From Stockholm to Helsinki, an elegant little city on a peninsula surrounded by small islets. The capital of Finland is the northern most metropolis in the world, and the northern most capital in the European Union. Helsinki was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550, as the town of Helsingfors. It was intended to rival the Hanseatic city of Reval (today known as Tallinn in Estonia). Helsinki was slightly relocated over the years, but remained fairly insignificant until the 18th century, when it formed a close knit triangle with Tallinn (50 miles to the south), Stockholm in Sweden (250 miles west) and Saint Petersburg in Russia (190 miles to the east).
The Seaside Hotel
My hotel is on a harbour inlet, optimistically called the Seaside Hotel. Well technically that's true. Beyond is the Gulf of Finland, a finger of the Baltic Sea. Hence Helsinki’s nickname, the Daughter of the Baltic. There are cruise liners parked on the opposite terminal, gigantic even from here.
No wonder Finland is home to Santa Claus. It’s still Christmas in March. Gorgeous thick snow everywhere. And it’s slippery, where it’s thawed and refrozen. The interesting part of Helsinki is very small – all roads seem to lead to the central north-south boulevard, Mannerheimintie. It's flanked by institutions and lined with monuments, including the National Museum, tracing Finnish history from the Stone Age to the present, the imposing Parliament House, the Stockmann Department Store, The Finlandia Hall and Kiasma, a contemporary art museum. It also bypasses a very grand railway station.
To the north end the Helsinki Olympic Stadium – the city hosted the games in 1952. Here, to the west, a church hewn out of rock, in 1969, the Temppeliaukio. It doesn't look very exciting from the outside and you have to pay to go in. On the west coast of the peninsula, parks and the Sibelius Monument. This consists of over 600 steel pipes (up to 9 metres long) unevenly grouped together at various heights, with the highest pipe reaching over 27 feet in the air. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted mixed reviews from critics who are unsure how it is supposed to evoke Sibelius. But it’s pretty, in the snow. There’s also a minute, very picturesque red roofed café with a welcome fire pit, alongside the frozen river. The Cafe Regatta boasts that it’s the Café of a 1000 Tales.
Helsinki Old Town
In the other direction, around the harbour, the 'Old Town', a series of baroque government and university buildings clustered around the Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square. It was built as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I. Just to the south of this is the harbour and the ferry to the Suomenlinna Islands. It’s all presided over by another cathedral, the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe, the Uspenski .
To the southwest of the harbour, the Market Square, containing the Tsarina's Obelisk and a market building or food hall - a relaxing place with some international foods on offer. (There's a smaller version near my hotel.) Then the edgier Design District, arranged around the Design Museum. As one would expect, it's crammed with designer shops and a lot of coloured glass. Contemporary is the term I think. Helsinki has one of the highest urban standards of living in the world.
The five Suomenlinna Islands are reached by ferry and a lot of fuss over tickets. Which cost me 13 euros in all instead of 5, as no one knows how the payment system works. There's no link between the turnstile opening and the use of my credit card. A fact I discover much too late.
The boat crunches through the hexagons of ice bobbing like a giant cocktail maker and panicking all the seabirds out for an afternoon stroll on the water. Suomenlinna (The Castle of Finland) is now a UNESCO heritage site and the main tourist excursion from Helsinki . You can see the forts (built by the Swedes), visit the cafes and museums and have a picnic.
Porvoo, the second oldest town in Finland, is an hour’s bus journey east of Helsinki. The road heads onwards to the Russian border and St Petersburg. This definitely is the land of the silver birch and Russian architecture.
The main attraction here is the Old Town, centred on the medieval, stone and brick Porvoo Cathedral. The cathedral has burned down five times (the last fire was in 2006), but the interior is said to be original. It's surrounded by narrow, steep streets and predominantly wooden houses from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are plenty of variety of restaurants, coffeehouses, bijou shops and liquorice stores.
Down by the riverside, the picturesque, red-coloured wooden storage buildings are a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s also an old railway station, with tourist trains in Summer. There’s no need to use the bridges to cross the river for the view. The water is frozen solid.. Nearly all the boats have been removed from the harbour, leaving scarlet buoys queued up and lonely.
The newer part of town near the bus station has a pretty park with a statue of Johan Runeberg, Finland’s national poet. One of his poems was set to music and became Finland's national anthem. A block or so further on is Runeberg’s, former home. A yellow ochre wooden building built in the 1800's, it’s now a museum with the rooms set up to depict life in Runeberg’s time.
Read more about Finland here.