Helsinki, Finland's capital, is one of Europe's most interesting and enjoyable cities. Many first-time visitors associate Finland with extreme cold, but the summers—especially in the south—can be magically warm and flooded with light. Even in the depths of winter, daylight is short but present. Although sometimes the skies may be overcast, there are clear, sunny days when the city is illuminated by the sparkle of snow and the dazzling, frozen Baltic Sea.
In recent decades, many inhabitants of Finland's rural regions have migrated to the Helsinki metropolitan area, which has been growing at an amazing rate since the mid-1990s. Helsinki's citizens may have close ties to their rural roots, but they also have fallen in step with the urban beat. Their sense of style, innovation and design is evident throughout the city.
Visitors can stroll through any local park or square and will probably stumble upon an impressive piece of contemporary sculpture. Helsinki's sparkling nightlife and lively cafe culture add much to its travel appeal. Its terrace cafes are often packed with Finns and visitors alike.
Although not generally a city that wears its history on its sleeve, Helsinki offers fine examples of neoclassical architecture in the historic center around Senate Square. Although the city was founded in the 16th century, most of its architecture dates from the 19th century or later. The Helsinki skyline is still evolving as striking buildings emerge downtown.
Helsinki's bold architecture mirrors a national willingness to adopt new technologies and innovations. The head office of Nokia, the mobile-communications giant, is housed in a gleaming glass palace in Espoo, just west of Helsinki. But Finland's traditional roots are never far away. Finns, including Helsinki residents, regard cell phones and other wireless-based technologies simply as what they are: tools.
For relaxation, Helsinki residents and visitors turn to cross-country skiing, ice fishing, sailing and relaxing in the sun by the lake. Finns love fresh air and, even in winter, can be found stepping briskly through Helsinki's parks, around the islands and across the frozen harbor and lakes.
And after a brisk walk, what could be better than a hot gloggi (spiced wine) in one of the city's many bars? (Some even provide blankets for customers who wish to sit outdoors, though it is more common to find propane heaters—especially as smoking is not allowed indoors.)
Visitors to Helsinki shouldn't miss out on the national pastime—a sauna. It is usually followed by a jump into a nearby (chilly) lake to help keep the blood flowing.
Helsinki is a good city for walking: Many of its sites are close together. The city is built on a peninsula, and its coastal promenades trace the shoreline. Forests that extend to Lapland in the north and Siberia in the east also reach close to the heart of the city.
Although Helsinki spreads east and west over several islands, the center of the city stretches north past the railroad station and south to the water, where several fingers of land jut out into the Gulf of Finland. There are a few attractions that will draw you farther north, but most places of interest lie in the city's center. The main north-south axis is Mannerheimintie on its west side, Hameentie on the eastern part of town. The east-west axes are the shopping streets of Bulevardi and the Esplanade. The intersection of these routes roughly marks the city center.
Even though the city has many prominent landmarks, such as the Olympic Tower and the Helsinki Cathedral, they are only sporadically visible, even though few city blocks extend higher than six or seven floors. Of infinite help are the street maps found at most major intersections. For a quick way to get your bearings, hop on a 2 Tram, which passes by most of the major landmarks.
Swedish King Gustaf Vasa founded Helsinki in 1550 as a commercial rival to Estonia's Tallinn. The idea was not an immediate success, and King Gustaf had to force people to migrate from the rest of the country—especially the west coast—to the new town, which was first located where the river Vantaa flows into the sea, several miles/kilometers to the north of the present center. The anniversary of this edict, 12 June, is now celebrated as Helsinki Day.
In 1748, fearing the growing power of Russia, Swedish authorities began to fortify Helsinki's offshore islands, creating the impressive fortress of Sveaborg (now Suomenlinna). Nevertheless, in 1809, Russia took over Finland, ousting the Swedish rulers. The Grand Duchy of Finland was created, and Helsinki was declared its capital in 1812. In keeping with the city's new status, its wooden buildings were gradually replaced with landmarks made of stone. Most of them are standing in downtown Helsinki to this day.
During the turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Finland declared independence from Russia, and the Sovereign Republic of Finland was created, with Helsinki as its capital. Unfortunately, this move precipitated a short but vicious civil war between those who wanted a Communist state and those who did not, but Helsinki escaped the conflict unscathed. Ever since, Finland celebrates its Independence Day on 6 December.
