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I didn’t have a strong idea of Helsinki before we arrived. We have lived in Trondheim for 8 months and we’ve visited Östersund in Sweden and Riga in Latvia but no other cities in this Scandinavian/Baltic region. Those 3 cities have many differences so I didn’t know what to expect of Helsinki.
Helsinki is close to Tallinn, Estonia, and reasonably close to Saint Petersburg, Russia and Stockholm, Sweden. The first thing that I noticed in Finland is that all signs are written in Suomi (I have no idea why we say Finnish when they call themselves Suomi!) and Swedish. This helped us a lot because we can read some Norwegian and hence Swedish but we had no chance at reading Suomi! I asked my Suomi friend if the reason that Swedish is the 2nd national language of Finland is in case they invade again but she only have a weak laugh and said I hope not. Later her husband made a classic Suomi / Swedish joke: What is Sweden’s first line of defence against an attack from Russia? Finland (Suomi) is!
The next thing that struck me about Helsinki is the number of super cool design shops. Pretty soon I was lusting after awesome chairs the colours of Smarties and wishing we had a permanent home to put some in. And then there are the Koko line of crockery by Arabia. Fortunately we are at least taking 4 bowls home from that range!
In 2009, Helsinki was chosen to be the World Design Capital for 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. There certainly are some cool looking buildings around town. It’s quite a young city, only having been founded in the 1550 by King Gustav of Sweden as a competitor to Tallinn for trade. It grew slowly and more than half of the residents were killed by the plague in 1710. As a result it doesn’t have an amazing old town like Riga nor an 11th century cathedral like Trondheim. However, Suomi must love living here because in 2011, Monocle magazine ranked Helsinki the most liveable city in the world in its “Liveable Cities Index 2011”. Also Helsinki ranked in the top ten of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s August 2015 Liveability survey, assessing the best and worst cities to live in globally.
I think that Helsinki would be nicer to visit in the summer but we did enjoy staying there. Many Suomi speak English very well and we felt welcome.