Heaven in Helsinki

Stretched across inlets and islands of the Baltic, Finland’s capital offers a wealth of interesting sights for the music lover and cultural traveller. Tour leader Robert Veel explores some of Helsinki’s best attractions.

Helsinki is not one of Europe’s ancient capitals. There are no Roman ruins, no medieval monasteries and no Renaissance art. And that’s what makes it so refreshing. A remote fishing village under colonial Swedish rule, Helsinki did not gain prominence until 1808, when Russia decided to make it the capital of its Grand Duchy of Finland. With the collapse of Russia in 1917, Finland was left to chart its own course, and Helsinki became the physical and cultural expression of national identity.

A forward-looking culture

By the late 19th century the rule of the Tsars in Russia was being openly questioned. After an assassination attempt on Alexander III, a program of liberal reform was underway, a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of history. Greater autonomy was given to the Finnish parliament, Finnish language was taught in schools and a nascent awareness of Finland’s past emerged, exemplified by the Kalevala, Finland’s corpus of myths. Rather than propping up Russian rule, Alexander’s reforms emboldened Finland’s independence movement, and with it a search for meaningful national identity. Philosopher and statesman Johan Vilhelm Snellman encapsulated Finland’s conundrum in his much-quoted epigram:

Swedes we are no more,
Russians we cannot become,
therefore Finns we must be

But what did it mean to ‘be Finnish’? Apart from the Kalevala, Finland could not look to its past for answers. So it chose, in a uniquely coordinated way, to look to the future. In architecture, a Finnish National Romantic style emerged, in which carvings of forests, lakes and wildlife were blended into the neo-Romanesque architecture that was currently in vogue. In painting, artists such as Gallen-Kallela depicted scenes from the Kalevala in a distinctly modern style. In his early orchestral works Jean Sibelius also explored Finnish mythology, but eschewed musical historicism.

Crucially for Finland, it did not cease to be forward-looking after this first generation of creative minds. Architects moved on from National Romanticism to the art nouveau style and for much of the twentieth century stayed at the vanguard of modern architecture. In music, Sibelius moved towards a more abstract form of modernism in his later symphonies and left a huge legacy for the country. Finland’s remarkable contemporary musical scene owes much to Sibelius. Composers such as Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kaija Saariaho and Kalevi Aho receive worldwide attention, while performers such as conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, pianist Olli Mustonen and violinist Pekka Kuusisto are at the pinnacle of their profession.

If you are planning to visit Helsinki, it is Finland’s exhilarating journey in modern architecture, design, music and art that you should try to follow.

Neo classical stone figures at the entrance to Helsinki Central Railway Station.

Architecture and design

Start at the beginning with Helsinki’s National Romantic architecture, whose best examples are to be seen while strolling Aleksanterinkatu. The Pohjola Insurance building on the corner of Mikonkatu is a particular delight, with cave-like entrances, and elaborately carved Kalevala figures on the façade.

Helsinki’s inner suburbs offer a wealth of art nouveau architecture. A stroll through the Katajanokka peninsula combines an endless variety of art nouveau swirls, theatrical flourishes and quirky asymmetry with fine views across Helsinki harbour. End your walk at the Aschan Café Jugend, once an art nouveau banking chamber.

An investigation of modern architecture should begin with Helsinki Railway Station. Eliel Saarinen’s masterpiece was initially designed in the National Romantic style, but after intense public scrutiny a thoroughly modern building resulted. Sleek lines, large windows, central heating, integrated furniture, lighting and decoration illustrate many of the guiding principles of modernism. Next stop is Helsinki Olympic Stadium, completed in 1938 and a great example of functionalist architecture. In a leafy suburb a few kilometres north of the stadium is the house and studio of Alvar and Aino Aalto, Finland’s most famous modern architects. The modest building showcases both Alvar’s architectural and Aino’s design talents; it’s hard to believe that such a modern-looking residence was designed in 1938.

Among the many examples of contemporary architecture in Helsinki, two stand out. The University of Helsinki Library, completed in 2011, is bathed in soft Nordic light, reflected off cool white walls, around spiral-shaped atriums and curvaceous staircases. It’s a public building, so just pretend you’re an undergraduate and step right in. On the plaza in front of the Kamppi shopping mall is the Chapel of Silence, completed in 2012. The oval exterior form of the building is faced in overlapping spruce planks, a reminder both of Finland’s forests and its maritime traditions.

Closely aligned to Finland’s architectural heritage is its decorative arts and design. Firms such as Marimekko, Iittala and Artek have taken the best of Finnish design to the world. All three have flagship stores in Helsinki. The small but comprehensive Helsinki Design Museum surveys the history of design in Finland from the 1890s to the rise of the Nokia mobile phone in the 1990s.

The stunning interior of Aschan Cafe Jugend, located in the very heart of the city, along the bustling Pohjoisesplanadi avenue in the centre’s historical Jugendstil milieu.

Fine arts

While Finland has a distinctive school of painting, it’s not as rich or influential as the country’s architecture, design or music. Nevertheless, the Ateneum merits a few hours. It is home to an important historic collection exploring national identity. Less convincing perhaps are the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (admittedly housed in a stunning contemporary building) and the Helsinki Art Museum, housed in the former Olympic tennis pavilion.

Albert Edelfelt’s Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti, 1887, in the Ateneum Art Museum. Edelfelt made Finnish culture visible abroad, before Finland gained full independence.

Music-lovers’ Helsinki

While it’s not London or New York, Helsinki’s vibrant music scene, not to mention its history, make it a significant destination for music lovers. Timing is everything. Unless you enjoy temperatures of -15 Celsius and only a few hours of daylight, you’ll probably want to avoid the mid-winter concert season. The summer months are great for travel, but apart from a three-day chamber music festival in July, Helsinki’s concert halls and opera houses are closed. If you visit in May, September or early October you’ll get reasonable weather and the chance to catch concerts by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Finnish National Opera. Both institutions are housed in sleek contemporary buildings. The Sibelius Academy, Finland’s principal music education institution, is housed in the same building as the concert hall, and offers regular concerts. Look out as well for smaller-scale concerts in churches and local halls.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) remains Finland’s major musical figure, and so music-lovers will want to take the day trip to Ainola, his lakeside villa north of Helsinki. Ainola is a fine artist’s house museum, movingly evoking Sibelius’s work and domestic life through its peaceful setting, rustic design, artworks and the musical artefacts which fill the villa.

The Sibelius Monument by Eila Hiltunen is dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). The monument is located at the Sibelius Park.

Accommodation and dining

  • Radisson Blu – four-star comfort in a convenient location near Helsinki railway station
  • Hotel Kämp – five-star luxury hotel, where Sibelius and friends indulged in multi-day drinking sprees
  • Hotel Torni – a quirky mid-range hotel in a fabulous art deco building, reputedly once KGB headquarters
  • Ateljé Finne – an elegant local restaurant housed in a former sculptor’s studio
  • Teatteri – outdoor dining on the Esplanade, right behind the Swedish Theatre
  • Aschan Café Jugend – more for the art nouveau interior than the food, with a €10 buffet lunch and decent cappuccino
Robert Veel

Robert Veel

Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director. Robert continues to teach occasionally in Continuing Education courses.

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