Helsinki: an architectural walking tour
Set against the crisp blue Baltic sky, Helsinki’s buildings are breathtakingly striking. Finns take design exceptionally seriously; just take a look at any of the furniture or homeware shops around the city and you’ll find beautifully crafted pieces made with precision and careful consideration. Everything is functional, classy and refined. The same level of detail extends to the capital’s buildings, and with a compact centre that is more suited to walking (or cycling) than driving, it’s easy to take a stroll and admire some of the architectural feats on display.
Helsinki’s architecture is a fascinating blend of styles and traditions, perhaps more so than cities like Paris or London which have a certain ‘look’. Many areas of the city still bear the imprint of Russian influence, and the trams running up and down the cobbled streets are reminiscent of other Baltic cities. Elsewhere the style is unmistakably Scandi, whilst some buildings even feature Gothic or art nouveau flourishes.
My hotel, GLO Hotel Art, was in itself an quirky abode – dating back to 1903, the art nouveau castle was intentionally intended for students of the nearby polytechnic to use, and is a striking example of Finnish appropriation of this style around the turn of the century. Situated within the funky Design District, the hotel is a great choice for a truly unique stay in Helsinki.
The features of the castle are still clearly visible inside, having been preserved by the hotel’s own modernisation and renovations, and the lobby and communal areas are both grand and cosy. What could be better than retreating to your own Finnish castle on a cold winter evening?
Starting from the Design District (1), you can follow a fairly straightforward route circling round the city centre, that will take in some of its most beautiful streets and buildings as well as a glimpse out to the Port of Helsinki:
1. Design District
It only seems right to start a tour of Helsinki’s architectural designs and delights in the city’s most innovative and creative suburb. If you’re interested in Finnish design and are on the hunt for unique products, art or fashion this neighbourhood should be top of your list. Brimming with galleries, antique shops, fashion boutiques and quirky restaurants it could easily be the sole focus of a day’s walk – and the folks at Visit Helsinki have a few suggestions for exactly that: walking tours just for the Design District!
Heading east from the Design District towards the harbour brings you to the Esplanadi, or ‘Espa’ for short. Comprised of two roads running parallel – Pohjoisesplanadi and Etaläesplanadi – bordering a smart green park in the middle, it is a beautiful tree-lined boulevard with some super smart properties and cafes running along its length. The park is also used for numerous outdoor events in the summer months
3. The Port of Helsinki and Uspenski Cathedral
Carry on along the Espa and you’ll eventually reach the harbour, passing through the Kauppatori, Helsinki’s Market Square on the edge of the south harbour. Renowned for its produce it’s a great place to pick up some local foods or souvenirs, and the perfect stop-off for a hot drink on a cold day. Follow the road round to the left from the harbour, and you’ll soon spot the striking Uspenski Cathedral, a clear example of Russian influence on the city and its architecture. An Eastern Orthodox cathedral, it was designed by Russian architect Aleksey Gornostayev and finished after his death in 1868.
Past Uspenski Cathedral, head up Pohjoisranta, which runs north overlooking Pohjoissatama Bay. Here the architecture changes again, with a return to more neoclassical styles seen elsewhere in the city and wide, tree-lined boulevards. A few streets west from here you can also find the Finnish House of Nobility (Ritarihuone), which contains offices for the House, as well as various archives and collections. The Finnish nobility is now a closed hereditary society, the last member being enobled in 1912.
5. Helsinki Cathedral
Cut down one of the side streets off Pohjoisranta heading west back towards the city, and you’ll find yourself at the Senate Square, in which Helsinki Cathedral towers proudly over the surrounding buildings. A Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral, it was originally built as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, and even known as St Nicholas’ Church until 1917 when Finland gained independence from Russia. Its surroundings in Senate Square are also some of the oldest buildings in Helsinki and are also very Russian in design – the square having stood in for Russian cities in several films.
Continuing west from the Senate Square join Aleksanterinkatu (or ‘Aleksi’ for short), the main street running east to west through Helsinki’s centre and one which passes most of the city’s important landmarks. It will also take you past many of the major shopping areas, depositing you near the famous Stockmann department store. Designed in Nordic Art Deco style, is it one of Europe’s largest and most luxurious high-end stores – allow plenty of time for browsing and be sure to check out the food halls.
7. Helsinki Train Station
It may seem odd to have a train station as a stand-out location on an architectural walking tour, but the Central Railway Station is one of the most well-known sites in Kluuvi (the neighbourhood in which it sits) if not the whole of Helsinki, and a great place to finish an architectural walk of the city. A stunning art nouveau building clad in Finnish granite, its distinguishing features are its 48.5m high clock tower, and the enigmatic ‘Lantern Carriers’ – two pairs of statues carved into the building’s main entrance staring into the distance, each holding a globed lamp.