Start: Senate Square.
Finish: Helsinki Railway Station.
Time: Allow 3 hours, not including museum and shopping stops.
Best Times: Any day it's not raining.
Worst Times: Rush hours (Mon-Fri between 8-9:30am and 5-6:30pm), because of the heavy traffic.
The tour begins at:
1. Senate Square
You'll find the square in front of the monument to the Russian tsar Alexander II, erected in his honor shortly after the annexation of Finland. Helsinki's most historic and beautiful square was designed in the early 1800s at the height of the Russian Empire's fascination with the architectural glories of ancient Greece and Rome. The designer was Berlin-born Carl Ludvig Engel, who created other public buildings in St. Petersburg.
On the north side of the square is the:
2. Lutheran Cathedral
Featuring triplicate statues of saints, it has four small cupolas ringing its central dome. As you face the cathedral, the Senate, capped by a low dome and graced by six Corinthian columns, is on your right. Opposite the cathedral, on the south side of the square, stand the ocher facade and Ionic columns of a house from 1762 that was redesigned by Engel.
Leaving the square, ascend the steeply inclined Unioninkatu, skirting the right-hand (western) edge of the square. The street was dedicated to the tsar in 1819 and, because of its difficult terrain, was considered extremely expensive at the time of its construction. The elegantly graceful building opposite the western facade of the cathedral is the:
3. Library of the University of Helsinki
Some critics consider this the most beautiful of the many buildings created by Engel. Admire its rhythmically repetitive Corinthian pilasters and columns.
Continue uphill. At the northwestern corner of the cathedral's rear side rises the spire of the:
4. Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity
Designed by Engel in 1827, it has an ocher-colored facade and an artfully skewed Orthodox double cross placed above its doorway.
After passing Kirkkokatu, turn right (east) onto Rauhankatu, where you'll see the statue called:
This statue of a young girl is on a porphyry base near the corner. The gray-fronted modern building serving as the statue's backdrop contains the printing presses and engravers' shops for banknotes issued by the Bank of Finland.
Continue east on the same street, passing an ornately neoclassical building with a trio of wise women on its pediment. This is the storage space for the:
6. Finnish State Archives
Originally designed in 1890, over the course of time the archives were greatly expanded with annexes and underground vaults.
At the corner of Snellmaninkatu, turn right. The russet-fronted temple with four Corinthian columns and a single acanthus leaf at the pinnacle of its pediment is the:
7. House of Scientific Studies
Just below its heraldic plaques is a heroic frieze cast in solid bronze, paying homage to the generosity of Alexander II, who promised to retain the internal laws and religion of Finland after its 1809 annexation. For many years the frieze was the largest bronze casting in Finland. The building was erected in 1891.
Across Snellmaninkatu is a somber gray building above a steep embankment -- the central headquarters of the:
8. Bank of Finland
The bank was designed in 1892 by Bohnsted, a Russian-German architect. In front of the bank is a statue of the Finnish statesman J. V. Snellman, the patriot whose life was devoted to raising the Finnish language to the same legal status as Swedish. Snellman was also responsible for making the Finnish markka the official currency of the country, thereby replacing the Russian ruble.
Continue to walk downhill along Snellmaninkatu, skirting the eastern edge of the cathedral's outbuildings. Shortly, you'll reenter Senate Square. Proceed to the bottom of the square, and turn left onto Aleksanterinkatu. At no. 14 on that street, behind a russet-colored 1823 facade, is the:
9. Official Residence of the Lord Mayor of Helsinki
This structure is next door to the Theater Museum at Aleksanterinkatu 12.
Continue walking east along Aleksanterinkatu. In a short time, you'll enter a small gate dotted with a handful of birch trees. Behind the trees rises the neo-Venetian facade of the:
10. House of the Nobility
Originally a private club and the reunion hall of the Finnish and Russian aristocracy, the House of Nobility was completed in 1861. Walk along Aleksanterinkatu, crossing Mariankatu, and continue toward the harbor. Some of the buildings along the harbor date from the 1760s and are among the oldest in Helsinki.
At the waterfront, turn left onto Meritullintori, skirting the edge of the harbor. A sweeping vista of the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Kathedralen (cathedral) comes into view. At this point, the street changes its name to Pohjoisranta and continues to follow the harbor. Continue along this street to the third intersection, Maneeskikatu, where the quay will widen into a formal park ringed with Art Nouveau buildings, some of the finest in Helsinki. Facing the park, notice on your left the redbrick neo-Victorian building, the:
11. Finnish War College & Military Museum
The college was originally constructed as a barracks in the 1880s.
Turn left onto Liisankatu. Completed in 1813, the street honored the Russian tsarina Elisabeth (Liisa is the Finnish version of Elisabeth). Take the second right, turning uphill onto Meritullinkatu. Cross (but don't turn onto) Kulmakatu. At this point, Meritullinkatu becomes a pedestrians-only walkway for residents of the surrounding apartment buildings. At the dead end, turn left and negotiate a narrow, elevated sidewalk high above the street running below (Kristianinkatu). One block later, cross (but don't turn onto) Kulmakatu. A few paces later, at Kristianinkatu 12, you'll see the simple stone foundation and ocher-colored clapboards of the:
12. Burger's House
Helsinki's oldest remaining wooden house, dating from the early 1800s, now accommodates a small museum.
A few steps later, Kristianinkatu dead-ends at a pedestrians-only sidewalk, Oikokatu. Go right (downhill), descending two narrow flights of concrete stairs heading toward the lake. At the bottom you emerge onto a busy avenue, Siltavuorenranta; turn left and notice the stylish bulk of the Scandic Hotel Continental rising across the water. Walk along the curving embankment for a while, coming to the tramway and car traffic hub of Unioninkatu, which you should cross. You'll then enter:
13. Kaisaniemi Park (The Company Keeping Park)
This tract of waterfront land, beloved by residents of Helsinki, was a marshy bogland until the 1830s, when it was drained and opened as Helsinki's first park. The park contains the Botanical Gardens of the University of Helsinki, which date from 1833.
Walk through the park, flanking the water on your right, and then follow the natural left-bending southward curve of the park's main path. (Don't cross any of the railroad tracks.) After exiting from the park, your path becomes Läntinen Teatterikuja, in a neighborhood of Art Nouveau apartment buildings. Follow the street for a block through the theatrical headquarters of Finland. On your left is the:
14. National Theater
Vaguely reminiscent of the opera house in Vienna, the National Theater features decorative sculptures on its facade -- note especially the representation of bears. The theater was designed by the architect Tarjanne in 1902.
Across the square, immediately opposite the National Theater, is:
15. The Ateneum
The Finnish National Gallery, designed by Hoijer and completed in 1887, is the best art museum in Finland.
On the western side of the square (to your right as you face the Ateneum) is one of the most famous public buildings in Europe, the:
16. Helsinki Railway Station
Designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1916, the station includes sculptures evocative of the monumental works of Pharaonic Egypt. It has been copied endlessly ever since by avant-garde set designers of plays and films such as Batman.
After such an exhausting tour, you'll want to:
Take a Break -- From the railway station, head directly south until you reach Pohjoisesplanadi, site of a number of cafes. Our favorite is Aino, Pohjoisesplanadi 21 (tel. 09/62-43-27). Named after a pivotal female character within the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, it sits beside a pulsating street lined with shops near the Market Place. In addition to ordering food and drink here, you'll find it great for people-watching.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.