Perhaps only Dublin runs the Finnish capital a close second. These two maritime cities have more in common than tides of water and drink. Both boast seafronts dominated by neo- classical buildings ranking among the world's finest. There the similarity ends; for while Dublin is a venerable city, Helsinki is a toddler. The great yellow, white and blue neo classical temples that animate the heart of Helsinki are the city's oldest buildings. A tiny seaport founded in the middle of the 16th century, old Helsinki was destroyed by fire and did not rise again until the Russians seized Finland from Sweden in 1809 and built the capital of their new Grand Duchy there. Helsinki remains the only major city in this land of lakes, forests, rally drivers, reindeer, Sibelius, ice- hockey and nuclear fall-out.
The new centre was built in a generation - between 1812 and 1840 - and in the unlikely guise of an Athens of the Arctic. There was much debate then about the appropriateness of designing buildings in the style of sun- soaked Greek temples in dark northern climes. Yet, today, who doubts that the approach by sea to Helsinki is - along with that of Venice and St Petersburg - one of the most sublime entrances to any northern city?
Helsinki's rebirth coincided with the blossoming of the neo-classical movement in architecture, furniture, fashion, art, literature and politics. The style had begun, tentatively, in the mid-18th century with the archaeological rediscovery of ancient Greece. Now that ancient Rome had been raked over for all it was worth, British, French and German antiquarians fell over themselves in their new-found enthusiasm for all things Doric. At the end of the century, the Grecian style was the height of chic; Keats wrote his ode to a Grecian urn, while Napoleon made neo-classical the corporate style of his self-proclaimed empire. Under the influence of all things French, the Swedish and Russian empires followed suit.
If, at first glance, Helsinki resembles St Petersburg - and it does, only in miniature - this is not just because it was established by the Russians, but because the core of the city was shaped by Johann Carl Ludwig Engel (1778- 1840). Engel, a Berliner, found fame working in St Petersburg before being invited to design Helsinki's showcase Senate Square. Rising to the challenge, he went on to create a city of Grecian pediments and columns, painted wood and stucco, set expertly into a rocky and precipitous landscape. It is framed by a sea that freezes in the depths of winter, under light that would have driven Turner - if he had come this way - to new levels of abstraction.
An ardent neo-classicist, Engel achieved the dream of the age: the building of a new Acropolis. Elsewhere in Europe and the United States, his contemporaries aimed to do the same. To varying degrees they succeeded in reshaping their capital cities into semblances of ancient Athens: Schinkel in Berlin, Smirke in London, Gandon in Dublin, Bullfinch and Latrobe in Washington. Only Engel was able to start from scratch. Helsinki was truly a city of the moment. It still looks much as it did then because Finland is sparsely populated (it has five million people and 188,000 lakes) and Helsinki is a small city (pop: 900,000); there is little need to build high, and most modern architecture is in a specifically Finnish style.
Most of what you see, however, is not quite what it appears to be. The historic centre of Helsinki was meticulously rebuilt in the Fifties and Sixties. Finland fought two wars against the Soviet Union - the 100-days war of 1940 and the war of 1941-44 when the Finns, though not officially allies of Nazi Germany, prosecuted a coincidental war against Stalin. The Soviets, through sheer weight of numbers, won both times and Helsinki was ravaged by aerial bombing in the raids of 1944.
If the buildings here are low-rise, prices are sky high. Helsinki is pricier than Tokyo and, though it boasts one of the finest and most comprehensive welfare systems, unemployment is high and alcholism endemic. Despite this, the city is safe and - given its humane layout - one of the most delightful to walk in. (If you go in winter, remember it is cold and dark; the sun hides away for 16 hours of the day and it is so cold that the sea freezes. Remember, too, to take your own whisky - spirits cost at least pounds 20 a bottle).
Suitably wrapped and warmed, head first for Senate Square. This herculean public meeting place measures 560ft by 330ft (big enough to sit St Peter's in). It is flanked by neo-classical civic temples - all by Engel - and crowned with the Lutheran Cathedral of St Nicholas (1830-52) set on top of a magnificent flight of beautifully proportioned steps.
The exterior of the domed cathedral is thrilling; the interior, however, is snow white and cold to eyes unaccustomed to such severe Protestant asceticism. But it is the square as a whole that matters - the cathedral flanked by the Senate (1818-22), the University (1828-32) and the University Library (1833-45) with its magnificent and warm domed interior and colonnaded reading room. This is a delightful place to go and read. Helsinki is a paradise for bibliophiles - the city abounds in bookshops - but, sadly, you might be forced to take your own books as Finnish is a devilishly difficult language. Luckily for British visitors, English is widely spoken.
From Senate Square, a romantic regiment of neo-classical palaces and temples marches through this compact city. Up until the 1930s, younger generations of architects followed the Grecian blueprint first devised by Engel. Here is the President's Palace by his contemporary Pehr Granstedt built in 1818, here the House of Estates (now the Foreign Ministry) by Gustaf Nystrom (1891) and there the striking Parliament building (1927-31) by J S Siren. Here, too, is the lovely wooden Helsinki Old Church (1826) by Engel again.
