Helsinki

When in Helsinki, you'll find lots of Finnish design in a variety of shops citywide. © Ralph Grizzle

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Overview

There’s something about the Finns and the design that they bring to the world. In areas ranging from textiles and clothes to glassware and household articles, Finnish design has become world-famous. That’s in no small part due to Alvar Aalto, whose achievements throughout much of the 20th century continue to influence new generations of designers.

In and around Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, you will be able to experience examples of Aalto’s works, in the form of buildings and interiors. Two of the most accessible places to do just that are the Finlandia Hall and the Savoy Restaurant in central Helsinki (see below, under Do Not Miss).

It is, of course, difficult to say if the architecture of this pocket-sized metropolis has anything to do with the quality of life experienced by Helsinki’s inhabitants. They are a fortunate lot, according to Monocle, a London-based magazine that recently announced Helsinki as the winner of its “Liveable Cities Index.”

Among the positive factors: a fundamental boldness in rethinking urban environments, and an ability to move from thinking to implementation. It should come as no surprise, then, that Helsinki has been appointed World Design Capital in 2012.

The only way you can miss Helsinki Cathedral is to fail to disembark. © Ralph Grizzle

Speaking of buildings, if there is one building that could be said to symbolize Helsinki, it is the Helsinki Cathedral. It was completed in 1852, designed by the architect Carl Ludvig Engel. Of German origin, Engel was the mastermind behind the rebuilding of Helsinki in the early 19th century. The city’s many neoclassical buildings can be traced to this period.

Founded at the mouth of the Vantaa River in 1550, the idea behind the establishment of Helsinki was to launch it as a competitor to Tallinn in the trade with Russia. At the time Finland was a part of Sweden; the construction of the new town was ordered by the Swedish King, Gustav Vasa.

It was not until 1812, however, that Helsinki became the capital of what was then the autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. In 1917, in connection with the independency of Finland, Helsinki became the capital of the Republic of Finland.

Including the nearby cities of Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen, Helsinki’s metropolitan area has a population of some 1.2 million inhabitants. The headquarters of many of Finland’s largest companies are located here, as are eight of the country’s 20 universities.

Helsinki For Cruise Passengers

Many ships dock within walking distance of the city center, although shuttle transfers are often offered for those preferring not to walk. © Ralph Grizzle

Situated within walking distance (0.62 miles/1 kilometer) of the city center and the Kauppatori Market Square (see the video below for a walk through the market), Helsinki features a dedicated passenger terminal at South Harbor. Here, you will find taxis, shuttle services and tourist information. The largest cruise ships dock at Hernesaari in West Harbor, from where shuttle buses take passengers in ten minutes to the city center.

Do Not Miss

Visit the Design District when in Helsinki. © Ralph Grizzle

Finnish design, as already noted, is world-famous. There are several ways to experience this facet of Finland. One alternative is to make your way to the Alvar Aalto Museum just outside the city center (there is also a museum in Aalto’s hometown, Jyväskylä, some 170 miles/270 kilometers from Helsinki). Another alternative is to simply walk around the city center and experience what Helsinki has to offer when it comes to architecture – and that’s a lot. Visit the Savoy Restaurant and the Finlandia Hall for a taste of Aalto’s works, or take a tour to the Senate Square and experience the city’s neoclassical buildings. At the Helsinki Design District, you will be able to find a wide selection of Finnish design.

Nice people, nice handicrafts at Kauppatori (one of Helsinki's open-air markets) © Ralph Grizzle

Easily accessible for cruise ship passengers disembarking in the South Harbor, Helsinki’s market square, Kauppatori, is worth visiting. Everything from fresh fish to handicrafts is to be found here. Next to the Kauppatori is the Old Market Hall, with its historic charm and wide assortment.

Enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage Site Suomenlinna Fotresss. © Ralph Grizzle

To many, the Suomenlinna Fortress is synonymous with Helsinki. The construction of what is one of the world’s largest maritime fortifications was started in the middle of the 18th century, when Finland was a part of Sweden. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, Suomenlinna is built on a cluster of skerries.

A couple of miles/kilometers from the city center, you will find the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum. Through cottages, farmsteads and manors relocated from all over Finland, the museum enables visitors to experience the traditional Finnish way of life.

Visible from afar when approaching the city from the sea, the Helsinki Cathedral is Western Europe’s largest orthodox church. Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel (see above), the church was built as a tribute to Nicolas I, Tsar of Russia.

It is said that one third of Helsinki consists of parks and green areas. The oldest and best-known park is Kaivopuisto Park. The nearby sea, rock cliffs and green lawns offer many opportunities to relax and enjoy the outdoors. At the highest point of the park is the Ursa Observatory. There are several cafés and restaurants along the shore and on the islands.

There are several reasons why Helsinki is a splendid destination for some serious shopping. One of them is Finnish design, as already noted. Another good reason is Stockmann, the largest department store in the Nordic region.

Helsinki features one of the world’s oldest zoos: Korkeasaari. With some 200 species of animals and close to 1,000 species of plants, visitors are able to experience animals and environments from all over the world.

At the National Museum of Finland, learn about the history of this fairly young nation.

The Temppeliaukio Church, blasted into solid rock, is worth a visit.

The Rock Church, Temppeliaukio © Ralph Grizzle

Shore Excursions

A number of shore excursions can be on offer in and around the Finnish capital. Examples include:

  • Tours of Helsinki, by coach or by foot, can include many of the attractions mentioned above under Do Not Miss. Some of these tours can focus on the city’s architecture and design.
  • Considered Finland’s most well known composer, Jean Sibelius lived in Tuusula – just outside Helsinki. His home, Ainola is open for visitors.
  • The countryside around Helsinki, including the archipelago, can be in focus on some shore excursions. The archipelago can be experienced either by sightseeing boat or in a fast RIB-boat.
  • The old wooden town of Porvoo is located a short drive from Helsinki. Porvoo’s characteristic buildings and cobblestone streets render this destination a particular charm.
  • Mustio, an old ironworks village in southwest Finland, can be featured on some excursions.
  • A day trip to the Arctic Circle can also be arranged by some cruise lines.

Getting Further

Across the Gulf of Finland, it’s 53 miles/85 kilometers to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Drive west from Helsinki, and you could end up in Turku after travelling some 105 miles/170 kilometers. Once the capital of Finland, Turku is nowadays the fifth largest city in the country.

HelsinkiFor Further Reading

Situated on the southern coast of Finland, Helsinki is a gate between East and West. Finland’s capital city embodies much of the Finnish spirit and its progressive hi-tech push but also is unlike any other Finnish city, due in part to the combination of Swedish and Russian influences (see Helsinki, Where East Meets West).

Avid Cruiser Posts, Photographs and Videos Featuring Helsinki.