White City of the North


HelsinkiI must admit I was unexpectedly charmed by Helsinki. Visiting there in early March, I was envisioning a frozen Nordic capital. The weather was indeed on the chilly side but I barely noticed, having been totally amazed by the city’s stunning architecture and welcoming vibe. Above all, I was surprised – and delighted – by the “North-meets-East” feel of the place. The Northern part does not need much explanation: Helsinki is the second northernmost capital city in the world after Reykjavik. It is Helsinki’s eastern character that is less commonly appreciated. While in the common consciousness Finland, a member state of the European Union, is firmly a part of Western Europe, geographically and historically it also has strong ties to the East – namely Russia.

After centuries of Swedish rule, Finland came under Russia’s influence after the 1808-09 war fought between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire. As a result of the war, the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland was established within the Russian Empire. When Tsar Alexander I moved the new duchy’s capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to bring the capital closer to St. Petersburg, the city began its transformation into a modern metropolis. Its downtown in particular was shaped in the neoclassical image of the tsarist capital by a German-born architect Carl Ludvig Engel.

The central point of Engel’s plan is the magnificent Senate Square. It is dominated by the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral, originally built 1830-1852 as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I (it was known as St Nicholas’ Church until the Finnish independence in 1917). The imposing white Cathedral sits atop steep stairs and on a sunny day brightly shines against the deepest blue of the northern sky. A sight to behold!


Helsinki Cathedral – the white gem against Finland’s blue skies


Cathedral seen from a different angle – the façade is fronted by a statue of Emperor Alexander II of Russia

The view from the Cathedral steps is also gorgeous, with two other historic buildings surrounding the Senate Square: the Government Palace and the main building of the Helsinki University. These buildings, along with C.L. Engel other edifices, made of local light-colored granite, earned Helsinki the name “white city of the north”.


Senate Square from the Cathedral steps

Russia’s influence is even more closely felt at the city’s other magnificent church, the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral in the neighboring district of Katajanokka. Elevated on a steep hill, the cathedral rises over Helsinki’s harbor. It was designed by a Russian architect Aleksey Gornostayev and built in 1862–1868. The cathedral is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe, a monument to Finland’s eastern connection.

Uspenski Cathedral

Magnificent, red-brick Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Amazing, vertical scale!

Uspenski Cathedral

Stunning interior

Uspenski Cathedral

Ornate altar

Admiring the Uspenski Cathedral felt a bit like space and time travel, especially since the impression of being somewhere in Russia was magnified by hearing Russian spoken all around by throngs of Russian tourists who visit Finland. Russians by far represent the most numerous foreign tourist group in the country.

Favorite Russian desert, pavlova with berries at Bellevue

For a delightful taste of Russian cuisine you don’t have to cross the border, either. In a historic Bellevue restaurant (Rahapajankatu 3), dating back to 1917, I had some amazing borsch with a dollop of sour cream, traditional blintzikies with roe, and for desert pavlova with berries.

Then, unexpectedly, Uspenski Cathedral made me think of Warsaw. In many ways, Warsaw’s history in the 19th and early 20th century mirrored that of Helsinki. The capital of the Russian-dominated Congress Kingdom of Poland, which was established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Warsaw just like Helsinki was a part of the Russian Empire until it collapsed in 1917 (both Finland and Poland gained independence in the aftermath of WWI). A century of political, cultural, and architectural influences no doubt must have given Warsaw the eastern flavor akin to Helsinki’s. The city’s total destruction during WWII erased much of that heritage. One example of an Orthodox church in Warsaw that no longer exists, but at its prime was as stunning as Uspenski today, was the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky that once stood at the center of Saxon Square (Plac Saski). The Cathedral, built between 1894 and 1912, was designed by a Russian architect Leon Benois and at 70 meters high it was the tallest building in Warsaw at that time. It was demolished in mid-1920s by the Polish authorities eager to forget the memories of Russian occupation. Even if it had survived then, the church would have likely been destroyed during Warsaw’s annihilation by the Nazis. But I can’t help but wonder – what would Warsaw feel like today if more Orthodox churches survived? Probably more like Helsinki…

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Historic photo of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Warsaw

Helsinki is also known for its Art Nouveau (Jugend) buildings designed in the early 1900s. The crown jewel among them is Helsinki’s central railway station designed by Eliel Saarinen, which opened in 1919. The station’s hallmark features include a clock tower and two pairs of statues on both sides of the main entrance, holding spherical lamps.

Helsinki main railway station

Helsinki main railway station

Helsinki main railway station

Lamp-holding giants

You can admire more Jugend-style architecture along Helsinki’s most famous commercial street, Aleksanterinkatu, affectionately known as Aleksi (named for Tsar Alexander I of Russia in 1833).


Fashionable Aleksi


Amazing architectural details of Aleksi

Close to the train station there is another culinary highlight of Helsinki, the Glass Palace (Lasipalatsi) restaurant, housed in a peculiar office building designed in the 1930s – and it hasn’t changed much since. Reindeer meat, local fish, and of course more blini are the highlights.


Tove Jansson’s Moomins

To satisfy cultural appetite, you should visit nearby Ateneum Art Museum (Kaivokatu 2). If you happen to be in Helsinki before September 7 this year, don’t miss excellent exhibit devoted to Helsinki’s most famous daughter, Tove Jansson. Born to a Swedish-speaking family, she lived most of her life in Helsinki and deeply loved the city. She became world famous as a beloved children’s writer. Admiring great exhibits devoted to Tove’s Moomins saga of books about a family of cheerful, white hippo-like characters – Muminki as I knew them in Polish – brought back many special childhood memories. Ateneum is celebrating Tove Jansson’s centennial (1914-2001) by presenting her impressive career not just as a writer but also illustrator, painter, and political caricaturist – areas of her work I didn’t really know about.

As we say goodbye to Finland, let’s listen to its most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. Written in 1899 in covert protest against the increasing Russian censorship, Finlandia has become one of the most important patriotic pieces of music in Finland. Beautiful and powerful!

You can listen to Sibelius in a grand concert hall.. on your iPod in a cozy cafe like Johan & Nyström (Hamringevägen 1). I found this place while flipping through Finnair’s inflight magazine (yes, there are some good ideas in these =). The cafe is located on the waterfront in a former red brick warehouse building and serves divine coffee for locals and weary explorers alike.

Johan & Nyström

Johan & Nyström cafe

…and you can sip your coffee while enjoying harbor views like this! I’m must come back in the summer =) Helskinki

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2 responses »

  1. Hi Ania. Thanks for this history-packed round up on Helsinki. By far this post proves the most appealing for me to visit the Finnish capital. It’s really interesting to see the Russian influence in the country’s past.

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