I found myself saying more than once in Helsinki … I could live here.
By Sharon Kurtz
Senior Travel Writer
Helsinki is that perfect combination of urban and outdoors, lively yet laid-back. There is no other Capital region in the world with so much surrounding green space.
In Helsinki, you are never more than a 10-minute walk to nature. The metropolitan area has its own archipelago of around 330 islands, providing a gateway to lush green forests, sandy beaches, and coastal wilderness. Surrounded by the countryside and the stunning beauty of the sea, its residents are nature addicts.
Here’s some of what I learned and experienced in Helsinki, the fascinating picturesque capital city steeped in Finnish history.
History of Helsinki.
This picturesque city located on the south coast of Finland is often called the “Daughter of the Baltic”- mainly because of its strategic location.
Helsinki was established as a trading town in the Middle Ages to be a Swedish rival to other ports on the Gulf of Finland. It remained a small fishing village for over two centuries.
The Suomenlinna Sea Fortress was constructed on the islands at the entrance to the harbor, intending to protect Helsinki from attack in the mid-18th century, when it was still a part of Sweden.
Following the Russian victory in the war, Finland became Russia’s grand duchy until it obtained its independence in 1918. It is unique because it has served to defend three realms: Sweden, Russia, and Finland.
It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. It continues to be a living and inhabited district of Helsinki with 900 full-time residents and a delightful place to wander and enjoy a picnic in warmer weather.
Just a short ferry hop away, it’s a favorite for its scenic walkways, cafes, and restaurants.
Happiest Country in the World
According to the World Happiness Report, Finland has been ranked as the happiest country in the world – 5 years running! Finland scores very well in social support, high social trust, and healthy lifestyle opportunities close to nature. It ranks as one of the top education systems worldwide.
Does this mean that Finns go around smiling at strangers on the street? Many Finns describe themselves as taciturn and prone to melancholy and admit to eyeing public displays of joyfulness with suspicion. Unless you know Finns personally, they can come across to be somewhat distant, quiet, and reserved.
Helsinki: The World Design Capital
Helsinki is a world-renowned destination for design lovers looking for functional and minimalistic Nordic architecture – both old and new. Design is embedded in everyday life in Helsinki.
The city has plenty of architectural sights for spotting. Many of the most iconic buildings are located next to each other, making it easy to explore the capital on foot. The Töölönlahti area has one of Helsinki’s largest selections of exemplary building design.
In 2022 Helsinki celebrates its 10th anniversary since its designation as The World Design Capital. The World Design Organization recognizes one global city for its accomplishments in utilizing design to improve social, cultural, and economic life. Finnish design is about more than looks; it is known for its perfect blend of minimalism and functionality.
Finlandia Hall, one of the most iconic buildings designed by Alvar Aalto, began renovation in January 2022. The new modular building, Pikku Finlandia, is a temporary pavilion-type venue built to serve in the interim as an arena for live music and events, with cafes and terraces overlooking Töölönlahti Bay.
The wood building was designed by Aalto University’s architecture student Jaakko Torvinen. Jaakko gave us a personal tour of the space and talked about Alvar Aalto’s work and the project.
The building’s design was inspired by a Finnish boreal forest with views through trees. Whole untrimmed tree trunks served as load-bearing columns and created a forest-like atmosphere. Jaakko shared with us,
“This was my first building project. I found that I really enjoyed it, I like people and working with them. Many workers have the idea that the architect is somebody who is in his office, only sending the drawings.
But I was here at the construction site all the time, and if you have a question, ask me and we will solve it together. Now since it is finished, I feel like my child is going away, but then I realized that I can still come here and I’m around quite a lot.”
Oodi Central Library in Helsinki
Oodi library has become one of Finland’s most well-known examples of modern architecture. The striking building design with its glass and steel structures and wooden facade combine the traditional and contemporary—a gift Finns gave to themselves to celebrate their 100th anniversary of independence in 2018.
People come here to spend time, not just to borrow and return books. Want to play board games? See a movie? Or to have a coffee with a breathtaking view of Helsinki? You can do it all here! The library represents a new era, open seven days a week, and acts as Helsinki residents’ common living room, workspace, and learning environment. From the “book heaven” upper floor, visitors can enjoy an unobstructed 360-degree panoramic view of the city center and access to a terrace overlooking Kansalaistori Square.
Helsinki’s Amos Rex: A New Type of Museum
Amos Rex is a new type of museum, a space dedicated to art that takes on various forms championing innovative artwork and interactivity. It connects to a functional building style from the 1930s called Lasipalatsi (Glass Palace).
The museum’s underground annex is built beneath the Lasipalatsi Square that recently underwent considerable modernization and renovation, returning to its original glory. We had a tour of the museum with Kai Kartio, the museum’s director, and CEO, on the eve of its public opening.
Senate Square: Helsinki’s Neoclassical architectural gem.
