Our favorite place in Scandinavia? Its magnificent coast dotted with countless islands. We had the pleasure of traveling around the Bergen and Stockholm archipelagos and to Suomenlinna Island near Helsinki, the prettiest of them all.
The weather was splendid, so this lovely piece of nature was full of charming Finns. To top it all, there is a Unesco Heritage Site – the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. More than an island museum, it is a living place. Around 900 citizens still inhabit it, together with rabbits and strange ducks.
The place is perfect to enjoy the sun, have a picnic under a tree, or to visit museums. We decided to soak up nature just strolling around and observing people. An absolute must even if you only have one day in Helsinki!
Sea Fortress of Suomenlinna
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Suomenlinna is an archipelago of 8 islands some 4 km from Helsinki. In 1748, the Swedes built a fortress named Sveaborg to defend Helsinki from the Russian Empire.
In 1808, Russia conquered the fortress, and one year later, annexed all of Finland into its territory. Finland regained its independence from Russia in 1918 and renamed the sea fortress of Suomenlinna to Castle of Finland (its meaning in Finnish).
The bastion fortress has the shape of a star. This indicates that fortresses designed by the famous French military engineer Vauban influenced Suomenlinna in Finland. Bridges and land connect the five largest islands. Actually, the Russians filled the canal that separated Sussisari and Kustaanmiekka islands, merging them into one.
How to Get to Suomenlinna
Helsinki to Suomenlinna by Ferry
It is fairly easy to reach Suomenlinna all year round. To go from Helsinki to Suomenlinna, you have to take a fast ferry from Kauppatori terminal downtown. These arrive in Suomenlinna’s Main Quay, in front of the Jetty Barracks.
During the summer you can also go to Suomenlinna with a waterbus. They leave from the same terminal in Helsinki, but stop several times before reaching Suomenlinna sea fortress. Take note that waterbuses stop at Lonna Island, Artillery Bay Quay, and King’s Gate Quay before returning to Helsinki.
While the ferry takes about 15 minutes, water buses take a bit longer. Be sure to grab a good seat. The views of Helsinki and the surrounding islands are fabulous!
Organized Tours to Suomenlinna
If you don’t feel like going on your own, we recommend this Helsinki Archipelago boat tour. In an hour and a half you get to the city from the sea and the incredible archipelago. We had a great time.
If you are short of time, we recommend this tour of Helsinki and Suomenlinna. It’s a 5-hour tour of the city’s key landmarks and the islands. We sent a couple of friends, and they had a blast.
We usually get this card to go to Suomenlinna and enter all the museums. Besides, Helsinki Card gives you access to the city’s best museums and transportation. Great discounts on shops and food too!
Spending the Night in Suomenlinna
Most tourists visit Suomenlinna as a day trip from Helsinki. Thus, as soon as the tourists leave, you’ll be able to soak up the island’s atmosphere on your own. Unfortunately (or luckily), there is only one place to stay on Suomenlinna.
The Hostel Suomenlinna offers dormitories, private double, triple, and quadruple rooms. All of them with a shared bathroom. It is a fairly nice hostel with clean rooms and modern amenities.
The hostel promotes clean energy and sustainability and welcomes all types of travelers. It is a member of the growing We Speak Gay community. Its location right next to the Main Quay is perfect if you are carrying some luggage.
What to Do in Suomenlinna
Get a Map at the Tourist Information
As soon as you reach Suomenlinna, go to the tourist information office. It is the beautiful pink building opposite the port. You will see it immediately. The place is beautiful, and the service is incredible!
They have fully detailed maps of the island in 6 languages! The photos on the walls are pretty cool. We can’t stress enough how important it is to get a map. You will navigate the island without a problem.
Without one, you can waste a lot of time. The guys at the office are super nice and will answer all your questions. They gave us great tips! There’s also a toilet. It’s warm and cozy in winter.
Walk Along the Fortress
One of the mandatory things to do in Suomenlinna is to walk along the historical maritime fortress. The views and the fortress gates and walls are impressive. Start your walk at the monumental King’s Gate, Suomenlinna’s main entrance. The marble and limestone gate from 1754 is named after King Adolf Frederick of Sweden.
The imposing Zander Bastion is just after the gate. In 1918, Finland’s first independent flag was raised here. Walk along the walls of the southern and western shore of Kustaanmiekka island and observe the artillery. These are Russian cannons from the 19th century.
That’s not all, you have to go into a tunnel. Suomenlinna’s longest tunnel is on the southern shore of Kustaanmiekka island.
Spend Some Time on the Suomenlinna Beach
Once done walking, go ahead and relax on Suomenlinna Beach (if you visit in summer, of course). This is a small strip of gravel at the end of a small bay where Sussisari and Kustaanmiekka islands meet.
If you are brave enough, you can even take a swim in the cool sea. Locals certainly do! This is the only proper beach on the island, complete with changing rooms, toilets, and showers.
Additionally, many locals sunbathe on the rocks by the sea. Choose your own rock and enjoy the moment. The most suitable spots are along the western shore of Sussisari and Kustaanmiekka.
Visit the Great Courtyard
The center of the large Suomenlinna fort is the Great Courtyard next to the bridge that connects Sussisari and Iso Mustasaari islands. Architect Augustin Ehrensvärd built the lovely courtyard in 1760.
The monumental central square was the islands’ administrative center. Severely damaged in 1855, only parts of the original square remain. Ehrensvärd’s Tomb, erected by his son, dominates the courtyard’s center.
