Helsinki, Finland

Finland is a Nordic country situated north of Estonia, east of Sweden and south of Norway. Its population is about 5.4 million, with more than 10% living in the capital city of Helsinki. Some version of the name “finland” appears on three Swedish runestones, two in the form finlonti and the third as finlandi; it seems to mean coastal land. The Finnish word for Finland is Suomi. (Finnish is part of the Finno-Ugric language family, related only to Estonian and distantly to Hungarian.) Finland lies quite far north; about 25% of it is within the Arctic Circle, and in the summer it experiences the midnight sun.

The area of Finland was first settled after the end of the last Ice Age. From the 12th century to the 19th century, Finland was actually part of Sweden; during this time the administrative and educational language was Swedish, but Finnish survived among the peasantry, clergy and local courts. During the Protestant Reformation, the Finns gradually converted to Lutheranism along with other Scandinavian peoples. At the end of the 17th century Finland experienced a severe famine and a subsequent plague. During the first half of the 18th century, the Swedes and Russians fought over Finland. In the 19th century there was a devastating famine that killed 15% of the Finnish population. During the 20th century Finland had a complicated relationship with the Soviet Union—from the days of the Russian Revolution through World War II and the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed Finland lost its largest trading partner but after the resulting recession the Finnish economy began to turn itself around. They adopted the euro in 2002 and today Finland has a modern, highly industrialized economy and a healthy, well-educated population.

The Finnish capital, Helsinki, is sometimes called the “White City of the North.” Its downtown area is focused around Senate Square, with its neoclassical buildings including Helsinki Cathedral. There is a large outdoor market offering local cuisine and craft items, and there are numerous art museums, a design museum and many other cultural institutions. Helsinki is very walkable and also offers an excellent transportation system, including an automated “hop on, hop off” bus tour in your choice of language. In addition to Helsinki Cathedral, there is a beautiful Russian Orthodox church called Uspenski Cathedral, and the amazing Temppeliaukio Church, a modernist Lutheran church hewn out of solid rock. One of the city’s most compelling attractions is Suomenlinna, known as Sveaborg in Swedish; accessible by a short ferry ride, this island fortress in the harbor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with historic buildings, art galleries and pleasant beaches.