Helsinki, Spring 2023


Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, the latter reflecting how the Northern Crusades for Christianity in the late 12th and early 13th centuries led to Sweden colonising some Finnish coastal areas, before taking over the whole of Finland in the 13th century. In 1809, after the Finnish war between Sweden and Russia, Finland was given to Russia and became a semi-autonomous Grandd Duchy under its rule. In the 19th century, Finnish nationalism emerged through renewed interest in Finnish cultural traditions of folklore, music and mythology, including a Finnish creation myth, the Kalevala with its highly distinctive language and lyrics. 


In December 1917, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Finland declared independence but  then engaged in a Civil War {1918) between the pro-Bolshevik "Reds" and the "Whites“,  troops of the Finnish government which were supported by Germany. In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, the so-called Winter War. As a result, a distinguished former Finnish military leader, Mannerheim (see below), was made commander-in-chief of the Finnish Defence Forces and led the invasion of the USSR alongside Nazi Germany. In 1944, when Germany's defeat in World War II became likely, the Finnish Parliament appointed Mannerheim as President to negotiate peace with the Soviet Union and the UK. Since then Finland has been neutral but in 2023 joined NATO because of the increased threat from Russia.




Helsinki is a Waterfront city built round its deepwater port. Near to the harbour, stands the Finnish Naval Ministry alongside the Swedish embassy, a funfair and quays where ocean going ships can tie up. The port is busy all year round, 






On the quayside is a street market held round a memorial to a Russian Tsarina who visited in the 19th century, also an historic market building, as well as  an ornate red-brick Russian style Orthodox cathedral, the Uspenski Cathedral, now largely deserted, reflecting a bygone era.  In part of the harbour are moored the huge Finnish icebreakers that keep the harbour clear for cargo in winter.








Tours by boat round the harbour go out past the southern suburbs of the city [see below] which house many embassies.


The tours give an idea of some of the islands from smart buildings, now restaurants or boat clubs, on small islands, to developing modern medium rise dormitory suburbs [see further below].  

Harbour tours take you past the 18th-century sea fortress





Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Suomenlinna or Sveborg (in Swedish) is an inhabited sea fortress composed of eight islands, of which six have been fortified, about 4 km southeast of the city centre of Helsinki. It was renamed from Swedish to Suomenlinna (Finnish) (Castle of Finland) in 1918 for patriotic reasons. It was originally constructed by Sweden, the historic ruler of Finland, in 1748 as protection against Russian expansionism. However, during the Finnish War, Sweden surrendered the fortress to Russia in 1808.




Suomenlinna as tourist site now houses a boat museum  - see the submarine -, small dry docks for pleasure boats, as well as many buildings which used to house its garrison. Nowadays you can land from a ferry and walk around it. It is popular with tourists and locals as a picturesque picnic site. 




A very short tram ride, from the harbour lies Senate Square and the magnificent Helsinki Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral (built 1830-52) and some university buildings. To one side of the Cathedral stands the bell tower in classical style building [see below].  However, the inside is very austere, and the organ, unusually, is built on a curve.





Running away from the harbour is Helsinki’s central esplanade where people can stroll and sit. A short walk further through some of the main shopping streets brings you to City square outside the Central railway station. Here, you can find trams to take you anywhere in the city and its suburbs, and the Ateneum National Art Gallery which, in March 2023, housed an exhibition, using examples from Finnish art to show how art builds our sense of culture and community.





A short walk further beyond City square brings you to Kiasma  a contemporary art museum in a modernist building near to other similar buildings. 





Outside Kiasma is a statue [20] to  Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867-1951), Regent of Finland (1918–19), commander-in-chief of the Finnish Defence Force (1939–45), and sixth President of Finland (1944–46). Before Finnish independence in 1917, Mannerheim had had a distinguished career in the Imperial Russian Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant general.




Yet a further short walk, opposite another of Helsinki’s lovely parks lies the Parliament House [2 near a strange looking rock. These rocks turn up all over Helsinki and show the effect of glaciation on the city’s geology.   






A little further still lies the National Museum, tracing Finnish history from the Stone Age to the present. The picture below show traditional musical instruments, all mediaeval instruments used in Finland: L-R, national zither-like, bowed lute, horn, trumpet (long & thin), hurdy-gurdy, bag from some bagpipes, or rakkopilli which were played all over Southern Finland until the 18th century when they were replaced by the violin.  





In the suburbs, easily accessible by tram or bus if you don’t want to walk, lie many lakes, apparently used for skating in winter when they are frozen, a huge hospital and several parks near the lakes or sea. In one of these we found the monument to Sibelius 







This monument is enormous. Sibelius is a major Finnish composer who wrote a piece called the Kalevala after the Finnish national myth, the Finnish National Anthem, and several beautiful symphonies and other works. 






 In Sibelius park near the water’s edge stood a delightful café where we bought some pleasant refreshments and watched the geese and ducks play on the water.





One of the delights of travelling is tasting local foods. In Helsinki there are several restaurants offering food from Lapland, the northern most part of Finland. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to try reindeer meat and salmon soup, amongst many others, and local beer. 

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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Linda Ryczel (Sunday, 18 June 2023 02:08)

    Very informative Hugh. I will need to go back to Helsinki and have another look around. One day was not enough. I did visit Suomenlinna in 1984 though and it was beautiful and green, great place for a picnic. I look forward to seeing the rest your trip. Have you had time to start reading Raymond E Feist's Magician yet?