food, drink, art and culture – taking their influences from elsewhere in Europe, as well as far-off places – are a part of the urban everyday life in the city.
The center of Helsinki is inherently compact, due to its peninsular geography. Most attractions and events are conveniently located within walking distance. Additionally, the city has a great public transportation network, which usually works well, even late at night. The metro “network” is quite simple, as it consist of only one, efficient line that branches off at its eastern end. The tram, or “spåra,” as the locals call it, is a classic means of transportation in Helsinki. During recent years, bicycles have also regained a visible space in the streetscape.
Helsinki is beautiful and impressive, even from a bird’s eye view. Gorgeous views can be seen from, e.g., the centrally located tower building, Hotel Torni.
5. Northern exoticism and various seasons
“I understand nothing, absolutely none of it.”
The Finnish language confuses the minds of many foreigners – it’s like a secret language, in a country already known for its know-how in information security and cryptography. In addition to Finnish, a lot of Swedish and English is spoken in the Helsinki area today. During peak tourist flow and conferences, one can also hear, for instance, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Italian.
Spring, summer, autumn, winter… Just as in other parts of Finland, Helsinki also has four clearly defined seasons, with a lot of contrasts: light and darkness, warmth and cold, the brilliant colors of nature and – on the other hand – simple minimalism. When autumn comes, you can experience the ruska phenomenon, occurring when the tree leaves become beautifully yellow, brown and red. They are on display, for instance, on the shores of Töölönlahti (one of the excellent city center outdoor activity areas).
Winter in Helsinki can be snowy and white (depending on the year). When spring comes, the ice slowly melts and nature blossoms into flower. In the summer, the luminous nights even bewilder the local inhabitants. The dizzying beauty of the night sky, the poetic dawn at daybreak, as well as the blue and white colors (also found on the flag of Finland); the republic celebrates its centennial anniversary in 2017 are a part of the treasure that is the Helsinki summer.
6. Saunas and bathing
Finland is the promised land of saunas. Finns are justifiably proud of their bathing culture. The sauna is the place where the four elements of the cosmos – earth, water, fire and air – meet. The sauna has also traditionally been the Finnish “temple” – serving as a nest of holiness and rituals, even being mentioned in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.
During past centuries, the sauna was much more than a place for relaxation, sweating and meeting friends: you were born and you died in the sauna, you cleaned yourself there and the sick were healed in it. The sauna also often functioned as a sort of “service center” to the farm and home.
Helsinki’s sauna culture has developed quite a bit during recent years. In addition to traditional institutions, like the member-based Finnish Sauna Society (available for members and their guests), many public saunas – greatly varied in both their style and identity – can be found in the city, such as Arla and Kotiharjun Sauna in the Kallio neighborhood, Kulttuurisauna (Merihaka), Löyly (Hernesaari) and Allas Sea Pool (right next to the Kauppatori market square). A refreshing and different reservation sauna opportunity has been created on the Saunasaari island, which is also a charming nature and sauna experience.
7. The stories and urban legends of Helsinki
Helsinki is filled with stories (and urban legends). Interesting descriptions of Helsinki can be found in writer Juhani Aho’s (1861–1921) and Mika Waltari’s (1908–1979) works, for instance, as well as in the works of the other members of the Tulenkantajat (“the torch bearers”) group.
Following the end of tense and dramatic periods, Finland gained its independence in the year 1917. The civil war of 1918 was to follow, after which tradesmen, adventurers, diplomats and spies arrived in Helsinki. It was a time filled with suspense and dangerous situations. In 1922, Heikki Ritavuori, the minister of internal affairs was murdered in front of his home, in Etu-Töölö. During prohibition (1919–32), citizens consumed smuggled alcohol in the form of “hard tea,” among others.
In front of the main building of the Bank of Finland, is the statue of national philosopher, J. V. Snellman (1806–1881). The marks at the base of the statue remind us of the great bombings of World War II (1944), when little Finland fought against the massive Soviet Union.
According to a resilient urban legend, the top of the tower of Hotel Torni could be a docking platform for a zeppelin. And it is often claimed that one is able to see all the way to Tallinn from Torni’s top floor Ateljee Bar on a clear day.
During the cold war, Helsinki was said to be one of the leading spying centers of northern Europe. How about that!
