The Finns use the Swedish spelling, "H-e-1-s-i-n-g-f-o-r-s," for their capital city, Helsinki. But it should be spelled "c-l-e-a-n," for lack of graffiti and litter says something of the Finnish sisu, the national character. It's a mix of east and west, with both Russian and Swedish influences. And it's a compact city that's easy to get around. Once you locate yourself on a map, it's difficult to get lost.
Founded in 1550 on a peninsula and enhanced by an archipelago, Helsinki is a city of the sea by the sea. Architecturally, it's a combination of Empire, Byzantine and futuristic. It resembles St. Petersburg because for years Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia.
Begin your exploration at Market Square near the harbor. The colorful produce market here offers a bounty of goods. The fountain features the Daughter of the Baltic, the symbol of the city. The pale blue building facing the market is the City Hall, and beyond that stands the Presidential Palace. Be sure not to miss the busy, red-brick, Old Market Hall adjacent to the outdoor market. Hovering above Market Square and facing the Lutheran Cathedral is the Uspensky Cathedral, western Europe's largest Russian Orthodox church, built 1868.
After exploring Market Square, head over to Café Kappeli in the park facing the square. This turn-of-the-20th-century gazebo-like oasis of coffee, pastry, and relaxation was once a popular hangout for local intellectuals and artists. Today, it offers a great cup of coffee.
Behind the cafe runs the Esplanadi, Helsinki's top shopping boulevard. Walk It. Browse the shops on the north side specializing in items of Finnish design. The Academic Bookstore, designed by Finland's leading architect, Alvar Aalto, also has a café. Eventually, you'll come to the Stockman's Department Store, the largest, best, and oldest store in the city with fine displays of local design and an excellent gourmet food store where you can stock up on Scandinavian specialties like cloudberry preserves, just the thing to top your bagel at breakfast when you get home. Just beyond is the main intersection in town, Esplanadi and Mannerheimintie. Nearby you'll see the Three Blacksmiths statue, of which locals say, "If a virgin walks by, they'll strike the anvil." Try it and see for yourself.
From the top of Esplanadi you should be able to make out Helsinki's tallest building, Hotel Torni. Architecturally it's a mix of Functionalist, Jugend and Art Deco influences. From the Ateljee Bar on the 14th floor you get a wonderful 360 degree panorama of the city.
A block to the right, through a busy shopping center, stands the central train station, designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1916. The four people on the facade symbolize peasant farmers with lamps coming into the Finnish capital.
Continuing past the Post Office on Mannerheimintie will take you to the large white Finlandia Hall, another of Alvar Aalto's works. Taking the tour is a must.
Across the street is the excellent Finnish National Museum. Its collection, housed in a grand building, covers Finland's history and culture. While the neoclassical furniture, portraits of Russia's last czars around an impressive throne, and the folk costumes are interesting, the highlight is the Finno-Ugric exhibit. Be sure to take time to sample the lingonberry juice and reindeer quiche in the museum café.
A few blocks behind that is a great piece of church architecture, the Temppeliaukio, blasted out of solid granite, then capped with a copper-and-skylight dome. Go inside and look upward at the 14-mile-long coil of copper ribbon. Look at the bull's-eve and ponder God. It's normally filled with live or recorded music. Sit in one of the pews and take it all in.
From the top of the steps of the Lutheran Cathedral, look out over Senate Square, Europe's finest neoclassical plaza, with its 30 neoclassical buildings designed by Karl Ludwig Engel. The Senate building is on your left. The small blue stone building with the slanted mansard roof in the far left corner is from 1757, one of just two pre-Russian-conquest buildings remaining in Helsinki. On the right is the university building. In the center stands a statue of Czar Alexander II of Russia, a friend of Finland.
Six hundred stainless-steel pipes shimmer over a rock in a park to honor Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. Notice the face of Sibelius which sculptor Eila Hiltunen was forced to add to silence the critics.
Seurasaari Open-Air Folk Museum, inspired by Stockholm's Skansen, on an island on the edge of town and best seen in summer, offers a collection of 100 historic buildings from every corner of Finland. It's a great way to explore Finland if you only have time for Helsinki.
If you have time, take the 20-minute ferry ride over to Suomenlinna, a fortress island park with several museums.
Helsinki is one of those cities that often gets short-changed by visitors. Many come on cruise ships or ferries from Sweden and stay for a few hours. Exploring it for a bit longer will give you not only a look into Finnish culture but a chance to meet the warm and friendly people that live there.