A land of music
With a language that isn’t spoken outside its borders, Finland relies on its music as its cultural ambassador. And none is as well known as the works of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), the country’s most famous export and arguably, its greatest composer. Visit the Sibelius Monument, built in his honour, in Sibelius Park, and the Finlandia Talo Huset Hall on Töölönlahti Bay, a multipurpose venue named after a famous piece of his, and an inspiration for concert-hall design worldwide. For the best acoustics, check out concert venue and music centre Musiikkatalo. Most of its rooms are underground, with light bursting in from glass windows above.
Finnish by design
A visit to the 2012 World Design Capital, which pioneered Scandinavian design, calls for a little shopping. Look beyond Marimekko, famed for its bright, floral fabrics, chunky glassware, and cheery bags and clothing. Check out Artek (below) for Alvar Aalto’s groundbreaking designs – think the plywood Aalto Chair – or shop the colourful, wearable fashions of Hanna Sarén, whose wooden clogs and handbags have appeared in Sex And The City.
Nature in the city
Get a feel of the countryside right in the capital of Finland; head to Korkeasaari, one of the low-lying islands dotting its harbour. There, you’ll find Helsinki Zoo. Founded in 1889, its conservation efforts have resulted in the birth of over 20 Amur leopard cubs and more than 100 snow leopard cubs.
The old town of Porvoo (above), known for its brightly painted wooden houses, is well worth a visit too. Lying 50km east of Helsinki, by the Porvoo river, it’s a gateway to the forest paths that inspired the legend of Tapio, the ancient forest spirit.
Identity in art and architecture
Art is an integral part of the Finnish national identity. For contemporary art, take a look around Kiasma (below). For the Art Nouveau architecture the city is known for, look no further than the National Museum of Finland and Central Station. The former, opened to the public in 1916, embodies the classic Finnish National Romantic style – considered a form of Art Nouveau – of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The latter, built in 1919, is guarded by four carved giants that look like warriors out of The Lord Of The Rings.
A history in three churches
Helsinki was a Swedish port before becoming Russian in 1808, then Finnish in 1917, and its intriguing mix of cultures is showcased perfectly by three churches, all within walking distance. Start at the Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square, a neoclassical building that dates from Swedish times. Then, move on to the Uspenski Cathedral (below) with golden-tipped spires, which looks as if it’s been transplanted directly from Red Square in Moscow. For contrast, end with the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church), which was carved into a rocky outcrop; its design ideas are radical – and very Finnish.