Question: In Helsinki, a massive underground fallout shelter also doubles as what?
Answer: A church, swimming pool, shopping mall, and more.
Underneath the streets of Helsinki is another city—this one initially built with war and invasion in mind but today used by residents for play. With 200 miles of tunnels beneath the Finnish capital, the underground metropolis has everything residents could ever need, both for fun and in case of emergency. Helsinki is one of the only cities in the world with an elaborate underground system like this.
Finland shares an 833-mile border with Russia and the two countries have a long and complicated history. When Helsinki officials were excavating tunnels beneath the city in the 1960s for utilities, they realized the space could also be used as a shelter for residents—just in case they faced hostilities again from the East.
In 1809, Finland was invaded and ruled by the Russian Empire for more than a century, operating as the autonomous Grand Duchy. During World War II, the Soviet Union invaded Finland twice, annexing several regions along the border which Russia still controls today. In the days of the Cold War, Helsinki was at the crossroads between the East and West and was the last major city between NATO and Warsaw Pact powers. Even up to recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Finland against joining NATO.
Without naming Russia specifically, officials say the underground network would protect against a number of conflicts including the fallout of a nuclear disaster in Eastern Europe. When the tunnels were first dug, the threat of Russia was a little bit more realistic, while today, conflicts with Russia are more of an existential threat.
The underground network is fitted with life-sustaining equipment in case of an emergency, such as an air-filtration system, water, cots, and a two-week supply of food. However, the subterranean playground is better known among Helsinki residents for its more joyful attractions such as an art museum, church, swimming pool, go-karting track, hockey rink, clothing stores, and subway stations. Residents can find lots of fun here during the harsh winter months, and they use the tunnels to navigate around Helsinki with shelter from the cold.
Its alternate purpose as a fallout shelter doesn’t really remain on the mind for most who spend their time there, but just in case, the life-saving underground city is ready to go.
6 Points of Interest in Helsinki’s Subterranean Tunnels:
- One of the underground city’s main points of interest is Temppeliaukio “Rock” Church which is carved into the solid bedrock. The rock features and acoustics of the church makes it one of Finland’s most popular architectural attractions welcoming around 850,000 visitors each year.
- A recent addition to the complex is the Amos Rex Art Museum which has earned acclaim as one of Europe’s most innovative art spaces. The 23,500-square-foot hall features many modernist works of art.
- Itäkeskus swimming hall and gym can accommodate about 1,000 visitors and spectators. Carved out from the solid rock, the facility also has the capability of housing 3,800 people in case of emergency.
- The underground city also contains a commuter rail network, connecting downtown Helsinki with its airport. Opened in 2015, The Ring Rail Line, known locally as Kehärata, stretches 11 miles through the city.
- Another indoor sports center inside the tunnels contain courts for playing handball, badminton, futsal, and more. This is a popular playground is perfect for activities no matter the weather.
- The most ambitious future plan for the tunnels is to connect Helsinki with its sister city, Tallinn, Estonia, by a 62-mile tunnel underneath the Gulf of Finland.
Explore the city beneath Helsinki during your free-time discoveries on our Fjord Cruise & Lapland: Norway, Finland & the Arctic Circle Small Ship Adventure.