The architect’s museum is in the house where he lived, on the eastern side of the square. It holds an interesting collection of furniture, paintings, and ship models.
Learn Some History at the Suomenlinna Submarine
Before you cross the bridge to Iso Mustasaari Island, stop by the old Suomenlinna Submarine. The Vesikko submarine was built in 1933 in Turku for a Dutch-German company.
The Fins bought the submarine to use in World War II. Since after the war, Finland wasn’t allowed to operate submarines, Vesikko retired. In 1953 Finland sold all its submarines to Belgium, except Vesikko. It remained abandoned in Helsinki’s Katajanoka district for some time.
In 1959 the submarine was handed over to the Military Museum, which moved it to Suomenlinna. The submarine was restored extensively and turned into a museum.
Admire the Suomenlinna Church
The atmosphere in Iso Mustasaari Island is quite distinct. Suomenlinna Church stands tall on the island. The church was built for the Russian garrison in 1854. Tzar Nicholas I appointed his official architect to build the church. It’s the same guy that designed the original Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
In 1918 the five original onion domes of the Orthodox church were removed, and the church converted into a Lutheran temple. The original bell, the largest in Finland, was brought down and placed next to the church.
In 1929 the central dome was raised, and the church became a lighthouse. Today, it’s a popular place for weddings.
Visit a Museum or Two
Not everything is about nature in Suomenlinna. Though not that big, the island has 6 museums! Take note that the Museum of Toys, the Submarine Museum, and the Custom Museum are open only in summer.
The ticket to the Military Museum includes a visit to the Submarine mentioned above. If not, get the Museum card and visit as many as you want. The Helsinki Card includes all of them.
Our favorite museum is the Suomenlinna Museum. It’s in the center, next to the bridge that connects the two big islands. Though small, the collection inside is interesting. The Military Museum is next door. It used to be a Russian barrack. Very cool exhibits!
Have Coffee and a Cake in an Elegant Café
After done with sightseeing, you deserve to enjoy the island’s quaint atmosphere. We had a lovely walk around the orderly gardens of Iso Mustasaari Island, following cute hares and weird ducks.
Though it may not seem like it, there are about a dozen cafes and restaurants in Suomenlinna. We stopped by Café Piper, close to the beach.
The wooden house serves great coffee and drinks. We are talking about one of the oldest cafes in Suomenlinna opened in 1928. We sat outdoors to enjoy breathtaking views. Unfortunately, it only opens in the summer.
Visit Finland’s Oldest Dry Dock
With a history of over 250 years, the Dry dock of Suomenlinna is the oldest in Finland and amongst the oldest in Europe. It is still operational! From 1750 to 1808, it built Swedish ships.
In the 1930s, the first ever Finish planes were built here. Today, the docks are used to repair boats. As you can imagine, you can access the docks themselves. You have to go to the observation deck.
We don’t know anything about boats, but we sure liked the place. You get to see huge old wooden boats. Two of the island’s grandest halls are next to the docks. If you are lucky you can have a glimpse of a Finish wedding or banquet!
Pamper Yourself at the Suomenlinna Sauna in Lonna
There’s no better way to end your day in Suomenlinna than visiting an authentic Finnish Sauna. Better still, go to the small island of Lonna. They only have one sauna and one restaurant.
There are several saunas in Suomenlinna, but most are private. The only public one is the Lonna Sauna, where you can spend a maximum of 2 hours inside. The sauna opens in summer, from Tuesday to Saturday.
You can enjoy a drink and views on the large terrace outside of the sauna. Take note that the place is quite popular, so you better book beforehand. To get there, take the water bus to Lonna Island. Remember that not all waterbuses stop here.
Suomenlinna in Winter
Suomenlinna is a perfect place to spend warm summer days. During summer, everything is open, and public transport works until 2 AM. But visiting Suomenlinna in winter is a great idea too. You’ll be able to enjoy the islands covered in snow.
The sea freezes for long periods in winter, so ferries have to negotiate their way through broken ice. As it often snows in Finland, you have to bring proper gear to enjoy the magic of the Suomenlinna islands.
With the right attire, you can spend hours in silence, listening to the wind and watching the unique winter colors. If you are into museums, the Suomenlinna Museum is open year-round.
Tips for Visiting Suomenlinna
You have nothing to worry about. Suomenlinna is a perfectly safe well organized place. However, it’s still all about nature. Therefore, the most important tip we can give you is to take your time and enjoy yourself.
Finns are very relaxed and easy-going. You want to enjoy the atmosphere. In summer in Suomenlinna, bring mosquito repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses, your bathing suit, and a hat. If the weather changes, you will need a waterproofed light jacket.
If visiting Suomenlinna in winter, you need proper boots. Don’t complain if it snows. You won’t believe how beautiful the island looks under a blanket of snow. Evidently, warm clothes and a thick jacket are a must. We always take a recycled bottle of water and energy bars.
People of Finland
As much as we loved Helsinki and Suomenlinna, our absolute favorites were the Finns. We found Finnish people one of the most beautiful on the planet. While slightly reserved and polite, you feel them warm, charming, and lovely. We certainly felt very welcomed!
We spent our days walking, having superb coffee, people watching, and indulging in good food. Since we are not into sharing bathrooms, we decided not to spend the night in Suomenlinna.
Instead, we stayed in a classy hotel with a cool swimming pool and great views over Hesperia Park in Helsinki. Indeed! Thanks to the lovely receptionists, we got some of the best views in town. Thank you Crowne Plaza Helsinki!