Founded in 1550 by King Gustav I of Sweden, Helsinki’s history is the key to its distinctive European east meets west culture.
Historically, Helsinki, or Helsingfors, as the Swedish still call it, was meant as a trading port to rival the Haseatic city of Reval (called Tallinn today). Despite the construction of the naval fortress of Suomenlinna, Helsinki remained a mere coastal port overshadowed by larger Baltic trading centres until the defeat of Sweden by Russia in the Finnish War at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Russia annexed Finland and gave it autonomy as the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809. As Sweden retained close ties with Finland’s then-capital, Turku, Czar Alexander I of Russia made Helsinki the new capital, moving the country’s only university from Turku to Helsinki at the same time. This change in emphasis from Swedish rule to Russian also gave Helsinki a new direction architecturally, as the centre of the city was rebuilt to resemble the neoclassical St Petersburg. The development of transport links, industrialisation and trading followed quickly and established Helsinki as a European capital.
Finland became independent of Russia in 1917, and although World War II saw it heavily attacked by Soviet bombers, Helsinki itself remained relatively unscathed. However, this history of conflict with Russia has had a lasting influence on the attitudes of the modern population towards their neighbour and former ruler.
The 1970s saw a period of intense development and urbanisation for the country, increasing the size and population of Helsinki’s metropolitan area and creating the modern city of Helsinki we recognise today.