Ask anyone who has visited Helsinki, and they will almost certainly tell you that it’s one of the most beautiful and under rated cities on the Baltic cruise circuit. At once cool, chic and edgy, Helsinki is also a gorgeous confection of art nouveau architecture and broad, tree lined boulevards that make it more than a little reminiscent of Paris.
That said, Helsinki is a city deeply suffused with a sense of unique, Scandinavian flair and finesse. There are nods to outside influences, most notably in the enormous Uspensky Cathedral. Constructed entirely of red brick and topped by a set of ornate golden onion shaped domes, it would sit just as easily in the centre of Moscow’s Red Square as it does here, looming above a small inner harbour full of yachts.
The original, 1850’s built Lutheran Cathedral still dominates Senate Square; it’s a cool, neo classical kind of structure, with elegant, fluted white columns that lead up to a soaring, simple cupola, visible from anywhere in the city. Set atop a run of broad steps that are invariably packed with sightseers, it offers a soul inspiring vista out over one of the most beautiful harbours anywhere in the summertime Baltic.
The harbour is broad, sweeping, and speckled with small, pine clad islands. The old fortress of Suomelinna looms across the entrance; a craggy old brute festooned with fearsome battlements, it was constructed as early as 1748. Today, this petrified colossus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can take a ferry directly from the harbour quayside; it’s a jaunt worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.
That quayside itself is worth strolling around, because the local traders set up a fantastic, eclectically vibrant market here every day. From exotic spices to fur hats, via matryoshka dolls to cheap and delicious eateries full of local delicacies such as fresh herring, it’s a scintillating and entertaining stroll. You might just as likely see a gang of bikers cruising past on their Harley Davidsons as you will see some stunt walkers on stilts. There’s always live music; you’d expect nothing else in the home city of Sibelius. The place is a constant, mesmerising throng of humanity from all walks of life, refreshed at intervals as large ferries from Tallinn arrive to disgorge a new tidal wave of curiosity into this lively, beguiling morass.
Helsinki is compact, and relatively easy to walk. It has some rolling, graceful parklands near the waterfront, speckled with the black and copper tainted spires of ancient gothic churches here and there. The city boulevards open out onto some truly spectacular fountains and, here again, the similarities with Paris are all too obvious. Bars, restaurants and open air cafes flood the pavements under grey stone, art nouveau buildings graced with delicate, laced wrought iron balconies.
This is a city brimming with light, life, and cutting edge Scandinavian design. Check out some of the art and furniture shops on the streets that lead up to the central station, and you’ll see what I mean. That station itself is something of an aberration; a vast edifice that looks like a mish mash, where Stalinism meets Mussolini modern; the four huge, human styled figures at the entrance are simply mind blowing, but when I was last there (August 2013) this lurid, compelling facade was undergoing renovation.
Of course, Helsinki looks- and feels- at its best during the long, hot days of summer, when the almost restless Baltic twilight means that it never gets totally dark here. The city is an alluring, compelling draw under such surreal, serenely beautiful conditions. But I have a hunch that it might also look wonderfully atmospheric and inviting under a coating of glistening white frost and clear, crisp winter snow.
I would hesitate to say that Helsinki is a city for all seasons; not having experienced it in the depths of a deep, dark Finnish winter, I’m just not qualified to judge. That said, what I have seen and sampled of this roisterous, cool and fun Baltic capital has certainly fired my curiosity to maybe return for a long weekend in winter, and get a cold (very cold) hard look at how it stacks up.
Given time I will do it. And I have the feeling that the ‘White Daughter of The Baltic’ might just have a few heartwarming surprises in store. Lovely city, highly recommended.