Fin­nish cap­i­tal boasts great ar­chi­tec­ture, cre­ativ­ity and a pas­sion for saunas

Calgary Herald - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES Rick Steves (rick­steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected]­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

HELSINKI As the con­ti­nent’s youngest and north­ern­most cap­i­tal city, it feels like an out­post of Eu­rope.

While it lacks the cutesy cob­bles of Copen­hagen, the aris­to­cratic set­ting of Stock­holm, or the fu­tur­is­tic vibe of Oslo, Helsinki holds its own among Nordic cap­i­tals with its creative spirit, zest for ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign, and a steamy love of saunas.

Per­haps the best way to un­der­stand Helsinki’s ori­gins is to take the short ferry ride across the har­bour to the is­land fortress of Suomen­linna (now a pop­u­lar park). Lit­tle Fin­land was long caught up in the su­per­power chess moves of its big neigh­bours, Swe­den and Rus­sia. The Swedes dom­i­nated the coun­try from me­dieval times un­til 1809, when they lost it to the Rus­sians, who held it un­til 1917.

The Swedes built Suomen­linna in the mid-1700s to counter Rus­sia’s ris­ing power. Peter the Great had just cre­ated his new cap­i­tal nearby, at St. Peters­burg, and he was eye­ing the West. With eight kilo­me­tres of walls and hun­dreds of can­nons guard­ing the har­bour, Suomen­linna squelched the Rus­sian threat (at least for the time be­ing). With all that ac­tiv­ity, small-time Helsinki took off, be­com­ing a boom town in sup­port of the grand strate­gic fort.

Helsinki is buffered by more than 300 is­lands, and its har­bour is al­ways busy. Fre­quent pas­sen­ger fer­ries cross the Baltic Sea from Stock­holm, Tallinn, and even St. Peters­burg. The ar­rival of cruise ships — slid­ing through tight pas­sages be­tween the sur­round­ing is­lands — en­er­gizes the city each day. Mighty ice­break­ers moored in their sum­mer slum­ber are the only re­minder of the bit­ter Baltic win­ters.

Al­most ev­ery­thing worth see­ing is walk­a­ble from the har­bour. Most vis­i­tors head di­rectly to Helsinki’s fun har­bour square, called Kaup­pa­tori. This colour­ful out­door food bazaar is the place in town for a ca­sual, quick-and-cheap lunch (moose meat­balls are a favourite). Ev­ery­one from the Fin­nish pres­i­dent to vis­it­ing tourists stops by for a dash of lo­cal flavour.

Daily bus tours run from the docks for a rapid-fire over­view of Fin­nish his­tory and a quick look at the top mon­u­ments and churches. Or you can stretch your legs along Helsinki’s grand boule­vard, the Es­planade, lead­ing from the wa­ter into town. With wide side­walks and a friendly park sand­wiched in the mid­dle, this is the city’s best stroll for win­dow shop­ping, peo­ple watch­ing, and sun wor­ship­ping.

Then delve into the bou­tiques of the De­sign Dis­trict for some of Eu­rope’s most eye-pleas­ing fash­ion and home decor. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of global trends — from Marimekko’s pat­terned fab­rics to Nokia’s pi­o­neer­ing mo­bile phones to the An­gry Birds gam­ing empire — have been born in de­sign-con­scious Helsinki. (The lo­cal De­sign Mu­seum dis­plays th­ese in­no­va­tions and more.)

Helsinki is fa­mous for its 20th-cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture, from its cen­tral train sta­tion, an art nou­veau mas­ter­piece by Eliel Saari­nen, to the modernist sim­plic­ity of the Fin­lan­dia con­cert hall by Al­var Aalto. The city also boasts beau­ti­ful and di­verse churches: the gleam­ing white Lutheran Cathe­dral, a Neo­clas­si­cal gem; the red-brick Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Cathe­dral, a re­minder of Rus­sia’s long dom­i­nance here; and the un­der­ground Temp­peli­aukio Church, blasted out of solid gran­ite and capped by a cop­per and glass dome.

There’s also the lit­tle Kamppi Chapel. Sit­ting unas­sum­ingly on a city plaza, the spruce struc­ture en­closes a win­dow­less cylin­der of si­lence. In­side, in­di­rect light bathes the alder-wood pan­elling in warmth and tran­quil­lity. Does it re­sem­ble Noah’s Ark? The in­side of an egg? Al­though it’s a church, there are no ser­vices; it’s open to any­one need­ing a re­flec­tive pause.

Over­all, I find Finns to be pretty quiet and con­tem­pla­tive. I once wan­dered into a flea mar­ket in Helsinki, closed my eyes, and lis­tened to the sound­track of 300 Finns. It was al­most silent; I could have been in a moun­tain meadow. So I was sur­prised to dis­cover the Fin­nish love af­fair with lot­ter­ies and gam­bling. Slot ma­chines and games of chance are ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing restau­rants and super­mar­kets, manned by Finns ea­gerly stuff­ing in coins. There’s even a roulette lounge at the Helsinki Air­port.

A more tra­di­tional touch­stone of Fin­nish cul­ture is the sauna. Th­ese days, with so many Finns af­flu­ent enough to have saunas in their homes (5.4 mil­lion Finns have 3.3 mil­lion saunas), some of the work­ing-class spots I’ve long en­joyed have gone up­scale. The chic Loyly com­plex is typ­i­cal of the new trend, with its saunas finely crafted from warm woods, a restau­rant serv­ing fash­ion­able Nordic cui­sine, and a sea­side ter­race for loung­ing.

Helsinki seems de­signed to pro­mote a sense of com­mu­nity, and when the weather warms, ev­ery­one takes full ad­van­tage. The city blooms with bik­ers, pic­nick­ers, run­ners, and walk­ers, and cafes push their ta­bles out to the side­walk. Cafe Kap­peli, an Old World oa­sis of pas­try and re­lax­ation, sits proudly at the har­bour’s edge. It’s the per­fect spot to sip a cof­fee while wait­ing for your ship, al­ready savour­ing your Helsinki mem­o­ries.


Helsinki has grown up around its busy har­bour, filled with fer­ries and cruise ships, over­looked by the gleam­ing white Lutheran Cathe­dral, one of many beau­ti­ful and di­verse churches in the Fin­nish cap­i­tal.

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