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Helsinki History

Affectionately known as the 'Daughter of the Baltic', Helsinki sprawls across a low-lying peninsula and is sheltered by an archipelago of 315 islands. Founded by Swedish invaders in 1550, the city is young by European standards, but its power and influence grew dramatically when Russia invaded in 1809.

Under the Swedish King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden, the city grew slowly, although it remained an important military centre for troops and a winter retreat for the navy.

However, Russia's growing dominance in the 18th century and the creation of a new capital, St. Petersburg, not far from the Finnish border, had a major influence on Helsinki. Plague and hunger caused by two separate Russian occupations ensued, so the city constructed the Suomenlinna sea-fortress in 1748.

The Swedes gradually weakened and Finland was finally annexed by Russia as an Autonomous Grand Duchy in 1809. Helsinki was subsequently proclaimed the Finnish capital in 1812 and was rebuilt to match its new status.

Industrialisation, new railways and increasing wealth led to new neoclassical and art deco buildings springing up. The jewel in Helsinki’s art deco crown was its railway station created by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen.

In 1917 came Finnish independence and another facelift for Helsinki, which boomed throughout the 1920s and 30s. It became a hotbed of creative activity, producing designers such as Alvar Aalto along with the Moomins cartoon, the Nokia company and latterly, Angry Birds. When it stepped onto the world stage with the completion of its Olympic Stadium in 1938, the city gave notice of its new status as the capital of a fiercely independent new country.

Relatively untouched by WWII, Helsinki and Finland emerged from the conflict as an important partner for the West, although its proximity to Russia made the years of the Cold War uneasy ones.

Now part of one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, Helsinki is fast becoming a popular tourist destination and is as famous for its cutting-edge design as it is for its fascinating east-meets-west churches.

Did you know?
• In 1941, The Finnish Foreign Office summoned Tor Borg to the German embassy in Helsinki to question him about his dog Jackie who had been taught to raise her paw when she heard the word ‘Hitler’. No charges were brought.
• During the WWI, the Suomenlinna fortress (then called Viapori) was part of the Naval Fortress of Peter the Great, designed to protect St Petersburg in Russia.
• Helsinki was named World Design Capital in 2012.

Featured Hotels

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CheapSleep Helsinki

This hostel does what it says on the tin, offering affordable accommodation in a notoriously expensive city. The humorous tagline of its website sums it up: "Sleep cheap, stay rich". With 10 private rooms and 118 dorm beds, take your pick from this modern, comfortable and clean hostel, which benefitted from a refurb in 2012. There's free Wi-Fi throughout, a supermarket on the ground floor, kitchen, 24-hour reception and free lockers.

Crowne Plaza

The 349-room Crowne Plaza benefits from an excellent location opposite the Finnish National Opera on Mannerheimintie close to most of the attractions in Helsinki. The hotel offers wireless internet access in all areas. Creature comforts include saunas a spa and pool and a restaurant and bar.

Holiday Inn Helsinki City Centre

The thoroughly modern Holiday Inn in Helsinki benefits from an excellent location in the centre of Helsinki, next to the train station, the terminus for buses from the airport and the new music centre. There are 174 rooms and suites with modern amenities, plus a restaurant and lobby bar. There's also a gym and a kids play area.

Hilton Helsinki Strand

Just north of the centre, in the Hakaniemi district, the Hilton Helsinki Strand makes the most of the water views from its rooms, restaurant and rooftop sauna, pool and gym complex. The 192 rooms have every convenience, including wireless internet access, and the Helsinki hotel offers excellent services for families, including a babysitting service. The hotel is less than a mile from shops and entertainment areas in the city.

Hotel Kämp

Founded in 1887, the Hotel Kämp has attracted high fliers for more than a century, and its public areas swim with period charm. Restored throughout, the Helsinki hotel offers 179 spacious rooms with luxurious amenities and high-quality dining at the elegant Kämp Café Brasserie & Bar and Yume, which serves innovative Japanese/Scandinavian fusion cuisine. Other facilities include a gym, spa, sauna suite and a stylish bar and nightclub. The hotel has five meeting and conference rooms, plus the flamboyant Mirror Room, with banqueting space for 120.

Hotel Helka

Housed in a building designed by architect Wivi Lönn in 1928 and furnished with furniture designed by Alvar Alto, this inexpensive and comfortable Helsinki hotel also scores points for its convenient location, just west of the centre. Refurbished throughout in 2006, Hotel Helka has 150 rooms, sauna facilities, a restaurant and bar. Limited parking spaces are available.