Helsinki was founded in 1550 by King Gustav Vasa, who longed to create a rival to the Hansa trading town of Tallinn. An earlier trial at Ekenäs proved unsuccessful, so by royal decree traders from Ekenäs and a few other towns were bundled off to the newly founded Helsingfors (the Swedish name for Helsinki).
For more than 200 years Helsinki remained a backwater market town on a windy, rocky peninsula. The Swedes built a fortress named Sveaborg in 1748 to protect the eastern part of the empire against Russian attack. Following the war of 1808, the Russians succeeded in taking the fortress and a year later Russia annexed Finland as an autonomous grand duchy. A capital closer to St Petersburg was required, to keep a closer eye on Finland's domestic politics. Helsinki was chosen - in large part because of the sea fortress (now called Suomenlinna) just outside the harbour - and so in 1812 classy Turku lost its long-standing status as Finland's capital and premier town.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Helsinki grew rapidly in all directions. German architect CL Engel was called on to help design the city centre, which resulted in the stately, neoclassical Senaatintori (Senate Square). The city suffered heavy Russian bombing during WWII, but in the postwar period Helsinki recovered and went on to host the Summer Olympic Games in 1952.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many new suburbs were built around Helsinki and residents celebrated their 'Helsinki Spirit', a term used for Cold War détente. Since then, Helsinki has prospered as an international city with a flourishing cultural life. It is the seat of national parliament and official home to the president. Its hotels are well-stocked with conference delegates and in 2005 the city hosted the athletics World Championships, which unluckily coincided with some of the worst August rain for decades!