By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.
For previous Finland-related posts, see May 26, 2017 about a visit to a Sámi reindeer farm in Inari; February 19, 2017 about dinner and a relaxed home visit with a couple in a Helsinki suburb; and November 30, 2016 about the city of Rovaniemi, a year-round wonderland north of the Arctic Circle.
If the phrase “Scandinavian design” makes you think only of sleek lines and minimalist architecture, then let me introduce you to Helsinki, Finland, one of the loveliest of the northern European capitals.
About 1.15 million people live in the greater metropolitan area of Finland’s most populous city, named World Design Capital 2012. That’s nearly a fifth of the country’s total population. Though Finland achieved independence in 1917, remnants and reminders of its former rulers over the centuries — Sweden and Russia — remain. To this day, nearly every street with a Finnish nameplate also has one in Swedish directly underneath.
Helsinki is well-served with interesting museums, quirky parks, nonstop shopping options and efficient public transportation. You need at least three to four days to touch on the highlights, and longer to get a real sense of the city.
On the western end of Katajanokka island near the bustling, harbor-front Market Square, the red-brick Uspenski Cathedral, with its ornate onion domes, wouldn’t look out of place in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Opened as a Russian Orthodox church in 1868, it now serves the Finnish Orthodox community.
The Uspenski vies for skyline bragging rights with the brilliantly white, neoclassical Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral) that anchors Senate Square. It was completed a mere 16 years before the Uspenski. A closer look on foot reveals the cathedral’s imposing staircase, a popular meeting place, especially during the summer. Both churches are open to visitors.
Among the most visited sites is Temppeliaukio Kirkko, nicknamed the “rock church” because it was hewn from natural granite. Its copper-topped dome is better appreciated from the back side — not the church’s entrance — because more of it can be seen.
Inside, walking down the sloping aisles into the sanctuary, you can better appreciate how architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen approached the challenge of building into solid rock. Its spacious interior, drawing light from windows angled from the dome, boasts a large organ on the left and cushioned seating, and all around the rough finish of the rock. Since its completion in 1969, it has also proved to be a popular venue for concerts. If you’d like to have some time for undisturbed contemplation, try to arrive early before tour groups pour out of the cavalcade of buses.
One of the newest structures, likely to become another icon, is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, set to the side of busy Narinkkatori square near the entrance to the Kamppi shopping area.
Its exterior is constructed of wax-coated horizontal strips of spruce, forming a graduated oval-esque shape. Depending on the time of day, the play of sunlight makes it seem that geometric patterns are embedded in the wood.
The chapel opened in June 2012. As early as 2010, it had won awards for its architects Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola and Mikko Summanen of K2S Architects.
Inside, ample natural light flows in from a thin skylight. There are no windows in the gently curving walls formed from cut-to-shape narrow alder wood planks. The stark pews are crafted from ash and face a small altar topped with a silver cross and baptismal bowl.
Visitors are invited to sit quietly, feeling insulated from the outside world, and isolated, too, but in a peaceful way. And yes, minimalist would fit the description here.
A few streets over from both these sights is one of the main thoroughfares, Mannerheimintie. A lengthy walk north will take you past Parliament House, the Finnish National Opera House, the National Museum of Finland, Finlandia (a performance venue) and up to Olympic Stadium, home to the 1952 Summer Games.
A statue of legendary distance runner Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973) stands on a tree-line street named for him that leads to the stadium entrance.
On the 2013 spring day I visited the stadium, a colorful and noisy track meet was under way between Finnish and Swedish students. For about 30 minutes, I sat in the stands watching relays (and students in color-coordinated outfits cheering on their friends), before heading to the Sports Museum of Finland (closed as of this writing for renovation, as is the stadium). Here you can watch film clips of outstanding moments in Finnish sports history, such as Olympic champions Nurmi and Lasse Viren in some of their greatest races.
Other parts of the museum house a collection of memorabilia, including NHL sweaters worn by native son Jari Kurri (who was on five Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Edmonton Oilers), ski-jumper Matti Nykanen’s Olympic and world championship medals and a basketball shoe that once belonged to Hannö Möttöla, who played two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and to date is the only Finnish player to make it to the NBA.
About a 15-minute walk west of the stadium is the outdoor monument and park dedicated to composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Silver pipes of different lengths have been welded together, leaving an open interior space. Aside from the photographic potential, visitors can interact with the Eila Hiltunen-designed elevated memorial, experimenting with the sound echoing from the pipes.
