Helsinki, it has been said, is the last great European city designed as an entity and created as a work of art. It was founded in 1550 by the Swedish King Gustav Vasa to be a trade and seafaring center at the mouth of the Vantaa River.

But that town was built of wood and was destroyed by fire several times. Not until Helsinki became the capital of a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire in 1812 were more lasting plans and foundations laid.Since 1917, Helsinki has been the capital of an independent Finland. Today it has a population of nearly half a million.

Situated against a picturesque harbor, with a rich architectural heritage that features exceptional examples of Empire, Byzantine and Art Nouveau styles, and with 30 percent of its area

devoted to parks and woodlands, it is a city that epitomizes three of the things Finns revere most: nature, design and the sea.

It is a busy city of culture and cosmopolitan tastes. But because of its thoughtful planning and compact size it is easy to get around and to become familiar with. Of all the European capitals, it is one that most readily lends itself to exploration on foot.

Despite the modern bustle, there are a number of routes, even through the center of the city, where you can walk about in peace and quiet, sense the city's history, admire its monuments and see how it lives today - all in a relatively short distance.

As good a place to start as any is Senate Square, where a church, a cemetery and a town hall have been located since the 17th century. After the square was ravaged by fires during the 1808 war between Sweden and Russia, the square had to be rebuilt. When Finland was annexed to the Russian Empire, a new town plan was drawn up. Ludvig Engel, a native of Berlin who had worked earlier in St. Petersburg, designed the splendid neoclassical buildings that now surround the square.

At one end, of course, is a cathedral. In fact, it is the light and airy look of this cathedral, which towers over the city, that gives Helsinki one of its nicknames: White City of the North.

To the left, as you look down the cathedral steps, is the Council of State, which is still theseat of the Finnish government. On the right is the main building of the University, completed in 1832 to house Finland's highest seat of learning. On the lower side of the square are houses built by merchants in the 18th century. They now house city offices, and little shops and cafes.

A block or so from Senate Square is Esplanade Park, another distinctive part of Helsinki's historical city center. The park itself is dotted by sculpture, both historic and modern. Its tree-lined walkways are perfect for a stroll. But you may find something else going on there as well - the Esplanade is a center for all sorts of activities and festivals year-round.

The streets that line the Esplanade are filled with shops that range from quaint boutiques to elegant design houses. And where North Esplanade meets Mannerheim, one of the city's major thoroughfares, you come to Stockmann's, one of the largest department stores in Scandinavia.

If shopping's on your mind, you'll want to check out Market Square at the other end of the Esplanade. Here you'll find Helsinki's oldest market hall, which has been newly renovated and now houses a cafe as well as the market. Outside, in the open market, there are stalls that sell everything from Finnish handicrafts and furs to fresh fruits, fish and vegetables. Natives and visitors alike find this a colorful place to shop.

If you want to go in search of Finnish architecture and culture, another good place to start is at the Railway Station, one of the best-known symbols of Helsinki. This granite work is considered the most important work by Eliel Saarinen and is one of the examples of Finnish architecture best known abroad. Built between 1905-1919, it is still an important rail terminus and also houses a lively underground shopping center.

From the station, you can head over to Mannerheim and then northwest past Parliament House, another stellar example of Finnish workmanship. Built between 1925-1930 by J.S. Siren, it is one of the last big buildings in Finland to be built entirely by hand.

Across the street is the City Museum, which presents the history of Helsinki in a nutshell, including a scale model of the city in the 1870s.

Next door is Finlandia Hall, the concert and congress center designed by another of Finland's favorite sons, Alvar Aalto. The hall is situated at the edge of Hesperia Park, which also fronts Toolo Bay - a great place to go duck watching.

Cross back again to the other side of Mannerheim and there is the National Museum, also built by Saarinen. (His son, Eero, you might recall, is the man who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.) The collections here include archaeological finds, religious art, furnishings and ethnic workmanship. It presents an intriguing look at the things that give Finland its national character.

And that character permeates the city.

Sandwiched between Europe and the USSR, Helsinki has long been a bridge between East and West. It is no accident that it is frequently the site of summits and conferences.

It is a city of culture, boasting 40 museums, two symphonies, an opera and a dozen theater companies.

It is a city of charm and friendliness, of scenic settings and easily uncovered treasures, a place willing to richly reward those who take the time for discovery.

Helsinki (and in fact all of Finland) is a place, notes writer W.R. Mead, "to stand and stare - or better yet, sit and stare. . . . The attractions of the scene can be appreciated best by leisurely means of locomotion . . ."