While in close physical proximity the gulf between sister Baltic cities Tallinn and Helsinki in terms of their respective histories is almost as wide as the Gulf of Finland and so offers travellers considering a two-city holiday a curious contrast.

As Europe’s only capital without a medieval history Helsinki is a much more modern creation than Tallinn whose Old Town surrounds you with preserved medieval architectural masterpieces at almost every turn. That isn’t to suggest Helsinki is without any history as Vikings sailed these waters a millennium ago but it was little more than a tiny village in a large Swedish empire until the mid-18th century when the Swedes with French financial backing began constructing a huge fortress spread across four interconnected islands they named Sveaborg to guard the approaches to the fine natural harbour while helping check Russian territorial advances gained under tsar Peter the Great. Work on the fortress was begun in earnest in 1748 with as many as 10,000 labourers overseen by Swedish military officers and proved both a cultural and economic boon to Helsinki and it grew rapidly as a result. Renamed Suomenlinna or Castle of Finland upon Finnish independence in 1918,  the mighty bastion was never really completed when it was besieged Russian forces  60 years later surrendering. The fortifications were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and have become the city’s top attraction for both visitors and locals alike.

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A short 15 minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square conveniently brings visitors to the dock on Mustasaari just steps away from a visitors information center with Suomenlinna brochures showing suggested walking routes. Map in handy I set out to explore a little on my own before joining a free guided tour a few hours later and counted myself lucky the gloomy grey clouds had given way to sunny blue skies for my outdoor afternoon visit.

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The free hour long guided tour helps add much historical colour not found in guidebooks or museum brochures so would highly recommend joining one if able. You are able to see and hear about the primitive living conditions in the early years of construction, the zeal of commander Augustin Ehrensvärd in completing the fortress which became his final resting place after his death, and the ship dry dock which was cutting edge technology when built.

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The dry dock remains operational serving as a repair facility for wooden sailing ships that ply local waters.

I would budget an afternoon for a visit to Suomenlinna preferably in fine Summer weather when local families pack a picnic lunch and swim off the island’s rocky shore. It was a little too cool by my mid-September visit for watersports so contented myself with a slow stroll along seaside paths and gun batteries while feeling the full force of the wind coming off the open water.

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If your timing is better than mine you may see one of the large Baltic ferries glide by Suomenlinna on its way to Tallinn or Stockholm.

Easily visible on the ferry ride back from Suomenlinna as it is from most of the city is Helsinki Cathedral, its stark white façade and green domes dominating Senate Square which lies at the bottom of a monumental staircase that’s a popular meeting spot and people watching perch.

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The statue is of Tsar Alexander II who while liked by Finns for not forcing ‘Russification’ on its Finnish duchy in the mid-19th century was less well liked by some Russian subjects for his brutal secret police as he was assassinated in 1881.

The square underwent a complete redesign a decade after an 1808 fire by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel who was sent from St. Petersburg by Tsar Alexander I and saw the cathedral finished in 1852 as well as an administration building that later became the university of Helsinki and National Library. The little blue building on the left dates from 1757 and is one of only two buildings standing in Helsinki that predate Russian rule of Finland.

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A few blocks away at the harbour end of the fashionable Esplanadi is a statue in a large fountain known as Havis Amanda which caused a stir when unveiled on the spot in 1908 for the naked female form rumoured to be the Finnish sculptor’s Parisian mistress.

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Havis Amanda

photo by Kimmo Kulovesi/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The racy nature of the mermaid statue is said to have delayed the work’s payment by the government of the day but as always seems to happen the artist had the last laugh as the lady’s posterior faces a building that long housed the Finnish finance ministry.

The second cathedral looming over the Market Square is the red brick Finnish Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral which has remained the largest in Western Europe since its completion in 1868.

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Sadly the building was closed  for renovations during my visit so wasn’t able to view the interior but having seen Tallinn’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral days earlier could imagine the ornate decorations and gilded icons.

Luckily one of Helsinki’s most visited places of worship that remains open while under construction is the famous ‘rock church’, the Lutheran church whose interior was literally carved out of solid rock.  Temppeliaukio  Church attracts half a million visitors per year and once inside it’s easy to see why as the space is so rough and austere yet warm and welcoming thanks to the natural light that shines in from skylights.

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It is a space worthy of spending some time in quiet contemplation before jumping back into the fast pace of a thoroughly modern city in a modern world.

As if as a reminder that hard work never goes out of style even in modern times the Three Smiths Statue occupies a central location in front of Stockmann Department Store, Helsinki’s equivalent of Macy’s in New York or Harrods in London. The base bears the scars of shrapnel damage from Russian shelling in 1944.

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While no one message was meant to be taken from the statue most locals say it represents the solid character of the Finnish people.

It’s always serendipitous when history sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder which was the case when pausing a bike ride to photograph the tall, twin spires of St. John’s Church when across the street was a beautifully ornate façade with Atlantes (columns in the shape of a man).

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I ended my Helsinki visit with some living history at the Kotiharju Sauna,  the city’s last traditional wood-heated public sauna which has been open since 1928. After paying admission and towel rental you are given a locker key to store your clothes and strip completely before showering and entering the sauna which has room for about 30 on tiered stone terraced seating. Being in the buff the hot stone seats can prove uncomfortable quite quickly so a kind local offered me a wooden plank to perch my posterior.

Helsinki 272 The sauna, which has separate facilities for men & women, serves as much of a local gathering place where friends catch up and visit but increasingly has seen more tourists come as its notoriety has spread. Clad in only a towel and enjoying a beer right outside the sauna entrance as is the custom a local with whom I struck up a conversation said the Summer high season is when most tourists arrive, some lasting only a few minutes before running out. I offered my condolences on having the sauna overrun at times but said I felt of myself as a traveller, not a tourist and came to experience it for myself hopefully learn a little more about why the sauna is essential in Finnish culture. We talked a bit more and I left a little later after another spell in the sauna feeling completely relaxed and believe that beyond the social element it’s having a place to unwind both  mentally and physically that keeps the sauna tradition alive and well throughout Finland. In an age where technology has spread a global culture and things seem increasing more uniform around the world it’s refreshing to see Finland hold on to its history and values as it’s learning about these differences that make travel more rewarding for me.