Fascinating Finland: 48 hours in Helsinki

For those planning a short break and unsure where to go, Helsinki, just three hours from London by plane, offers visitors an intriguing insight into Finnish history and culture.

For sea lovers, this charming city seems to be surrounded by water and the port of Helsinki is its heart. Located on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, Helsinki, founded by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550, was a thriving commercial hub. Alas, in 1710 the land succumbed to the ravages of the plague and the majority of the population perished.

The Finns were convinced that the fortunes of the city would change in 1748 when the fortress of Sveaborg, now known as Suomenlinna, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built to resist the policy of expansionism of Russia. It was not to be so in 1808, during the Finnish War and the siege of Sveborg, the fortress surrendered to Russian forces, which resulted in the occupation of Finland.

Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Image credit: Juha Kalaoja

When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, the Anglo-French fleet bombarded coastal towns and fortifications and the fortress was badly damaged. Restoration work was carried out after the war and later during World War I the fortress played an important role in Emperor Peter the Great’s naval defenses to protect Saint Petersburg. In 1917, after the Russian revolution, Finland gained independence.

Today Helsinki is a modern cosmopolitan city with vast expanses of green space where locals and visitors alike gather, sitting with picnics under the northern sun. The most popular place for outdoor dining is, of course, Suomenlinna. I boarded the ferry at the port of Helsinki; navigation takes only fifteen minutes. This little slice of heaven is the perfect place to sample local cabbage rolls, salmon chowder and Baltic herring accompanied by a glass or two of Sahti; delicious traditional beer flavored with juniper berries.

helsinki seurasaari museum
Seurasaari Open Air Museum Celebrates Finnish History and Culture

To get a glimpse of Finland’s maritime history, I visited the Maritime Museum of Finland. The main exhibition “North Star, Southern Cross” presents a fascinating look at the development of navigational instruments and the hardships suffered by sailors of the past. I also wandered around the ‘Fateful Svensksund’, an exhibit that presents the opportunity to explore the details of the greatest naval battle ever fought in the Baltic Sea. This exhibition also reveals the history of the fortress city built following the conflict.

For another glimpse into the past, I headed to the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, founded in 1909. Visitors are invited to walk through 87 distinct buildings and see examples of traditional Finnish houses and farmhouses from the 18th and 19th centuries. centuries. Local guides, dressed in traditional clothing, captivate onlookers with Finnish folk dances and demonstrate the intricacies of local crafts like spinning and fine embroidery.

Another popular site to visit is the Temppeliaukio Church, known as the cave church. Designed by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and completed in 1969, it was quarried from rock and features natural stone walls and a stunning copper ceiling. It is simply magnificent.

temppeliaukio church in helsinki
Temppeliaukio Church features natural stone walls and a stunning copper ceiling

For a spectacular arts extravaganza, mark your diary for next year’s Helsinki Festival, which this year ran from August 12 to September 4. It is one of the most popular events in town and features classical and world music, circus performers, dance, theater performances and a children’s programme.

One of the highlights is the “Nuit des Arts” held this year on August 18 and the city turns into a stage. Artists settle in unusual places and places and open their doors to visitors until late at night.

Two other events that took place in Finland this year were the World Cell Phone Throwing Championship and it is very tempting to participate, especially if your phone rings at the time! Plus, the hilarious World Championship Wife Carrying draws crowds. So be sure to check and see if there are any festivals and events to be held during your stay.

helsinki hotel kamp suite
Hotel Kämp enjoys a central location and offers sumptuously furnished accommodation.

Weary travelers looking for some pampering should head to Hotel Kämp, located on Pohjoisesplanadi in the center of town. The property was built in 1887 and caused a stir as it was the first hotel to have an elevator. A few years later, much to the disapproval of locals, the building was turned into offices, but in 1999 it was turned back into a hotel.

The accommodations are sumptuously furnished, spacious and comfortable. I decided to splurge and opted for a Kämp suite with a separate living room and bedroom. The features reflect the hotel’s heritage and it’s impressive. I took advantage of the private terrace in the evening and sipped a glass of chilled wine while admiring the view of the charming courtyard.

After a deep sleep, I headed to the gym, which has the latest aerobic and strength-training equipment. After a strenuous workout, I headed to the spa and treated myself to a rejuvenating eucalyptus-scented cave steam sauna.

helsinki kamp hotel exterior
During the summer months, the restaurant’s tables spill out along the esplanade

Having worked up an appetite, I didn’t need to venture far. The hotel’s Brasserie Kamp has its own bakery and when the aromas rise from the ovens, diners are immediately persuaded to sample the delicious cakes, pies and fresh breads. In summer, the restaurant’s tables overflow onto the esplanade and the tasty lunch menu offers real delicacies such as the succulent half lobster au gratin with Manchego and saffron and I admit I succumbed to the temptation and let myself be tempted by the mousse dark chocolate.

To burn off those calories, I took a leisurely stroll downtown and paused to admire the neoclassical style of architecture around me. I visited Helsinki Cathedral, which was completed in 1852 and has four small domes, which underline the connection with Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, and the zinc statues of the twelve apostles at the corners and tops from the roof line.

view of the helsinki cathedral
The majestic Helsinki Cathedral is a popular attraction

I strolled through the Design District, where jewelers, contemporary design boutiques, antique shops, fashion boutiques, art galleries and showrooms all demand attention and I was easily persuaded to separate by more than a few euros.

For those of us who love nature, a visit to Nuuksio National Park, just 30 minutes from Helsinki, is a must. Established in 1994, the park spans an area of ​​spectacular forests and tranquil lakes and you might just spot an otter or two.

Many endangered species, including the Siberian flying squirrel, European nightjar, and wood lark, are known to reside in the park. Watch out for moose and northern deer and for birdwatchers you may spot eagles, ospreys and owls. Visitors might even see tracks made by bears and wolves, which are known to roam the area.

helsinki christmas decorations
Christmas in Finland is a magical affair. Image credit: Jussi Hellsten

If you decide to visit Helsinki in December, you will experience a wonderful array of Christmas celebrations. Be sure to stroll through the St Thomas Christmas Market where the stalls are brimming with delicious Christmas treats, colorful festive crafts and a huge selection of Finnish goods. Watch the elves, horses and vintage cars pass by during the Lucia Parade, which starts in Senate Square, and if you’ve been good, you might even see Santa Claus!

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For more details on the accommodation on offer, go to hotelkamp.com and to find out more about Helsinki’s attractions, go to visitfinland.com

Images (excluding accommodation and main image) courtesy of Visit Finland.

Elisha A. Tilghman