Helsinki is manageable and compact enough to have elicited the description "pocket-size metropolis." Helsinki has most of what the world's big metropolises have to offer with few of their drawbacks.
Helsinki has 1.3 million inhabitants, and it was one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the European Union up until the early years of the 21st century.
Helsinki is the second northernmost capital in the world, located on the 60th latitude, just below Anchorage on the 61st. Yet, Helsinki's climate is mild in comparison, and there are four distinct seasons. The average temperature in Helsinki is 61° F in summer and 24° F in winter, daytime and nighttime temperatures combined. Daylight conditions vary dramatically: there are 6 hours of daylight (the sun stays above the horizon) in the heart of winter, and 19 at the peak of summer, in addition to associated twilight. On Summer Solstice, the sun sets at 10.50 pm, and the summer sky never becomes completely dark.
Icy conditions can last from November through March, and the sea off Helsinki normally freezes, but these conditions vary from year to year.
The central parts of Helsinki are located on a peninsula, and the city has a strongly maritime flavour. Whole suburbs are located on islands, and the coastal areas of Helsinki are adorned by an archipelago of 300 islands. Ferries and ships are a staple of the cityscape, handling traffic both inside Helsinki and between Helsinki and other European destinations. In summer, Helsinki receives hundreds of cruise ships from all around the world. There are 11,000 boat moorings in the city.
Helsinki is a green city. One-third of the city's land area is kept for parks and other green areas.
Moving around in Helsinki is easiest by using public transportation. There is a dense network of trams, buses, metro and commuter trains. In the morning rush hour, 71% of all passenger traffic into the city centre is handled by public transportation. Helsinki enjoys the highest resident approval rating among European cities in view of public transportation.
Helsinki has rich architectural layers. These layers start from Neoclassical architecture dating from Finland's Russian era (as a result, parts of Helsinki look like St Petersburg). Neoclassicism gave way to distinctly Finnish-style Art Noveau, strongly influenced by a National Romantic movement in Finland in the late 19th century and marked by nature motifs. Helsinki has many buildings by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, one of the world's most famous modernists. Because of Helsinki's fast growth in recent years, Helsinki is home to a great deal of contemporary architecture.
Helsinki was founded by Sweden's King Gustav Vasa in 1550. Finland was then part of Sweden. A small trading post, Helsinki was to compete with the hub of the area's trade, Tallinn, on the opposite side of the Gulf of Finland. Helsinki's achievements and growth were modest in the first 200 years.
Helsinki's growth only got underway in 1748, when Sweden undertook a massive fortification project against Russia on the islands of Sveaborg, or nowadays Suomenlinna in Finnish, just off the centre of Helsinki. The sea fortress remained the centre of activity in Helsinki until Sweden lost Finland to Russia in 1809 in one of the aftermaths of the Napoleonic wars. Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia, and Helsinki was made the Grand Duchy's capital in 1812.
Berlin-born architect Carl Ludwig Engel was hired to design a city centre for Helsinki worthy of a capital. Helsinki grew rapidly in the 19th century and developed into a thriving city by European standards, with vibrant cultural life.
Finland declared itself independent in 1917 amidst the tumult of the Russian Revolution. The country became a republic and has been democratically governed ever since. Finland joined the European Union in 1995 and has adopted the euro as its currency as the only Nordic EU country.
Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. (The Sami language spoken in Lapland also has an official language status). Helsinki is a bilingual city where all signs and city communication are in the two languages. Finnish is spoken by 85% and Swedish by 6% of the Helsinki residents as their first language.
Today 9% of the Helsinki residents speak other than Finnish or Swedish. The most widely spoken are Russian, Estonian and Somali.
The foreign-born population has grown rapidly in Helsinki, more than quintupling in the past ten years. Today foreign nationals and those born abroad but with Finnish citizenship represent 8% of total population. Their share of the total is expected to reach 18% by 2015. They will be fulfilling much of Helsinki's rapidly growing workforce need, as increasing numbers of residents retire.
Finland is a welfare state. Everybody should have the right to adequate social services and equal opportunities in life. Social safety nets should catch the weakest. Every resident of Finland is covered by a national health insurance.
Cities and other municipalities in Finland carry wide responsibilities. In addition to maintaining infrastructure, they are also responsible for basic and upper secondary school education, social affairs and health. They have the right to levy municipal tax.
Public health care is widely trusted and inexpensive to customers - a visit to a public health centre costs about $16. Finnish municipalities are also obliged to, and always do, provide publicly funded childcare for every child whose parents request it. The parents of a new-born child are entitled to almost one year of paid parental leave.
All Finnish school children complete a nine-grade comprehensive school, which has a uniform curriculum throughout the country. All schools are public; there are no private schools in Finland. Based on this system, Finnish schools achieve excellent results: the nation's 15-year-olds, at the end of the comprehensive school curriculum, have scored the highest marks in the world when assessed in mathematics, reading or scientific skills by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Helsinki residents are highly educated: 34% of them have a bachelor's level degree or higher.
One-third of the Helsinki adults live in one-person households, occupying half of the entire housing stock. Families with children represent 18.5% of the housing stock. One-quarter of the residents under age 18 live with one parent. The most common forms of housing in the City of Helsinki are condominiums and apartments. The Helsinki housing market is divided between rental and privately owned units approximately 50/50.
