Along with Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo, a trip to Helsinki is a true Scandinavian experience. It is especially known for its impressive architecture, as a design centre, and for its unique cuisine. You can add to this, a freshness provided by its proximity to the sea and the surrounding green forests. All this comes together to give the visitor a truly wonderful experience on Finland tours.
My initial introduction to Helsinki was with a visit to Market Square. As the name suggests, it contains a market, which is quite an outstanding one, located on the waterfront. It sells mainly fresh produce (vegetables, fruit, and seafood) and regional delicacies. It is also a meeting place for the locals. You can take it all in at one of the many cafes around the square. While sitting there, observe the Presidential Palace and the Helsinki City Hall. If you are in Helsinki in October, you can experience the annual Herring Market, when boats arrive, loaded with this fish, which is sold directly from the vessels. This has been going on for well over two centuries. Another spectacle is the long tradition of a display of old American cars on the first Friday of every month. Any car enthusiast with an interest in old American cars can partake in the display, while on Finland tours.
Senate Square is part of the oldest section of Helsinki and contains a number of important buildings. The Square and its immediate vicinity is the site of many of the city’s most important historical and cultural landmarks. Among the notable buildings around the Square are the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the University of Helsinki’s principal building, and the oldest building in this section of the city, Sederholm House, which dates back to 1757. Senate Square was designed during the time Helsinki was under the administration of the Russian government, and when you look at the architectural style of many of the buildings, you will be reminded of Moscow or St. Petersburg. Surrounding Senate Square are many shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Helsinki Cathedral is commonly referred to as the Lutheran Cathedral. It is designed in the neoclassical style and, when built in 1852, it was inspired by Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, giving it a Russian Orthodox atmosphere. To enter the church, you have to mount a steep set of steps where tourists like to sit and watch Helsinki go by. On the roof of this iconic cathedral are sculptures of the Twelve Apostles, and in the crypt is a collection of exhibits about the cathedral’s history.
While on the subject of church designs, this one couldn’t be more different and is a must-see on a trip to Finland. First of all, it is built right out of a rock wall and therefore, apart from the entrance, the church’s interior is located inside the rock itself, underground. Temppeliaukio is one of the most distinctive architectural structures in the country, completed in 1969. It has a magnificent copper-lined dome and the walls of the interior are made of rock and rubble. Natural light comes in through windows in the roof. There is a crevice which dates back to the Ice Age and which serves as the altarpiece of the church. Temppeliaukio is referred locally as the “Rock Church” or the “Church in the Rock.” The unique acoustics of the interior have also made the church a popular venue for classical music concerts. Although you can go inside the church (and you should), from outside, the solid copper balcony gives you an impressive view of the interior. With its outstanding combination of natural and man-made materials, the church is a truly unique example of Finnish architecture.
The Sibelius Monument
The Sibelius Monument is a structure that was named in honour of the great and revered Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It is situated in Sibelius Park which, unlike most parks in Europe which tend to be well-kept and manicured, has been left more or less in its natural state. This was done intentionally to more closely reflect the rugged natural beauty of the Finnish countryside. Built in 1967, the monument is a work of modern abstract art. It consists of more than 600 steel organ pipes arranged unevenly in clusters of varying heights. It is meant to represent a sound wave. The tallest of these pipes stands over 27 feet from the ground. There is also a bust of Sibelius which stands at the foot of the organ pipe structure. This was built partly because it was felt it should not be too abstract to pay homage to Sibelius. A smaller version of this monument is installed at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO.
Seurasaari is an open-air museum situated on an island located just a short distance away from the city centre. It is a collection of buildings, cottages, farms, and estates that were originally found in different provinces of Finland. It was opened as long ago as 1909, with structures reflecting four centuries of Finnish history. The museum is intended to convey a comprehensive overview of the country’s rich and colourful past. The collection of the museum is housed in 87 buildings spread out over the island. One of the most outstanding exhibits at Seurasaari is Antti, a reconstruction of a traditional Finnish-enclosed farmyard. Transported here from an island in the countryside, the farmyard has been in its present location since 1930. A visit here on Finland tours will be found to be very tranquil and peaceful.
Suomenlinna Island, which can be seen across from the harbour, is either reached by a ferry boat or on a conducted tour. Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built as a fortress in the middle of the 18th century. Car-free, it features cobblestone streets and is primarily only for pedestrians. Its main attraction is a fortress known as the Castle of Finland, which contains an interesting network of tunnels, some of which are open to the public. The island has several museums, including a “history of the islands” museum, a toy museum, a customs museum, and a museum devoted to the Vesikko, the only World War ll-era submarine remaining in Finland which was involved in action against the Russians. Suomenlinna is an island to spend time on while on a Finland vacation.
I mentioned that Helsinki is renowned as a centre for design. So, what would be more appropriate than to have a section of the city devoted to this subject. The Design District covers several neighbourhoods in the heart of the city. It consists of 25 streets with more than 200 boutique stores, designer workshops, showrooms, and galleries. One of Finland’s most famous design brands is Marimekko, the colourful and unique fashion house. You can spend time here and also relax at a restaurant or café, or even stay at one of the special hotels in the district. The Design Museum has a collection of more than 75,000 items on display plus 45,000 drawings and illustrations, plus over 125,000 photographs all dedicated to the subject of design. Finally, if fashion and design is your thing, you can sign up for a 2-hour Design Walking tour of Helsinki which starts from the museum and is a real insight into Helsinki’s legacy concerning design.
Finnish National Museum
Finnish National Museum is one of the most important museums you’ll visit on Finland tours. Its exhibits cover Finnish history from the Stone Age to present day. This includes collections of silver, jewellery, weapons, coins, and medals among other things. The prehistory of Finland is the largest permanent archaeological exhibition in Finland. Other exhibits are the development of Finnish society and culture from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century and the “Land and Its People,” which presents Finnish folk culture in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Ateneum is one of the best-known art galleries in Finland, with an exhibit of 20,000 images that capture the history of the people of the country. This is covered in paintings from the 19th century to today. The collections also include around 650 international works of art, of which one of them is Vincent van Gogh’s Street in Auvers-sur-Oise (1890). Other special features include Le Corbusier’s Two Women and Edvard Munch’s Bathing Men.
Have a Sauna in Helsinki
Finland invented the sauna, so it is not surprising that, in a country of around 5.5 million people, it is estimated that there are approximately 3.5 million saunas. So, if you are interested in having a sauna, which I did and enjoyed in Helsinki, go right ahead. It’s a great experience on a Finland vacation. The locals do it all the time. You can find smoke saunas, wood stove saunas, and electric saunas. Saunas can be taken at public venues, where you will join many Finns taking their ritual occurrence, or you can check out one in your hotel.
I often judge a city by its parks. Every major city in Europe seems to have an attractive public park and Helsinki is no exception. Kaivopuisto is centrally located on the waterfront and is a favourite place for locals to enjoy a picnic. This is quite an extensive park which ends below some cliffs from which you can have great views over the harbour and out to sea. At the highest point of the park is the Ursa Observatory. There are also several cafes and restaurants along the shoreline. If you happen to be in Helsinki on the 1st of May, this is a special day when everyone heads here to picnic and drink champagne with family and friends to celebrate the arrival of spring.
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