Finland: In Helsinki, a Melding of Influences
Finland capital’s 19th- and 20th-century past blends with sleek modern design
Mention Helsinki to a world traveler and the most likely retort is that it resembles somewhere else: Russia’s famed St. Petersburg, maybe. Or a place from some other time—a throwback to the 1950s. It is true that its character reflects its Russian and Swedish past as well as its current position as a world leader in design and architecture.
No further from Washington in flying time than the capitals of Western Europe, Helsinki lies on the southern peninsula in the Gulf of Finland. Although it’s a sizable city—with a population just over half a million—the places a tourist would be want to go are centered near the town square and the Hotel Kämp.
For a glimpse of Helsinki in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, there’s nothing quite like the Hotel Kämp. Its architecture and its Biedermeier and Jugendstil interiors are gentle reminders of the past, but its 21st-century comforts include very comfortable beds and bedding. The hushed tones of both staff and patrons add to the hotel’s aura of gentility.
Carl Wilhelm Kämp, a restaurateur, bought the land for the hotel along Helsinki’s main boulevard in 1884. By 1887, he saw his dream come true: The luxurious hotel he built could compete with any in Europe. Among its amenities in the late 1880s was a horse-drawn carriage that transported patrons to the railroad station and harbor—both are less than a half mile away. Today a visitor can do as the Finns do: walk, take a taxi, or the tram. In summer, bicycles are available for free.Starting in the 1880s the gentry broke their journeys between Stockholm and St. Petersburg by resting at the hotel. During Finland’s fight for independence, the hotel became a meeting place for freedom fighters. In World War II, war correspondents commandeered its bar. Through it all, the Kämp never lost its stature. It remains at the heart of Helsinki, not just geographically.
The Kämp, part of the Starwood chain’s Luxury Collection, deserves its five stars. The rooms are sumptuous, the food and spa are excellent, and service is impeccably attentive.
The rate at the Kämp begins at 380 euros a night, but the hotel offers a rate for weekends (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) starting at 175 euros a night per single, 179 euro a night per double. The rate includes breakfast and acess to the health club and spa. Weekdays the rate is 380 euros for the room only. These rates are available online only: Visit www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury/kamp or www.starwoodspecialoffers.com/hotel_kamp.
What to do in Helsinki
Helsinki is a great city for walkers. From its Senate Square, with buildings designed by Carl Engel, designer of Russia’s famed St. Petersburg, to Market Square, the old part of the city has kept its neoclassical buildings in lovingly restored condition.
A visitor should not leave town without at least trying a sauna. It was, after all, the Finns who popularized and continue to enjoy this form of steam bath. A measure of saunas’ popularity is that for Finland’s 5.5 million people, there are 1.2 million saunas. Most hotels have saunas in their spas.Finns alternate showering—if you really want to go native, use cold water—with sitting or lying in the hot steam. Hitting oneself with bundles of surprisingly aromatic birch twigs is a tradition. So is jumping into the sea or a lake before or after a sauna, regardless of the temperature.
Post-sauna and completely refreshed, a visitor should not miss:
- The Esplanade, Helsinki’s stylish boulevard, is lined with shops such as Marimekko and Artek selling tasteful clothing and design goods.
- The Harbor, with its ships large and small, is a pleasant sight. On land, there’s the Cable Factory, a renovated area of warehouses, now a cultural center with restaurants, museums, and theaters. Often there are craft fairs, particularly at Christmastime.
- The Stone Church. A remarkable modern building made from granite stones, glass, and copper, whose excellent acoustics are appreciated by those who attend its concerts.
- Museums: the Ateneum houses works by European as well as Finnish artists, such as Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905), painter of portraits, many commissioned by the Russian Imperialists. The Design Museum offers a smorgasbord of Scandinavian modern furniture and articles such as vases designed by Finns, including Saarinen, the father-and-son team, and Alva Aalto.
- Music education for Finns begins at age four. It’s no wonder that demand for fine performances is high. Finlandia Hall and the Opera House are considered the best venues for music in Helsinki. In the summer, outdoor concerts are ubiquitous.
Hungry after all that sightseeing?
- The wine bar at the Kämp is a favorite meeting place for residents of Helsinki as well as guests of the hotel.
- For fresh-brewed coffee and cakes that make a sweet tooth swoon, check out Fazer on the Esplanade.
- For a splurge, dinner at G.W. Sundmans is a must. Founded in 1817, the restaurant maintains its Old World ambiance and service. White-gloved waiters deliver such local delicacies as Arctic Char, Elk rillette, carpaccio of reindeer and fillet of deer as well as dishes (terrine of foie gras, roast pork, ginger crème brûlée) more familiar to American palettes.
Finland and Russia share more than a lengthy border. Their cultures are intertwined. That may be why Finns claim that the best Russian food is to be found in Helsinki. At Saslik, a typical meal starts with borscht and ends with Baked Alaska. The main course, beef stroganoff, is served with cream sauce on the side, in deference to Finnish style rather than adherence to a diet. Service, too, is Russian style: Large platters laden with cabbage, onions, beans, and carrots surrounding the beef are placed in the middle of the table so that diners can help themselves. Adding further to the ambiance are a singer and a guitarist, both Russian, performing traditional Russian songs.
How to Get to Helsinki
Several airlines offer package deals, and that’s a smart way to go, given the weakness of the US dollar. Worth checking are
www.nordiquetours.com; www.icelandairholidays.com; and www.continentaljourneys.com.
Other websites containing useful information are:www.visitfinland.com/us