From the air, the coast of Finland looks like smashed glass. Like the interior, which is smattered with lakes and forest, it seems half land, half water. It is a coast of peninsulas and islands morphing into the Baltic. On the ground you soon discover that Helsinki, too, is sprawled across a series of peninsulas.
Partly because of this and partly because of its tongue-twisting street names, it is initially tricky to orientate yourself. An easy landmark is Esplanadi Boulevard, a twin tree-lined avenue running down to the port, where you find evidence of names like Alvar Aalto, for which Finland is known.
To the south, this imperial character mellows. Finland gained its independence in 1917. So on the other side of Esplanadi, in a grid of streets dominated by Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and Functionalist buildings, you find the Helsinki that evolved along with Finland’s own identity.
Dubbed the design district, it covers about 25 streets and contemporary architects are about to add another layer, as Helsinki has been named World Design Capital 2012 and new works are underway.
To get to know this design and art rich zone, we took a walking tour. Stopping at Marimekko, our guide explained why Finns are so enamoured with colour. “It was so grey after the war,” she says. “All of a sudden we got colour in life.”
Across the road, in the equally vibrant Finlayson, she holds up a towel that is like a tartan on steroids. “It is by a young Lapthian designer,” she says admiringly. “It is the colours he sees in his country in spring.”
On the adjoining corners are two landmark buildings, the Savoy, the interior of which was designed by the Aaltos, and Artek.
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Photography: Jane Burton Taylor