From the deck of the ferry I was riding back from the Korkeasaari Zoo, the handsome harborfront of Helsinki, Finland, rose up before me. Standing tall above the low-rise skyline, the two most beautiful churches in the city vied for attention, different in color, style, materials, and denomination, but both remarkably eye-catching. Tucked behind the harbor’s buildings and farther afield within this delightful Nordic capital, however, I discovered churches of equal beauty — and quirkiness — that most visitors miss. These are my favorites.
#1 Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko)
During the morning and afternoon, Senate Square bustles with locals on their way to the main building of the University of Helsinki or to the Government Palace, and with tourists checking out the oldest stone building in the city’s center or climbing the broad flight of unexpectedly steep steps leading up to Helsinki’s most iconic building, the gleaming-white Helsinki Cathedral. At night, the tourist buses have driven away, the square is quiet, and the illuminated cathedral glows like a beacon against the dark sky. At any time of day, you’ll fall in love with this distinctive Helsinki landmark, which also stands as one of the world’s top five things that are white. Completed in 1852 as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia (who was also Grand Duke of Finland), it was known as St. Nicholas’ Church until Finland achieved its independence in 1917. Neoclassical in style, the cathedral features a large, plain central dome topping out at 203 feet, surrounded by four smaller domes, all green and all embellished with rows of gold stars. Built in a Greek cross plan, the cathedral has a square center and four equilateral arms, each of which features identical colonnades of six Corinthian columns and plain pediments with dentils, each protecting panels of religious scenes underneath. Three zinc Apostles top each of the pediments. Inside, the open stark-white space can seat up to 1,300 people in a virtually unadorned interior. Given its austere décor, the few decorative items certainly do pop: the altar painting, two gold altarpiece angels, the cylindrical pulpit of yellowish marble, the central chandelier that looks like a snowflake if you stand directly underneath it, and the beautiful curved organ added in 1967. I timed my visit so that I could enjoy the free 30-minute organ concert, a pastiche of religious hymns and such recognizable tunes as “The Phantom of the Opera,” a half hour of reverberating sound that I could feel not only in the floor and the pews but in my very core.
#2 Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali)
Not far from Helsinki Cathedral, a little hop over the narrow canal via the short Bridge of Love, where lovers fasten safety locks with their names on them to the railings of the bridge, took me to the island of Katajanokka. Here, among one of the world’s best concentrations of Art Nouveau buildings, stands a decidedly different structure — the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe. Situated atop a hill overlooking the harbor, Uspenski Cathedral was built in 1868 as a Russian Orthodox church, although it now serves the Finnish Orthodox community. At first glance, I was struck by its sturdy, rather indestructible appearance, but a closer inspection made it seem more delicate. Its entire façade is composed of red bricks rescued from a fortress in Åland, more than 200 miles away, that was destroyed during the Crimean War. The architect’s incorporation of blind arches and windows, columns, brick crosses, columns, and small towers provide much relief to the heaviness of the brick exterior. The verdigris roofs, including the large central dome, are topped by small gold onion domes, each of which is capped by a gold cross — 13 in all, one for Jesus and one for each of the Twelve Apostles. Inside, the open square space is ablaze with gold and colorful icons underneath towering arches and a blue dome speckled with gold stars, a lavish iconostasis, and an array of heavy chandeliers. Outside, when the setting sun hits the gold crosses and warms up the bricks, the cathedral almost seems ethereal.
#3 St. John’s Church (Johanneksenkirkko)
Drawn by its twin verdigris-green spires soaring over treetops, St. John’s Church was the first church I visited in Helsinki. Standing on a hill that had been the scene of midsummer bonfires for centuries, this Gothic Revival church was completed in 1891 as the city’s third Lutheran church. A broad staircase provides a grand approach to the three arched entrance portals; above them, a perfect rose window is set into an arch, and gargoyles leap out of the 243-foot-tall towers. On the sides, pillaster buttresses morph into little towers, topped by crosses. Inside, white and brown dominate the largest church in Finland — St. John’s can seat up to 2,600 people. The brown wood pews, casing for the largest organ in Helsinki, and lovely reredos are offset by the white walls, columns, arches, and beautiful bracketed ceiling, pitched above the nave and semicircular above the altar. Plain-glass windows and an abundance of chandeliers illuminate the interior brilliantly. The only true splash of color stems from the art on the altarpiece, a painting titled A Divine Revelation that depicts Saul’s conversion.