8. New technology, innovations and startup buzz
Finland is the promised land of ideas, engineers and innovations. The high level of technical know-how and R&D&I can easily be felt and sensed in the Helsinki region. Finland has an excellent technical infrastructure. Large Finnish companies, such as Nokia and Kone, are known throughout the world.
On the other hand, there has been interesting buzz during recent years surrounding the startup culture. Slush – one of the world’s largest tech conferences – is organized every year, and brings the enthusiasm of visionary startup and growth company entrepreneurs, investors, experts, professionals and media people to Helsinki.
In many ways, Helsinki is a “laboratory for the future,” as well as being a hub for new technology and new media. Currently, great technical and business expectations are focused on cleantech (with Enevo as an example of an interesting company representing the field). Additional upthrust is related to, among others, artificial intelligence and robotics (e.g. ZenRobotics). As a part of the annual EU Robotics Week, a theme week is organized in Helsinki on the subject. A key location for activities is Airo Island (AIRO = AI & Robotics) in Vanhakaupunki, in the same complex with Museum of Technology.
Today’s hitech research and innovations are based on keywords like digitalization, the industrial Internet, the Internet of Things as well as ubiquitous computing. Some interesting companies representing creative ideas and new technologies are Walkbase, Smartly.io, Geometrify, Biohacker Center BHC and Moni. Game industry companies like Supercell and Rovio have had extraordinary success globally.
New technology and digital culture require a new kind of know-how. Helsinki-founded Dottir Attorneys, with activities also in Berlin and San Francisco, is an agile, lean business law firm, focused on companies in or around the fields of technology and media. One of the world’s biggest YouTuber events, Tubecon, was born in Helsinki in 2014 and was originally brought to life by Finnish company KLOK, a creative agency focusing on moving images.
9. Food and drink
“The fate of a nation depends on the way that they eat,” said French philosopher, lawyer and gourmand, Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826), in his time.
During past decades, the restaurant offering in Finland and Helsinki has developed explosively. On its own part, the traditionally high-quality Finnish fish, game, berries, mushrooms and vegetarian food has expanded, through international influences, in the directions of experimental kitchens, TV chefs as well as new kinds of health foods and superfoods.
Quality restaurants that have received a Michelin star (during 2016: Olo, Demo, Ask, and Chef & Sommelier) are by themselves clearly a part of everyday life in Helsinki. Various food-themed city events and festivals – such as Ravintolapäivä (“Restaurant Day”) – give people culinary influences and brighten up Helsinki’s streetscape.
Recommendations on the gastronomic map of Helsinki are classic restaurants (like Savoy in the Esplanadi park), numerous artist restaurants featuring classic design (such as Kosmos and Elite), bistros, cafés and specialty bars.
Here are some favorites of mine around the city: Bar 9, Hoku, Latva, Umeshu, Kuu Kuu and Kuja. Ravintola Teatteri, located in the Swedish Theater building in the Esplanadi Park, offers delicious food, drinks and decor, in addition to nightclub, dance floor and art exhibition experiences.
In Helsinki, you can have a great lunch for around ten euros, even in the more esteemed restaurants. You can also easily order your favorite dishes to be delivered to your home or workplace using an application (e.g. Wolt) on your smartphone.
10. Art, culture, music and design
Considering its size, Helsinki has many interesting galleries, museums and cultural events. On display is an interesting array of traditional, modern and contemporary art.
Even on a quick visit to Helsinki, check out Kiasma (the Museum of Contemporary Art), Ateneum Art Museum, Design Museum and the galleries around the Old Church Park (often colloquially called “Plague Park”): Galerie Forsblom, Helsinki Contemporary and Galleria Bronda. Other interesting galleries include, for example, Galerie Anhava and Zetterberg Gallery.
In the music world, there is great classical, contemporary and more experimental music on offer, from jazz music to techno. The Helsinki Music Center opened its doors in 2011. Some notable gems of late were the Classical Trancelations in Concert. This concert was organized in August, 2016 as a part of the Helsinki Festival, combining a classical music concert with fantastic techno classics and visual effects.
Helsinki is also the promised city of design. The Artek (= art + technology) flagship store, founded in 1935, can be found in the center of Helsinki, on Keskuskatu. The annual Helsinki Design Week gathers actors, hobbyists and consumers from the entire field.
Translation: Pauhu Ltd / André Sumelius