Helsinki ( listen (help·info); Swedish: Helsingfors, listen (help·info)) is the capital and largest city of Finland. It is in the region of Uusimaa, located in southern Finland, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea. Helsinki has a population of 604,380 (31 December 2012), an urban population of 1,075,465 and a metropolitan population of 1,358,901, making it by far the most populous municipality and urban area in Finland. Helsinki is located some 80 kilometres (50 mi) north of Tallinn, Estonia, 400 kilometres (250 mi) east of Stockholm, Sweden, and 300 kilometres (190 mi) west of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Helsinki has close historical connections with these three cities.
The Helsinki metropolitan area includes urban core of Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and surrounding commuter towns. It is the world’s northernmost metro area of over one million people, and the city is the northernmost capital of an EU member state.
Helsinki is Finland’s major political, educational, financial, cultural and research centre as well as one of northern Europe’s major cities. Approximately 70% of foreign companies operating in Finland have settled in the Helsinki region. The nearby municipality of Vantaa is the location of Helsinki Airport, with frequent service to various destinations in Europe and Asia.
In 2009, Helsinki was chosen to be the World Design Capital for 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, narrowly beating Eindhoven for the title.
In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s August 2012 Liveability survey, assessing the best and worst cities to live in, Helsinki was placed 8th overall. In 2011, the Monocle Magazine in turn ranked Helsinki the most liveable city in the world in its Liveable Cities Index 2011.
Central Helsinki in 1820 before rebuilding. Drawing by Carl Ludvig Engel.
Helsinki was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550 as the town of Helsingfors, which he intended to be a rival to the Hanseatic city of Reval (today known as Tallinn). Little came of the plans as Helsinki remained a tiny town plagued by poverty, wars, and diseases. The plague of 1710 killed the greater part of the inhabitants of Helsinki. The construction of the naval fortress Sveaborg (In Finnish Viapori, today also Suomenlinna) in the 18th century helped improve Helsinki’s status, but it was not until Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War and annexed Finland as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809 that the town began to develop into a substantial city. During the war, Russians besieged the Sveaborg fortress and most of the city was devastated in a 1808 fire.
Czar Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to reduce Swedish influence in Finland and bring the capital closer to St. Petersburg. Following the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, The Royal Academy of Turku, back then the country’s only university, was also relocated to Helsinki, and eventually became the modern University of Helsinki. The move consolidated the city’s new role and helped set it on the path of continuous growth. This transformation is highly apparent in the downtown core, which was rebuilt in neoclassical style to resemble St. Petersburg, mostly to a plan by the German-born architect C. L. Engel. As elsewhere, technological advancements such as railroads and industrialization were key factors behind the city’s growth.
Despite the tumultuousness of Finnish history during the first half of the 20th century, Helsinki continued its steady development. A landmark event was the XV Olympic games (1952 Olympic Games) held in Helsinki. Finland’s rapid urbanization in the 1970s, occurring late relative to the rest of Europe, tripled the population in the metropolitan area, and the Helsinki Metro subway system was built. The relatively sparse population density of Helsinki and its peculiar structure have often been attributed to the lateness of its growth.