Before exploring central Helsinki, you might walk down to the fish market on the south esplanade (there is a good cafe here) and take a boat (every half-hour) to the island of Suomenlinna (the fortress island) to visit the Nordic Arts Centre and the boat repair yards.
Back on the mainland, take a 3T or 3B tram (public transport is highly integrated and runs like clockwork); this follows a figure of eight around the city centre, offering a perfect sightseeing trip around the major monuments for less than the price of a cup of the coffee Finns seem to drink all day.
Lunch, the main meal of the day, is heavy duty stuff: soups, stews, burgers, washed down with milk - this accompanies every meal - and yet more coffee. Try meatballs at Kolme Kruunua (an unrestored Thirties cafe at Liisankatu, 5), traditional Finnish food (how about reindeer stew?) at Konstan Molja (Hietalahdenkatu, 14) or excellent Russian cooking at Kosmos (Kalevankatu, 3).
Helsinki afternoons - particularly in the dark and cold - are well spent in the city's countless museums. On warm days it is worth walking, across bridges, through the parks and botanical gardens and around the esplanades. There are plenty of fashionable shops and endless art and craft galleries.
To understand the history of the city and its architecture, visit the Museum of Finnish Architecture (Kasarmikatu, 24; a wonderful neo-renaissance affair dating from 1906). Remember that an understanding of architecture is taken pretty much for granted in Finland, which has produced a disproportionate number of leading architects and designers over the past century, Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) being chief among them.
Another important point of call is the Museum of Applied Arts (Korkeavuorenkatu, 23). There are dozens of other museums in the city, but one not be missed is the Gallen-Kallela Museum in Espoo.
A No 4 tram takes you to Munkkinienu; the museum, a mile away on foot, is signposted from here. Akseli Gallen-Kallela was Finland's most influential 19th-century artist. He was also a designer and architect - the museum is the house he designed for himself - and his work inspired Finns to find their own national style.
Once the idea of a national style had caught on, Finnish designers and architects reacted strongly against the imperial legacy of neo- classicism, a style that was linked to Russian domination. The Republic of Finland came into being only in 1920 as a result of the Russian Revolution.
You will find buildings in the new 'National Romantic' style throughout the city. These include the National Museum (1905-12), modelled in the manner of some fantastic latter-day medieval cathedral by Saarinen, Lindgren and Gesellius, and the fortress-like Telephone Building in Korkeavuorenkatu designed by Lars Sonck and built in 1905.
But the most important landmark of this era is the astonishing central railway station (1906- 14) designed by Eliel Saarinen. It is at once archaic and modern, its huge interior vaults formed in concrete and its massive rusticated facade faced in pink granite. Its most famous feature, however, is the gang of stony-faced giants, carved by Emil Wikstrom, that flank the station's entrances; each cradles a working lantern in his mighty arms.
Perhaps Helsinki needed such sentimentalmonuments to bolster Finland's hard won and precarious national ego. The fledgling republic had to tread a political tightrope between the ambitions of east and west. Even when modern architecture arrived in Finland at the end of the 1920s, it soon developed an approach and a style found nowhere else.
Sadly, there are few hotels to match the architectural ambition of Engel, Saarinen or Aalto. However, hotels and virtually everything else you stay in, sit on, touch and use there - from cafes to trams - are well-made and beautifully looked after.
Perhaps the most interesting place to stay is the Omapolija Teatterimajatalo near the central railway station and the romantic botanical gardens (Ita Teatterikuja, 3; tel: 0-666 211). This is a cheapish, turn-of-the-century building that was once a boarding house for visiting actors. Or else you could try the castle-like Lord Hotel with its art deco interiors (Lonnrotinkatu, 29; tel: 0-680 1680), or the art deco Torni (at 13 storeys the tallest building in
Helsinki; Yrjonkatu, 26; tel: 0-131 131). The Seurahuone, which is a mix of modernity and antiques, features the popular Socis bar (Kaivokatu, 12; tel: 0-170 441).
Nights are long and dark in winter, long and light in summer. The land of the midnight sun is only a train ride north from the central railway station.
At this time of the year, the architecture vanishes, the schnapps bottles - damn the cost - are cracked open and the city blurs into an even more romantic haze. Night clubs split apart with some of the oddest and heaviest rock you will ever hear - some numbers consist of little more than young men shouting in a kind of Nordic a capella. Any leather-jacketed youth will tell you where to go.
In the morning, skate out on to the frozen sea, turn round and hiss back over the ice towards that heavenly vision of a city created, from nothing, less than 200 years ago by an architect whose name means Angel. It will an uplifting and sobering experience.-
GETTING THERE: British Airways (081- 897 4000), Finnair (0800 282832) and Scandanavian Airlines (through Trailfinders) all offer Economy class return flights at pounds 199. Your stay must include a Saturday night. The airport is 35 minutes from the centre of Helsinki by bus (service runs every 15 minutes), or 20 minutes by taxi.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Finnish Tourist Board, 66 Haymarket, SW1Y 4RF, (071- 839 4048). Trailfinders, 071-938 3232.
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