One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother, who was born in a small trading town in the north of Finland, telling me in her lilting Scandinavian accent how, as a young woman working in Helsinki, she used to walk to work across the frozen sea to her job on one of the hundreds of islands that make up the archipelago surrounding the Finnish capital.
The story made a deep impression on me, of hardy Scandinavians beating the odds to make a life for themselves on the doorstep of the Arctic Circle, battling the elements for something as simple as a walk to work.
I got to see those islands for myself not long ago, although the famous fleet of sturdy ice-breakers were safely tethered to their summer moorings, and instead of ice and snow the clear Finnish air was filled with the soft evening light of the long summer days.
On these delightful evenings Helsinki comes alive with Finns enjoying the outdoors, the pavement cafes are packed with stylish office workers and the waters off the harbour-front teem with sailing boats and canoes as the capital comes out to play.
With 750 000 boats and 314 000 kilometres of coastline (by comparison, South Africa has less than 3000kms) to enjoy them in, the Finns love being on the water and a boat trip around the islands is a great way to get a feel for the city, offering fantastic views of the Helsinki skyline.
Leaving from the small harbour at the bottom of Esplanade Park, sightseeing trips take anywhere from a few hours to a whole day as they meander through the maze of islands where wealthy Finns own holiday cottages, each with a sauna on the jetty and steps down to the Baltic for a bracing dip.
The ‘Fortress of Finland’
The island fortress of Suomenlinna (literally, the ‘Fortress of Finland’) is one of Helsinki’s main attractions and is easy to access on one of the commuter ferries that leave every half hour or so from the market square. This UNESCO World Heritage Site stretches across six small islands and, due to its strategic location in the Gulf of Finland, has seen fierce battles throughout its 250-year history.
Although cannons still guard the fortified ramparts and a few naval areas are off-limits to tourists, the fortress was opened up to the public in the mid-70s and has since become a popular destination for Finns and tourists to walk, picnic and admire the great views of the city across the water.
Dating back to 1748, when Finland was ruled by Sweden, Suomenlinna is just one reminder that for centuries Finland was a political football tossed back and forth between Russia and Sweden. While the Swedes made their mark with a sea fortress, the Russian legacy in the city is the magnificent Uspenski Cathedral, the main Russian Orthodox church in Finland and the largest in Western Europe.
A taste of the north
Perched on a hill overlooking the harbour, with its green and gold domes glinting in the sun (at 10pm of course), it’s a magnificent reminder of the might that Mother Russia once exerted over the Finns.
A stone’s throw away, the grand Senate Square’s most striking attraction is the enormous Lutheran Church. Compared to the extravagance of the Uspenski, the stark white interior of the church is striking in its simplicity, and seems to be almost a statement of ultimate piety. The Senate Square is also where locals come to see the New Year in, while the top of the Senate steps offer great views of the city all year round.
With its stately squares and stylish mansion blocks, Helsinki doesn’t offer much of a feel for what the rest of the country – mostly covered by forest and 187 000 lakes – is like, but if you don’t have time to explore north of Helsinki the open-air museum of Seurasaari should be just enough to whet your appetite.
Situated an easy 20-minute bus ride from the city centre, the island is home to a number of historic wooden houses dismantled from villages across Finland and reconstructed here as a living museum. With paths meandering through the forest, red squirrels ambushing you for nuts and swans swimming languidly in the small coves, it’s a great place to escape the city for half a day.
Page 2: Sibelius Park and beyond