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The 19th-century Lutheran Cathedral on Senate SquareReg Butler's Helsinki sightseeing began at the ferry quayside, with a local guide ready and waiting as he clambered aboard his tour coach.

Central Helsinki starts right at the harbour, outside the dignified Town Hall, with open-air stalls selling vegetables, fish and meat, reindeer skins and Lap hunting knives.
Until 1809, the settlement of Helsinki had only 5,000 inhabitants living in one-storey log houses. Then Finland was captured by Russia from the Swedes who had ruled the country for the previous 650 years.

With this new addition to the Russian empire, the Czar promoted Helsinki to be the Finnish capital, easily reached from St Petersburg. Big money poured into the city, and two gifted men were placed in charge of building a capital from scratch. 

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The biggest seasonal event is the Helsinki Festival which usually runs from August to September with music under a big tent, and food sampling in Senate Square. 

Despite Finland's distance from the rest of western Europe, it's part of the Euro zone.

The Helsinki Card gives free entry to museums, attractions and public transport plus has a variety of discounts and bonuses. It is available in 24, 48 or 72 hour versions with prices starting at 32 Euros with booking on-line discount.

Finland is not a shoppers' paradise. Beautiful handicrafts have out-of-reach price-tags topped by VAT at 23%. 

All hard-drinking Finns take a booze ferry to Estonia to get their supplies. 

During summer the sun shines for extended hours. In winter the sea freezes over, and icebreakers keep a passage open for commercial traffic. A white Christmas is guaranteed.

A favourite winter pastime is to skate across the ice with a hand-drill, open up a hole and dangle a fishing line. Essential equipment is a bottle of vodka, to keep warm while waiting for a bite.

More information: Finnish Tourist Board.

Brochures are available to download and there is a link to request paper copies by mail.

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One was a city planner, and the other was Carl Engel, a German architect who had studied in Russia. Together they designed the majestic centre around Senate Square, with government buildings, university and a dazzling-white Russian-style cathedral topped by green copper domes. Helsinki blossomed with dozens of streets and buildings, all in a 19th-century style called Russian Neoclassic. 

Later in the century, the favourite style switched to Neo-renaissance and then Art Deco. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Finland declared its independence, which was immediately OK'd by Lenin, who had enough problems in Russia itself. From the 1920s architecture went functional and modern, to give still more variety and eye-appeal. 

During postwar years, the resemblance to parts of St Petersburg or Moscow paid off. Whenever Hollywood wanted to make movies with a Russian setting, Helsinki was chosen for outdoor scenes of films like "Doctor Zhivago", "White Nights", "Reds" and "Gorky Park".

Finland's area is the same as Italy's but it's mostly forests, bogs and lakes with only five million population. It's all very prosperous with modern industries like Nokia mobile phones, shipbuilding, paper and timber. 

There's water, water everywhere. Just about every family owns a yacht or motor-boat, and a summer cabin. Helsinki itself has 500,000 population, mostly living in the forested suburbs. 

Paavo Nurmi - the Flying Finn - statue outside the 1952 Olympic stadiumOur city sightseeing passed by the Olympic Stadium, built in the 1930s in readiness for Games that were finally held in 1948. Outside the stadium is a statue of Paavo Nurmi, the so- called Flying Finn, who won nine gold medals and three silver in the Games of 1920, 1924 and 1928. It's often said that Paavo Nurmi put newly-independent Finland on the world map. The statue shows him running naked, but that was just sculptor's license. 

Another character who helped put Finland's name on the world map is the classical composer Jean Sibelius, whose music was inspired by the national forests and lakes. 

So he likewise rated a monument which took a Finnish woman sculptor seven years to complete. Most monuments get a yawn and are soon forgotten. But the Sibelius memorial is unique: 600 different sizes of stainless steel pipes, set amid parkland trees.

People were shocked at the unveiling, and asked the sculptor what it meant, but she didn't want to say. It's a piece of modern art, which can have a dozen explanations.

The organ-pipe style of the Sibelius monumentMost people think it looks like organ pipes; or maybe a Finnish forest; or it could be Manhattan. Visitors poke their heads up the larger pipes and warble or shout their names. It all makes the Sibelius monument quite unforgettable, which is perhaps what the sculptor intended.

When our city-sightseeing coach tour finished at midday, the free-time alternative was more sightseeing. Instead, I bought a tasty Balkan hot dog as a quick lunch and took a boat trip from the Market Square. 

The Helsinki archipelago was formed during the Ice Age, when enormous ice masses gouged out a passage from north to south. This left behind thousands of little islands which now are mostly privately owned, with summer cabin and a jetty for the family boat.

As central Helsinki is built so close to the shoreline, most highlights can easily be seen by boat-trip. The circuit included the commercial harbour, and a view of shipyards where big luxurious ferries and cruise liners are built. 

Back in town mid-afternoon, there was still time for more sightseeing.

The deal I took was the 3T Tourist Tram. This is a regular-service tram which does a figure-of-eight circuit of central Helsinki, halting at virtually all the main tourist sites. Or 3B does the same thing backwards. 

The fuIn the garden-city centre of Tapiola, a suburb of Helsinkill circuit takes an hour. You can stop anywhere for a photo or a more detailed visit, and then catch another 3T which comes trundling along every ten minutes. But that means paying a little more for a transferable ticket. 

So that made three sightseeing tours of Helsinki in one day by coach, boat and tram. Thirsty work, sightseeing. So the helpful Finns offer yet another possibility: a city tour by an hourly Pub Tram between 2 and 9 pm in summer with a can of beer included in the fare. It's the only city tram that has a toilet.

Consider these other Baltic destinations

ESTONIA - plenty to sing about

LATVIA - Varied weekend in Riga 

LITHUANIA - The bumpy road to Vilnius

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Helsinki Insight Pocket Guide - A useful compact guide, with recommended circuits for those who have time to explore beyond the capital.

Lonely Planet : Finland  by Jennifer Brewer  - A heavyweight guide for those who want toplunge still deeper into Finland and its cultural background. 

Jean Sibelius - Admirers of the music will enjoy this biography of the composer who evokes the spirit of Finland.

Scandinavia, Finland Green Guide (Michelin Green Guides) - an excellent guide to the country, in Michelin's traditional green pocket-book style.

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