#4 Kallio Church (Kallion kirkko)
It was almost noon. I chugged uphill on the longest straight street in Helsinki so that I would arrive in time. Kallio Church loomed ahead of me, tall and beautiful with its National Romanticism and Art Nouveau flourishes. I burst through the doors into the empty church just in time to hear four of the seven German bronze bells ring a chorale composed by Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most renowned composer, expressly for this church. I took a seat in the space built for 1,100 worshippers, closed my eyes, and concentrated on the music. When this daily treat was over, I rose and, as I began to explore this magnificent church, I received another treat — the unexpected practice session of a very talented woman who sat at one of the church’s two organs (one Baroque, one French) and unknowingly provided a divine soundtrack to my visit. Completed in 1912, this massive church uses traditional Finnish materials in the true National Romantic movement. With a high barrel-vault ceiling, lack of ostentatious ornamentation, and soft cream-colored walls, the Lutheran church feels airy and grand. Splashes of color can be found in the geometric design framing the huge arch around the altar, in the arch soffits, and in the decorative motifs of Christian symbols, such as roses, lilies, palm leaves, laurel wreaths, and pearls. From the ceiling hang brass chandeliers as well as a large crucifix above the stone altar, behind which hangs a pine relief, for which the artist used local citizens as models for the figures. The church also bears some secrets, below and above. Under the church and closed to casual visitors, a columbarium provides temporary space for about 2,500 urns, and a sepulcher for the permanent placement of those urns. Outside, I admired the handsome gray-granite façade that hides the load-bearing brick walls underneath. I looked up at the 308-foot-tall tower, topped by a squat cross, which bears the other secret: During World War II, an air surveillance station was located here. From the observation deck here, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the city and, on a clear day, the coastline of Estonia, 50 miles away.
#5 Temppeliaukio Church (Temppeliaukion kirkko)
I approached Temppeliaukio Church from the rear and had a little difficulty figuring it out. A hill of smooth, slippery bedrock rose up to a circular stone wall, into which a dome resting on glass had been inserted. It looked like some sort of futuristic Eco Pod on another planet, or a UFO that had crash landed on some barren landscape hundreds of miles from civilization. I continued walking around the circumference until I came to the nondescript entrance — a low concrete slab across the dark, deep portal. It wasn’t until I stepped inside that I understood what all the fuss was about. Commonly called “Rock Church,” this utterly unique Lutheran house of worship was carved into the existing solid rock. Designed by brother architects and opened in 1969, Temppeliaukio reminded me of clandestine oases used by worshippers when they were being persecuted, some a couple of thousand years ago (think Christians in the Roman Empire), some not that long ago (think Jews in the 1940s), some today (think Christians in China). The décor within the church’s circular, cave-like space is unpretentious: simple chairs and pews, simple altar, simple light fixtures that supplement the natural light flooding in through the 180 plain-glass windows that ring the dome and the top of the rock wall. The rough stone walls enhance the room’s acoustics, catapulting the church into one of the most popular concert venues in the city. When you visit (time it well: weddings are popular here, and ushers will escort you out before the ceremony begins), make sure you look up at the roof of the dome, covered with spiraling copper wire that, if it were ever stretched out, would run for more than 13 miles.
- German Church (Saksalainen kirkko, 1864)
- Old Church of Helsinki (Helsingin vanha kirkko, 1826)
- Kamppi Chapel of Silence (Kampin kappeli, 2012)
- Karuna Church (Karuna kirkko, 1685)
- Mikael Agricola Church (Mikael Agricolan kirkko, 1935)