HELSINKI has a character quite different from the other Scandinavian capitals, and in many ways is closer in mood (and certainly in looks) to the major cities of eastern Europe. For years an outpost of the Russian empire, its very shape and style was originally modelled on its powerful neighbour's former capital, St Petersburg. Yet throughout the twentieth century the city was also a showcase for independent Finland, much of its impressive architecture drawing inspiration from the dawning of Finnish nationalism and the rise of the republic. Equally the museums, especially the National Museum and the Art Museum of the Atheneum, reveal the country's growing awareness of its own folklore and culture.
Much of central Helsinki is a succession of compact granite blocks, interspersed with more characterful buildings, alongside waterways, green spaces and the glass-fronted office blocks and shopping centres you'll find in any European capital. The city is hemmed in on three sides by water, and all the things you might want to see are within walking distance of one another – and certainly no more than a few minutes apart by tram or bus. The streets have a youthful buzz, and the short summer is acknowledged by crowds strolling the boulevards, cruising the shopping arcades and mingling in the outdoor cafés and restaurants; everywhere there's prolific street entertainment. At night the pace picks up, with a great selection of pubs and clubs, free rock concerts in the numerous parks and an impressive quota of fringe events. It's a pleasure just to be around, merging with the multitude and witnessing the activity.
Finland's capital city, founded on June 12, 1550, is a multi-faceted town that is unique in many ways and has much to offer any visitor.
Helsinki is set apart from other big historical cities by two factors: the great physical presence of nature and the very clear grid pattern used to design the city's streets. Most big cities have a limited number of parks. In Helsinki, parks can be found behind almost every corner. Even in the most densely-built districts of the city center, significant parks liven up the landscape. Both the overwhelming presence of nature and the network of straight, symmetrical and wide streets, which make finding any address a simple task, are the creation of the city's two main designers, Johan Albrecht Ehrenström and Carl Ludvig Engel.
Helsinki is formally divided into a total of 54 districts, but more commonly the city is merely divided into the center and the suburbs. The southern districts are older (some would say more revered), and they contain most of the city's main tourist attractions.
Eira, Ullanlinna & Kaivopuisto
These three respected districts are full of parks, historical buildings and statues. Eira is known for its Jugend-style (Art Nouveau) houses, parks and beautiful boulevards. Eira centers around Engel Square, which is surrounded by beautiful buildings, including the Chinese Embassy. Ullanlinna, with its marine panorama and densely-built historical buildings is popular among stylish young adults, interior designers and architects. Kaivopuisto's lovely park features large, elegant houses and embassies and is popular among bankers and diplomats.
Punavuori & Kallio
Punavuori and the slightly more northern district of Kallio were traditionally working men's districts, though Punavuori has tried to improve its image in recent years. Punavuori is full of old buildings and popular among young graduates and a large international populace. Kallio is known for its waterways, Hakaniemi Square and the fabulous Kallio church. The district is mostly populated by young, highly educated adults and low-income families.
Töölö & Meilahti
The respectable district of Töölö is full of old apartment buildings, which are beautiful, densely packed and highly sought-after. Töölö also has many spectacular sights, including the Hietaniemi Cemetery , Sibelius Monument, Parliament Building, Olympic Stadium and the gorgeous parklands around Töölö Bay . Behind Töölö lies Meilahti, known for its old villas. Meilahti is a spacious district populated by the middle-class.
Katajanokka & Kruununhaka
Slightly cut off from the rest of the city, Katajanokka was known in the past for its ports and prison. Nowadays this architecturally significant, Jugend-style district is part of many sightseeing tours, and is populated by artists and journalists. It is also a political center. North of Katajanokka lies the peaceful and highly respected district of Kruununhaka, the neighbor of the historical center designed by Engel.
Kamppi & Kluuvi
A densely-populated district that stretches from the Central Railway Station to the Cable Factory , Kamppi features the city's most important services and excellent transport connections, but also a number of sights. For example, here you'll come across the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and the Ruoholahti villas, historically significant wooden buildings that are some of the oldest in the city. Right between Kamppi and Kaartinkaupunki lies Kluuvi , the busiest district in Helsinki. Kluuvi is a great place to shop or eat out.
In Helsinki, history and modern life, man and nature come together in harmony to create a city like no other.
As the 21st Century is already well under way, Helsinki has gotten off to an excellent start in renovating and renewing itself as a cultural center. Museums, galleries, cafes, and restaurants have multiplied and sprung up throughout the center of the capital like a garden. What many foreigners don't automatically understand is the size of Helsinki. The truth is that there are only five million Finns, with only about 500,000 in the Helsinki area. Therefore, when you compare Helsinki to Europe's other capital cities, it might seem very small and dull. This might have been the general opinion a decade ago, but the effort and work done in the past few years have left their mark. Today Helsinki's wining and dining scene is remarkably diverse, with enough bars and restaurants within about a three kilometer (1.8 mile) radius of the Central Railway Station to satisfy anyone from anywhere. A major advantage of Helsinki is that you can walk almost anywhere!
