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.
Growth was slow, for despite the King's order, the medieval trading traditions were slow to change. Due to the wars in Russia, the Baltic countries and Germany, Helsinki was nevertheless a strategic military centre, a point of embarkation for troops and a winter haven for the navy.
In time, the site of the town on the mouth of the River Vantaa proved unfavourable, and in 1640 a decision was made to move it further south to the Vironniemi headland, nowadays known as Kruununhaka near the city centre.
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 century was, however, one of great hardship for Finland and Helsinki, which suffered gravely from war, plague and hunger. 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 becomes the Capital of Finland
For the town founded by Gustavus Vasa, the war was a major turning point. 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.
Helsinki soon became an administrative, university and garrison town, and the biggest industrial city in the land. By the beginning of the 20th century it had a population of over 100,000.
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.
The first Finnish opera was performed in 1852 and opera took on national importance. The music of celebrated Finnish composer Jean Sibelius figured prominently at the turn of the century, in Finland's drive for autonomy against growing Russian encroachment. The architecture of the turn of the century is in national romantic style. From this period date the Jugend, or art nouveau, districts of Katajanokka, Eira and Ullanlinna.
The independent republic
Finland declared its independence in 1917. This was immediately followed by civil war. At the end of January 1918, the government was forced to flee Helsinki. 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 independent republic developed briskly during the 1920s. The architecture of the 1920s and 1930s was marked by classicism and functionalism and was manifest in the new districts of Töölö. 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.
The Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939. During the Winter War of 1939-40 and the Continuation War of 1941-44 Helsinki was attacked from the air but luckily suffered relatively little damage. 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.
In the post-war years agrarian Finland was rapidly transformed in only a few decades into a modern industrial land. People left the rural regions in large numbers to settle abroad, in the towns of Southern Finland and the Helsinki Region. Under pressure to provide housing for the steadily expanding population, Helsinki quickly founded suburbs, such as Herttoniemi and Maunula in the 1950s, Pihlajamäki in the 1960s.
The best-known modern Finnish architect is Alvar Aalto, whose works in Helsinki include the Social Insurance Institution building, the Academic Bookstore, the House of Culture and Finlandia Hall (completed in 1971).
The new Opera house by the architects Hyvämäki, Karhunen and Parkkinen was opened in 1993, and the Museum of Contemporary Art,designed by architect Stephen Holl, was opened in 1998.
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, too.