Helsinki, Finland

Back in 1550, King Gustav I of Sweden had a problem. The Hanseatic city of Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) was dominating trade in the region. So, the King established Helsinki on the coast of the Gulf of Finland. Unfortunately, the city didn’t really gain a firm footing in the race for mercantile supremacy, and Tallinn continued to rule the region’s economic scene.

It wasn’t until the Russians took over Helsinki during the Finnish War of 1809 that the town’s fortunes began to turn. Tsar Alexander I moved Finland’s capital and the country’s only university to Helsinki. The city’s downtown area was even remodeled in a neoclassical Empire style to mirror St. Petersburg, Russia.

Helsinki Lifestyle and Culture

Today’s Helsinki is a major world capital of design and culture, a place full of culinary wonders and historic landmarks. The people of Helsinki are generally polite and willing to help a traveler in need. That said, they do have their pet peeves.

For example, they’re almost universally opposed to “cutting” in line, and have been known to loudly admonish those who insist on walking in bicycle lanes. They do not appreciate those who stand on the left side of the escalator, nor those who attempt to board a metro car before others alight. Simply put, Finns and visitors alike would do well to follow a level of civility grounded in simple courtesy.

The official languages of Helsinki are Finnish and Swedish, and most road signs are posted in both languages. While English is not an official language, most natives are quite fluent, and will happily speak English with travelers who aren’t comfortable or able to converse in either Finnish or Swedish. That is, after all, simple courtesy.

Helsinki Sights and Entertainment

Helsinki’s Mannerheim Museum was once the residence of Gustav Mannerheim, a decorated (and somewhat eccentric) Finnish patriot with a very interesting history. Upon his death in the 1950s, his estate purchased his lavish manor, and it has since been maintained almost as though he never left it. The on-site museum contains a wealth of intriguing artifacts related to the fight for Finnish independence. The guides here are uniformly knowledgeable and passionate.

Construction of the Suomenlinna Fortress was started by Swedes during the 1700s, and finished by Russians under Tsar Alexander I while Finland was under Russian rule. The commanding position of the island fortress at the entrance to Helsinki’s harbor made it an ideal strategic defense. Here, you’ll see impressive 19th-century cannon batteries, an extensive network of underground tunnels, and of course, the majestic fortress itself.

The Rock Church is a one-of-a-kind experience. This Lutheran house of worship was hewn from a massive granite monolith, the result of a design contest held in the 1960s. It often plays host to musical performers, and the acoustics in the space are said to be top-notch.

Fans of Finnish design will love the Aalto House. This striking home was once the residence of iconic Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, a man ahead of his time and subject of nearly universal acclaim among architecture students and mid-century design enthusiasts. Walking through its rooms, it’s difficult to believe that the space was conceived back in 1936. The materials and designs here would fit in with today’s most forward-looking home designs.

Helsinki’s esplanade is a wonderful place to take a summer stroll. Here, the air is fresh and clean, the shopping is enticing and the cafés and street vendors always have something delicious to offer. During warmer months, music from the local bandstand fills the air and the atmosphere is buoyant and festive.