Helsinki fuses foreign and familiar

Sailing into Helsinki’s south harbour in the late November afternoon, a sudden snow squall obscured the first glimpse of Finland’s capital. As our cruise ship, the Silja Serenade, docked following its 20-hour overnight passage from Stockholm, I struggled to make out the major buildings – the Presidential Palace, city hall, indoor market and the enormous Lutheran Cathedral looking down on everything.

Perhaps it was the dull weather, but my initial impression was underwhelming. The buildings visible from sea seemed to consist of a disjointed clash of eastern and western architectural styles, as if the city planners couldn’t decide which they preferred. After Stockholm, I confess it was a letdown.

A closer appreciation
But once inland, I discovered a different Helsinki. From a better vantage point – atop the steps at Senate Square, Helsinki’s magnificent public forum – it was easier to appreciate the city’s virtues. Here was a clean, modern city forged from Russian and European influence but with its own distinct style. Befitting its place as a world leader in industrial and electronic design, Heinki emits a high-tech pulse that makes Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal seem a step behind.

To get to this heady point, Finland first had to shake off centuries of foreign rule – 600 years as a Swedish colony, followed by 100 years as a Grand Duchy of Russia. Independent since 1919, the country has always lived in the shadow of its mighty neighbour Russia. In fact, it was only through fending off the Soviet Union’s Red Army in the Winter War of 1939 that Finland averted falling once again under Russian dominance.

The foreign influences that shaped Helsinki continue to reverberate. Swedish is still one of the official languages so street signs are in both Finnish and Swedish, much to tourists’ confusion. Memorials to past Russian monarchs dominate public areas, most notably the statue of Czar Alexander II in the centre of the Senate Square. And the golden-domed Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in western Europe, declares a strong foreign religious influence.

Despite the indelible marks left by past rulers, Helsinki does boast its own historical and cultural identity. Major buildings – the railway station and the National Museum in particular – evince the spirit of nationalism that swept the newly independent country, manifesting itself in architectural design. 

A civilizing ritual
And then, of course, there’s the sauna, Finland’s national symbol. Sitting in a steamy wooden room, splashing water over hot stones and whisking yourself with a leafy birch branch may seem a quirky pastime but in a country where the winters are long, dark and cold, a revitalizing sauna has been a beloved ritual since the fifth century. 

Most homes have saunas as do hotels, though it’s not included in the cost of the room. You must book in advance, and it doesn’t hurt to learn the code of conduct: an old Finnish proverb says you behave in the sauna as you would in church.

Next page: Craftsmanship and picnics

The finer establishments offer a superior sauna experience. The luxurious Hotel Kamp, for example, allows corporate travellers to hold meetings in a sauna suite, complete with a fully ca-tered menu. And the slickly refurbished Hilton hotels include a masseuse and workout facility, modern trappings on the traditional sauna.

After the sauna, you’re ready to saunter about town. Those who aren’t up to walking can take advantage of the user-friendly public transportation. Conductors speak flawless English (it seems everyone in Helsinki does) and willingly provide directions – and change. Purchasing a Helsinki Card from a tourist office allows you unlimited travel on public transportation as well as admission to many museums and galleries.

Shoppers will gravitate to the low-rise, neo-classical buildings that line Mannerheimintie and Eteläesplenadi streets, housing the boutiques, restaurants and cafés that make up Helsinki’s major shopping district. Less commercially minded tourists will enjoy the harbourfront’s lively outdoor market where a chaotic array of stalls offers the usual assortment of tacky trinkets as well as unique Finnish crafts: hats and gloves, Lapland dolls and hand-carved reindeers – perfect gifts for the grandkids.

On a fine day, join the Finns as they pack a picnic and head for the sea fortress of Suomenlinna, located on small islands a short boat trip from the market. The fort was built by ruling Swedes in the mid-18th century to defend against Russian aggression. Visit the centuries-old shipyard that’s still active as well as the museums depicting the naval history of Finland. It’s also home to a colony of local artists who live on the islands year-round.

At night, Helsinki’s restaurants, including the ultra-trendy Nokka, offer menus that will delight any fish lover. After dining, you might raise a glass (or, if you’re with Finns, many glasses) of Finlandia vodka and toast this remarkable little country, which has managed to maintain a thriving culture despite living in the shadow of a more powerful neighbour.

Canadian tourists who understand the significance of this achievement will return home highly impressed – and perhaps a little envious.