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SIEF2021 15th Congress

Helsinki, Finland
19-24 June 2021

Breaking the rules? Power, participation, transgression


Quick facts

Helsinki, the "Daughter of the Baltic", is located on the tip of a peninsula looking out on an archipelago of 315 islands. It is an easy-going city, with extremely efficient services, transportation, a safe environment and very friendly locals. Helsinki offers clean air, clean water, and plenty of nature in its parks and waterfronts, making for relaxing pauses during and after the long conference days. Suomenlinna, a World Heritage Site, is the most visited attraction in Finland and is a short public ferry ride from downtown.

City overview

Undoubtedly one of Europe’s least understood countries, Finland is also one of the continent’s most enigmatic and intriguing places to visit. The easternmost country of the Fennoscandian peninsula is flanked to the east by the lengthy Russian border nearly all the way to the Arctic Sea. This captivating cultural anomaly remains the most unique of the Nordic nations, having long cultivated a strong and distinctive sense of identity. Nearly all visitors get their first glimpse of Finland through dynamic, spirited Helsinki, one of Europe’s most culturally vibrant and exciting cities – and a place fundamental to understanding what Finns are really about. Handsome and historic, Helsinki offers visitors an array of interesting museums, intriguing architecture, cutting-edge design shops, an enviable café and restaurant scene and a buzzing nightlife. In summer the entire city is overtaken with concerts, performances and festivals – many of which are free.

Positioned on a rocky headland cradling the Baltic Sea, Helsinki is one of Europe’s most elegant, idiosyncratic and captivating capital cities. The city maintains a personality that is markedly different from that of other Nordic capitals, and in many ways is closer in temperament – and certainly in looks – to the major cities of Eastern Europe. For years an outpost of the Russian empire, its very shape and style was originally modelled on its powerful neighbour’s former capital, St Petersburg, with buildings extant today that are virtual carbon copies of pre-communist structures from the former Soviet Union. Yet throughout the twentieth century Helsinki was also a showcase for the design ideals of an independent Finland, with much of its impressive architecture drawing inspiration from the rise of Finnish nationalism and the growth of the republic. Equally the city’s museums, especially the Ateneum Art Museum and the National Museum, reveal the country’s growing awareness of its own folklore and culture.

Much of central Helsinki is a succession of compact granite blocks interspersed with more characterful buildings alongside waterways, green spaces and the glass-fronted office blocks and shopping centres you’ll find in any European capital. The city is hemmed in on three sides by water, and all the things you might want to see are within walking distance of one another – and certainly no more than a few minutes apart by tram or bus. There are stretches of green throughout, including several parks right in the centre, as well as a dozen or so idyllic offshore islands (accessible via regular ferry transport in the warmer months) that are excellent spots for escape. In the city itself, the streets maintain a youthful buzz – particularly during summers, when Finns break out of their shells and take to strolling its boulevards, cruising its shopping arcades and mingling (and drinking to no small extent) in its outdoor cafés and restaurants; everywhere there’s prolific street entertainment. Come night-time, the pace picks up significantly, with a prodigious selection of bars and clubs, free rock concerts in the numerous parks, and an impressive quota of fringe events and festivals, with performances and activities all around the capital.

Some Factoids about Finland

  • Finland is one of the five Nordic nations and, with a total land area of 338,145 square kilometres, one of the largest (it’s slightly smaller than Germany). The population is 5.5 million – with an average of seventeen people per square kilometre, this is the least densely populated country in the EU.
  • Northern Finland, just as the northern parts of Sweden, Norway and the Kola Peninsula, is home to the Sámi people, the only indigenous people of the European Union.
  • The standard of living in Finland is one of the highest in the world – income tax hovers around 31.5 percent (lower than the other Nordic countries), and 22 percent VAT is levied on most goods. In return, Finns receive free and comprehensive social welfare.
  • Finland is not called “the land of a thousand lakes” for nothing; there are 187,880 of them, more lakes than any other country in the world. Lakes make up ten percent of the country’s land mass; forests cover nearly seventy percent of what’s left.
  • Finland has nearly one sauna for every two people.
  • Finns are the world’s highest per-capita consumers of coffee, drinking some 5.7 cups a day, or 10kg per year.

A very brief history

The dream of Helsinki was born in 1550, when the Swedish King Gustav Vasa was inspired to found a city on the Gulf of Finland’s northern coast in order to catch up with Russia’s expansion of its Baltic trade routes. Vasa’s initial valiant attempts ultimately failed, however, and it would take another century before the city was settled with any success. The choice of sites was moved from the initial location on the Vantaa River to a few kilometres south to Vironniemi (the current position of Kruununhaka), but in its early years Helsinki languished, growing erratically on account of its craggy location and harsh coastal climate.

Things only really began to take off after the construction of Suomenlinna fortress off Helsinki’s coast in 1748, which brought thousands of builders and soldiers and their families to the city. Then, in 1808, during the Russian occupation, the entire place was levelled by fire, forcing a rebuilding of the city from scratch – but not before Tsar Alexander I had moved the Grand Duchy’s capital here from the city of Turku. The plans conceived by statesman Johan Ehrenström for the city’s reconstruction only began in 1817 – once Swedish Finland had become property of the Russian empire – but Helsinki would have been nothing were it not for the ideas and inspiration of German-born architect Carl Ludwig Engel. Engel based his city planning directly on St Petersburg, and with materials no more refined than brick and wood (marble was unavailable at the time), he built a capital that was remarkably Hellenic in look and feel: a terraced cathedral with Doric columns atop a prodigious staircase; broad buildings with three-storey columned facades; and square, symmetrical blocks for stately residences. When Engel came to town, the city had a population of 4000; when he died, it had grown to nearly five times that.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, vast areas of the city were rebuilt and expanded in the forward-looking Art Nouveau and Jugend styles and, later, under the influence of National Romanticism, made memorable by a trio of locally born architects – Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen. Their approach formed the basis of the work of the mastermind designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto, of course, brought worldwide fame to Finland through his architecture, including a small number of memorable buildings to Helsinki. But more importantly, he moved a generation (or three) of architects to look in their own backyards for inspiration, seeking construction based around organic forms and utilizing natural materials – ideas which have brought Helsinki well into the modern world of design.

Important points of mention

Juhannus, or Midsummer, is the event in the Finnish festive calendar. People leave the towns and head out to their summer cottages in the countryside where they light lakeside bonfires, have a sauna, swim and go rowing. Juhannus is celebrated on the Saturday of the last month of June, though the main party takes place on Friday night. In 2021, this will be the 25th of June, the day after the end of the SIEF conference. This timing gives conference participants a unique chance to experience Finnish Midsummer festivities as part of a post-conference excursion to Seurasaari. Seurasaari is an outdoor museum island located close to the city center. Every year, the Seurasaari Foundation organises a Finnish midsummer festival, for which conference participants may purchase tickets through the Foundation’s website. The exact programme of the Seurasaari midsummer celebration can be checked from there as well. For those who prefer going as part of a group, a place and time to meet will be announced at a later point. However, it is perfectly fine to go there on your own and according to your own schedule (bus no. 24, e.g. from bus stop ‘Lasipalatsi’).

Practical information on myhelsinki-page (selection)

Tourist information
Currency and payments
Climate and weather
Time zone
Emergency number
Pharmacy and medical care
Tap water is safe to drink