A historically significant area of Finnish architecture, the Senate Square is surrounded by beautiful Neoclassical buildings in the oldest part of Helsinki.
Called the White Jewel of Helsinki, the Helsinki Cathedral is undoubtedly the most iconic and well-known building in Finland. Since 1852, the building has imposed its beauty over the senate square of Helsinki. Originally built as a tribute to Tzar Nicholas II of Russia because, for many years, Finland was part of Russia, known as the Great Duchy of Finland. I asked our guide, Heidi, why the statue of Tzar Nicholas II was still here in the Square after Finland got its independence. She shrugged and said, “well, he did many nice things for the Finnish people, and we have a special affection for him.”
Once you’ve soaked up the architecture, grab a bite to eat or a drink from one of the many cafés and restaurants tucked away in the quaint alleyways of Torikorttelit.
Temppeliaukio Church—The Rock Church
Temppeliaukio Church is one of Helsinki’s favorite attractions and a compelling architectural destination. This Helsinki gem was designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen as a part of an architecture competition, and it opened in 1969.
Built into the bedrock, the Temppeliaukio Church has been awarded prominent architectural prizes abroad for its uniqueness and superb acoustics. The walls are partly solid natural rock; the window-studded, light-capturing ceiling is covered with over 13 miles of copper coil and weighs nine tons.
The copper ceiling creates fantastic acoustics inside the church hall and concert venue. The ground-level non-descript entrance is the only indication of a church located under the rock mound.
While we visited, the organ was getting tuned. Though not exactly melodic, we still could appreciate the effects of the acoustics and the lovely tone of the organ.
A Visit to Löyly Sauna and a dip in the Baltic Sea.
“What? You haven’t had a sauna yet? “ These are the words I had heard from Finns ever since I arrived. Saunas are an integral part of the Finnish way of life and culture; they are not a luxury but a necessity that nourishes and relaxes, both mentally and physically.
Fun fact: Sauna is one of the only Finnish words to make it into English. The country has more than two million saunas, which is more impressive when you realize there are only 5 million Finns.
Helsinki has plenty of public saunas, so visitors to the city can experience the culture for themselves. But the sticking point for me was the traditional way of ending a sauna by taking an icy dip in the sea. I thought, no way!
I won’t even get in our backyard swimming pool in Dallas, Texas, until July 4th, when I can be assured that the pool temperature has warmed up to bathwater.
When I shared my hesitation with my new Finnish friend, he said, “Just do it. Don’t think about it. It’s a rush… Oh, and you must do it at least twice to get the full effect”. You know what? He was right! When you immerse yourself into the icy water and then into a super-heated sauna, it gives you energy and an enormous endorphin kick.
We had our sauna experience at Loyly, an urban oasis in Helsinki directly on the Baltic Sea with a traditional wood-burning sauna. It’s a restaurant, local hangout, and gathering place. Löyly is the Finnish word for the steam created when water is thrown on the hot stones.
A Dip in the Sea
It is considered a true architectural gem and occupies a stretch of the beautiful Helsinki waterfront. They cut a hole in the ice in winter, so you can have your dip in the sea. Did I do it? Heck yes! Three times! It was a frigid walk to the sea and down the frosty metal ladder, even before taking the plunge.
Author and local Katja Pantzar joined us at Löyly for sauna and dinner and talked with us about the Finnish concept of sisu. As she writes in her books The Finnish Way and Every Day Sisu (pronounced “see-su),
“Sisu is a powerful mindset that makes Finland one of the happiest countries in the world, despite long winters, social isolation, and a history of challenging times. A Finnish concept that dates to the 1500s is a unique type of fortitude and resilience, and not giving up in the face of a challenge, big or small”.The world’s first Sauna on a Ferris Wheel
Sky Wheel Helsinki, the most enormous observation wheel in Finland, has a sauna in two gondola cabins. The SkySauna is the world’s first Sauna on a Ferris Wheel.The pine-clad cabin holds up to 5 passengers to enjoy the views of the Baltic Sea and Helsinki’s city center from up to 131 feet in the air.
The temps can reach up to 178° Fahrenheit the sauna cabin is booked for months in advance.
during the two-and-a-half-minute journey. The demand is high…
The Allas Sea Pool is a floating dock near the Suomenlinna ferry port in the same complex, with three open-air swimming pools and three saunas. The seawater pool is the same temperature as the sea, so you can believe it’s cold!
Helsinki has style. It’s laid-back but well organized and has dazzling design and social principles that I admire. It is home to world-class culture and is surrounded by nature and islands just begging to be explored.
I’m even ready to take that icy dip in the Baltic again after my Sauna, at least two times—I think I am developing the power of Sisu.
I hope you get to Helsinki soon and that you love it as much as I did.
Read Sharon’s story about the latest Finnair flight from Dallas, Texas to Helsinki.