Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is the epitome of the country’s outward projection as a modern, cosmopolitan destination while simultaneously full of rural beauty. Being Finland’s most well known and largest city, Helsinki wears this mantle well.
Come back often to check on the status of the Helsinki Mini Guide. Topics and content are currently being worked on and I hope to get them out as soon as possible for your trip research. My objective is to provide useful information to either supplement or that you won’t find in Rick Steves guidebooks, like the Northern European Cruise Ports or the Scandinavia books. As great as those 2 books are (you should check them out!), there are still some things that this Mini Guide can deliver on.
The following topics will be covered:
- Visiting Helsinki? Here’s 12 Free Things To Do, See and Use
- The Temppeliaukio Church – Helsinki’s Must See Attraction
- Helsinki Musuems – Free Fridays
- To Guide, To Answer, To Help – The Helsinki Helpers Are There For You!
- Helsinki Service Map – So Dang Useful!
- How To Find Free WiFi in Helsinki
Leading the way, as a capital of any country should, it has been awarded the World Design Capital in 2012 for its creative and innovative urban development initiatives. With this award, Helsinki has put Finland in the same breath as her Scandanavian neighbours whenever the topic of “design” is brought up. The city is also hi-tech hub as it deftly navigates the global “technology first” phenomenon – think Nokia, Supercell, Rovio and a host of new startups on the horizon.
However, don’t expect Helsinki to be just an urban jungle of roads and buildings. Part of it’s charm is the multitude of small towns and small islands that contribute to the cityscape. Helsinki is surrounded not only by the raw beauty of the waters of the lakes and sea, but also the trees and forests of the countryside.
Let’s see how this dualism influences the Finnish people, and on the other hand, is embraced by them, by learning about the makeup of Helsinki through it’s geography, history, and economy.
Geography of Helsinki
Geographically, Finland is sandwiched between it’s neighbours, Sweden to the west and Russia to the east. Interestingly enough, Helsinki is pretty much equidistant from Stockholm (400 km) and St. Petersburgh (388 km). To it’s south, 80km across the Gulf of Finland is Tallin, a former mercantile power.
The city of Helsinki is comprised of several municipalities and together, they are situated on a peninsula on Finland’s southern tip. On the southern end of this peninsula is the city center itself, with harbours having direct access to the Gulf of Finland. Suitably, Helsinki’s nickname is “Daughter of the Baltic”
This peninsula is porous as more than half the city is covered with water – with an archipelago of around 330 islands and a shoreline consisting of around 100km of coast. Another third of the city is covered with green spaces. With such everyday proximity to nature, the Finnish people have an innate respect for, and first hand comfort with, the natural environment.
History of Helsinki
With Tallin and the Hanseatic League dominating the Baltic Sea trade, the Swedish King, Gustavus Vasa, was looking to do something about it by providing direct competition. What better way than to open a new port town on the northern shores of a gulf directly opposite to Tallin on the southern shore. This new town is founded in 1550 and is named Helsingfors, which we now know as Helsinki.
The city grows slowly at first, until the Sveaborg (nowadays Suomenlinna) Maritime Fortress starts being built to protect against Russia’s desire to expand. Fearful of recent Russian moves such as creating a new capital city named St. Petersburg, right next to Finland’s border, construction starts in 1748. Like all large construction projects, this is a positive factor in the fortunes of the town. Eventually, Russia easily takes Helsinki in 1808 following a negotiated ceasefire.
Firmly within the Russian Empire, Finland becomes an autonomous state, The Grand Duchy of Finland. The Czar of Russia at the time, Alexander I, moved the capital to Helsinki and it was rebuilt to be more spectacular, to resemeble St. Petersburg. Under Russian rule, the city grew rapidly and developed into a major city. When Finland became independent in 1917, Helsinki was set on another trajectory of development and growth in it’s new role as the capital of Finland. With the urbanization projects of the 1970s, the population tripled and ultimately grows into the young (relatively speaking) but sophisticated city that we know today.
Economy of Helsinki
The economy of Helsinki has grown steadily as it has transitioned from a heavy industries economy to becoming a higher margin, services-related economy. With strong services-related sectors leading the way, Helsinki generates approximately one third of Finland’s GDP. Being the largest city in the country with a great geographical location, most companies have their headquarters setup in Helsinki. With the population having a high standard of education, there is an enviable pool of skilled workers available.
With a healthy GDP per capita that is 1.5 times the national average, it is one of the richest capitals in Europe. Recently, however, Finland’s economy (and in turn Helsinki) has been lagging the Eurozone and growth has been hard to come by. Unemployment has hit 10% and it recently lost it’s triple-A rating credit rating. Having been mired in a recession for four years and with the current global economic headwinds, this is expected to continue though the Bank of Finland is forecasting a slow recovery in 2016.
Helsinki is an international metropolis that is friendly, efficient, and, after having won the title of the most liveable city in the world in 2011, livable. Small town traits for a large town, wouldn’t you say?
Visitors often find they are at a lost at what to do and see in Helsinki and I hope to remedy that situation. For tourists, Central Helsinki is rather compact and can be explored on foot by energetic visitors. You will find that She is technologically advanced but smartly designed, cosmopolitan yet rural, welcoming and charming.