With a recent past in between Eastern and Western Europe, but always keeping its Nordic style, Helsinki has become a trendy destination that is growing in popularity among travellers.
Although Finland might be better known for its landscapes, lakes and charming cities located next to the Arctic Circle, the beautiful capital city is also well worth a visit.
Find out what this unknown and yet very surprising destination has to offer!
Founded 1550 with the name of Helsingfors when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden, Helsinki originated as a new trading port to compete with Tallinn in Estonia, located just across the Gulf of Finland.
After the Russian conquest of Finland in 1809, Helsinki became the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. It was during this period that the city was developed to mimic the imperial style of other Russian cities.
After the Finnish declaration of independence in 1917, Helsinki was fully established the capital of Finland and has been the main driving force of the country since then.
I had already visited other countries in the area, such as Sweden or Denmark, so I was expecting Helsinki to be similar enough to their capital cities. However, as soon as I started exploring Helsinki, I realised how evident the previous Russian influence was in comparison to other Nordic countries. From Russian-style buildings to statues of previous tzars, the Finnish capital definitely has a very unique character.
On my way to Old Helsinki, my first stop was the Central Station, one of the main hubs of the city. Built with Finnish granite, its characteristic facade has two towers with two pairs of statues each that hold a spherical lamp.
On the right-hand side of the Central Station is located the Railway Square, a charming square that serves as the main bus hub of the city.
It is surrounded by two of the most prominent buildings of the city: the Ateneum (a classical art museum) and the Finnish National Theatre.
I got to the square early in the morning, right during peak time with dozens of commuters rushing between the stations. The day started quite cloudy and grey, which gave me a first impression of Helsinki as being a rather dull place. Luckily, the sun started shining as soon as I left the square behind me and stayed like that for the most part of the day.
After walking west for only 10 minutes, I reached the undeniable symbol of the Finnish capital: Helsinki Cathedral. Completed in 1852 in a neoclassical style, this green-domed building is a distinctive landmark in Helsinki's skyline.
The cathedral was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel during Helsinki's Empire era, and it was originally built on the site of a smaller church dedicated to the Queen of Sweden. Previously known as St. Nicholas Church and Great Cathedral, the current building was modified after its construction using St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg as a model.
Compared to the beautiful and remarkable outside, I found the inside of the cathedral extremely disappointing. Without barely any decoration, the white interior does not live to the standards of the plain but beautifully designed facade and domes.
The cathedral is located on top of a flight of steps that give access to the Senate Square. Surrounded by the University and the Government Palace, it is one of the landmarks of the city.
In the middle of the square you can find one of the reminders of the Russian past of Finland: a statue of Emperor Alexander II. The statue was built after a series of reforms that increased Finland's autonomy from Russia in the 19th century.
When Finland obtained its independence from Russia in 1917, there were some demands to remove the statue from Senate Square. However, it was finally retained as a reminder of the influence that Russia had over Finland.
Senate Square was one of the liveliest areas of an otherwise very slow-paced city. Crowded with tourists, locals and street artists playing live music, it was by far one of my favourite spots in Helsinki. I just loved sitting down in the square watching the time pass by!
As the time for lunch was approaching, I headed towards the Market Square to try some local food.
Surrounded by the harbour, it is by far the best place in Helsinki to taste the freshly caught fish. You can also find fruits and vegetables, as well as stalls selling local crafts.
Although a very touristy attraction, prices are very reasonable and you can get a very good portion of fish for under 15 euros. It is possible to order a mixed dish, which is a fantastic option to try some different types of fish.
If you're planning to visit Suomenlinna, a sea fortress located on a group of islands just a few minutes away from Helsinki, you can get one of the frequent ferries that depart from the Market Square. I spent half a day exploring the islands and they definitely are a must-see attraction if you're visiting the Finnish capital.
On the top of a hill at the west end of Market Square is Uspenski Cathedral. Less well-known than the famous Helsinki Cathedral, this building with a rather boring exterior is actually one of the hidden gems of the city. It also offers very interesting panoramic views of Helsinki.
