For the world’s northernmost metropolitan area, winters are hard, dark, and long. So when the sun reappears, and lingers, in the bright spring and summer months, the city wakes up. Helsinki, Finland, the capital city of the Land of the Midnight Sun, sits as a jewel upon the Baltic Sea, shining in the light of those long summer days, the longest of which lasts nearly 19 hours. Even then, at the height of summer, the sun just barely dips below the horizon, leaving the sky a bright white, before rising again.
So how does a city that sees as few as 6 daylight hours in the winter get named Monocle magazine’s 2011 most liveable city in the world? In many ways, Helsinki’s small size and Finland’s late urbanization in the 1970’s has resulted in an excellent Smart Growth city with a distinct sense of “place.” The relatively small size of Helsinki, clocking in at a cool half million in population, encourages the development of a tight knit community bolstered by a large amount of urban greenspace, bluespace, and public space. These spaces are in turn connected by supremely walk-able and bike-able streets, complimented by an excellent public transportation system – including not just buses and light rails but ferries as well, that promote further community interaction and investment. It is also worth noting the low volume of cars and trucks at the heart of the city. With great economic growth in recent years and an investment in urban infrastructure, it becomes easier to understand how the quality of life in Helsinki can be quite so high. And even in those cold dark months of winter, Helsinki’s is a marine climate; the Baltic Sea keeping the city warmer than one would think it has any right to be at such a latitude.
It is for Helsinki’s great public spaces that we list the city as having one of the world’s greatest urban waterfronts. Due to Helsinki’s peninsular nature, most of its downtown is in fact on, or near the sea. The waterfront is lined by lovely bike paths that weave in and around an array of neighborhoods, parks, and gathering places. The most notable section of the waterfront is the Market Square. Situated at the heart of Helsinki and at the end of the Esplanadi, a grand green promenade, the Market Square can be thought of as the center of great wheel, with many streets and paths the spokes that lead back to it, making it a natural focal point and community space.
As the name suggests, Market Square is not simply a plaza, but, of course, a market. From spring to fall the space fills up with vendors and booths hawking traditional Finnish fare and the shoppers and tourists who come to peruse and purchase. Even in the winter, Helsinki erects a large heated café tent to keep visitors warm, content, and caffeinated. Not to be missed is the annual October herring market – never forget that this is sea town, and Nordic one at that. Perhaps most surprisingly in a city with low vehicular traffic, the first Friday of every month the Market Square hosts a classic American car show.
So, try a visit to Finland in June and celebrate the longest day of the year with a Finnish Midsummer’s party and experience that famous Midnight Sun, or – if you’re more daring, visit in the winter to get a taste of that arctic night. No matter what time of year, amount of sunlight you experience, Helsinki is one world waterfront worth exploring.
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