Helsinki’s current population is about 604,380, but the Greater Helsinki region including the suburbs of the neighboring administrative areas of Espoo and Vantaa has a population of over 1.3 million.
Helsinki was founded in A.D. 1550 by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden as a trading post to compete with Tallinn to the south in Estonia, which was Danish at that time. The growth of the city was slow until the establishment of Sveaborg (nowadays Suomenlinna) Maritime Fortress in the front of Helsinki in the middle of 18th century. In 1809, Finland was annexed by Russia during a war of that period and the capital of Finland moved from Turku to Helsinki in 1812.
The Czar felt the Grand Duchy of Finland needed a capital of grand proportions. The architects Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, a native Finn, and Carl Ludwig Engel, from Germany, were given the task of rebuilding the city in the Empire style. This can be seen today around the Lutheran Cathedral, which was completed in 1852. The same style, and even architects, is also a part of Saint Petersburg’s history. Though thoroughly a Nordic capital, Helsinki today reflects the influences gained from the Western and Eastern cultures.
The county of Helsinki forms the core of Finland‘s largest urban area, known in Finnish as the “capital area” (pääkaupunkiseutu). Helsinki is bordered by the Gulf of Finland to the south, while the suburban municipality Espoo, with the embedded tiny enclave town of Kauniainen, is to the west. The more industrialized municipality of Vantaa is to the north and east. Beyond these three the suburbs rapidly give way to small towns, farms and forests, most notably Nuuksio National Park at the intersection of Espoo, Vihti and Kirkkonummi.
Within Helsinki itself, the city center is on the southern peninsula at the end of the city’s main thoroughfare Mannerheimintie (or just Mansku). Both the central railway station and the main bus terminal are in the city center. Shopping streets Aleksanterinkatu (or Aleksi for short) and Esplanadi (or Espa) connect to Senate Square (Senaatintori), the historical center of the city. See the Helsinki Guide Map for an interactive searchable map of the city.
City of Helsinki Tourist Information Office, Corner of Pohjoisesplanadi and Unioninkatu (just off Market Square), ☎ +358-9-31013300. M-F 9AM-8PM, Sa-Su 9AM-6PM; closes 6/4PM Oct-Apr. A fount of information with helpful, multilingual staff. They also sell tickets to museums and sightseeing tours.
Helsinki is among the world’s northernmost capitals and the lengthy winter, from November all the way up to March, is dark and freezing. Winter temperatures average -5°C, but the wind chill makes it feel even colder and the mercury can plunge below -20°C on a particularly cold day. Snow falls only intermittently and often melts into gray slush.
The summer is pleasant, but short, lasting from early June until late August. Highs are usually around 22°C and sometimes climb above 27°C, with lows usually ranging between 15 to 20°C. Parks burst into green and sunbathers dot the city’s beaches. Due to the northern latitude, the daylight hours are unusually long in summer, with sunsets very late in the evening, and virtually no darkness at night from early June until mid-July.
The city is officially bilingual, with an 86% Finnish-speaking majority and a visible 6% Swedish-speaking minority. However, most of the Finnish-speaking majority only know the very basics of Swedish, which they learned in school. Most Finns speak English more fluently than Swedish. Although locals will appreciate an effort to say a few words in Finnish, they will readily switch to English. The Swedish in Finland is spoken with an accent quite different from the one in Sweden.
Street names and many signs in Helsinki are in both Finnish and Swedish.