In November 2015, I embarked on a one week journey through Scandinavia, an area of Europe I had been wanting to see for years. My first stop was Helsinki, the capital city of Finalnd. Helsinki sits on a peninsula in the southern part of Finland on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. Helsinki was established in 1550 by the King of Sweden as a trading competitor to what is now known as the city of Tallinn. However, Helsinki remained a relatively impoverished city until Russia defeated Sweden and annexed Finland in 1809. Since then, Helsinki has experienced a steady growth despite undergoing some tumultuous events, such as the Finnish Civil War and the Winter War. Today, Helsinki is a beautiful, posh city with high end shops, flawless architecture, and some of the world’s best social policies. Read on to find out how I spent my 24 hours in Helsinki.
As I like to do in almost every new city I visit, I started my day with a free walking tour from Happy Guide Helsinki. We met at the Helsinki Cathedral, and our tour guide was easy to find as she was wearing a funny Finland hat (a hat with antlers on it). The Helsinki Cathedral is an Evangelical Lutheran church that was originally built from 1830-1852 as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who was the Grand Duke of Finland at the time. Until Finland gained independence in 1917, the Helsinki Cathedral was known as St. Nicholas’ Church. You can spot the Helsinki Cathedral by its green dome topped with golden crosses, as well as its majestic white columns.
In front of the Helsinki Cathedral is a large plaza called the Senate Square. The area surrounding Senate Square is the oldest area in central Helsinki. On the other sides of Senate Square stand the Government Palace, the main building of University of Helsinki, and Sederholm House, the oldest building in central Helsinki.
Our tour guide took us to many historical sites following the Helsinki Cathedral, but what really stood out to me was the abundance of nature, the flawless architecture, and the cleanliness of the city. Unsurprisingly, Helsinki was named the World Design Capital for 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Helsinki also boasts the title of most liveable city in the world in 2011, and it consistently ranks in the top 10 most liveable cities in the world each year. This is largely due to their abundance of social policies benefiting women and children and promoting family values and work life balance. For example, Finnish law requires employers to provide 18 weeks of maternity leave, 9 weeks of paternity leave, and 26 weeks of parental leave, all at 70-90% of previous annual earnings, to its employees. Should parents take the fully allotted time, this would cover the entire first year of a newborn’s life. Moreover, after a child turns three years old, the parents can take partial care leave, in which they split time between work and home, until the child starts second grade. This presents a stark contrast to the United States’ provision of 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and no provision for paternity leave or parental leave. The gap in social benefits between Finland and countries like the United States continues on to child care, schooling, etc. It is easy to see why parents would want to raise their kids in Finland.
Since Helsinki is a peninsula in the Gulf of Finland, it is surrounded by water, bridges, and boats. We couldn’t resist sharing some of these spectacular views.
Our last stop on the walking tour was the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox church designed by a Russian architect and built in 1862-1868. This cathedral is the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe and the clearest sign of Russian influence in Finnish history. You can see clearly the difference in design between the red brick and golden cupolas of the Uspenski Cathedral and the neoclassical style of the Helsinki Cathedral. The Uspenski Cathedral is open to visitors daily at no cost, except on Mondays when it is closed.
Old Market Hall (Vanha kauppahalli)
After the walking tour, I walked back toward the esplanade and to the Old Market Hall near Market Square. Old Market Hall is home to a variety of cafes and restaurants and offers options for a quick takeaway meal or a place to sit down and rest for a while.
Suomenlinna – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Last, but not least, I knew I had to check out Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site, during my 24 hours in Helsinki. Suomenlinna is a sea fortress located on an island about a 20 minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square. You can read a full review of and guide to Suomenlinna here.