For those considering a short break and undecided as to where to go, Helsinki, only three hours from London by air, offers visitors an intriguing insight into Finnish history and culture.
For sea lovers, this charming city appears to be surrounded by water and Helsinki harbour is its heartbeat. Located on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, Helsinki, founded by Sweden’s King Gustav I in 1550, was a thriving hub for trade. Alas, in 1710 the land succumbed to the ravages of the plague and the majority of the population perished.
The Finns were confident that the city’s fortunes would change in 1748 when the fortress of Sveaborg, now known as Suomenlinna, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was constructed to resist Russia’s policy of expansionism. It was not to be, as in 1808, during the Finnish war and the siege of Sveborg, the fortress surrendered to Russian forces, which resulted in the occupation of Finland.
At the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, the Anglo-French fleet shelled the coastal towns and fortifications and the fortress was severely damaged. Restoration works were carried out after the war and later during WWI the fortress played a significant role in Emperor Peter the Great’s naval defences to protect Saint Petersburg. In 1917, after the Russian revolution, Finland gained independence.
Today, Helsinki is a modern cosmopolitan city with wide expanses of green spaces where locals and visitors gather, sitting with picnics in the Nordic sunshine. The most popular spot for al fresco dining is, of course, Suomenlinna. I boarded the ferry at Helsinki harbour; the sailing takes only fifteen minutes. This little piece of heaven is the perfect spot to sample the local cabbage rolls, salmon chowder and Baltic herring accompanied by a glass or two of Sahti; delicious traditional ale flavoured with juniper berries.
For a glimpse into Finland’s seafaring history, I visited the Maritime Museum of Finland. The main exhibition ‘North Star, Southern Cross’ presents a fascinating look into the development of navigational instruments and the hardship suffered by seafarers of the past. I also wandered around the ‘Fateful Svensksund’, an exhibition which presents the opportunity to explore details of the largest ever naval battle in the Baltic Sea. This exhibition also reveals the tale of the fortress city built following the conflict.
For another glimpse into the past, I made my way to the Seurasaari Open Air Museum, founded in 1909. Visitors are welcome to wander around 87 separate buildings and view examples of 18th and 19th century traditional Finnish houses and farmsteads. Local guides, wearing traditional garb, enthral the spectators with Finnish folk dancing and demonstrate the intricacies of local crafts such as spinning and fine embroidery.
Another popular site to visit is the Temppeliaukio Church, known as the Rock Church. Designed by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and completed in 1969, it was quarried out of bedrock and features natural stone walls and a stunning copper tread ceiling. It is, quite simply, magnificent.
For a spectacular arts extravaganza, make a note in your diary for next year’s Helsinki Festival, which ran, this year, from 12th August to 4th September. It is one of the city’s most popular events and features classical and world music, circus performers, dancing, theatre performances and a programme for children.
One of the highlights is the ‘Night of the Arts’ which this year was held on August 18 and the city transforms into a stage. Performers set up in unusual places and venues and throw open their doors to visitors late into the night.
Two other events that were held in Finland this year were the World Championship Mobile Phone Throwing and it is very tempting to join in, particularly if your phone rings at the time! Also, the hilarious World Championship Wife Carrying attracts the crowds. So, be sure to check and see if there are any festivals and events to be held during your stay.
Weary travellers seeking a little pampering should head for the Hotel Kämp, located on Pohjoisesplanadi, in the centre of the city. The property was built in 1887 and caused quite a furore as it was the first hotel to have an elevator. Some years later, and much to the disapproval of the locals, the building was transformed into offices, but in 1999 it was reinstated as a hotel.
Accommodations are sumptuously furnished, spacious and comfortable. I decided to splash out and opted for a Kämp suite with a separate living room and bedroom. The features reflect the hotel’s heritage and it is impressive. I took advantage of the private terrace in the evenings and sipped on a chilled glass of wine whilst admiring the view of the charming courtyard.
After a deep slumber, I made my way to the gym, which features the latest aerobic and muscle fitness equipment. After a strenuous workout, I headed for the spa and treated myself to a rejuvenating eucalyptus fragranced grotto steam sauna.
Having worked up an appetite, I didn’t need to venture far. The hotel’s Brasserie Kamp features its own bakery and when the aromas are wafting out of the ovens diners are instantly persuaded to sample the deliciously fresh cakes, pies and bread. In the summer months, the restaurant tables spill out along the esplanade and the tasty lunch menu offers some real treats such as the succulent half lobster gratinated with Manchego cheese and saffron and I confess that I succumbed to temptation and indulged in the dark chocolate mousse.
To work off those calories, I took a leisurely stroll around the central downtown area and paused awhile to admire the neoclassical style of the architecture around me. I visited Helsinki’s cathedral, which was completed in 1852 and features four small domes, which emphasise the connection to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, and the zinc statues of the twelve apostles at the corners and apexes of the roofline.
I wandered around the Design District, where jewellery makers, contemporary design shops, antique shops, fashion boutiques, art galleries and showrooms all demand attention and I was easily persuaded to part with more than a few Euros.
For those of us who love nature, a visit to Nuuksio National Park, only 30 minutes from Helsinki, is a must. Established in 1994, the park extends over an area of spectacular forests and tranquil lakes and you may just spot an otter or two.
Many endangered species including the Siberian flying squirrel, the European nightjar and the woodlark are known to reside in the park. Look out for Nordic moose and deer and for bird lovers, you may spot eagles, ospreys and owls. Visitors might even see tracks made by bears and wolves, known to prowl around the area.
Should you decide to visit Helsinki during December you will discover a wonderful array of Christmas celebrations. Be sure to wander around the St Thomas Christmas Market where the stalls are crammed with tasty Christmas treats, colourful festive handicrafts and an extensive selection of Finnish products. Watch the elves, horses and antique cars pass by in the Lucia Parade, which starts at Senate Square, and if you have been good you might even see Father Christmas!
Article Source: Luxury Lifestyle Magazine