Helsinki, capital and largest city of Finland, is one of the ports on a Norwegian Cruise Line Scandinavia, Russia & Baltic cruise that oftentimes surprises many guests. While it may not offer a specific old town, such as seen in Tallinn, Estonia or Riga, Latvia, it’s filled with other captivating sites.
This city with 1.4 million residents offers many hidden gems from its early history of both Swedish and Russian occupation, along with being a dynamic modern urban center that’s at the vanguard of 21st century design.
In 2012, Helsinki was named as the “Design Capital of the World,” and has since become a destination for design lovers. You can tour its numerous studios of color printed textiles, Nordic minimalism and classic vintage furniture.
Though it has had a turbulent history from declaring its independence to having it pulled back by Stalin and then being part of Nazi Germany, the country began a strong turn around thanks to the 1952 Summer Olympic Games.
And in the years since, Helsinki has become home to many high tech industries, a center for product design and an important stop on any Baltic Sea cruise itinerary. It’s a delightfully clean and progressive city where English is a strong second language and visitors are made to feel very welcome.
The major highlights of the city are for the most part within or adjacent to the city center. The sights not to be missed are:
The 1748 Swedish built fortress on an island offshore of the open air market at the foot of the Esplanadi is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ferries run every few minutes and you can spend an hour or more on the island enjoying this massive fortress complex.
This beautiful park that is frequented by locals all day runs through the heart of the city. Planned in the 19th century, this promenade has historic sculptures, fountains, places to relax and two excellent tea rooms, an oasis of calm in the middle of the city.
Market Hall and Public Market
At the foot of the Esplanadi is the open air market selling local fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and craft items. To the west is a red and yellow brick building that is the Market Hall where a great variety of traditional blini’s (a thick pancake like meal topped with anything from fish eggs to pickles) or pickled herring can be purchased or eaten on site, as a great way to understand Finnish cuisine.
Senate Square and the Lutheran Cathedral
Sitting atop a hill in the city center, the massive, white Romanesque Lutheran Cathedral is the most dominant building in the city center, which is just one building found in the Neoclassical architecture of the square. You’ll also find the Government Palace, the National Library of Finland and the oldest stone building in Helsinki, Sederholm House which was the home of a prosperous merchant in 1757.
The rock church built inside one of the massive granite outcrops in 1969 is a popular site because of the uniqueness of its construction. The walls are defined by the natural bedrock and a copper lined dome create acoustics that make it a popular place for concerts. It’s included in most tours and if you are on your own, it can be reached from the Esplanadi Park on the number two tram.
Sibelius Park and Monument
Located along the waterfront just northwest of the city center is the ultra-modern monument to Finland’s greatest classical composer. Made of welded steel and resembling organ pipes, this well-known monument is a tribute to world famous composer Jean Sibelius.
Just north of the city center is the site of the 1952 summer Olympic Games, the main stadium is still used for track and field events, soccer matches and large concerts. Guests can buy a ticket to ride up in the Stadium tower (235 feet) for wonderful views of the city. In 2016, a revitalization began which will make this venue a more prominent part of Helsinki.
Kaisaniemi Botanic Gardens
Immediately to the east of the Art Deco Helsinki railway station, another must see, is an oasis of the plants, trees and flowers that typify the countryside of Finland. The outdoor garden is a walk through history with a French formal garden, a rock garden the King of Finland requested in 1884 and so much more.
But one of the highlights are the beautiful and ornate glasshouses holding over 1300 varieties of plants from lily pads planted during World War II to the Haworthia cactus in the desert room.
Seurasaari Island Open Air Museum
Located a few miles northwest of the city center, easily reached by bus or taxi, this island park is a recreation of life in rural Finland from the 17th to 20th century. It’s essentially a living museum and personnel dressed in traditional period attire to demonstrate many of the lifestyle techniques from the past, along with the foods they ate and homes modeled after the times.
National Museum of Finland
Also within walking distance of the Esplanadi, this beautiful museum, looking more like a cathedral from the outside, explores the physical, historic and cultural environments of Finland. It’s a great stop as you round out your day of history.
Beyond the city, Helsinki occupies a central peninsula with large island studded bays on either side, and its major anchorages are quite calm and protected. The countryside was heavily glaciated, and there are large outcrops of ancient granite rock seen throughout the city, especially in its numerous park lands. And the landscape is dotted with plentiful lakes and ponds as a result of glacial scour during the last major advance of the continental ice sheet.