The Pearl of the Baltic Sea

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in September 2017, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

I planned for Helsinki over a very hot summer — so hot that only going all the way up to Finland seemed like balm enough for the Madrid heat. I was apprehensive about the weather that I would encounter, as everywhere I looked said that September was rainy and cold, with maybe one day that made it worthwhile to spend time outside. Upon arrival, it seemed as if all these predictions would indeed turn out to be true: Helsinki was humid, overcast, and windy. In truth, however, the temperatures went on to be a lot warmer, and the sky a lot drier, than I had expected them to be, and one sunny afternoon even saw me taking my coat off as I wandered around.

Helsinki, known as Helsingfors in Finland’s second official tongue, Swedish, is not only the capital of the country, but also its most populous city. It is also the third largest municipality in the Nordic countries after Stockholm and Oslo. It is often called the “Daughter of the Baltic,” or “The Pearl of the Baltic Sea,” as it sits on the tip of a peninsula and on 315 islands.


The origins of its name vary, with a theory touting that Swedish settlers first called this area Helsingå (“Helsinge River”), and another proposing that it comes from the Swedish word helsing, which is an archaic form of the word for “neck” (hals), referring to the narrowest part of a river. Whatever the actual origins may be, the name “Helsinki” has been used since 1819, when the Finnish Senate moved from its former capital of Turku and issued decrees, naming the place of issue as Helsinki.

Helsinki was under substantial Swedish control for much of its history, having been established as a trading town in 1550 by King Gustav I of Sweden and intended to be a rival of present-day Tallinn (Estonia). While Gustav attempted to populate his city by ordering the bourgeoisie of Porvoo, Ekenäs, Raina, and Ulvila to resettle there, Helsinki remained small and mostly poor. The building of a naval fortress — Sveaborg, known today as Suomenlinna, and just about the prettiest place in all Helsinki — helped raise its status, but it wasn’t until it was turned into the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland by an invading Russia in 1809 that it began to flourish.

In 1917, in the midst of the Russian Revolution, Finland gained its independence from its eastern neighbor (I visited on the 100-year anniversary of this event). This was followed by a civil war that lasted three and a half months. Later pulled into war with the Soviets, Finland became co-belligerent with Nazi Germany during WWII, narrowing its focus on Soviet Russia. After the end of the war, Finland was forced to pay reparations to the Soviet Union, although it itself thrived, hosting the Summer Olympics in 1952, and revamping its urban plan in the 1970s.

In recent history, Helsinki was named European Capital of Culture in 2000, and World Design Capital in 2012. Located centrally between Stockholm, Tallinn, and Saint Petersburg, Helsinki enjoys close ties with all three cities. In 2011, Monocle ranked Helsinki the world’s most livable city in its livable cities index, and in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 survey, it ranked ninth among 140 cities.

Have you been to Helsinki? What did you think? I’d love to know!

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