One block north of the market is Senate Square, presided over by the Lutheran Cathedral with its striking green copper domes.

The square and its surrounding neo-classical buildings date from the start of the 19th century, when Helsinki became the capital of Finland.Highslide JS

The buildings are the work of Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840), a German-born architect who trained in Berlin before moving to St Petersburg. In 1816 Tsar Alexander I of Russia appointed Engel as the architect of Helsinki. All his subsequent work was in Finland.

His greatest work was the great Lutheran Cathedral, first known as St. Nikolai’s Church. Completing the designs alone took a decade and building work did not begin until 1830. It wasn't finished when he died.

The monumental steps leading up to the cathedral were not, in fact, Engel's idea. Tsar Alexander, who dabbled in architecture, came up with the plan after work on the Cathedral had begun.Highslide JS

Engel hated the change because he wanted the square to be enclosed by buildings on all sides. Today the Tsar’s stairway is seen as one of the square’s most exciting features. Sometimes amateurs get it right.

Lutheran Cathedral visiting times
Mon - Sat
9:00 –18:00 (6 p.m.)
Jun – Aug 12:00 – 20:00 (8.p.m.)
Otherwise closes 18:00 (6 p.m.)
Sunday service starts 10:00

After Engel’s death, other changes were made that were not improvements. The statues of hysterical apostles apparently threatening to hurl themselves off the roof look completely out of place.

So they are. They were copied from St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg. Fortunately, next to the bright green of the copper domes, they don't really stand out.Highslide JS

Like most Lutheran churches its interior is airy but dull; there are no relics to examine or towers to climb. But the view of it from the square is breathtaking, and so is the view of Helsinki from the top of the steps.

The statue of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in the middle of the square was erected half a century later.This is not the man who commissioned the building of Helsinki but one of his successors.

On the left of the cathedral, facing down the steps, is Senate House. Today it is occupied by the Prime Minister’s Office, so tours are not possible. The University on the opposite side of the square doesn't organize tours either but it's usually possible to put your head round the door.Highslide JS

The most exciting interior is in the building next door, the University Library, which is also the National Library of Finland. Because it was a copyright library of old Russia, it has a major collection of Slavonic works as well as those in minority languages of the empire: Armenian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Georgian, and Arabic.

The entrance to the Lutheran Cathedral is on the west side opposite the University Library, not at the top of the steps as most visitors assume. Entrance to its crypt is on its north side.

Orthodox Cathedral
While the white cathedral on Senate Square is used by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the red-brick Uspenski Cathedral is for Orthodox Christians.

Uspenski Cathedral
Tue-Fri 9:30 –16:00 (4 pm)
Sat 9:30-14:00 (2 pm)
Sun 12:00-15:00 (3 pm)
Services (in Finnish)
Saturdays Vigil at 18:00
Sundays Liturgy at 10:00
During services and on certain days no tourists are admitted

The Uspenski Cathedral was built some 20 years after the Lutheran one. It is not much smaller, although Orthodox believers are a tiny minority in Finland, numbering only about 60 000 members.

The church is consecrated to the passing away of the mother of Christ and the name Uspenski comes from the Russian word for this. Highslide JSIf it were a Roman Catholic Church it would be called the Cathedral of the Assumption. It was designed by a Russian architect, Alexey Gornostaev.

Apart from its thirteen glorious gilded cupolas, symbolizing Christ and his apostles, it is a ponderous building, designed to use up a great surplus of bricks.

The bricks were salvaged from the ruins of Bomarsund fortress in Aland, which was destroyed by the British-French fleet in 1854 during the Crimean War. Mixing piety with nationalism was a specialty of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Today the Orthodox Church in Finland doesn't look to Moscow. It is part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Highslide JSIn contrast to its ugly facade, the Uspenski has a wondrous interior. A large wall of icons and religious paintings – an iconostasis – separates the sanctuary from the nave, where worshippers stand. The arches of the central tower are supported by four massive granite columns.

The Cathedral is enormously popular with the faithful as well as visitors. At Easter it even has to issue tickets to restrict attendance. Most of the time it welcomes tourists but visits are not appreciated during services and weddings.

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