Birth of Helsinki

The town of Helsinki was founded by King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden (which Finland belonged to for many centuries) as a new trading post in southern Finland and a competitor to Tallinn in Estonia, the hanseatic city on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Finland. The King then ordered the burghers of Rauma, Ulvila, Porvoo and Tammisaari to move to Helsinki; the date on which this order was issued, 12.6.1550, is regarded as the date on which the city was founded.

Russia's growing power in the 18th century and the founding of its new capital, St. Petersburg, not far from the Finnish border in 1703 were to have a decisive influence on the growth and future of the Finnish capital. The Russians occupied Helsinki during the Great Hate of 1713-21 and again in 1742. Sweden lost its status as a superpower. The war having been lost, it became vital for Sweden to fortify Helsinki. In 1748, construction of the magnificent sea-fortress of Suomenlinna, built on an outlying island, was begun, creating what was described by a historian of the time as the "Gibraltar of the North." The building of Suomenlinna marked a turning point in the history of Helsinki, bringing prosperity to the town. Seafaring also grew to new proportions.
In 1808 Sweden was forced to declare war on Russia as a result of the power politics of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I. Helsinki was occupied in the early days of the war and the Suomenlinna fortress surrendered. Finland was annexed to Russia as an Autonomous Grand Duchy in 1809.

Helsinki as a capital

Helsinki was proclaimed the Finnish capital in 1812 and Finland's only university, which had been founded in Turku in 1640, was transferred to Helsinki in 1828. Devastated by fire, the town was completely rebuilt in a style worthy of a capital. Placed in charge of the rebuilding project were Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, a native of Helsinki, and the German-born architect Carl Ludwig Engel, who together gave the city its monumental Empire-style centre. The most conspicuous building in the Empire centre is the Cathedral, completed in 1852.

The links with the provinces and foreign countries vital for an industrial city were forged with the building of railways to Hämeenlinna in 1862 and to St. Petersburg in 1870. The late 19th century architecture reflects the rise of industrialism, of growing affluence and European trends, the most imposing examples being the neorenaissance buildings along Esplanadi, Aleksanterinkatu, Mannerheimintie and Erottaja. The Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe, was inaugurated in 1868.

As a Independent republic

Finland declared its independence in 1917. This was immediately followed by civil war. In May 1918 the war ended with victory for the government troops, led by General C.G.E. Mannerheim (1867-1951). The end of the war posed many challenges for the capital of the young, independent republic. The architecture of the 1920s and 1930s was marked by classicism and functionalism. Helsinki Olympic Stadium was completed in 1938, but the games were postponed due to the war; Helsinki went on to host the games in 1952. Unlike all other states on the European continent that were involved in the Second World War, Finland was never occupied by foreign forces. Finland is one of the very few European countries with an unbroken record of democratic rule from the end of the First World War to the present.

Helsinki has ample experience of hosting major political conferences. In 1975, Helsinki hosted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The first U.S.-Soviet summit took place in Helsinki in 1990, when President George Bush met President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995, once again marking the start of a new era for the capital. Helsinki was one of the nine European Cities of Culture for the year 2000. In that year Helsinki celebrated its 450th anniversary.

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