Helsinki History Facts and Timeline

(Helsinki, Uusimaa, Southern Finland, Finland)

Not for a lack of trying, the Finnish capital had a very hard time getting established. The Swedes and Russians both put in some effort to create a trading city along the Gulf of Finland, although Helsinki was essentially a remote backwater settlement until the 19th century, when Finland suddenly came into its own as a nation.

From that time onwards, the history of Helsinki developed in leaps and bounds. Today, this is one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities, with a thriving cultural and commercial atmosphere.

A Rival for the Hanseatic League

In the middle of the 16th century, Sweden's King Gustav I decided to create a trading city that could rival the incredibly powerful Hanseatic League. Directly targeting the Hanseatic city of Reval, which is now named Tallinn, King Gustav I founded a small town here in the middle of the 16th century, calling it Helsingfors.

This, however, was one opening chapter in the history of Helsinki that is best forgotten. The town witnessed and endless stream of problems to overcome, being stunted by a tragic series of disease, war and poverty. In 1710, an outbreak of the plague wiped out the majority of the city's population and that seemed to mark the end of the Swedish king's ambitious challenge to the Hanseatic city states.

A Swedish Fortress

The Swedes took a renewed interest in Helsinki in the 18th century, but this time for defensive rather than for economic purposes. They built the impressive star-shaped Sveaborg naval citadel in the year of 1748, in preparation for the growing conflict with Imperial Russia. This gave the city a much-needed injection of attention, population and economic activity, but still wasn't enough to boost the outpost to the ranks of European cities.

The Grand Duchy of Finland

The second chapter in the slow-running history of Helsinki came from the Russians, who defeated Sweden in the Finnish War (February 1808 to September 1809). The Russian Tsar conquered the Sveaborg Fortress and a year later established the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous mini-kingdom under the Tsar's watchful eye.

Helsinki the Capital

Right after the Russians took the Sveaborg Fortress, a major fire swept through the city and destroyed much of its overall infrastructure. When rebuilding began, Helsinki finally started to develop into a proper city.

Just a few years later, in 1812, the Russian Tsar decided that Turku, the then-capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland, was too close to Sweden and too far from Russia's influence. He ordered that the capital be moved to Helsinki, due to its proximity to St. Petersburg and the existing sea fortress that was renamed Suomenlinna. This year was the great turning point in the history of Helsinki.

Explosive Growth

One of the first major boosts for the new capital was the decision to relocate the Royal Academy of Turku here in 1827, due to the Great Fire of Turku. The Academy would eventually evolve into the University of Helsinki, in a move that confirmed the new capital's importance in the Russian Empire and sparked a wave of infrastructure.

Today's downtown centre of Helsinki reflects the burst of Russian-inspired activity during this century. The neoclassical buildings such as Senate Square look remarkably like St. Petersburg, thanks to the master design plans of the acclaimed German architect Johann Carl Ludwig Engel. The arrival of the railroad and the growth of industrialisation also propelled this city into the ranks of a proper, fully fledged European capital.

Although the city was heavily bombed by the Russians during WWII, Helsinki rebounded quickly and even hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics. The capital spread outwards with relentless pace in the 1970s and 1980s, as Helsinki Spirit kept the population wildly optimistic in the face of the Cold War that surrounded it. Today, it remains Finland's capital and a wonderfully cosmopolitan city, home to both the Finnish president and the national parliament.