Undoubtedly Helsinki is a must stop when backpacking Scandinavia & Baltic States. The city is often visited by sea thanks to many convenient ferry connections from St Petersburg, Tallinn and Stockholm.
I also took a one day trip from Tallinn, Estonia, not being sure if one day is enough to see the capital of Finland. With a friend, who is completely nuts about the Moomins (called by some nations Mumintrolls 😉 ) we set off in the early morning and came back by the very last ferry.
What I loved in Helsinki was an amazing Helsinki Cathedral on the Senate Square and the Rock Church. Other attractions were… good, interesting, but not really exceptional, especially when you’re traveling in Europe for some time. Wandering around the city we ended up on a short ferry ride to the Suomenlinna, an island included in UNESCO World Heritage List as a unique monument to European military architecture. Its construction begun in the 1700’s when Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1973 fortress was transferred to the civil administration and became a city district and one of the top tourist attractions of Helsinki.
Suomenlinna – attractions
The island is open all year round. Unfortunately during the colder season it does not give the visitors a very welcoming impression. When I visited the island the vegetation didn’t start yet, so it was gray, cold and extremely windy. Even thought it was the beginning of May, most of the attractions, as well as shops and restaurants, were still closed (before arrival check daily opening hours) and there were no guided tours due to the winter season. There are guided walking tours organized daily in the Summertime (languages: English, Finnish, Swedish & Russian), but from September to May guided tours are organized at weekends only (tours can be booked throughout the year via this page).
You can easily move around the fortress on foot (when going on a family trip remember that children should not be allowed to walk around and climb the walls). The main route runs from the North to the South of the island and all the main sights are situated along this route. A Visitors’ Center is located in the middle of the fortress and sells books, postcards and gifts (open daily 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. in summer / 10:30 a.m. 4:30 p.m. in winter).
There are several museums on the island. The Suomenlinna Museum presents the construction and history of the fortress. The Ehrensvard Museum, located in the official residence of the fortress commandant, showcases the history of the Swedish period of the fortress. There’s also a Toy Museum (housed in an old wooden Vila), Military Museum, Customs Museum and Vesikko Submarine! This submarine from the 1930’s operated in the Gulf of Finland in during the Winter War and the Continuation War .Of course the base for Finnish submarines was situated Suomenlinna’s docks.
Following some cobbled roads and little bridges of the island, we wandered around some old fort buildings now turned into the touristic sites, little houses, military facilities and some housing estates. The temperature was above the zero, but the wind made it feel a lot colder. That’s why important part of any visit to the fortress is a good meal or a refreshing break at one of charming cafés.
It was the wildest pleasure to find a safe haven after 4 hours of walking. Our choice was Café Vanille. This pink painted, wooden café is located along the main route in the old Russian merchants’ quarter and it’s hard to be missed. It looks like a sweet candy shop, a little unreal on this tough landscape of Suomenlinna. We were feeling cold and whatever would be served inside, we were delighted. Finally it was warm, colorful and idyllic place to stay at and rest a little.
SUOMENLINNA PRACTICAL INFO:
- The Island is only accessible by water. The crossing takes up to 20 minutes. Helsinki city cards are valid, but if you don’t have one you can easily buy a cheap single or return ticket from the ticket machine at the departure quay. More details on how to get to the island.
- Couple of hours is enough to explore the whole island.
- Free maps can be collected from the visitor center on the island.
- Soumenlinna library offers free Internet acces.
- Pick a day with a good weather. Suomenlinna is an island, which means it’s exposed and the temperature will be always lower than in the Helsinki city center. Just remember about that.
- If you want to visit Suomenlinna I’d recommend to choose the summer season, when the weather is much nicer and you can attend the events that take place in the sea fortress.
- The fortress is completely open (I haven’t seen any restricted area), walkable and it may be a good place for a Sunday picnic and kite flying (you can take the windy weather for granted).
- Souvenirs that can be bought on the island: hand-made artwork, ceramics & glass, postcards & posters, books.
20 minutes crossing from the mainland Helsinki is definitely a short one, but even if you are just like me not a big fan of cold and wind, you may enjoy the views from the ferry:
I still need to go back to Helsinki at least one more time, because we didn’t have a chance to visit Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, which is on my folk open-air museums bucket list!