HELSINKI has a character quite different from the other Scandinavian capitals, and in many ways is closer in mood (and certainly in looks) to the major cities of eastern Europe. For years an outpost of the Russian empire, its very shape and style was originally modelled on its powerful neighbour's former capital, St Petersburg. Yet throughout the twentieth century the city was also a showcase for independent Finland, much of its impressive architecture drawing inspiration from the dawning of Finnish nationalism and the rise of the republic. Equally the museums, especially the National Museum and the Art Museum of the Atheneum, reveal the country's growing awareness of its own folklore and culture.
Much of central Helsinki is a succession of compact granite blocks, interspersed with more characterful buildings, alongside waterways, green spaces and the glass-fronted office blocks and shopping centres you'll find in any European capital. The city is hemmed in on three sides by water, and all the things you might want to see are within walking distance of one another – and certainly no more than a few minutes apart by tram or bus. The streets have a youthful buzz, and the short summer is acknowledged by crowds strolling the boulevards, cruising the shopping arcades and mingling in the outdoor cafés and restaurants; everywhere there's prolific street entertainment. At night the pace picks up, with a great selection of pubs and clubs, free rock concerts in the numerous parks and an impressive quota of fringe events. It's a pleasure just to be around, merging with the multitude and witnessing the activity.