On my first day in Helsinki, I battled jet lag and hot temperatures and headed for Suomenlinna Island Fortress, whose construction started in 1748 when Sweden ruled the area. To get to the UNESCO World Heritage site, cited as a prime example of European military architecture, I caught a ferry at bustling Market Square where vendors sell all sorts of produce and seafood, and the inhabitants like to sit and enjoy a Keralian pie or coffee and a local rendition of the doughnut.
As my boat slipped away from its dock, I was impressed with the number of big cruise ships docked in port, then readied my camera for some great shots of the cityscape from the upper deck.
The sea around Helsinki is dotted by close to 340 islands, some large, some no bigger than a pick-up truck, which must have proved problematic for early seafarers. The ferry, however, had no trouble navigating the rock-strewn waters, and 15 minutes or so later, it docked at the island fortress, one of Finland’s most popular attractions.
It was a pleasure to be able to walk along cobblestone streets in the shadow of the crenulated stone battlements without being distracted by auto traffic. Actually a town of 350 year-round residents, Suomenlinna shares its historic stone bastions with a number of artist shops, museums and cafes.
To see much of the fortress, including the King’s Gate, the Great Courtyard, the pink-plastered jetty barracks, the extensive Zander bastion and the 1854 Russian church (now functioning as a Lutheran house of worship), plan to do a bit of walking and allow yourself at least three hours, more if you linger in the museums.
Back in town, expansive Senate Square and its surrounding buildings are the oldest part of central Helsinki. Much of the square’s Neoclassic architecture resembles that of St. Petersburg because after the Russian emperor annexed Finland, he commissioned the same architect who previously worked in the then-Russian capital, Carl Engel, to work on Finnish projects.
The massive Helsinki Cathedral dominates the square, its series of stairs a popular place for the younger crowd to sit and socialize. The square is also a point of departure for hop-on, hop-off bus tours. After a quick look at the 1868 Uspenski Cathedral, a green-domed, red brick building that claims to be the largest Orthodox edifice in western Europe, I boarded a bus and headed to the unique Temppeliaukio Church.
Starting in the early 1930s, plans called for blasting the church out of native bedrock in the Toolo section of town. World War II brought things to a standstill, but the "Church of the Rock" finally opened in 1969. As many as a half millions visitors get to enter the church -- cited as one of the city’s most important architectural treasures -- gaze up at its copper dome and watch as the sunlight pours through the line of windows beneath the dome.
Another impressive site, the Sibelius Monument, dates back to 1967 and honors Finland’s most heralded composers. An abstract structure made of a wave of 600 hollow steel pipes, the monument tries to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music and also allows visitors to interact with the structure by making sounds and echoes in the pipes.
Helsinki hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics, with most of the games centered in the Olympic Stadium, considered by many to be the world’s most beautiful. Originally intended to host the 1940 Olympics, the stadium’s construction began in 1934, but World War II prompted the cancellation of the games. Today, the stadium’s 238-foot tall tower is open to visitors and boasts some of the best views of the city.
Culture vultures might want to visit the Ateneum, Finland’s national art gallery, located across from the Central Railway station, itself one of Finland’s most renowned buildings, designed by Eliel Saarinen. In addition to showcasing Finnish art from the 1750s and Western art starting with the mid 1800s, the Ateneum was showing at the time of my visit a special exhibit of paintings from the Presidential Palace, now undergoing a renovation. The exhibit will be up through February 9
Besides being a city of beauty and grace, Helsinki has been designated one of the world’s safest cities, and "Monocle" magazine ranked it "the world’s most livable." In my brief two day stay, I only managed to scratch the surface of what there is to see in the cosmopolitan city on the Baltic.
Dave Zuchowski is an independent travel columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.