You feel a palpable sense of history walking through Helsinki’s Senate Square as Finland celebrates 100 years of independence from Russia. A statue of Alexander II, the Russian emperor and grand duke of Finland, who paved the way for the country’s independence, is framed by Helsinki Cathedral, which looks out on to the attractive harbour. Fittingly, the square has doubled for St Petersburg in films such as Warren Beatty’s Oscar-nominated Reds.

Today under the theme of “Together” the centenary is visible on every street corner and celebrated through art, design, cuisine and much more.

The second most northerly capital after Reykjavik borders Sweden, Norway and Russia, where the influence of the last named is perhaps most visible in Senate Square. Tourists and locals drink coffee in the cafes while further along is Savotta, which serves traditional food sourced from the forests including reindeer and bear. To warm things up – Helsinki is truly northern, after all – I decide to go for a homely traditional stew of braised lamb, root vegetables and potatoes, served by waitresses in traditional dress. Although perhaps a little too kitsch for some tastes it proves to be a popular draw for tourists.

There’s much to absorb for the first-time visitor. A short walk leads to Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox Church dating back to when Finland was part of the Russian Empire. You can view the majestic structure on the hill from most parts of the city. It’s worth entering to sit in wonder at the grand interior, which features a treasure trove of valuable icons, chandeliers and a painted starry dome supported by four granite columns.

Elsewhere, Utopia Now is the title of an exhibition at the Design Museum which gives some indication of the creative energy and innovation which has shaped this small country over the last 100 years. The museum houses artefacts including the glasswork, textiles and furniture of modernist master Alvar Aalto. Attention is drawn towards his overlooked first wife Aino, whose instantly recognisable glass designs continue to secure considerable sales. Eero Aarnio’s Ball Chair is another iconic pop culture design featured in films such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and British television series The Prisoner. It’s also been a prop for models on countless magazine covers since the mid 1960s. Placed close to the entrance it proves to be a crowd-pleaser as a queue which spans generations pose for snaps in the coveted chair. Also featured are the Jopo bicycle and the pioneering Nokia phone which made texting a part of everyday life.

The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and added to that list are Fiskars’ orange household scissors which also arrived in 1967. The stories behind Finland’s contributions to the wider world are told through exhibits, artefacts and photography, and one of the most striking is Princess Leia’s Planetoid Valleys necklace which featured in the original Star Wars, designed by Finish artist Bjorn Weckstrom. There is also the story of the welfare state which features the Baby Box, a maternity package which has been part of the Finnish social security system since 1938. It was launched as a pilot scheme in Scotland earlier this year.

Many Finns have taken notice of Scotland’s political developments over the last few years. Tour guide Maria Hanninen says: “Finns are watching the situation in Scotland with interest. This year Finland is showing the world how a small nation can thrive when it is free from a larger power. We are a country comfortable with the past and who we are now.”

Another creative symbol of national pride are the fashions, patterns and designs of Marimekko, which are visible even before my plane from Edinburgh lands, appearing on paper cups and napkins. The design museum proudly displays Jackie Kennedy in Marimekko and it is everywhere in various boutiques, galleries, coffee houses and antique shops.

The Passio kitchen and bar is a friendly and bright environment which specialises in matching food and wine. For lunch I was served gilthead sea bream and artichoke with riesling, followed by a butternut squash and cinnamon sweet.

Finnish sauna culture is enjoying a revival, particularly in Helsinki. I visit the Loyly sauna, named after the Finnish word for the steam which rises when water is poured on hot stones. Within the striking wooden panels and structure it provides a sense of how the Finns unwind as part of a society. There is undoubtedly a communal and relaxed feeling as locals sit and converse over a beer or glass of wine in the sauna. Time spent here is seen as an essential part of wellbeing and saunas are often found in the home and workplace.

Post sauna, you are encouraged to swim in the sea and many seem comfortable diving into the ice-cold waves. For others the restaurant appears to be the place to sit and look on to the water as the sun sets.

A word used often to describe Finnish determination and perseverance during my visit is “sisu”. Probably the best public example of this is found in the centre of Helsinki in the form of an equestrian statue of Marshal Mannerheim, a national hero and symbolic figure celebrated for his leadership and strategy in a number of wars, mostly against Russia.

I take a trip to Porvoo, the second oldest city in Finland, which is an hour away by bus. The streets of historic Porvoo are a charming distraction from the haste of the new city with colourful wooden houses, cobbled streets and an array of artists selling their wares.

My favourite shop is perhaps Art Story – owner Tuija Orava undoubtedly has a fantastic eye, exhibiting the paintings of Maarit Lassila, which have a surreal John Byrne quality.

The Petris Chocolate Room is typical of many businesses that have sprung up around the village in the last two decades. Owner Petri Siren has built a successful business selling pastries, hand-crated chocolates and macaroons. Both Orava and Siren are typical of many Finns who are vocally proud of the country’s independence and believe it has been an essential driver in business and creativity.

When I return to Helsinki I take a detour to The Moomin Shop to buy gifts before going to Gron (Green), a restaurant specialising in seasonal Scandinavian and plant-based ingredients. I am presented with raw dry-aged beef and mustard flavoured kale with cured and smoked egg yolk. It is a first-time experience but an enjoyable one, and followed by smoked blue mussels with celeriac roasted in hay and hollandaise sauce.

Visiting Helsinki is an absorbing experience – and the independence centenary is an ideal time to visit.


Getting there

Finnair has return flights from Edinburgh to Helsinki from £192. There are flights on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays with services on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during summer. Visit or call 020 8001 0101.

Where to stay

Hotel Haven has prices from around £180 per night. Visit

Further information