The city then grew rapidly, with lots of new construction, such as the Olympic Stadium, which was originally intended for the 1940 Olympic Games. However, World War II broke out—during which Russia attempted, but failed, to regain the country—and the stadium did not host the Olympics until 1952. Helsinki was badly bombed by the Russians during the war, but the damaged areas were quickly rebuilt.
Since the 1950s, Helsinki has grown rapidly and has hosted a number of important intergovernmental conferences, especially between the former Soviet Union and the West. Finland had extensive trading links with Russia and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, suffered an economic recession. It rapidly recovered, however, and in 1995 the country joined the European Union. Four years later, the country adopted the euro as its standard currency.
Unemployment, once a problem in Helsinki and other parts of the country, has fallen to European levels following Finland's integration with Western Europe. Culturally and socially, the city is as alive as it has ever been. In August 2005, it played host to the World Championship in Athletics, a major event that drew thousands of visiting athletes and spectators to the city. In May of 2007 it put on the Eurovision Song Contest, and in September 2009 it hosted the UEFA Women's Championship of Soccer. In 2012 it took on the role of World Design Capital. It continues to improve as one of world's best cities to live in.
Sightseeing in Helsinki is more pleasant when the sun is out, making summer the best time for tourists to visit, but Finnish buildings, including all museums, hotels and restaurants, always offer warm relief, no matter how cold it gets outside.
High points include some fine examples of 19th-century art and architecture, which reflect the Swedish, Russian and other international influences on Finnish culture—especially as seen in the government buildings and churches around Senate Square. A pleasant walking route starts there, passes the Torikorttelit historical center with the adjacent Kiseleff House and surrounding shopping area, and concludes at the Russian Orthodox cathedral.
The city also has more than 40 museums, from collections of sports memorabilia at the Sports Museum to the two main art museums, the Ateneum and Kiasma, whose exhibits span nearly three centuries of Finnish art. The ultramodern Kiasma—itself a stunning work of 20th-century architecture—often displays cutting-edge exhibitions, most of which draw inquisitive crowds. Both museums are also great places to have lunch. Their cafes have very good, reasonably priced food.
Beyond the museums, you will find an assortment of amusement parks, zoos, parks and memorials. No summer visitor should leave Helsinki without taking the ferry to the old fortress island of Suomenlinna. It offers several museums and galleries, as well as pleasant walking trails and a miniscule bathing beach.
We highly recommend purchasing a Helsinki Card, available at the city tourist office, most hotels and various shops, including the Stockmann and Sokos department stores and R-kioski. The card provides unlimited public transportation in the Helsinki area, free admittance to most museums, discounts on a variety of guided tours and a free gift. It costs 39 euros for an adult one-day card, 17 euros for a children's (ages 7-16) card. Two- and three-day versions are also available. Purchasing a card online can save you 3 euros. http://www.helsinkicard.com/buy-online.
Nightlife revolves around pubs and clubs, though a number of Euro-style lounges have opened in recent years. For a real glimpse into everyday Finnish life, pubs are the places to go. Helsinki hosts a large variety of clubs, most of which cater to the twentysomething crowd.
Because Helsinki is a very compact city, most of the nightlife is clustered around the railway station, the Kamppi area and the district of Punavuori. The Kallio neighborhood is also a popular area to go out, as it has the tendency to be less expensive than the rest of the city. Many of the hotels within a block or so of Mannerheimintie have a nightclub, though these tend to be more for the over-30 crowd.
Most clubs open when they feel like it, but all must close by 4 am. Many close by 2 am on weeknights. Note that nightclubs usually have a minimum age requirement of 24 (occasionally lower), and proof of age may be required. Many hip, younger people in Helsinki party on Wednesday, in addition to Friday, evenings.
Dancing is very popular in Finland, not only disco but humppa and tango, as well. Humppa can best be described as up-tempo ballroom dancing, and it's popular with all ages. It's a great way to socialize, but performance expectations are high—poor dancers who get in the way of the more experienced will get a few dirty looks. The same can be said for the extremely popular local tango, the city's adaptation of the South American version.
