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Footloose in Helsinki

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Footloose in Helsinki

A few ways you can make the most of your trip to the Finnish capital.

I am in the world's second most northerly capital, the home of the mobile Goliath, Nokia. Helsinki was founded by the Swedish king Gustav I in 1550 to compete as a market with Tallinn, across the Baltic Sea. It really grew into a city of importance after the Russians annexed it in 1809.

Though Helsinki was attacked during the Second World War, its delightful mix of architecture with influences from Russia, Scandinavia and other Baltic nations has survived.

SPEND SOME TIME AT SENATE SQUARE

Start exploring the city at Senate Square, where wealthy merchants built their houses in the 18th Century. The centerpiece is the neoclassical, Lutheran St Nicholas church with its green dome atop a majestic granite staircase.

More than 90% of the Finnish people are Lutherans, and the architect, Ludvig Engel, who designed this also, designed the other buildings around the square like the National Library, the University of Finland and the Government Palace.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Tsar Alexander II. In the distance is a whiff of the Russian influence again in the golden cupolas and red-bricked facade of the Uspenski church, the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe.

VISIT THE SIBELIUS MONUMENT

The Sibelius monument is set in the middle of a birch forest. It's made up of silvery, vertical stainless steel tubes welded together in an abstract form which look like the face of the composer.

The monument is dedicated to the greatest Finnish composer Sibelius, famous for his seven symphonies who passed away in 1967.

PRAY AT THE ROCK CHURCH

The Temppeliaukio or the 'Rock church' was clawed out of a solid piece of granite in 1969. It has an extraordinary, ethereal, dome made of gleaming copper wire, and concrete beams with glass in an amazing design.

The rough walls of raw rock gleaming in the light of the flickering candles, the unadorned altar, the birch wood benches and the golden sunbeams streaming in like a thousand dancing elves have me entranced.

The acoustics of the church are so amazing that it's a favourite for concerts!

VISIT THE NEW SHOW STOPPERS

The city's latest showpiece is the stunning OODI central Library built to coincide with the centenary of Finnish Independence. It was opened in December 2018. The building clad in timber looks like a gargantuan space craft from the outside.

Inside it has circular staircases, large reading areas lined with book shelves, sloping wooden spaces to recline and read, a café and an auditorium. Follow it up with a visit to the innovative Kamppi Chapel of Silence in Narinkka Square, a curved timber structure that does not look like a typical chapel.

Close by is the new Amos Rex Museum which is underground and has playful bubble like structures above the ground which act as playgrounds for kids and adults who clamber on its slopes.

FEAST ON THE ARCHITECTURE

Helsinki has more than 600 Art nouveau buildings (known by the German name Jugend) scattered around the city with its highly stylised, flowing motifs and shades of pastel. Drive around Ullanlinna, a residential neighbourhood looking at Art Nouveau houses from the 1900s.

The railway station designed by the celebrated architect Eliel Saarinen is a famous building too with its stone guardians and illuminated globes.

TAKE A WALK IN THE PARK

A third of the city is covered with green areas.

Walk through the Esplanade Park, with people sitting in outdoor cafes, benches and children on bicycles. Don't miss the bronze statue of national poet J.L Runeberg whose first poem Maamme became the national anthem.

Central Park is another 10-km-long green space running from south to north in the city with meadows, forests and fields as a well as a prolific bird life.

TAKE A FERRY TO SUOMENLINA

From the South Harbour's Market Square take a ferry to Suomenlinna fortress, a formidable naval fortress built by the Swedish in the 18th Century and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It used to play an important role in the power politics of the Baltic Sea and is built over six islands connected by short bridges and has a maze of hiking paths, museums, ramparts, moss-covered walls and a huge dry dock.

Today, Suomenlinna is a city district with about 900 residents with its own school, church, etc. Many of the garrison buildings are now workshops for artists and craftsmen.

ENJOY FINLAND ON A PLATE

Finland is one of the world's largest consumers of coffee and there are quaint cafes everywhere with people sipping hot cups of coffee with cinnamon buns.

Enjoy the Finnish breakfasts of dark rye bread, four grain porridge, succulent fruits, blue cheese and generous helpings of berries. Feast on local salmon, reindeer and moose.

Try Finnish Napue and Arctic Blue gin.

INDULGE IN RETAIL THERAPY

Walk along Aleksanterinkatu Street and the Esplanadi, spending some time at the gargantuan Stockmanns departmental Store.

It's also famous for its cutting edge design stores like Marimekko with its distinctive textiles and signature bold oversized flowers and Littala with its glassware.

The Design District is a great place to buy some Finnish designs as they showcase cool and contemporary designers across 25 streets.

SAVOUR THE LOCAL MARKETS

The Old Market Hall near the harbour is a historic building and has stalls that sell everything from reindeer meat and chips to honey, handicrafts, and smoked fish. Hakaniemi Market is another market popular with the locals that offers cafes and bakeries along with products like meats, cheese and handicrafts.