Finland’s largest city was founded in 1550, but surprisingly has no medieval past. That’s because it remained only a small village and was actually made the capital in the early 1800s when, under Russian rule, they decided to move the capital closer to St. Petersburg, from Turku to Helsinki. Thus the city is northern Europe’s youngest capital with 19th through 21st century buildings lining its streets and overlooking its scenic waterfronts. And what’s behind the name White City of the North? That’s because many buildings sport light-colored facades, constructed from white or pale granite.
One example includes the landmark and stately Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square, a gleaming white columned structure in neoclassical architecture that looks more like a capitol building sitting atop a steep flight of stairs. Another church dominating the skyline and just a few blocks from Senate Square is the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, designed in Byzantine Russian architectural style and topped with typical “onion” domes.
Other must see Helsinki sites include the pipe-like tubes making up the Sibelius Monument, a tribute to native son and composer Jean Sibelius. The Temppeliaukio Church, with its rock walls and domed roof, was dugout of a granite mound. It’s perhaps the city’s sight most visited by tourists.
Helsinki Island Hopping: Suomenlinna Island Fortress
Island hopping off the shores of Helsinki is easier than you might imagine. And you don’t really need a boat – except for a 15-minute ferry ride to Suomenlinna. This group of six islands, most attached by footbridges, is still Scandinavia’s largest sea fortress. Sturdy brick walls, ramparts, courtyards and cannons remain, but today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a park and an attraction where hundreds come on any given day to walk its gravel paths, many now shaded by trees, and to learn about Finland’s maritime history. There are museums, a church, great waterside views and more.
“Some historians say that Suomenlinna might have been one of the factors leading to Helsinki becoming the capital later on,” explains Helsinki tour guide Heidi Johansson. “There were more inhabitants on the islands than in Helsinki proper in the beginning.” Because it was inhabited by military including officers, it was a center of culture for the region.
“When Suomenlinna was built in the 1700s, that’s where the magic happened,” Johansson continues. “Suomenlinna was really a flourishing place, where all the social events happened, where all the trends came in.”
FINNISH DESIGN: Simple, Practical, Colorful and World Renowned
It took a trip to Finland for me to realize that I have perhaps the most iconic item representing Finnish Design in my own home – orange-handled scissors that I have used for years. As it turns out, the Fiskars Scissor brand is now more than 50 years old and more than a billion have been sold worldwide.
Finnish Design emphasizes simplicity in everyday life with practical and timeless – yet colorful and unique – household items such as tableware and furniture like classic stools, but also clothing styles and artistic expression. Think IKEA with flair. Popular names include Artek, Aalto, Arabia, Iittala and the Marimekko clothing brand once worn by Jackie Kennedy. Several Finnish Design brands came about in an effort to brighten décor after the war years and to enliven the diluted colors and grayish scale. In Helsinki, stores can be found in many neighborhoods selling Finnish Design household items. I also visited the Design Museum which showcases and explains the history behind the simple coffee cups, saucers and other tableware for example – many still sold today.
Finnish Sauna: Hot Rocks and Steam like No Other
There are saunas, and then there are Finnish saunas. What’s the difference you might ask, considering steam and relaxation are all part of the process? The answer is tradition, national pride and benefits to one’s health. “My grandfather was completely convinced that any ailments or diseases he was suffering from could be cured in the sauna,” says Johansson. “And he was not completely wrong as there’s such a thing as sweating it out.”
Finnish saunas date back 2,000 years as a means of keeping warm during Scandinavian winters. But they became an integral part of Finnish culture beginning in the 19th century as more of a ritual. The Finns do it in groups: there are sauna sessions on holidays, on Friday nights and more. “For just about every celebration, there’s the ritual of going to the sauna,” says Johansson. For Finland’s 5.5 million inhabitants, there are 3.3 million saunas – one sauna for every one or two residents. Even Helsinki’s SkyWheel has the world’s only sauna gondola. “Sauna is an important sort of rite of passage,” she adds.