Near the Botanical Gardens , is the historic and much-loved Restaurant Kaisaniemi a good place for a light lunch or just a drink to kill your thirst. This area is marked by cheap pubs and bars on every other street corner. Ethnic restaurants are also popular, but are not always of the best quality. In Kallio, try some Thai at Lemon Grass , or for vegetarian cuisine, Silvoplee . Coming back towards town from Hakaniemi over Hakaniemi Bridge we get to Kruununhaka.
This area is popular for that peaceful lunch or dinner, and quite a few restaurants have opened around these few blocks. Stroll to Meritullinkatu to find Zinnkeller , a western European kitchen serving original German Bratwurst and beer. Two or three blocks south you will find many more restaurants, including the Russian Kasakka . Also in this area you can find a Wild West saloon at Colorado Mountains , or Caribbean cuisine at Copacabana . Other restaurants in the area are Kuurna and Hamlet .
Continuing this circle around the center of Helsinki we stroll the Pohjoisranta to get to the beautiful part of town that is Katajanokka. If you are looking for ethnic food in the area, the Nepalese restaurant Everest on Luotsinkatu is the place to go. In Esplanadi Park, you'll find numerous cafes as well as Samrat , the best Indian in town. Also located in the area are Makasiini (in the Hotel Grand Marina), Piccolo Piazza and Sipuli . Go south from there, staying by the sea. When you pass the Silja Line boat terminals and you will soon reach the more expensive area of Kaivopuisto.
Kaivopuisto Park is a lovely place to spend some time, after which you can stop for a cappuccino at the peaceful Cafe Ursula . Stroll to the opening at the corner of Neitsytpolku and Merisatamanranta, take a ferry to the nearby Uunisaari island and enjoy a modern lunch here. Another cafe down by the shore is Cafe Carusel , where the interior decor and style are as post-modern as they come. Other options in the area include La Petite Maison and Kaivohuone .
Come back toward town through the Eira neighborhood and take pleasure in the beautiful houses all around you. Have the best steak or pizza of your life at Nerone , located on Perämiehenkatu. Sepänkatu, Merimiehenkatu and Punavuorenkatu all have pubs and small restaurants scattered here and there. By now your journey has brought you back towards the center. A famous street for drinking and dining has always been Iso Roobertinkatu. Practically the whole street is covered with pubs and restaurants. Nearby Kynsilaukka Garlic is for garlic lovers.
Still staying away from the immediate surroundings of the Central Railway Station, we continue on Fredrikinkatu towards the metro station of Kamppi. This is the main area for drinkers and diners between the ages of 18 and 20. Eerikinkatu is also packed with all sorts of places. In this area a short strip of Annankatu is full of small pubs and ethnic food spots, including the promising Maithai , hailed as the best Japanese restaurant in Helsinki. Kabuki is also close by, on Lapinlahdenkatu. The Kamppi area also features such eateries as Rivoli Cheri , Helmi , and Toula .
We finally arrive the real center of the city. The number of places to eat and drink just a few steps away from the Central Railway Station is incredible. The building in front of the station includes some of the best places in town. Omenapuu is a great place for Sunday brunch. This same building includes many dance and drinking spots like Aladdin , but all places require you to be at least 22. Papa Giovanni , in the World Trade Centre, is one of the most formal Italian restaurants you will find. You definitely get your money's worth at the American-style Restaurant Amarillo on Mikonkatu. Party your night away next door at the Helsinki Club (24 and above). The exploding popularity of Mexican/American food has brought dozens of competitors into this central area, one of the best being Santa Fe , in the aforementioned World Trade Centre.
Before leaving the city, enjoy the renowned Finnish pastries served all around the cafes in town. These are available almost anywhere, but it is an accepted fact by most that the famous Fazer Cafe makes the best treats anywhere (in the world!). Be sure to visit, but go before it gets dark because it's not the easiest place to find a seat once people leave work.
We begin this tour at the seaside, at Fredrik Ursin Park. Far away on our right looms the Monument to the Seafarers with its undying flame. We follow Laivurinkatu Street until we reach the shore path, Merisatamaranta. We continue along this path to our left. The path then turns into Ehrenströmintie road, which signals our arrival in Kaivopuisto Park . After a short walk, we can see a path leading to the park on our left. We take this path until we meet a cliff face. On top of the cliff stand Ursa Observatory and the A.E. Nordenskiöld Memorial. We go on with the cliff on our right until we come to the end of the small clearing we have been following. Here, we turn to a path leading right. This path will lead us to the famed Kaivohuone . We continue onwards across the opening, over the Iso Puistotie road, passing the fountain Kalastava Karhu on the left. We climb up Kaivohuoneenrinne Street to the fine district on top of the hill, where we turn right to Itäinen Puistotie road. On our right stands the park's oldest existing villa at Itäinen Puistotie 7. We soon turn left to the curving road Kalliolinnantie, which passes both the Mannerheim Museum and the Cygnaeus Gallery . After taking the loop around this road we turn right to Itäinen Puistotie again, passing the glorious Marmoripalatsi (Marble Palace), designed by Eliel Saarinen and the Catholic St. Henry's Cathedral. We continue down the road to Ullankatu street and up to Tähtitorninvuori . We turn right at Tähtitorninkatu Street and walk on to the famous Statue of the Shipwrecked. After taking in the lovely scenery we turn back towards the park and walk over to the Observatory designed by C.L. Engel. The building stands on a site that provides the city's best view, a panorama of the whole city. We go down the hill and to the right, passing the German Church and the Memorial to the Habsburg Shipwreck. We then arrive at Eteläranta street and walk back down to the Old Market Hall where we started.