On a fine-weather day, take the 15-minute ferry from the east side of Market Square (opposite the Presidential Palace) to Suomenlinna sea fortress, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. Known originally as Sveaborg, the fortress was constructed in the mid-1700s when Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden. By 1809, the fortress had surrendered to the invading Russians, who were responsible for the addition of cannons. For the next 108 years, the fortress housed a Russian garrison, until Finland became a republic in 1917.
Many visitors bring a picnic and make a day of it, spending hours sitting on the beach or wandering the landscape. (Don’t worry if you didn’t bring food; there are plenty of cafes and restaurants and shops.) But you’ll need a ticket if you wish to go into any of the five museums or the restored 1930s Finnish submarine. Though the fortress itself is open year-round, some of the museums are only open during the summer.
Another outdoor destination, also on an island but reachable by tram or bus, is Seurasaari, an open-air museum that houses a collection of more than 80 traditional wooden buildings relocated from provinces around the country. Not every building is open every day, but the ones that are will likely have people in period dress, perhaps sewing or doing a craft, who can answer questions.
Good thing, too. At the Kurssi farmstead, I noted what seemed to be a rack, with wooden spikes sticking out of two parallel bars, suspended near the ceiling. Fortunately, a young woman was able to tell me that in an earlier time, the family that lived in this structure baked a circular bread only twice a year. This rack’s function would have been to store the bread, keeping it safe from low-lurking critters.
Again, anyone can access the island, bring a picnic or go swimming, but to enter any of the structures, you will have to buy a ticket. Seurasaari is open only during the summer and for special functions around the holidays.
There’s even a bit of American-style architecture in Helsinki. The mostly red-brick Hotel Katajanokka was formerly the city jail, parts of which date to 1837. It’s original look was based on a Philadelphia model: central open-iron staircases flanked by a series of cells. (Think of any number of black-and-white movies set in prisons and you’ll have the idea.)
As a jail, it had 164 cells; as a hotel, it has 106 spacious, modern rooms. A solitary cell has been preserved in the lower level to give visitors a look at how bleak and uncomfortable a stay here would have been. The jail was at times a place to await trial and a home for political prisoners. After World War II, it housed a number of Finnish politicians convicted of war crimes.
The facility was closed in 2002, having been deemed outdated as a correctional institution. Protected as a historical monument, it gained new life as part of the Best Western chain, which opened it as a hotel in 2007. It’s now privately owned.
The hotel is off the beaten track for most tourist spots. Fortunately, the No. 4 tram stops just outside the sturdy walls and will quickly whisk you to the center of town. If you’re taking a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia, or out to Suomenlinna, the hotel is well-situated, being close to the ferry connections.
The harbor at Market Square, where vendors set up tents and booths on many days, is also within walking distance. You can get a taste of reindeer meatballs and other specialties here, and a large variety of Finnish handicrafts are for sale, from birchwood coasters to hand-knitted sweaters.
The buildings on the eastern end of Katajanokka island also have some interesting art nouveau design features. The style is known as Jugend in Finland, and the mostly residential, multistory structures feature a jumble of turrets, castellated roofs and mysterious carvings.
Many visitors arrive in Helsinki en route to somewhere else — often via a cruise ship. That’s a real shame because this interesting and lively city deserves more than a cursory look.
Quick reference: Hotel Katajanokka: Merikasarminkatu 1a, Helsinki; hotelkatajanokka.fi
Kamppi Chapel of Silence: Open 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Free. Simonkatu 7, Helsinki; http://www.archdaily.com/252040/kamppi-chapel-k2s-architects
Seurasaari Open Air Museum: Seurasaari island, open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, June 1-August 31; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, September 1-15. Prices vary. kansallismuseo.fi
Sports Museum of Finland: A large-scale renovation is underway at the Olympic Stadium, and some of the collection has been temporarily dispersed to other museums. The renovation is expected to be completed in 2019. www.urheilumuseo.fi
Suomenlinna sea fortress: Times vary for the museums, also for the cafes and shops. But generally, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. should cover most of what you want to see. Website also has information about catching the ferry. www.suomenlinna.fi
Uspenski Cathedral: Kanavakatu 1, Helsinki; open 9:30-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays, noon-3 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays and during services. hos.fi (in Finnish and Russian only).
Temppeliaukio Kirkko: Lutherinkatu 3, Helsinki. Hours vary, tours available. http://www.helsinginseurakunnat.fi/en/index/temppeliaukionkirkko.html.stx
Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral): Unioninkatu 29, Helsinki. www.helsinginseurakunnat.fi/helsingintuomiokirkko.html.stx
A version of this post appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Scandinavian Press magazine.