As European towns go, Helsinki is a youngster, having been founded on the shores of the Gulf of Finland in the mid-16th century. Today, Finland’s capital is a sleek, modern urban area of 1.4 million people. Since Finland was once a part of Russia, you’ll find Russian inspired architecture. You’ll also find innovative, cutting edge architecture. It’s an island city, covering 315 islands and a peninsula, so you’re in for some stunning scenery when you can tear yourself away from sampling Finnish foods, seeing museums, churches and other tourist cultural attractions in Helsinki.
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If you want to sample traditional Finnish food or buy local arts and crafts, Kauppatori is the place to do it. Helsinki’s most famous market is located on South Harbor at the entrance to Esplanadi Park. It’s a good place to buy reindeer skins and wood carvings, and munch on a lihapiirakka or Finnish meat pastie. The open air market provides scenic views of Helsinki harbor and the Baltic Sea, and makes a good stop for people taking the ferry to Suomenlinna. The market is geared for tourists so prices can be high; do some comparison shopping before you go.
The Kiasma Museum certainly lives up to its mission as a place to showcase the best Finnish contemporary art. This mission starts with the building itself, a controversial unusual shaped structure designed by an America whose vision beat out 515 competitors in 1993. The Kiasma Museum, located near Parliament in downtown Helsinki, is part of Finland’s National Gallery. Inside you’ll find works by more than 4,000 artists in rectangular rooms with a curved wall to promote silence for enhanced enjoyment of the art. Its changing exhibitions keep the visitors coming back.
When you’re tired of touring museums, let the child in you out to play at Linnanmaki Amusement Park. Linnanmaki offers 44 rides, some of which aren’t for the faint of heart, such as the freefall tower and several roller coasters, including a wooden one. Relax. There’s also a haunted house, a carousel and kiddie rides as well as 13 restaurants when you get the hungries. It is a park with a purpose. Not only does it entertain the young and the young at heart, profits are used for child welfare work in Finland.
Seurasaari Open-Air Museum offers an excellent way to learn about the way Finlanders lived in years gone by. Located on one of Helsinki’s islands, 87 buildings from throughout the country have been moved here. Some of the farms and manors are as much as four centuries old, though the majority date from the 18th to 20th centuries. The museum has been open since 1909, but closes during the winter months. Visitors recommend taking a picnic lunch to eat while you wander the grounds. It’s the largest outdoor museum in Finland, with guides dressed in costumes demonstrating activities of daily life.
Silence, please. When you’re seeking a moment of solitude in busy Helsinki, you’ll find it at the Kamppi Chapel, also known as the Chapel of Silence. It’s an ecumenical chapel sponsored by Helsinki parishes and the city’s Social Service Department as a place to calm yourself down when life gets too hectic. It’s located on Narinkkatori square, in an innovatively designed wooden building that looks more like a tall oval serving dish than a chapel. Since it’s near several shopping centers, it might be just what you need after shopping till you drop.
Esplanadi Park has been a good place to relax and unwind from busy Helsinki since 1812. It’s a great place to see and be seen, to meet friends for a picnic or attend fashion shows and jazz concerts. For these and other reasons, the park, located in the heart of Helsinki between two busy streets, is very popular with locals. It’s a place where locals and visitors can enjoy the extensive green space, relax at an old café, or be entertained by everyone from street performers to chamber orchestras. It is Helsinki’s best known park.
Uspenski Cathedral, which honors the death of the Virgin Mary, is an imposing building on Katajanokka peninsula where it overlooks Helsinki. This Eastern Orthodox cathedral made of red bricks with gold cupolas and 13 green onion domes, which represent Christ and the 12 Apostles. It is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe. Built in the 1860s, it is modeled after a 16th century church near Moscow. The church is filled with icons and gorgeous chandeliers, one of which is said to work miracles. It is a good representation of the Russian influence on Finland, once a part of Russia.
The white Helsinki Cathedral is an impressive site when the sky is blue. The church was designed by the same architect who designed Senate Square. It was originally called St. Nicholas Church after the Russian tsar, but the name was changed when Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917, This neoclassical Lutheran church, reminiscent of ancient Greek buildings, is located on Senate Square. Built in 1830, the church features white columns and zinc statues of the 12 Apostles on the roof. If snacking in unusual places appeals to you, the café used to be a crypt.
Suomenlinna may be in Finland, but the old sea fortress was built by the Swedes in the mid-18th century as protection from Russian invaders. It was not very successful at this, since the Russians conquered Viapori, as it’s known in Finnish, in 1808. At one time Suomenlinna served as a naval base and war ships were made here. Located on six rocky islands off Helsinki, Suomenlinna, known as the Castle of Finland, is reachable by ferry from Helsinki. It’s one the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki and a great place to picnic in the summer, though it is open all year.
If you like to visit unique churches, head to Temppeliaukio Kirkko or Church of the Rock. It’s a stunning Lutheran church that was built into solid rock in the 20th century. Construction first started in the 1930s, then stopped during World War II. It began again in 1968 after a second design competition. The result is an interior built from solid rock, with sunlight streaming down through a copper dome; morning is a good time to visit as sunlight lights up the interior. The altar is an ice-age crevice. The church has excellent acoustics and is frequently used as a concert venue.