This tour starts in the middle of Senate Square, by the statue of Alexander II. The square is surrounded on all sides by stunning buildings. Right in front of us stands the elegant Lutheran Cathedral , on our left, the yellow University main building , and on our right, the Senate Building . When we turn our backs on the Lutheran Cathedral, we come face to face with a row of 18th-century houses, the most famous of which is the Kiseleff house , standing on the corner closest to the University. We now begin our tour by walking to our left toward one corner of the square and turn left to Aleksanterinkatu Street. On our right stands the blue Sederholm House , the oldest stone building in Helsinki. Right next to this is the dark auburn residence of the Mayor. After a short walk we can see a small park on the left side of the street, behind which stands the Gothic House of Nobility, a popular concert hall. After we have passed the park, we walk past several historic buildings until we reach the shoreline. On our right looms the majestic Uspenski Cathedral with its gilded domes. For a drink or snack to help unwind after all this sightseeing, stop into nearby Painobaari for international and local favorites in its comfortable atmosphere.
Standing at the end of Säästöpankinranta street, we see on our left the famous Ympyrätalo (Circular Building), and right in front of us the popular Hakaniemi Square and great Hakaniemi Hall . If we stand right at the edge of Siltasaarenkatu street, we can look left and see the fabulous Kallio church . You may even be able to hear the church bells playing their distinctive melody, a tune by Jean Sibelius. You can take a quick stroll to the church and back. We will then continue our tour around Eläintarha Bay . This area, Tokoinranta, is known not only for its architectural sights, such as the modern Helsinki City Theatre building, but also for its green park areas, which play host to a whole range of celebrations during the year. Most Helsinkians know Tokoinlahti nowadays by the tent that is erected there during the annual Helsinki Festival . The tent is the venue for a host of performances from top Finnish and international artists. Also located nearby is the Botanical Garden and its landmark greenhouse. For a bit of refueling, try some Czech specialties and beers at Vltava .
From Tokoinranta, you can follow Eläintarhantie to the bridge, over the railway tracks and then to another street, Linnunlauluntie. This way you can continue your walk and stroll through the parks surrounding Töölö Bay . The first things we see are the old villas at Linnunlaulu. These romantic wooden houses located in the shadow of mighty trees or on top of rocks set the mood for a nice stroll through the woods. A sandy walkway leads us to an open park, and continues onward right next to the bay. On the right, you can see the heavily-trafficked Helsinginkatu street, on the other side of which stands the City Winter Gardens . As you stroll along the footpath, you can stop to enjoy the sight of the fountain in Töölö Bay, to breathe in the fresh air that blows across the bay, or to admire the Opera House or Finlandia Hall , which loom on the other side of the bay. We now cross over the Helsingintie street and approach the winter gardens, which we pass on the left by taking Hammarskjöldintie street. When the Olympic Stadium appears in front of us through the trees, we turn to the path on our left. After a short stroll, the statue of famous athlete Lauri "Tahko" Pihkala can be seen on the left. We now leave the park and cross the square in front of the Olympic Stadium and head for the statues of Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren, two of Finland's most famous athletes. From here, we continue our walk on Paavo Nurmen Katu Street towards the National Opera . We go across Helsingintie street again, now facing the majestic National Opera building. Next, we turn left and then right at the corner of the building, ending up back by Töölö Bay.
As we pass the Finnish National Opera building with its mighty curving glass wall, the next thing we see is the gorgeous Hesperia Park . The park's footpath is lined with lovely willows. When we reach the other end of the park, we find a simply wonderful little artificial stream that flows down the rock face next to the Finlandia Hall. This brook flows down to a lighted pool, from where the water then flows to Töölö Bay. Right next to the park stands the mighty Finlandia Hall . Its white exterior befits the park as well as the open areas that start in the building's shadow. We walk around the hall by taking Karamzininkatu Street, and walk up to Mannerheimintie road. On our right is the Hakasalmen Huvila , an attractive old villa. On the left side is the castle-like National Museum , where you can also stop and take a break with a cup of coffee in their cafe. We face away from the villa to see the mighty granite Parliament Building on our right. We now follow Mannerheimintie road all the way to Mannerheiminaukio Square, passing as we go the glass Sanomatalo building on our left and a lovely small park on our right. On Mannerheiminaukio square stands the statue of Mannerheim and the art museum Kiasma . We turn left from the square, towards the Railway Station , which we walk through, and end up on Rautatientori (Railway Square). On the right stands Ateneum , the art museum, and on the left, the National Theatre building, toward which we begin walking. Passing the statue of Aleksis Kivi, we then turn to Itäinen Teatterikuja alley and end our tour in the lovely Kaisaniemen Puisto .
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