Grace Duffy discovers a strange yet rewarding city undulating with history, airy streets, and beauteous menfolk
Quaint, charming, and filled with adorably accented folk and beautifully fresh air, Helsinki is a delightful city. Set on the Baltic seafront in the very south of Finland, the city is a difficult one to get to from our own shores, but more than worth the visit.
With historical roots stretching back to the mid-1500s, the city has survived numerous occupations and wars, having often acted as a battleground for frequent conflict between Russia and Sweden. This toil has left its mark on the city, which is for all intents and purposes somewhat plain in appearance: with predominantly grim buildings occupying the wide streets, the architecture is a melting pot of Soviet and Eastern European, reflecting the city’s expansive and diverse roots.
That said, the enigma of the city forms part of its main appeal. The centrepiece of Helsinki – or ‘Helsingfors’ in Swedish; the city is bilingual with a minority Swedish-speaking population – is its magnificent harbour, sprawling openly before the streets. Teeming with majestic ferries, it makes for an impressive visual to complement the bright waterfront buildings. The ferries depart daily for Stockholm, gracefully gliding out of the port amidst the many islands.
A harbour cruise is highly recommended – for an hour and a half and a relatively low price (in Scandinavian terms at least, roughly €20), one can study the many islands of the bay up close. UNESCO world heritage site Suomenlinna is particularly interesting; considered a fortress island, it, along with neighbouring Santahamina, was fortified with battle stations as a defence against invading forces.
The cruise also provides a fine view of the plusher neighbourhoods of Helsinki, which contrast elegantly with the plainer inner streets. Sailing boats and miniature docks are to be seen everywhere, as sailing is one of the Finns’ favourite pastimes.
Back on solid ground, the Orthodox Church which overlooks the harbour is also well worth a visit. Erected upon a steep hill, its maroon walls sternly overlook the port but provide a striking contrast in architecture to the main city. The Helsinki city museum is nearby, which provides a vivid insight into the tumultuous history of the region, through Russian and Swedish occupation and the two world wars. Also within walking distance is the splendid Helsinki Cathedral, a symbol of the city.
It pays to stay centrally, as all attractions in the centre are within easy walking or tram distance. One particularly quirky tram circles the city in a figure of eight, allowing the tourist to see practically everywhere within an hour. There are numerous clubs and bars, including the legendary Tavastia, which is a treat for rock fans, given Finland’s status as heavy metal bedrock.
The one drawback to this city is its expense – as with the rest of Scandinavia, your pocket will feel a pinch, especially if eating out. However, for the thrill and sense of adventure that comes with being in such a curious, sweeping place, you won’t come home disappointed.