Dynamic, stylish and cosmpolitan, with impressive architecture and a charming harbour, the Finnish capital is an absolute delight and one of the highlights of a Baltic cruise.
Originally founded when Finland was under the rule of Sweden in the 16th century, Helsinki did not begin to flourish until the 19th century under Russian rule, after it became the capital of the then autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812; it did not truly emerge as an independent republic until 1917.
Despite nominally being an ally of Nazi Germany until 1945, Finland was not occupied by the Soviet Union after the war and consequently avoided the fate of a Communist dictatorship. It rapidly industrialised during the 1950s and developed into a social democracy in much the same manner as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. In 2011, Helsinki was named the best city to live in in the world by Monocle magazine – and in 2015, the Economist Intelligence Unit placed it in the top 10 most liveable cities.
Helsinki is home to a number of excellent museums – art museums, the natural history museum, and the Finnish Museum of Natural History which presents the history of Finland from the Stone Age to the present day.
The majority of Finland is Lutheran, but one of Helsinki’s most notable cathedrals is the Uspenski, a Russian Orthodox cathedral and the largest Orthodox church in western Europe. It is open and free to visit except on Mondays.
The Helsinki Cathedral has five beautiful domes in the neoclassical style. The most unique church however is Temppeliaukio, a Lutheran church built in the 1960s and is built directly into solid rock. It’s also worth simply walking around and enjoying the breathtaking Art Nouveau architecture, and the neoclassical buildings .
Check out the Design District for innovative Finnish design, and the high end shops along the Esplanadi (which is also home to a lovely park, ideal for relaxing in summer, when it can get extremely hot, and listening to the live music played on the bandstand).
Helsinki’s best shopping is to be found in its markets – the Old Market Hall has stalls for just about everything, while the Hakaniemi Market offers a huge selection of food, including seafood, as well as souvenirs.
Kauppatori is a fresh food market with fishermen selling their catches straight off their boats – quite the unique experience, and yes, you can try to haggle. And a visit to renowned fabric shop Marimekko is a must.
No visit to Helsinki would be complete without trying some freshly-baked korvapuusti (cinnamon rolls).
The Finns have a strong pub culture – relaxed food and drink with the family being preferred over haute cuisine. For an authentic Finnish pub experience, try Cella on Fleminggaten or Savel on Hameentie. Ragu and Passio are probably considered the best fine dining restaurants in Helsinki, but for proper Finnish food (a lot of fish) try Juuri, which has a reputation for its creativity and uniqueness, or Ravintola Kuu.
Finns love sparkling wines and vodka, but they are also fond of sima, essentially mead, though the recipe nowadays substitutes honey with fruit sugars (producing different flavours) and the alcohol percentage is very low.