The capital of Finland since 1812, Helsinki was rebuilt by the Russian Tsar as St Petersburg in miniature and is a charming mix of 21st century metropolis and small-town ambience. Summer here sees citizens crowding outdoor cafes and bars to enjoy the brief months of warmth and sunshine. Set on Finland's southern peninsula with its dramatic fjords and offshore islands, it's the perfect base for exploring with a rental motorhome.
Bordered by the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki's central districts lie on the southern tip of the peninsula and the Senate Square district is its historic quarter holding many of its major landmarks. Getting out from the city for a day leads to forested land crossed by huge ridges formed by retreating glaciers. Remote and unspoiled, the countryside is home to brown bears, elks, wolves, wolverines and many bird species.
Helsinki's most famous landmark, the massive, timeless island fortress of Suomelinna, is a city within a city with a thousand residents, bars, clubs and restaurants in heritage buildings, cannons and fortifications, museums and theatres. It's the summer picnic destination for city-dwellers, and hosts many festivals and cultural events.
Just north of the city centre is the Seurasaari Open Air Museum, containing authentic Finnish heritage buildings from across the country as well as craftspeople in national dress practicing their traditional trades. Helsinki Zoo is great for a family visit for its 200-plus species, and the massive domes and spires of the Lutheran and Uspenski cathedrals contrast with the minimalist Church of the Rock, literally carved out of the living granite underpinning the city.
Finland's multicultural heritage is displayed in the Museum of Cultures, along with many other cultures, some of which are disappearing fast. The section on native Laplanders is interesting, especially as the real thing is over 1,000kms away to the north. Working Harmala Farm makes a good day trip for families with its typical farm animals and picturesque surroundings.
Rastila Camping Helsinki is a five-star campsite run by the city authorities and boasts a beach, Finnish sauna, restaurant, cafe and all amenities for a comfortable stay. Winter swimming equipment is available for the brave, and the site is great for a family holiday.
Camping Helsinki Jarvenpaa is located 35kms from the city centre in isolated lakeside surroundings. Showers, toilets, a Finnish sauna, kids' playground and a lakeside beach are here,and the cafe bar is found in the charming main house.
Helsinki Campsite is a popular four-star facility just 20 minutes from the city centre by subway. The pitches, sauna, restaurant and lakeside beach are set within an easy walk of mini-markets and shopping centres, and the subway runs to most of the city's attractions.
The city has three ring roads, and fewer cars than in other Scandinavian cities of similar size. Finns drive on the right and, although getting around isn't difficult, all forms of parking are expensive and limited. When you're driving outside the city, watch out for wild animals on the roads.
- Speed limits in the city: 50kph.
- Speed limits on national roads: 100/kph.
- Help number: 112