Situated on an archipelago, Helsinki, capital of ‘Land of Lakes’ Finland, offers a thousand and one quiet attractions of the North.
Finland covers the whole of the broad peninsula that lies between Russia and Sweden. And Helsinki, with its temperate climate and population of close to six hundred thousand, lies at the ‘foot’ of the land mass whose shape the Finns liken to a girl wearing a dress. You can see most of the sights in this city, whose highest building is not more than twelve storeys, on foot. But if you’re not up to it, don’t worry. You can also get to anywhere you want to go very easily on the second best mass transport system in Europe.
A city that is ‘a little Swedish, a little Russian, but Finnish through and through’, Helsinki is chock full of history. On the one hand, Senate Square, which provided the ‘Russian’ set for American Cold War films like ‘Gorky Park’ and ‘White Nights’; on the other, Scandinavia’s Tuomiokirkko (or Helsinki) Cathedral with its modest and simple yet vibrant architecture. Perhaps the city’s most photographed building, the cathedral was built between 1830 and 1852 to a design by Carl Engel and has formed a key part of the Helsinki silhouette ever since.
MEETING POINT OF CULTURES
“There’s only one season in Finland, and it’s winter”, I overhear the tourist next to me say, even as he is stretching out on the grass to sunbathe. The spot where he lies is the roof of the Temppeliaukio Church, 100 meters from the National Museum, Helsinki’s most distinguished. This church ‘built in the rock’ is actually one of Helsinki’s fine examples of modern architecture. Designed in 1969 by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, it is carved out of a single slab of rock.
Art and culture are important in Helsini. With its theaters, museums, art galleries and culture centers, the city undergoes a veritable invasion of tourists in the summer especially. If you plan your tour to include the following sights, you can see the entire city. Kiasma Modern Art Museum is a must-see for its exhibitions as well as its architecture. Kaapelitehdas meanwhile is the hub of Helsinki’s bohemian culture. And in the extensive collection of the National Museum you can not only survey Finnish art from the mid-1700s to the 1960s but also view works by Western artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne.
‘MAID OF THE BALTIC’
The first stop on my city tour is the ‘Finlandia’ Concert Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto, Scandinavia’s ‘father of modernism’, and home to the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, in which the country’s best musicians have played since its inception in 1882.
The building itself is named for the famous symphonic poem, ‘Finlandia’, by Jean Sibelius, the most prominent musician Finland has ever produced. Completed by the composer in 1899, this orchestral piece immediately came to symbolize the country’s struggle for freedom in that period. And the park and monument built in the composer’s name are some of the sights of which Finns are most proud today. Founded on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Helsinki boasts a coastline several kilometers long. Indeed, the city has been dubbed ‘Maid of the Baltic’, and some of the principal places to be seen are either on or connected with the sea. One of these is Suomenlinna Castle, erected in the 18th century to defend the city against an attack by sea. Built on six islands as one of the largest such fortresses in the world, Suomenlinna was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in 1991. In summer you can also picnic to your heart’s content on these islands, whose museums, walking trails and cafes with spectacular views appeal to people of any age.
SPORT AS A WAY OF LIFE
If sport is among your interests, then you will find countless opportunities in Helsinki both summer and winter—ice hockey, track and field, and cross-country skiing being just a few. Helsinki, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1952, enjoys the distinction of being the smallest city in which the Olympics have ever been held. Last summer all eyes were on the city again for the World Track Championship. Last but not least, Finland’s world champion drivers,—Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikonen, Tommi Makinen, Marcus Grönholm and Juha Kankunen—should not be forgotten. These legendary Formula 1 and rally drivers are a source of pride for the Finnish people.
SAUNA PLEASURE ON THE LAKESHORE
Unable to take another minute of the 90 degree heat, I throw myself in the lake, no longer amazed at how readily people plunge into the cold water: it’s a simple reflex in the end... But for this a sauna is required. The Finns are justly proud of their saunas, which are an indispensable aspect of life in a country of five million people with thousands of lakes large and small, where saunas number about 1.5 million! Saunas are found in tiny cubicles on the shores of almost every lake. If you ask the Finns, they will tell you that children are virtually born in the sauna and learn to bathe in one even before they learn to talk. Those who don’t give the sauna a try are not regarded as having been to Finland. I ‘warmly’ recommend that you avail yourself of this pleasure on one of the lakes just outside Helsinki.
Even the long days of summer will not suffice for you to take in the whole city with its wealth of art and festivals. Europe’s most technologically advanced and artistically productive and creative city, Helsinki demands that you see Alvar Aalto and listen to Sibelius on these festive days of spring before burrowing ‘underground’ again for the long winter season.