From humble beginnings, Helsinki has gone on to become one of Europe's most visionary cities. These days the capital is so much the centre of everything that goes on in Finland that its obscure market-town past is totally forgotten.

Helsinki's Beginnings

Helsinki was founded in 1550 by King Gustav Vasa to rival the Hansa trading town of Tallinn. Earlier trials at Ekenäs were fruitless, so traders from there and a few other towns were shanghaied to newly founded Helsingfors (which remains Helsinki's Swedish name today).

Initially it was located at the mouth of the Vantaa river but was moved 4.8km south to its present location in 1640 to obtain better access to the sea.

For more than 200 years it remained a backwater, though it was ravaged by plague in 1710 and razed in 1713 to prevent the Russians occupying it. The inhabitants fled or were captured, and only returned after the Peace of Nystad in 1721. In 1748 the Swedes built the Sveaborg (Suomenlinna) fortress to protect this eastern part of their empire against further Russian attack. Following the war of 1808, however, the Russians succeeded in taking the fortress and a year later Russia annexed Finland as an autonomous grand duchy. A capital nearer Russia than Sweden was required and Helsinki was chosen in 1812 by Tsar Alexander I – Turku lost its longstanding status as Finland’s capital and premier town.

Independence

From the 19th century, Helsinki grew rapidly and in 1816 German architect CL Engel was called on to dignify the city centre. Finland's first university, which had been founded in Turku in 1640, relocated to Helsinki in 1829. Between 1810 and 1890, Helsinki's population increased from 4000 to 60,000.

Stirrings of Finnish nationalism were being felt and academic studies of Finnish cultural traditions created a base on which future nationalistic feelings could be founded. Artists such as composer Jean Sibelius began to be inspired against the growing oppression, and the nation became emotionally ripe for independence. In 1904 the Russian Governor General of Finland, Nikolai Bobrikov, was assassinated by Finnish nationalist Eugen Schauman.

In 1906 the Eduskunta parliament was introduced in Helsinki with universal and equal suffrage (Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women full political rights). The Russian Revolution of October 1917 enabled the Finnish parliament to declare the country's independence on 6 December of that year.

Following an attack by Russian-armed Finnish Reds on the civil guards in Vyborg, the Finnish Civil War flared in late January 1918. During 108 days of heavy fighting, approximately 30,000 Finns were killed. The Reds, comprising the rising working class, aspired to a Russian-style socialist revolution while retaining independence. The nationalist Whites, led by CGE Mannerheim, dreamed of monarchy and sought to emulate Germany.

The Whites, with substantial German help, eventually gained victory and the war ended in May 1918. Friedrich Karl, Prince of Hessen, was elected king of Finland by the Eduskunta on 9 October 1918, but the defeat of imperial Germany a month later made Finland choose a republican state model, under its first president, KJ Ståhlberg.

War & Peace

In 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland and bombed Helsinki several times, during what was known as the Winter War, in a bid to capture Finnish territory, before the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty in 1940. The outbreak of WWII meant that the 1940 Summer Olympics, which Helsinki had been set to host, were cancelled.

In the aftermath of WWII, Finland gained fame internationally as a brave new nation. Significant events included the Helsinki Summer Olympics of 1952 and plaudits won by Finnish designers such as Alvar and Aino Aalto in international expositions. These achievements gave the city and the nation the strength to survive the subsequent Cold War, navigated by the astute if controversial figure of Urho K Kekkonen, president from 1956 to 1981 and a master of diplomacy.

Modern Helsinki

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland could finally integrate itself fully with Europe. It joined the EU in January 1995 and was a founder member of the euro in 2002. The year 2000 saw Helsinki take centre stage as the European Capital of Culture.

In 1999 a new constitution was approved, limiting certain presidential powers. The first to take the wheel under the new order was Tarja Halonen of the Social Democratic Party, elected in 2000. Referred to affectionately as Muumimamma (Moominmamma), she was well loved by many Finns and was re-elected for a second (and, by law, final) six-year term in 2006 before being succeeded in 2012 by the National Coalition Party's Sauli Niinistö. Finland's next presidential elections will be held in 2018.

Parliamentary politics have twisted and turned in recent years. In 2015's general election, Juha Sipilä led his Centre party to victory. Sipilä formed a centre-right coalition and was appointed prime minister by the Finnish Parliament. In 2017, however, one of the three coalition parties, the nationalist Finns Party, elected anti-immigration hardliner Jussi Halla-aho as its leader, and Sipilä and the leader of third coalition partner, Minister of Finance Petteri Orpo of the National Coalition Party, announced they would no longer govern with the Finns Party. The government averted collapse when 20 members of parliament defected from the Finns Party, forming the breakaway New Alternative party. Sipilä's government retained a parliamentary majority as the New Alternative continued as a coalition partner, and the Finns Party was relegated to the opposition. The next parliamentary elections are due in 2019.