Helsinki is in the south on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Finland. It is the capital as well as the economic and administrative centre of the country. It is the most northerly capital on the European continent. The city is noted for its natural harbours, waterways and parks.
Helsinki was founded in 1550 by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden as a Baltic trading post to rival Tallinn in Estonia. The new town was slow to develop and its original site on the mouth of the River Vantaa hindered its growth. In 1640 Helsinki was relocated to the Vironniemi headland, 5 km south and closer to the sea. The town prospered briefly after the move, but suffered during the eighteenth century. The expansion of Russia’s military and commercial power, particularly after the foundation of nearby St Petersburg in 1703, caused the Finnish economy to stagnate. In addition a plague in 1710 wiped out much of Helsinki’s population and made it vulnerable to attack. Russian troops razed the city in 1713 and occupied it until 1721. The city was captured again in 1742, but in 1748 the Swedes constructed the fortress of Suomenlinna on an outlying island, and this bastion greatly strengthened the city’s defences.
The latter half of the eighteenth century was an era of prosperity for Helsinki. The city expanded its influence in the Baltic and enhanced its fleet of merchant ships. However, by 1808 the steady decline of Sweden as a superpower prompted the Russians to capture the city again and in 1809 Finland was ceded to Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy. Three years later, Tsar Alexander I moved the capital from Turku to Helsinki. During the Russian invasion the city was razed, but after the country was annexed, Helsinki was rebuilt, largely under the auspices of the celebrated German architect, Carl Engel. By the end of the nineteenth century Helsinki was firmly established as the country’s leading industrial city.
In Dec. 1917 Finland declared its independence and after a short but costly civil war, Helsinki was able to develop as the capital of an independent republic. The 1920s and 30s witnessed a boom in Helsinki’s real estate and the construction of an Olympic stadium, although the city did not host the games until 1952 as a result of World War II. After the war emigration from the rural parts of Finland meant that Helsinki’s population grew rapidly, and several suburbs were created to accommodate the influx of workers. During the 1960s and 70s the architectural designs of Alvar Aalto shaped the appearance of the modern city. In the 1980s Helsinki played a vital role as a base for the negotiations that ended the Cold War. Finland’s entry into the EU marked another turning point in the city’s history, and in 2000, in addition to celebrating its 450th anniversary, Helsinki was one of nine European cities of culture.
The local economy is enhanced by the city’s harbours and excellent road and rail connections to the interior of Finland and Russia. Although most exports pass through other ports on the Finnish coast, over half of the country’s imports pass through the port of Helsinki, and the Wärtsilä shipyard is one of the most important in the world. Major industries include textiles, printing, clothing, glass and the processing of metal and food. Locally produced goods include the world famous Arabia porcelain.
The city has a thriving cultural life with several theatres, opera, ballet and numerous museums. The annual festival of Helsinki features performances of classical music by internationally renowned orchestras. The University of Helsinki is the second largest in Scandinavia.
In spite of its commercial and industrial significance there are no high rise buildings in the city and the centre is dominated by nineteenth century architecture lending it the atmosphere of a smaller town.
Places of Interest
The Ateneum, located in the city centre, is one of the foremost art galleries in Scandinavia. Its collection features works by nineteenth century Finnish artists. The City Museum’s exhibits relate the history of Helsinki. The National museum is notable for its Finno-Ugric and Sami ethnological collection. A ferry connects Helsinki to Suomenlinna Island which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island of Seurasaari has a large open-air museum recreating the rural Finland of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.