• Between east and west. Photo: Helsinki Tourism Material Bank/Niclas Sjöblom
  • Baltic herring by Klaus K. Photo: Helsinki Tourism Material Bank/Klaus K
  • Statue of Alexander II. Photo: Visit Finland Media Bank/Riku PIhlanto

Between East and West

Throughout its 450-year history, maritime Helsinki has swung between the currents of Eastern and Western influences. The lifestyle in the second most northern capital city in the world is full of contrasts and fascinating habit cultures. Influences from both the East and West are visible in the city’s architecture, culinary culture, events, traditions and many other elements that are unique to the way of life in Helsinki.

Helsinki’s architecture is typified by Nordic minimalism and refinement, yet at the same time the styles of different periods can be clearly seen. The contrasts between Eastern and Western influences are most noticeable in the city’s two main cathedrals. The unostentatious Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko) and the Byzantine-Russian redbrick Uspenski Cathedral with its golden cupolas compete for attention within a stone’s throw of each other.

Eastern and Western influences can also be tasted in Helsinki’s culinary culture. The oven-cooking traditions of Eastern Finland and the grilling culture of Western Finland are these days interwoven, and both are represented in the local cuisine. Eastern cultural traditions are also reflected in our love for preserved foods and our use of Northern grains, such as rye and barley. Rye bread is still the most popular type of bread at the dinner table in Helsinki.

In addition to Uspenski Cathedral, there are many other sights in Helsinki related to the tsarist era. Monuments such as the Tsarina’s Stone in the Market Square, the statue to Alexander II in Senate Square, Russian boutiques and restaurants such as Saslik and Bellevue provide an exotic eastern edge to the otherwise western culture of Helsinki.

The Finnish language itself acts as a boundary of sorts between East and West. Finnish belongs to neither the Western Romance languages nor to the Eastern Slavic languages but is based on its own Fenno-Ugric heritage. Naturally, the cultural influences of both East and West have left their mark on our language in the form of numerous loan words, but despite the force of foreign trends and rulers the Finnish language remains very different.  

Helsinki also serves as a bridge between East and West, particularly in terms of travel. Helsinki-Vantaa Airport offers direct flights not only to Europe and the USA but also to many Asian destinations. There are also daily train connections to St. Petersburg and Moscow. The sea surrounds Helsinki from the South, East and West, connecting Helsinki to many other cities along the coast of the Baltic Sea.