The city of Helsinki was founded by a Royal Decree issued on 12 June 1550 by King Gustavus I Vasa of Sweden. By his order merchants of the towns Porvoo, Tammisaari, Rauma and Ulvila moved to the mouth of the river Vantaa in the parish of Helsinge (Swedish Helsingfors, meaning the "Helsinge rapids"). The growth of the city was slow, for the medieval trading traditions were slow to change. Due to the wars in Russia, the Baltic countries and Germany, Helsinki was nevertheless a strategic military centre, a point of embarkation for troops and a winter haven for the navy.
In time, the site of the town on the mouth of the River Vantaa proved unfavorable, and in 1640 a decision was made to move it further south to the Vironniemi headland, nowadays known as Kruununhaka near the city centre. Russia's growing power in the 18th century and the founding of its new capital, St. Petersburg, not far from the Finnish border in 1703 were to have a decisive influence on the growth and future of the Finnish capital. The century was, however, one of great hardships for Finland and Helsinki, which suffered gravely from war, plague and hunger. The Russians occupied Helsinki during the Great Hate of 1713-21 and again in 1742. Sweden lost its status as a superpower.
The war was lost, it became vital for Sweden to fortify Helsinki. In 1748, construction of the magnificent sea fortress of Suomenlinna, built on an outlying island, was begun, creating what was described by a historian of the time as the "Gibraltar of the North". The building of Suomenlinna marked a turning point in the history of Helsinki, bringing prosperity to the town.
Finland was annexed to Russia as an Autonomous Grand Duchy in 1809, and in 1812 Czar Alexander I made Helsinki its capital. Destroyed completely by fire in 1808, it was possible to build the city up from scratch, and from 1814 two men were employed to design the city's street plan and main buildings in accordance with its new status.
The nineteenth century saw Helsinki thrive, bolstered partly by the gradual rise of national pride. Up from four thousand in 1810, by the 1850s Helsinki had 50,000 inhabitants, and the pace of life was much the same as in many European cities. Helsinki soon became an administrative, university and garrison town, and the biggest industrial city in the land.
Finland declared its independence in 1917. This was immediately followed by the civil war. At the end of January 1918, the government was forced to flee Helsinki. In May 1918 the war ended with victory for the government troops, led by General C.G.E. Mannerheim (1867-1951). The end of the war posed many challenges for the capital of the young, independent republic.
The Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939. During the Winter War of 1939-40 and the Continuation War of 1941-44 Helsinki was attacked from the air but luckily suffered with little damage. Unlike all other states on the European continent that were involved in the Second World War, Finland was never occupied by foreign forces. In the post-war years agrarian Finland was rapidly transformed in only a few decades into a modern industrial land.
Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995, once again marking the start of a new era for the capital. Helsinki was one of the nine European Cities of Culture for the year 2000. The same year Helsinki celebrated its 450th anniversary.