What really struck us on our first visit, and even more strongly on subsequent trips, is that Helsinki is a city with a strange melange of identities. Maybe it's the Russian influence (St. Petersburg is less than a seven-hour drive from Helsinki). Maybe it's the strong appreciation of contemporary design -- the city is home to Marimekko, world-renowned for its boldly patterned textiles; Kalevala, known for distinctive bronze and silver jewelry; and Iittala, known for glassware. Or it could be the dark, cold and snowy winters that last half the year (fortunately, this is not the season for cruising), making folks here just a little bit wacky. This is, after all, the place where one annual festival features the tossing of Finnish-made Nokia cell phones and another popular mainstay is a wife-carrying competition.
Finland is cut off from Nordic neighbors like Sweden and Norway because of its near-inexplicable language (indeed, Finnish is based on Hungarian, and as it originated as an oral language rather than a written one it's very difficult to follow). The country itself, which was juggled back and forth over the centuries between Sweden and Russia, is also one of Europe's newest; independence from Russia was achieved in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution.
The historic Helsinki (it was founded in 1550 by Swedish King Gustavus Vasa) offers monuments such as the Lutheran Cathedral (Lutheran is the "state" religion), the onion-domed Uspenski Cathedral (it's Orthodox) and the neo-classical buildings in and around Senate Square. The sleek Helsinki can be found at Kiasma, the avant-garde Museum of Contemporary Art, and at the Design Museum. You can really feel the different identities on a trip around Helsinki. Helsinki's other major plus is that it's bounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea. In summer Helsinki's waterfront is the liveliest place in Finland -- whether you're soaking up the sun at a cafe, riding the ferry to the island housing the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, or taking a boat tour of surrounding waterways.