By Rick Steves
Helsinki — Europe's youngest and nothernmost capital city — feels like an outpost of both the Nordic and European worlds, and lies just a short train ride from Russia. Indeed, the Finnish capital, the only one in Europe with no medieval past, offers almost nothing in the way of Old World atmosphere — and yet this quirky metropolis manages to please locals and tickle tourists with its endearing Finnish personality. Against all odds, Helsinki is thriving, and holds its own among Nordic capitals competing for your time.
To fully appreciate the city, give it at least two days — but even with just one day to spare in your itinerary, a visit is still worthwhile. Logistically easy ferries put Helsinki within about two hours of the Estonian capital of Tallinn, just across the Baltic to the south, and Stockholm is a fun overnight cruise away.
If you arrive in Helsinki by boat, start your visit efficiently by grabbing a seat on the daily bus tour that meets you at the dock. You'll get a two-hour rapid-fire overview of Finnish history and a quick look at the city's top monuments and churches. After the tour, head to the ruddy Market Square (Kauppatori), a colorful outdoor food and souvenir bazaar at the top of the harbor, for the quickest, cheapest lunch in town. Everyone from the Finnish president to tourists stop by here for a dash of local flavor. (The salmon grills are a favorite.)
In the afternoon, follow my Scandinavia guidebooks' walking tour from this square through the compact city center, with stops for ogling the stately architecture, eyeing design ideas in the shopping district, and getting goose bumps in the churches.
One of the city's most remarkable churches, the gleaming white Lutheran Cathedral, towers high above Market Square. With its prominent green dome and pristine interior, it's Neoclassical architecture at its best. The city's red-brick Russian Orthodox Cathedral hovers nearby, eyeing the Lutheran Cathedral as warily as Russian culture eyes Europe's.
Helsinki's grand boulevard, the Esplanade, leads from Market Square toward the center of town. With wide and inviting sidewalks and a people-friendly park sandwiched in the middle, this is the city's best stroll for window-shopping, people-watching, and sun-worshiping.
The prestigious, eight-floor Stockmann department store — Finland's answer to Harrods or Macy's — stands at the end of the Esplanade, luring even casual shoppers with its gourmet supermarket in the basement. Right outside the store is the famous Three Blacksmiths statue of three strapping Finns hoisting hammers. (Locals say of the bronze smiths, "If a virgin walks by, they'll strike the anvil." It doesn't work. I tried.)
The heart of the city offers several worthwhile sights, including the National Museum of Finland (pleasant collection telling the story of Finland from prehistory through to the present day), and the Ateneum (Finland's national art gallery). But my favorite sight in town is the underground Temppeliaukio Church, a modern (1969) example of great church architecture. Blasted out of stone and capped by a copper and glass dome, this "Church in the Rock" is nearly always filled with music and awe-struck visitors.
Despite centuries of Swedish rule, central Helsinki feels more Russian than Scandinavian. When the Russians took over Finland in 1809, they moved the capital to Helsinki and hired German architect Carl Ludvig Engel to model the city after their then-capital, St. Petersburg. This resulted in fine Neoclassical squares and stone buildings with white trim and columns. Cinephiles may find the Russian vibe particularly strong, as Gorky Park and Dr. Zhivago were actually filmed in Helsinki (since westerners were unable to film in Russia during the Cold War).
Allow a little time to explore the city's Design District, a colorful cluster of design and antique shops, fashion stores highlighting local designers, and trendy restaurants. Design is integral to contemporary Finnish culture, and this engaging zone is the best place to feel the uniqueness of Finnish creativity and urban culture.
With more time, dive into Finnish culture in the Seurasaari Open-Air Folk Museum, on a lovely island on the edge of town. Its collection of 100 historic buildings come from every corner of the country. Or bargain with Balts and Russians at the Hietalahti flea market, Finland's largest.
If the weather's good, take a breezy, salty 1.5-hour walk along the promenade that leads around the Kaivopuisto Park peninsula. (En route, you'll pass an odd-looking pier where locals come to scrub the family rugs, then let them air-dry in the Baltic breeze.) Better yet, take the short ferry ride across the harbor to Helsinki's most important sight: Suomenlinna, the island fortress where Helsinki was born.
In a move of mid-1700s European superpower chess, Suomenlinna was built by the Swedes, with French financial support, in an effort to counter Russia's rising power. With five miles of walls and hundreds of cannons guarding the harbor, it was the second strongest fort of its kind in Europe after Gibraltar. Helsinki, a small community of 1,500 people before 1750, soon became a boomtown supporting this grand strategic fort. The hulking buildings are now surrounded by a popular park, with delightful paths, fine views, and Finns having fun.
If the weather's bad, go for a sauna — Finland's vaporized fountain of youth. Helsinki has a range of sauna options, from traditional to sophisticated.
Faced with plentiful sights and a short stay here, keep in mind that you have just one mandatory stop in town: the harborside Café Kappeli, a 19th-century gazebo-like oasis of coffee, pastry, and relaxation. Outside, a bandstand hosts nearly daily music and dance performances in summer. In the 19th century, the café was a popular hangout for local intellectuals and artists. Today it's still the most romantic spot to sip a coffee while waiting for your ship, already savoring your Helsinki memories.