Distinctive Helsinki?

Sweden is trendy & liberal, Estonia’s a grey former communist state and who knows much about Finland?  But on a recent trip, many of these pre-conceptions were challenged.  Our ideas about a country are, increasingly, influenced by government  marketing campaigns or ‘Nation Branding’.  So, following a recent tour around the Baltic Sea, I’m reflecting on my travels – and whether they matched the brand or not.  I start my trip in the finish capital, Helsinki. 

My travelling companion pointed out that arriving in a city late at night means that you don’t get a real idea of what the city is like until you wake the next morning, open the curtains and can survey the city before you.  Sometimes I have woken to find a beautiful city awaiting discovery and other times a grey concrete jungle.

Having arrived in Helsinki after midnight, I opened the curtains and found a quiet city.  Having only become the capital in 1812, the city is a collection of wide boulevards & solid brick buildings, if a little grey.  Trams rumbled past the hotel window hinting at city gradually waking up.  The capital is formed around a collection of large squares, each with a distinctive landmark: one with the fine 1910s, national romanticist train station, another topped by Helsinki’s iconic white cathedral and another facing on to the harbour.  But, despite these initial ideas, I find a bit hard to describe or explain Helsinki’s distinctiveness.

And I am not the first to identify this.  Impressions of a country are often influenced before we arrive there.  This particularly true due to a recent growth in Nation Branding which can be seen as the use of international marketing techniques to influence how a country is perceived so as to attract new or different trade.  In the case of Finland, research has identified that Nokia is a more recognised brand recognition than the country in which it was founded[1].  So what stood out during our 24 hours in the Finnish Capital?

Firstly, music and comedy can be found throughout the city – from buskers to bars, little venues to great concert halls.  Music has played a part in Finland’s growing national identity from Sibelius & emerging Finish nationalism[3] to, more recently, its hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest following the success of rock band Lordi[1]. In both cases, Finland has been seen as an alternative, progressive country. For the visitor, this could be seen in the posters for alternative comedy and music in our hotel reception which might have been interesting to delve in to had we had a little more time in the city.

That alternative attitude can also be seen in Helsinki’s architecture and, for me, in its church buildings.  It’s worth visiting the Temppeliakkiu Church or the Church in the Rock which is blasted into a hillside to the north of the city centre.  The day we visited it was filled by the sounds of an orchestra practicing a modern work.

By contrast, in the centre the modern Kampin Kappeli is a little boat-like chapel, created just as an oasis of peace in the city centre with priests and social workers on hand if people wanted to talk.  In each of their ways, these modern buildings indicated a caring society which used architecture and its resources wisely but are worth a visit for their striking design alone.

Beyond its architecture, the alternative culture can be seen in the products and businesses encountered across the city.  Our day in the Finnish capital marked the start of Fresher’s week at Helsinki University bringing excitement, noise and music on to the streets which would be familiar from many a university city.   Part of Finland’s brand is, increasingly, education with its success in international surveys of education like PISA[2] and a rapid growth in the number of English degrees available.  Finland wants to brand itself as one of the world’s leading education-based economies[2].  As I wandered the streets of Helsinki, passing various university departments, tech firms and new enterprises, it was clear that the capital is having some success in this area.  There’s a Design District  where you can see innovative clothing, jewellery and household goods – though all, of course, for a certain price!  From its universities to its artisan shops, from its fashion boutiques to its banking headquarters, knowledge seems to quietly underpin the city and the Finnish economy.

Helsinki Harbour

For me, the city made more sense from outside looking in.  On the little boat to the island of Suomenlinna, Helsinki comes in to perspective – in more ways than one.  Looking back at the harbour, you can tell this is a port city which needed merchant’s houses in which to conduct trade and a fort to protect the ships there.  This city formed a line between Russian and Swedish armies – and has been taken by both in its time.  The fort at Suomenlinna most tangibly displays that with old towers, ship yards and garrisons lovingly restored but still imposing.  The village there also explains a little of modern Finland: a little shabby-chic but creative with various crafts people setting up workshops.  It also produces its own (rather tasty!) ales.  The couple of hours on the island was the highlight of my time in Helsinki.

Being this far north has forced the city to look to its natural beauty and resources in innovative ways.  Those in charge of Helsinki have then used its human resources (including education) to capitalise what nature has given them[2].  Such a set-up can be seen by the attractive harbour front entertainment complex being built – outside swimming pools, bars and restaurants, built in local wood with good views over the harbour.  Or it can be seen in the individual entrepreneurs selling homemade knitwear, amber jewellery and fresh-cooked salmon & vegetables on the harbour front.  Fins using what nature has given them to earn a living and show-off their country.

As we left Helsinki that night on a ferry bound for Estonia, I was left with an impression of a city which is quietly distinctive but which takes a little time to be understood.  The Finnish national branding correctly emphasises a knowledge economy, nature and a progressive attitude which, with a little searching out, can be seen in a few hours in the city.  It may not have the loudest personality of the Scandinavian cities but its proximity to natural beauty and creativity had made it an interesting start to our Baltic trip.


I have a series of travel tips including recommended books & podcasts in a separate blog post: Travel Tips: Helsinki.

[1] Jordan, P. (2014) The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia.  Tartu: University of Tartu Press.

[2] Schatz, M. (2015) Toward One of the Leading Education-Based Economies? Investigating Aims, Strategies, and Practices ) of Finland’s Education Export Landscape.  Journal of Studies in International Education, 19(4), pp.327–340

[3] Waever, O. (1992) Nordic Nostalgia: Northern Europe after the Cold War.  International Affairs.  68(1), pp.77-102.


2 thoughts on “Distinctive Helsinki?

  1. Very good. You have to remember that Helsinki is not all the Finland. Why not visit Lapland for example. The Arctic Circle is easy to reach by train and air for example. Our northern parts are in winter real Winter Wonder land.

    Check these:

    There is a snow Hotel inside this and much more. You can even get married inside snow chapel, as many has done. Best visit time February.

    World’s Biggest Snow Castle.

    Have You met Santa? Here You can meet him even in summer. Round the year.

    Arctic Circle in winter.

    Would You love to participate in a reindeer-driving contest? In February in the town called Oulu.

    Reindeer driving competition.

    Have good day!


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