HELSINKI, FINLAND September 20, 2014 — Finland’s capital, Helsinki, is called “The Daughter of the Baltic.” She is a city of the sea.
If it is true that water enhances a city, then Helsinki is a peninsula of perfection dotted with islands that float just out of reach of her meandering shoreline. Helsinki emerges from the forests of Finland to face her archipelago and the ever-present sea.
Situated at the extreme southern tip of the country, Helsinki seeps to her harbors on the Bay of Finland whose waters comprise nearly half of the city.
She is equidistant from Stockholm, Sweden and St. Petersburg, Russia, a fact that has played a significant role in her history, as it will in her future, as a crossroads between east and west.
Helsinki has the virtue of compactness; a large city, yet not a metropolis. The greater metropolitan area has a population of about 1.1 million people, yet Helsinki retains a small-town identity all its own that is built from a deep sense of pride and individualism.
At first, Helsinki is an enigma; difficult to comprehend. It is a quiet city; a living metaphor for the inner strength that typifies the Finnish people. Don’t be misled by that reserve however, for hidden beneath the surface lies a loyalty, dependability and creativity like few other places on earth.
That creativity is reflected in its architecture and design. Helsinki thrives as a modern, high-tech destination with an eye toward the future. Buildings are spacious and open, from the magnificent train station to numerous museums and theaters to Finlandia Hall, the congress center which hosts international meetings and conventions throughout the year.
Yet, the same mind that designed Finlandia Hall, also created one of the most popular glass items in the country known as the Aalto vase. Alvar Aalto lays claim to them both, which is typical of Finnish architecture and design.
For all of its contemporary personality, there is a traditional side to Helsinki as well. Overlooking Senate Square, the majestic cathedral dominates the skyline, especially from the sea where it seems to beckon you to draw closer and explore. Its size and prominence are symbolic of the fact that the country is 90% Lutheran.
A few blocks away, on a hillside on the Katajanokka peninsula, rise the onion domes of Uspenski Cathedral, the most important orthodox cathedral in the country. The cathedral is a reminder that Finland was a self-governing Russian grand duchy before independence was gained in 1917.
To walk a city is to understand; to absorb it; to discover its charms and interact with its people. Because of its size, Helsinki is ideal for such exploration.
Begin at Market Square which faces the South Harbor. More than just a market, this is the unofficial gathering spot in Helsinki. It is a place for socializing that flourishes daily with vendors selling their wares. Everything from flowers, to vegetables and fruits and, of course, every variety of fish.
On the corner, the beloved nude statue of Havis Amanda that watches over the market and the harbor. The sculpture was created in Paris to symbolize the rebirth of Helsinki
Just beyond, across the street, is the Esplanade. Though not the geographical center of the city, the Esplanade is a focal point. The beautiful tree-lined promenade is alive with activity, especially in summer when Helsinki is blessed with 20-hours of daylight.
Despite Helsinki’s cosmopolitan charm and high standard of living, Finns basically remain a rural society. Their devotion to nature and the environment is immediately obvious. The Finnish character is closely related to a reverence for their woodlands, lakes and, especially, the sea.
Lovers of porcelain, fashion and crafts will find excellent shopping at the Esplanade showrooms of Arabia, Alexsandra and Aarikka. Shoppers will also discover a treasure chest of merchandise at Stockmann. Established in 1862, Stockmann is one of the largest department stores in Scandinavia.
Believe it or not, Helsinki has a wide array of beaches. Kayaking in the archipelago is also a popular pastime. For golfers, in summer it is possible to play 18-holes after dinner.
Regardless of one’s interests however, a visit to Helsinki eventually leads to the water. The city’s islands are diverse and unique. The zoo, for example, sits on an island, but it gives a sense of being in the heart of the city and far out in the country at the same time.
The fortress island of Suomenlinna is easily reached by a short ferry ride. “The Gibralter of the North” is the first attraction you see when you sail into the city. Today, it is a vast park and museum rather than a fortification.
Another island, Seurasaari, is linked to the mainland by a lovely bridge. This open-air museum features houses transported from all over to Finland, and when the Helsinki summer makes that long days journey into night, this is the place to idle away the cares of the world.
Helsinki lies at the tip of one of the fingers of Scandinavia; fingers that extend, as Finnish writer Paavo Haavikko so aptly expresses, “like and open hand.” An open hand that points toward the future and to the eternal embrace of the sea.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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