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Helsinki

A city of the sea, Helsinki was built along a series of oddly shaped peninsulas and islands jutting into the Baltic coast along the Gulf of Finland. Streets and avenues curve around bays, bridges reach to nearby islands, and ferries ply among offshore islands.Having grown dramatically since World War II, Helsinki now absorbs more than one-tenth of the Finnish population. The metro area covers 764 square km (474 square miles) and 315 islands. Most sights, hotels, and restaurants cluster on one peninsula, forming a compact central hub. The greater Helsinki metropolitan area, which includes Espoo and Vantaa, has a total population of more than a million people.Helsinki is a relatively young city compared with other European capitals. In the 16th century, King Gustav Vasa of Sweden decided to woo trade from the Estonian city of Tallinn and thus challenge the Hanseatic League's monopoly on Baltic trade. Accordingly, he commanded the people of four Finnish towns to pack up their belongings and relocate to the rapids on the River Vantaa. The new town, founded on June 12, 1550, was named Helsinki.For three centuries, Helsinki (Helsingfors in Swedish) had its ups and downs as a trading town. Turku, to the west, remained Finland's capital and intellectual center. However, Helsinki's fortunes improved when Finland fell under Russian rule as an autonomous grand duchy. Czar Alexander I wanted Finland's political center closer to Russia and, in 1812, selected Helsinki as the new capital. Shortly afterward, Turku suffered a disastrous fire, forcing the university to move to Helsinki. The town's future was secure.Just before the czar's proclamation, a fire destroyed many of Helsinki's traditional wooden structures, precipitating the construction of new buildings suitable for a nation's capital. The German-born architect Carl Ludvig Engel was commissioned to rebuild the city, and as a result, Helsinki has some of the purest neoclassical architecture in the world. Add to this foundation the influence of Stockholm and St. Petersburg with the local inspiration of 20th-century Finnish design, and the result is a European capital city that is as architecturally eye-catching as it is distinct from other Scandinavian capitals. You are bound to discover endless engaging details—a grimacing gargoyle; a foursome of males supporting a balcony's weight on their shoulders; a building painted in striking colors with contrasting flowers in the windows. The city's 400 or so parks make it particularly inviting in summer.Today, Helsinki is still a meeting point of eastern and western Europe, which is reflected in its cosmopolitan image, the influx of Russians and Estonians, and generally multilingual population. Outdoor summer bars ("terrassit" as the locals call them) and cafés in the city center are perfect for people watching on a summer afternoon.

Why cruise Helsinki

Arriving by ship into Finland’s Scandi-cool capital is a standout moment of any Baltic cruise, sailing through one of the world’s biggest archipelagos comprising 330 islands. Helsinki is a city brimming with amazing culture, architecture and design, and truly comes alive in the summer, with al fresco cafés, markets, events and botanical gardens. Cruise passengers visiting Helsinki for a day can accomplish a lot, with the city being easy to navigate and many of its top attractions being on your cruise ship’s doorstep.

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What to see and do in Helsinki

Temppeliaukio Church

A treat for the eyes and ears, the Rock Church, as it is known, is excavated directly into solid rock. Opened in 1969, the church is known for its acoustics and regularly hosts concerts. It is also a fascinating spot to relax and take in the ambience. A popular spot for tourists – so best to visit early to avoid large queues.

Senate Square

Senate Square is ringed by four buildings designed by famed German architect Carl Ludvig Engel. There’s Helsinki Cathedral, which was once known as the St Nicholas Church, the Great Cathedral, the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki, and the National Library of Finland. The square is also home to a monument of Alexander II, former Tsar of Russia and Grand Duke of Finland. Plenty of photo opportunities here then.

Suomenlinna

Time permitting, you should catch the 15-minute ferry to this sea fortress which has been vital to the protection of the country for generations – even though it has been conquered by the Swedes and Russians. Construction began in the 18th century and today it is a world heritage site that attracts visitors from all over. It’s quite the picturesque site – perfect for a picnic.

Mumin Kaffe

Enjoy a cup of coffee amongst Helsinki’s most famous residents: the Moomins. There’s Moomin biscuits, sweets and a range of homemade cakes – perfect for families. Of course, if it’s fine dining you’re after, then you’ll find Finnish cuisine lends itself well. Visit Helsinki restaurant Chef & Sommelier, where you can choose from fixed menus of up to nine dishes and go on a true gastronomic adventure.

Market Square

With plenty of local traders setting up shop and the nearby parks providing a perfect backdrop – the Market Square is a treat to wander around. Situated in the same area as the Market Square, the Old Market Hall is also full of food stalls serving all manner of Finnish delicacies, including reindeer.

Need to know when travelling to Helsinki

Getting around in Helsinki

With 300 cruise ships and more than 400,000 passengers descending on Helsinki every year, it is fair to say this can be one busy port. Cruise ships dock in either the South Harbour or West Harbour. Docking in the South Harbour? Good news: you’re bang in the city centre and just a short walk away from all the sights, providing an ideal location for disembarking passenger. So, if you end up in West Harbour, you’re not quite as lucky as you’ll be facing a 10 to 15 minute journey by public transport and a 25-minute walk to the main centre. Trams, however, provide easy access into the city.

When to go to Helsinki

The cruise season runs between May and September when the city hasn’t yet been plunged into wintry darkness. They are events and festivals throughout the year, but some of the best are in the summer. Bonfires are lit on Midsummer’s Day – known as juhannus in Finland – to mark the shortest day of the year.

Currency

Finland and its capital use the euro. ATMS are scattered across the city and typically offer fairer rates than an exchange booth. It’s worth noting there’s no tipping culture in Finland so don’t feel obliged to tip the bartender pulling your pints – although rewarding good service is always appreciated.

Visas

If you hold a British Citizen passport, you don't need a visa to enter Finland unless you're planning a stay of longer than three months.