Finished in 1868, this Eastern Orthodox church is dedicated to the dormition of the Virgin Mary. The inside, filled with wonderful decorations, paintings and icons in a Russian Orthodox style, is a shocking contrast compared to the very simple interior of Helsinki Cathedral.
Heading back to the other end of Market Square starts the Esplanade Park. After the destruction of Helsinki by a fire in 1808, a promenade was built to separate the new constructions from the older houses made on wood.
The park was divided into three different sections and grew to its current size in the 1840s, becoming a popular place for the locals to take a stroll. Nowadays, it is still a very frequented place where families can enjoy live music, street art performances and food.
A very popular landmark in Helsinki is the Three Smiths Statue, a representation of three naked smiths hammering on an anvil. Located at the intersection of Aleksanterinkatu and Mannerheimintie, it is a common meeting point for the locals.
Unveiled in 1932, you can still see some of the marks caused by a bombing that took place in 1944 during the Continuation War.
If you keep walking north-west along Mannerheimintie St. for about 15 minutes, leaving the statue behind, you'll reach the Rock Church, known as Temppeliaukion in Finnish.
This very peculiar Lutheran church, built directly in the rock, was designed in the 1960s by two architect brothers. When you see the exterior, you could never imagine what awaits inside: all you can see is a round wall of rocks with a cupola on top.
However, on the inside you will find a very modern church where the natural light enters through the skylight that surrounds the dome, creating a fascinating effect of lights.
Unfortunately, my visit took place during a mass, so I wasn't able to fully explore the interior or take photographs, but I could still admire this very unique construction. It's definitely worth to include it in your visit.
In contrast to the historical architecture of Old Helsinki, on the north-west of the city and about 20 minutes from the Rock Church is the modern Sibelius Monument.
Built in honour of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, this abstract statue represents a soundwave built with over 600 organ pipes, reaching over 8 meters in height.
If you're coming from the city centre and don't want to walk the over 40 minutes that will take to reach the monument, a good option is catching the tram number 4.
It runs along Helsinki Cathedral and the Park Esplanade and continues all the way north, leaving both the Rock Church and Sibelius Monument on the left-hand side. You can get off at Kansallismuseo (to visit the Church) and then Töölön halli (for the Sibelius Monument), both reachable in less than five minutes walking from the tram stop.
Compared to other European capitals, Helsinki might lack in tourist attractions, nightlife or gastronomy options. However, the Finnish capital still is a fantastic choice for a relaxing getaway: the compact city centre is just perfect to explore a new city in a stress-free pace.
Helsinki is also a very good basecamp to explore the area: Finland is well known for its multiple lakes and breathtaking nature, as well as its small villages that can be easily reached from Helsinki. I particularly recommend doing a half-day visit to Poorvo, the oldest town in Finland.
A short 2 hours ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland will also bring you to one of the most impressive medieval cities: Tallinn in Estonia is another fantastic option for a day-trip from Helsinki. If something is certain is that you won't be missing things to do if you decide to visit Helsinki!
Where to sleep in Helsinki
For my stay in Helsinki I booked a private room in the Hostel Domus Academica. Located in Kamppi, a central neighbourhood around 20 minutes walking from most touristic spots. It offers over 300 rooms, all of them with private bathrooms and aa kitchenette. The hostel also has a morning sauna that can be used by all guests.
My double room was very spacious and offered everything I needed for my stay. The fact that it included a kitchen was extremely handy, especially in a rather expensive country such as Finland.
The booking included a buffet breakfast at Laulumiehet, a restaurant located on the ground floor of the hotel. Served in a buffet style, it offers a great selection of fruits, vegetables, breads, cheese and cold cuts, as well as organic products and gluten-free options.
I was looking for a comfortable room in a central location for a reasonable price, and that's exactly what I found!
All opinions are my own.
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