Senate Square and Market Square

Helsinki was founded in 1550 as a Swedish trading post, and it was not until 1812 – after the Russian annexation of Finland in 1809 – that it became the capital (replacing Turku). It then started to acquire a stately grandeur, largely in the hands of Carl Ludwig Engel (1778–1840), a German architect appointed by the Russian Tsar. Engel, who had worked in Tallinn and St Petersburg, now brought his refined neoclassical and neo-Byzantine – essentially Russian – 'Empire' style to the city.

Much of the old elegance of Helsinki was destroyed by Soviet bombing during the Second World War, but it can still be seen in and around the Senate Square (Senaatintori), which is traditionally considered to be the city centre. The dominant building in the square, at the summit of a broad and grand flight of steps, is the shining-white Lutheran Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko; also known as Suurkirkko or St Nicholas' Church), designed by Engel and completed in 1852. The four symmetrical, Greek-temple façades are surmounted by the twelve Apostles, gazing down from the pediments, beneath the green Byzantine domes. The interior is cool, elegant and pristine.

The other major buildings in the square are the Government Palace (built 1818–22) and the University (1832–45), both also designed by Engel. In the middle of the square is a statue of Alexander II, Tsar of Russia and Grand Duke of Finland; this was erected in 1894, twenty-three years before the Russian Revolution of 1917 – shortly after which Finland won its independence.

To the west of the Senate Square are Helsinki's main shopping streets, Aleksanterinkatu and the two parallel streets called the Esplanadi: Pohjoisesplanadi (north) and Eteläesplanadi (south). Further south lies this waterbound city's main harbour (Eteläsatama), which is fronted by the Market Square (Kauppatori), otherwise known as the 'fish market'. The daily market does indeed sell fish, but there are also many other colourful stalls, and a covered market, selling fruit and vegetables and Finnish specialist food products, plus local crafts and souvenirs. This is also an excellent place to pick up a snack lunch of fish soup or fresh grilled salmon, or a dish of reindeer meat.

The bronze Art-Nouveau statue of a female nude, atop a fountain to the west of the fish market, is by the Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren (1855-1940). It depicts a mermaid and is known as Havis Amanda (or Manta). Although highly controversial at its inauguration in 1908, it has become an icon of the city.

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