Positioned on a rocky headland cradling the Baltic Sea, Helsinki is one of Europe’s most handsome, idiosyncratic and captivating capital cities. The city maintains a personality that is markedly different from that of other Scandinavian capitals, and in many ways is closer in temperament – and certainly in looks – to the major cities of Eastern Europe. For years an outpost of the Russian empire, its very shape and style was originally modelled on its powerful neighbour’s former capital, St Petersburg, with buildings extant today that are virtual carbon copies of pre-communist structures from the former Soviet Union. Yet throughout the twentieth century Helsinki was also a showcase for the design ideals of an independent Finland, with much of its impressive architecture drawing inspiration from the rise of Finnish nationalism and the growth of the republic. Equally the city’s museums, especially the Ateneum Art Museum and the National Museum, reveal the country’s growing awareness of its own folklore and culture.
Following a devastating fire in 1808, and the city’s elevation to capital in 1812, Helsinki was totally rebuilt in a style commensurate with its status: a grid of wide streets and Neoclassical and Empire-style brick buildings. This grid forms the basis of the modern city, and it’s a tribute to the vision of planner Johan Ehrenström and architect Carl Engel that in and around Senate Square the grandeur has endured, often quite dramatically. The square itself, overlooked by the gleaming Lutheran cathedral, is still the city’s single most eye-catching feature, while just a few blocks away, past the South Harbour and the waterside market square, is the handsome tree-lined avenue of the Esplanadi, with a narrow strip of greenery along the centre.
The city effectively branches out from Eliel Saarinen’s Central Railway Station, off which branches the great artery of Mannerheimintie – the main route into the centre from the suburbs – carrying traffic and trams past Kiasma, the Finlandia Hall and the Olympic Stadium on one side, and the National Museum and the streets leading to Sibelius Park on the other. The bulge of land that extends south of Esplanadi has long been one of the most affluent sections of town, and embraces the hip, youthful areas of Punavuori and Kaartinkaupunki. Dotted by palatial embassies and wealthy dwellings, these neighbourhoods feed into the rocky Kaivopuisto Park, where the peace is disturbed only by the rumble of the trams and a handful of summer rock concerts, while west of Kaivopuisto are the narrow streets of the equally exclusive Eira quarter.
Heading north of the city centre and divided by the waters of Kaisaniemenlahti, the districts of Kruununhaka and Hakaniemi contain what little is left of pre-seventeenth-century Helsinki, in the small area up the hill behind the cathedral, compressed between the botanical gardens and the bay; over the bridge is a large marketplace and the hill leading past the formidable Kallio church towards the modern housing districts further north. Suomenlinna is one of Helsinki’s innumerable offshore islands and is home to the largest sea fortress in the world as well as a few rewarding crop of museums.