If you’re thinking of booking a Baltics cruise, then you’ve probably been looking at some of the different voyages on offer, many of which will call at Finland’s capital, Helsinki. No doubt you’ll hear it described as one of the Baltics’ most cosmopolitan cities and this is certainly true, but there’s plenty of history to unearth as you explore its fascinating streets, too.
Though it enjoys a reputation as a modern, forward-thinking city, Helsinki’s origins were much more humble and it remained a small trading town until the 18th century, when the building of a naval fortress improved its standing. Its development as a city only began as result of it becoming autonomous after Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War and after Tsar Alexander I made it the Finnish capital to bring the capital closer to St Petersburg. The establishment of what was at the time the country’s only university in the city boosted Helsinki’s development further and throughout the last half of the 20th century, it continued to develop into the contemporary metropolis we know today, earning it the status of World Design Capital for 2012.
One must-see cultural attraction in Helsinki is the Fortress of Suomenlinna. The aforementioned fortification is one of the main reasons why Helsinki is the place it is today, so it’s only fitting that you should pay it a visit. The name actually refers to a group of islands which defend the entrance to Helsinki Harbour and for strategic reasons, the fortress was built there. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rather than one building, you’ll explore a series of walls, ramparts and coastal fortifications. The fort featured a network of tunnels connecting different parts of it and many of them are open to the public, so you can have fun exploring them. The Rock Church is another popular stone-based attraction though not nearly as old. This modern place of worship is equal parts a fascinating piece of art and is carved from the rock itself and features an eye-catching copper dome. As you’ve just read, Russia had a strong influence on Helsinki and there’s no place which displays this more stunningly than Uspenski Cathedral, a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church which is small but beautiful. If a museum visit is a staple of your cruise excursions meanwhile, then don’t miss Mannerheim Museum. It’s a great and informative experience, where a knowledgeable guide will walk you through the exhibits. You’ll leave armed with a good understanding of Finnish history and it doesn’t take too long getting round, either.
There are plenty of places in which to get back to nature in and around Helsinki, but Esplanade is probably the most popular. ‘Esplanade’ actually refers to an area of markets, shops and streets which is a great place to explore but there’s also a park there too, which is a great place within the city to get away from the crowds. You may not immediately associate Helsinki with beaches but in truth, Hietaranta Beach is a perfect and popular place to catch some rays and if you’re there during the summer months it can be very pleasant and the water’s always calm. Seurasaari Island is another popular outdoors spot, which as well as being a tranquil escape is a fascinating journey back in time to the Helsinki of the 1600s, with period houses and church, it’s an intriguing outdoor museum and a great way to combine history with nature during your stay.
Helsinki’s well-known for its markets, so if you get the chance, make sure you pay a visit. In Hakaniemi Market Square, you’ll be able to find all manner of tasty traditional Finnish treats and souvenirs, while Kauppatori is one of the city’s oldest market squares and if you’re on your way to or from one the ferry terminals, you’ll pass it. It’s also a great place to grab an authentic bite to eat, too. If you’re serious about your shopping and keen to avoid the more touristy markets, then be sure to call at the Old Market Hall. There’s a huge choice of competitively priced food and also a good choice of local-made jewellery, too. If kicking back on sea days in the cruise ship library floats your boat, then Helsinki offers the perfect place to pick up some fresh reading matter in the form of the Academic Bookstore, where there’s a huge choice of English language books available. It really has to be seen to be believed.
By Simon Brotherton