If nothing in town suits you, consider a ferry cruise. Most of the cruises to Tallinn, Estonia, and Stockholm, Sweden, are run more as clubbing, drinking and gambling trips than as a means of travel—they're very popular with younger people. A round-trip to Tallinn will last one night, whereas a similar trip to Stockholm is a two-night affair.
Helsinki has an ever-expanding variety of restaurants to suit most tastes, and many bars serve good food. Many, but not all, of the better restaurants are concentrated in the area south of the railway station. There's also a group of good restaurants, mostly specializing in Finnish cuisine, northwest of the railway station in the Toolo district. Another place to try is the boutique and gallery area south of Bulevardi.
If the restaurant scene has a weakness, it's the tendency of many places to close on Sunday—the perfect time to dine out in large parts of the world. But the number of eateries that do open on Sunday creeps up each year.
Watch for restaurants participating in the Helsinki Menu promotion, with representative set menus of their best Finnish fare.
In general, eating well in Helsinki means enjoying Finnish or Russian cuisine. Russian cuisine tends to be more gourmet, with an emphasis on meat and greater use of sauces. A really good borscht (beetroot and meat stew) is most welcome on foggy autumn nights.
It is a common misconception that eating Finnish food means eating only fish. Game birds, beef, lamb, reindeer, elk and even bear are all popular and readily available (though bear and some game birds are quite expensive).
Popular Finnish dishes include poro (reindeer), usually as a steak, but the traditional reindeer stew is worth trying. Typically served with a lingonberry sauce, smoked reindeer liver is a great delicacy and forms the basis for many starters and main courses. Kalakukko (fish pie that is more of a snack than a meal and not always found in restaurants) consists of layers of fish and pork encased in rye pastry. It's highly recommended but is found mainly in the Kuopio area farther north.
In Helsinki's excellent Russian restaurants, blini (pancakes), usually served as an appetizer with fish roe, sour cream and chopped onion, are delicious. Lohi (salmon) and siika (whitefish) are both of very high quality and are served in many different ways. Mushrooms of all varieties abound in Finland and are often used to form the basis of sauces for both meat and fish. Made (burbot) is an excellent fish that's not often served in other countries. Burbot-liver stew is a rare delicacy.
Crayfish are very popular when in season (typically late August). Be advised, however, of the Finnish custom: one glass of vodka, one crayfish; one glass of vodka, one crayfish; one glass of vodka, one crayfish, and so on. Hernekeitto (pea soup) is popular and tasty, prepared following a traditional Finnish (and nonvegetarian) recipe (although vegetarian versions do exist). It is traditionally served on Thursday and often followed with sweet pancakes.
The city also has a number of ethnic and international restaurants that are often a little more affordable than the Finnish places. Be aware that the food might not taste as you expect, as the ingredients used are not necessarily the same as those found in an original recipe. Burger and pizza restaurants are also extremely popular in malls and shopping areas, in Helsinki and across the whole country. These are good value for budget travelers, if not from a nutritional point of view.
People with food allergies will have little problem finding food in Finland. Most restaurants offer lactose-free and gluten-free versions of their dishes. If these are not specifically indicated on the menu, just ask. Nuts are not often used in Finnish cuisine, but they may be found in Asian meals.
In Finland, the government has a monopoly on selling alcohol, which affects retail as well as restaurant beverage prices. However, alcohol prices have fallen since Finland joined the EU; low- to medium-strength beer is sold freely now. Spirits and stronger alcoholic beverages can only be purchased through state-supervised Alko stores or in restaurants.
Breakfast is usually served 7-11 am and is almost universally included in hotel tariffs (in which case it is available earlier in the morning). Restaurants rarely open for lunch before 11 am—later on weekends—and lunch is generally served until 3 pm. Dinner is served 5-10 pm. Note that the majority of Finns dine early, so do not be surprised if you are invited to dine around 5 pm. If inviting someone to join you for dinner after 8 pm, do ask whether or not it is too late.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on dinner for one minus drinks, but including tax and a service charge (tipping is never necessary in Finnish restaurants): $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 20 euros-60 euros; $$$ = 61 euros-100 euros; $$$$ = more than 100 euros.
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