Flooded with magical summer light in summer and huddled cozily in winter, Helsinki is compact, dynamic and modern. Its character is defined by the contrasting seasons and the proximity to the sea. Although new suburbs have spread into the surrounding areas with relentless speed in the last two decades, the city remains within easy reach of classic, unspoilt Finnish scenery: ragged rocky Baltic islets and shorelines, serene extensive lakes and endless rolling forests of spruce, pine and birch.
Helsinki is on the southern end of Finland, of which it is the capital, on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, which is the most easterly arm of the Baltic Sea. Helsinki is Finland’s biggest seaport. The city’s population is about half a million, although the entire Greater Helsinki metropolitan area has a population of nearly a million and also includes the “cities” of Espoo to the west and Vantaa to the north, as well as the small enclave of Kauniainen (within Espoo’s borders). These areas are designated as cities, although they are actually more like collections of suburbs of Helsinki than anything resembling a city as most people understand it.
The city is bordered by the sea on one side, and on the other three sides by two ring roads, Ring I and the outer Ring III: only a section of Ring II has been completed to date. The central areas are fairly densely built-up, although many park areas are maintained and the sea is never far away. The expanding suburbs are comprised of apartment blocks and new houses, but also retain pockets of older wooden houses, interspersed with orchards, allotments and patches of forest. Finns - even the urbanites of Helsinki, many of whom have moved from Finland’s far-flung rural outposts - hold great store in the supposed national fondness for their natural environment, and it is certainly true that Finland’s great outdoors is only a quick drive from the city.
The centre of the city is on the cluster of promontories and joined-up islands closest to the sea. The main thoroughfare leading right into the heart of the city from north to south is Mannerheimintie, and many of Helsinki’s main attractions are located either on or close to this road. The main shopping streets of Aleksanterinkatu, Esplanadi and Bulevardi all join up with the wide southern stretch of Mannerheimintie.
Many of the sights and most interesting attractions are within comfortable walking distance of each other. A significant proportion of the central area has been reclaimed from the sea: this includes parts of the impressive new Ruoholahti district to the west of the centre. The suburban areas are scattered across the islands and inland areas to the east, west and north. The impression of Helsinki from the air is of a well-spaced collection of smaller suburbs, rather than a single uninterrupted sprawl.
Finland’s total population is about 5.2 million, and Greater Helsinki and the populated corridor to its north are the most concentrated areas of population in the country. Finland is a large country, about half as big again as the UK, for example, and measures more than a thousand kilometres from end to end. Most of Finnish Lapland, a large section of the country to the north whose provincial capital is the city of Rovaniemi, is contained within the Arctic Circle. Finland has a 1,270 kilometre border with Russia to the east, a border of about 700 kilometres with Norway to the north, and a land border of about 400 kilometres with Sweden to the north-west. Estonia, some 80 kilometres to the south across the Gulf of Finland is another close neighbour.
Finland is a country of lakes – over 180,000 of them - and forests, and you don’t have to travel too far in any direction from Helsinki to view typically Finnish scenery. Coastal archipelagos of dozens of fragmented rocky islands are also typical elements of the Finnish landscape, and the coast near Helsinki also has beautiful examples of these. Forest probes some of Helsinki’s inner districts, most noticeably in the form of the Central Park (Keskuspuisto), extending from the Vantaa river in the north to the more central Pasila district.
Pasila itself is a suburb divided into eastern and western areas by the main railway line into the city. It contains some important, mostly new buildings, including the Helsinki Fair Centre and the main city library (both to the east) and the HQ of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (to the west).