This cosmopolitan city has grown from small fishing village to one of the most eclectic and modern of 21st-century cities. Independent only since 1917, it has emerged from more than 600 years of foreign domination (Sweden and Russia) to forge its own very unique identity.
While it is amazing that a country that has been independent for less than a century could craft such a unique identity, the Fins contend that the country actually began to form its independent 200 years ago. While the country was little more than a vassal under Sweden, Russia provided it with great autonomy (as an Autonomous Grand Duchy), which generally allowed it to develop its own identity and governance over a period that is almost as long as in America or democratic France.
Whatever the reason and the timeframe, the country certainly has crafted its own identity. True, it shares its Scandinavian neighbor’s commitment to a social, if not truly socialist form of democratic capitalism and an openness to new ideas, wherever these ideas may arise. But it has its own architectural style, a unique heritage in and perspective around design, its own culinary culture, and a foreign policy that has allowed it to straddle and maintain neutrality between the West and the sometimes militaristic giant on its eastern border who has previously demonstrated an objective of gaining greater control over Finland.
But before getting into these issues, here’s an overview of the city and its primary sights.
The Essential Helsinki
As we do in many other cities, we began exploring Helsinki with a walking tour. The Free Helsinki Walking Tour we took, provided a good overview of the city and helped highlight areas to which we returned to explore on our own:
Among the city’s primary central destinations are:
Central Market and City Hall
Located just north of the harbor from which ferries to neighboring islands berth, here you can buy fresh or cured fish directly off some of the harbor-side fishing boats. Plus you can buy pretty much anything else in the huge market that adjoins the harbor. Huge selections of all types of fresh produce, with particularly large and very, very attractive selections of fresh berries and the amazingly, golden chanterelles! The outside market, which is topped by a huge net to ward off marauding seagulls, has many tents selling locally-produced crafts, clothes and foods. It also has a large number of local, tented, fast-food restaurants where you can buy and eat wide selections of prepared fish, potatoes, vendace (small herring fry that are lightly fried and eaten whole), paella and other dishes.
City Hall, meanwhile, hosts art exhibits. We saw was a doozy exhibit—a long, involved fictional story by Barry Bonk (probably a fictional name) about fermented anchovies that can be converted into an addictive hallucinogenic. He wove a detailed story into a 150 year timeline that explained how Finland developed the drug and built an entire industry around it, including full-sized models of a range of machines that were invented over the years to automate every stage of the process. This amazing journey totally took us in—up to the point that explained Lenin’s addiction to the drug and how he died from an overdose with his last words being an homage to the lowly anchovy.
Then we saw a structure by Alvar Aalto, one of the pioneers of the Finnish Functional Romanticist architectural movement, the so-called Sugar Cube building. Meanwhile, the 130-foot FinnAir SkyWheel is also located near the Central Market. At first sight, this may look like any of the growing number of giant Ferris Wheels that are popping up in cities to provide birds-eye views of the surrounding. This wheel, however, has two special compartments. First, since this wheel is sponsored by an airline, it has a Business Class car, which charges a premium for a private ride, and champagne. And to make this wheel is uniquely Finnish, it has just introduced a new Sauna Car!
The city’s religious diversity is also represented in this area especially with the 1868 Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral in the Katajanokka neighborhood; an area that attracted many Russians through the 19th century and was even home to barracks for Russian troops. These barracks that have since been repurposed into restaurants and commercial spaces on the ground floor and fashionable residences above. The cathedral, meanwhile, is the largest in of its kind in Western Europe.
And to emphasize the centrality of the square to the city’s life, it is also home to the city’s symbol, a fountain adorned by a statue of a nude woman. A statue that, initially criticized as risqué, was rapidly embraced when the artist said it was a mermaid emerging from the sea—an homage to the city.
Senate Square and the Helsinki Cathedral
Located in the center of the city, these house the secular government (in the form of the Senate Building and Prime Minister’s office on one side), the clerical (i.e., the cathedral) on a second side, and the educational (university) on a third side The fourth side, from the hill on which the cathedral is located, is an open square that takes you to the Alesksanterinkatu shopping street, which can be seen as representing the commercial center of the city. And just off the square, the neo-classical Old Parliament Building, with its carved and painted pediment and across the street, a sculpture that still bears the pocks from the shells of its WWII conflicts with Russia.
Central Railway Station and the Cultural District
The area just north of the central governance, religious, educational and commercial district is anchored by the train station. This national icon, designed by pioneering Finnish Functional Romanticist architect Eliel Saarinen (who also designed the even more iconic central terminal for New York’s Kennedy International Airport (then Idlewild Airport!) exemplifies the Finnish Romantic Nationalist style with its solid, box-like interior, open central areas, landscape mural, its clocktower (another city symbol) and the light-bearing giants that guard the entry.
This area is also home to many of the city’s largest and most important museums, theaters and performance centers. Among the many such cultural centers are the neo-classical Ateneum (traditional styles), the modernistic, curved Kiasma (modern art), Finnish National Theater, the massive marble Finlandia Hall (designed by Alvar Aalto, the other major Finnish Romantic Nationalist architect) and the modernist Helsinki Music Center.
This square is a large, open plaza with a large, modern urban shopping mall, the city bus station, and, tucked away in a corner of the large busy square, the serenity of the small, elegant Kamppi Chapel, also called the Chapel of Silence. This small, oblong, windowless structure is covered with curved spruce paneling. Inside the sanctuary, a mesmerizing space, where pale wood-paneled walls and pews are bathed in natural light streaming down from an aperture in the ceiling.
Not far from the chapel is a very different place of worship—the aptly named “Rock Church”, which is carved into granite and topped with a copper dome. Although we were able to see the outside of the church, the day we were there, it was booked for back-to-back weddings. No invite; no entry.
So that’s a summary of the main spots to visits. In the next blog, we’ll talk about the architecture.