Housing prices increased sharply in Helsinki until the end of 2008, when they started to decline. The average price of housing in the Helsinki Region (old housing stock) was approximately €3,000 ($4,000) per square metre ($370 per square foot) in the last quarter of 2008. Prices vary highly in new housing stock.
Helsinki is a clean city. It ranks first in Europe in health and sanitation according to the 2007 Worldwide Quality of Living Survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting of the United States. Factors that contributed to the ranking include levels of air pollution, water potability, efficiency of waste removal and sewage systems.
The Helsinki tap water is indistinguishable from bottled spring water according to findings from blind tastings.
Helsinki is a safe city. In terms of perceived safety, Helsinki is the second safest among major European cities. Mercer Human Resource Consulting has placed Helsinki in second place in the world in terms of personal safety and security.
In past years, Finland has repeatedly been rated the least corrupt country in the world.
Helsinki is the most modern and relaxed city in its region, with ample offerings for visitors who are looking for new experiences, nightlife and trendy activity. In addition, Helsinki is green and rich in cultural offerings. This is according to a new survey of Nordic and Baltic destinations by Wonderful Copenhagen, the Danish capital's official tourism website.
New restaurants have popped up in a steady succession in Helsinki, many of them among the best in the Nordic countries and on a par with top European rivals. Gourmets in Helsinki are served by innovative menus that rely on rich local produce including fish, meat, mushrooms, and berries.
The Nordic countries' largest nightclub opened in Helsinki just months ago, to add to a long list of clubs that stay open until 4 in the morning. Helsinki is also a Nordic centre for the gay culture, with the Nordic countries' largest gay club in the city centre.
The capital city of Finland, Helsinki is also the country's cultural capital. There are two symphony orchestras, an opera and a ballet, and several chamber music ensembles. A Helsinki jazz club has been rated one of Europe's best. Many Finnish bands are world famous. There is a strong theatre scene in Helsinki, and each year Helsinki is the scene of 60 festivals. Helsinki offers the best window to famous Finnish design, found in a design district where all the leading Finnish design brands are located within a short walking distance from each other.
Helsinki's large green areas offer opportunities for outdoor activities all year round, with close to 300 miles of trails, 600 miles of bicycle paths, and 125 miles of maintained cross-country ski tracks in the winter. There are dozens of ice-skating rinks including one on a downtown square. A wilderness area is only half an hour away from the centre, available for hiking, canoeing and camping. The sea and the shoreline provide ample opportunities for boating, fishing and other water sports.
The City of Helsinki entered the year 2009 still a little shaken by the global economic downturn. However, Helsinki's economy follows the national economy, so Finland's economic and employment trends will be reflected in Helsinki. Finnish economy, highly dependent on export, is expected to contract by as much as 4.4% in the current year.
Economic indicators so far reveal a healthy city. At the end of November 2008, unemployment in the Helsinki Region was 5.1%, down by 3% from a year ago. Unemployment in the whole country was 7.6%, up by 1%.
Employment (percentage of employed people aged 15-64 of total population) increased by 2.5% in the City of Helsinki during the third quarter of 2008 and reached 75%, the European Union target level.
Unemployment had decreased and employment increased steadily in Helsinki over more than a decade.
A look at economic research by Cambridge Econometrics Ltd with European research institutes shows where the Helsinki Region stood in 2007 among 54 major metropolises in 29 European countries.
By the size of the population, Helsinki was 35th among the 54. By the value of production, Helsinki was 25th. By Gross Value Added (GVA) per capita, which is a rough indicator of the productivity and the income level of a region, Helsinki was in 11th place.
Helsinki's service sector employed 82% of the workforce, while the average of the cities was 79%.
By economic growth in the first five years of the 21st century, Helsinki was among the stronger metropolises of Europe. Helsinki's population growth was 13th fastest, GVA growth 19th fastest, and employment growth 25th fastest.
Helsinki is about to enter the fastest period of growth in its history. In the next 5-10 years, the city will have access to more land to develop than ever before.
The background of the boom is the relocation of large cargo harbours in late 2008 from downtown Helsinki to a new location in a Helsinki suburb, freeing vast waterfront areas for redevelopment. These areas will allow new housing for up to 100,000 people and jobs for tens of thousands.
Helsinki is developed on sustainable principles. The new areas have been planned and will be built on the "mixed use" philosophy. They mix residences with jobs in order to minimize commuting needs, and they also mix all types of housing - rental with privately owned - to avoid segregation along income lines. There is a heavy emphasis on public transportation.
Helsinki produces its energy in city-owned power plants, which are fired by both natural gas and coal, while the city is exploring ways to introduce renewable energy sources into the mix. Helsinki co-generates power, district heat, and district cooling. The city electricity company is the world leader in co-generation efficiency. Approximately 93% of all buildings in the City of Helsinki are heated with co-generated district heat, and many downtown offices are cooled by district cooling.
The Helsinki water treatment facilities set world standards. Wastewater treatment is some of the most efficient in the world and takes place in vast underground halls, sealed from the surrounding urban environment.
A major concern in Helsinki and all of Finland, as well as in all coastal areas of the Baltic Sea, is the alarming condition of the Baltic, a unique and very fragile ecosystem severely burdened by the communities around it. The City of Helsinki, together with the City of Turku in Finland, has undertaken a model action plan, and challenges all other communities and other crucial players to follow, to save the sea.