Helsinki, or in Swedish, Helsingfors, was originally established by the King of Sweden as a small fishing port, when Finland was a Swedish territory. Several wars between Sweden and Russia eventually resulted in the incorporation of Finland as an autonomous Russian territory in 1809. The Czar wished to move the capital of the Finnish territory (originally Turku) to be closer to Russia, and hence Helsinki was chosen to become the new capital of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, with a considerable expansion and building program. In 1917, when Finland declared its independence from Russia, Helsinki remained as the capital city as it is now.
It is now a thoroughly modern city, with a population of over half a million in the urban and 1.3 million in Greater Helsinki including suburban towns, or around one quarter of all Finland’s inhabitants live in this region. Helsinki regularly achieves high rankings in various indices of quality of life for cities. It has excellent modern infrastructure such as public transport.
There are many ways of getting to Helsinki, but the main international airport Helsinki-Vantaa is probably the easiest for long distance travellers, and can be reached by budget airlines such as Easyjet. As an alternative, Finnair is rapidly becoming a cost effective airline taking passengers to many destinations in Scandinavia and worldwide. Once at the airport there is a very regular bus service to the railway station.
Railway Station Square
The focal point for accommodation and transport in Helsinki is the railway station built in the early part of the twentieth century, and the surrounding square. Remember that the weather can be quite cold in the winter, with snow on the ground for several months, so bring warm clothes and shoes to grip the snow.
The railway station square is close to several hotels, and for convenience it is good advice to find accommodation around this central point if your visit is short. All hotels in Finland have saunas, which are very widespread in Finland. There is a casino and the Finnish National Theater on the square.
Stockmann and Itäkeskus Shopping
The station square is only a few minutes walk for some of the most elite shops in Northern Europe. If the weather is bad there are underground passageways that include several shops and places to eat, which can be used to cross roads. Stockmann’s is a major department store, rather like Macy’s in New York, that has a very good collection of souvenirs. If you want to visit a larger shopping centre and have the time, Itäkeskus is the largest mall in Scandinavia and can be reached directly by metro from the central station.
Lutheran Cathedral, Senate Square and Market Square
There are many monuments, churches, and museums which are best seen on a walking tour of the centre. The white Lutheran Cathedral was built in the mid nineteenth century and well worth a visit, especially you can get good views of the city from there. Senate Square is nearby having been constructed when Helsinki became Finland’s capital. There is a monument to Czar Alexander II, the Liberator who granted Finland a significant amount of autonomy in second half of the nineteenth century. Market Square is another focal point, with the Presidential Palace and Town Hall. The Finnish Orthodox Church, Uspenski Cathedral, is also worth visiting. Whereas the majority of Finns are Lutherans, there is a small residual Orthodox community, based on historic precedent.
In the winter you can walk over frozen lakes. These are usually quite safe but it is advisable to follow pathways that others have already trodden, if you see these pathways you know you will be alright, however keep small children firmly with you in case they wander into uncertain territory. For the more experienced snow walker it is possible to hire spiked sticks to assist your movement in the heavy snow.
There are a number of museums and art galleries in Helsinki. Remember that in addition to the historical aspects of such a Northern Capital, Finns are champions of design and so some buildings are very contemporary and are built with a high standard of modern architecture.