Helsinki is a relatively modern city, having been recast as Finland’s capital after acquisition by the Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1812.
The Tsar was clearly nervous about Finland’s existing capital on the west coast, Turku, being too close to its ancient ally of Sweden. Turku was apparently gracious about being demeaned to become ‘second city’, and Helsinki’s star rose rapidly as economy and culture alike boomed.
Modelled on the then Saint Petersburg, the city was rebuilt in grid-form and boasts Neoclassical as well as Empire-style brick buildings.
Arriving at the super-sleek port all shining in steel, chrome and glass, it is evident that Helsinki continues to forge ahead with modernity. Unfortunately, our initial wonder quickly became frustration as the whole of the centre is being dug up.
Streets, junctions, roundabouts and bridges are all disrupted, and trenches are lined with boards for traffic to drive across.
Sewer, gas and electricity maintenance together with new tram lines is an admirable attempt at ‘digging once’ but wreaking havoc for drivers and pedestrians alike. Bertha bounced and juddered her way around the long diversionary route.
Helsinki is built across a network of islands and we stayed on one, for free, parked close to the city Zoo.
Cycling the three miles across the waters into the centre meant facing off against aggressive locals, seemingly hell bent on pedalling us off the cycle track.
It was a taste of everyday life in a bustling metropolis where we felt that as individual visitors we were an inconvenience. Getting around proved a surprising challenge.
Consumerism is a key to the city’s commerce and this quickly makes it feel more Western. The long and busy shopping avenues are home to gigantic department stores, Stockmanns and the Forum being the largest, and the price tags are eye-watering.
Even humble M&S London was selling off its highly recognisable summer collection of cropped jeans for a knocked down price of 60 euros a pair (£15 at home, full price).
Expensive eateries dripping with chandeliers jostle against American fast food chains at key locations. Global brands have staked out their ground alongside popular, but to us unknown, Finnish ones.
Promenading along the pavements was a mix of well-dressed and wealthy shoppers, suited professionals, studiously styled fashionistas, unkempt-looking students and amid them, the ragged and likely homeless people. We commented on the largely white faces, many of which were sporting piercings and tattoos and often bizarre facial hair.
The enormous Lutheran Cathedral casts an impressive sight above the administrative centre of Senate Square. It was designed by the architect Carl Engel who was commissioned by the Tsar to make Helsinki a suitably capital city.
The cathedral is a landmark from the sea and we watched the light play upon it from across the waters at the island of Suommenlinna, an indomitable fortress and the reason why Helsinki was chosen to be elevated to the country’s capital.
We escaped the bustle on the packed pavements by taking a boat ride through the archipelago, musing at the solitary life chosen by island dwellers. Conversely, those rocky outcrops of two or three houses must be very cosy communities.
Suomelinna, the former Swedish sea fortress is a community itself of 800 inhabitants. An historical military base, it originally repelled the Russians before becoming the Tsar’s naval base in the 1800s.
We enjoyed walking across the connected islands spotting cannons, birdwatchers and a Finnish rock band having moody photo shoot.
Back on firm ground, we rode a couple of trams as a cheap sight-seeing option. Navigating our route was challenging due to a lack of even basic travel information on board, or at stops.
It was only on our second day that we acquired a photocopied and unreadable tiny transport map from a tourist information guide.
A tram took us to one of the many parks, to see a famous monument to Sibelius.
The 24 tons of steel tubes floating in the air as a giant organ was peculiar, and next to it the dismembered head of the composer sculptured in silver was ghastly. Confused groups of Asian tourists drifted around it. We joined them later in the city’s Rock Church.
Not a temple to the angry-sounding heavy metal music that many Finns worship, but an interesting modern circular church built into solid stone.
It has an enormous 24-meter diameter roof covered in copper (and an enormous entry fee, but as members of an American cruise ship group we were welcomed inside with our new friends, “Say isn’t this great…..what is it?”).
Modernity in early 20th century Europe meant late Art Nouveau. We explored the few remaining streets of Huvilakatu Street.
The five storey apartment blocks are fully intact and boast original decorative mouldings around wooden framed windows and doors.
I peeked inside an entrance hall and saw the brass reception plate with push bells for each apartment, a wide and curving central staircase with a bevelled wooden handrail and a gleaming chrome lift inside an ornate metal worked cage.
The style wasn’t just reserved for private buildings, the public could enjoy it too.
The best example is Helsinki’s Central train station, a fabulous creation in green concrete that boasts four muscular figures on its façade, each holding a spherical glass lamp above the heads of the pushing crowds of commuters.
Equally impressive, in a different way, are the four Finnish icebreakers moored in the city’s harbour.
These powerful boats keep trade moving in the Baltic Sea when it freezes every year in winter. The bow of each icebreaker rises over the ice and crushes it underneath it. Between them, the four ships carve passages to the ports of the north Baltic Sea.
They each have a crew of 20 who work shifts of 20 days on and 10 days off, allowing for the ships to be re-stocked and re-fuelled.
The icebreakers are a national icon, and we spotted their image on cushions, textiles, clothing and artwork, outnumbering the Moomins it seemed!