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For a long time, Helsinki played second fiddle to the former Finnish capital Turku. This changed when the Russians annexed Finland in 1809 and made Helsinki the capital three years later. Before that time, Finland was part of the Swedish Empire. Both the Swedish and the Russian influence can still be found in Helsinki.
In 1808 a large part of Helsinki was destroyed by fire. The wooden buildings that remained were lost and a large reconstruction took place. The city was rebuilt in a spacious neoclassical style and therefore resembles the Russian Saint Petersburg, 300 kilometers east of Helsinki. The German architect Carl Ludwig Engel in particular left his mark on the city. He designed the Kauppatori (Market Square), which is situated directly on the water, with the stately Senaatinori (Senate Square) behind it.
On the Senate Square you'll find the city's main symbol: Tumiokirkko, the Helsinki Cathedral, literally the highlight of Engel's design. A turret with a green dome, surrounded by four smaller domes, tops off this white church in the shape of a Greek cross. You can reach the cathedral by climbing steep stairs that are populated by students on beautiful days.
Helsinki's other famous church is the Uspenski Cathedral, a clear example of a Russian Orthodox Church with onion-shaped domes. Inside you can see a beautiful iconostasis, a wall entirely comprised of icons.
The modern Temppeliaukio Church is also a tourist attraction. At the end of the 1960s, a rock face was blown up in the Etu-Töölo neighborhood (west of the center), which was later covered by a glass dome. The result is a really special space with crude rock walls. Those walls turned out to have excellent acoustic properties. This is why not only church services, but also concerts are held here.
Each business day, a market is held on the Kauppatori; during the summer all day long, but the rest of the year only in the mornings. Here you can buy literally anything. Obviously fresh vegetables and fruit, and near the waterfront fresh fish. But also leather goods, Sami shoes, reindeer hides, fur coats and caps, and so-called puukkos: knifes in leather scabbards with a beautifully decorated wooden or bone handle. West of the Market Square you'll find luxurious shopping streets, including for example the huge department store Stockmann.
Finland is known for its design. In 2012 Helsinki was the World Design Capital. The city has a true Design District. Along the Esplanade – the heart of the district – you'll find stores of renowned brands like iittala (glass and kitchen equipment), Marimekko (fashion), Artek (furniture by Alvar Aalto) and IVANAhelsinki (fashion). Obviously there are also trendy cafés and restaurants, and there is a museum for applied art, the Designmuseo.
If you are interested in architecture you definitely have to walk around some of the neighborhoods around the center. Like the eastern neighborhoods of Kruununhaka and Katajanokka with many Jugendstil buildings, and the southern villa district of Eira. Do put on sturdy walking shoes, because these neighborhoods have steep alleyways.
Helsinki has interesting museums. In the National Museum you can learn everything about Finnish history. The interactive set-up also makes it fun for children. The Kiasma not only exhibits modern art; there are also drama and musical performances and changing multimedia presentations. You can see older art at the Ateneumin taidemuseo, which not only exhibits work by Finnish artists, but also by foreigners, including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch and Rodin.
Like in many other cities, Helsinki also transformed an, until recently, impoverished neighborhood into a pleasant entertainment area. In the Kallio district you'll find nice bars, restaurants and nightclubs. There are also many places of entertainment around the center, some with a special theme like the Arctic Icebar and the Sauna Bar.
Finland is the country of lakes and this typical Finnish landscape already starts just outside Helsinki: Hundreds of lakes and islands, and vast forests. From the port of Helsinki, ferries leave for the islands in the archipelago. Some islands have been taken over by exclusive restaurants, but others are used by the Finns for relaxation and they go here for sunbathing, swimming and having a picnic.
One of the islands houses the Suomenlinna Fortress, one of the world's largest sea fortresses and a World Heritage Site. Old Finnish buildings have been grouped in the Open-Air Museum on the island of Seurasaari. Saunas are everywhere in Finland, but some of the most beautiful ones can be found on the island of Vasikkasaari, which can be reached in fifteen minutes by ferry from Helsinki. Your sauna experience will be complete if you end the day with a Finnish dinner, prepared over a wood fire.
The historic city of Porvoo is located fifty kilometers northeast of Helsinki. Although no wooden houses remain in Helsinki, there are plenty of them in Porvoo. The medieval center with ocher and red painted houses has been preserved in excellent condition. The old wooden warehouses on the waterfront now house stores, galleries, cafés and restaurants.
Closer to Helsinki, just north of the station, lies the Töölönlahti>/em> recreational area. Here you can for example rent boats and pedal boats and during winter cross-country skis and snowshoes.
You can also make a boat trip from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia's capital. Last-minute tickets for the night ferry to Tallinn are inexpensive and at the same time you save a night's stay in a hotel! In general, accommodation in Helsinki is relatively expensive. There are, however, options for budget travelers, especially during summer months when student houses are turned into youth hostels. If you plan on visiting Helsinki during the summer, we recommend booking your accommodation in advance.
The center of Helsinki is a car-free zone. In addition, many streets are one-way streets. This may complicate finding your bearings. Other than that, driving around in the Finnish capital with its wide roads is easy. Finding a parking space, however, can be difficult. The city center is divided into three parking zones. In all zones you have to pay for street parking from Monday through Friday; in zone 1 (the shopping area) also on Saturdays. We recommend parking your rental car in one of the nine parking garages in the city center (there is for example a large parking garage underneath the Stockmann department store). An electronic system indicates which garages have availability.
The airport is located eighteen kilometers north of the Finnish capital. You can easily reach Helsinki Airport by rental car from Beltway III (Kehä III). The airport can also be reached from road 45 to/from Tuusula.