Founded in 1748 on a cluster of islands off the coast of Helsinki, the Suomenlinna sea fortress is a cultural treasure. Built when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden, Suomenlinna has taken a vital part in the history of Finland. Today, it is not only a UNESCO Heritage Site but also one of the most popular days out among tourist and locals alike. Check out what to expect from Helsinki's sea fortress islands!
How to visit
It is only possible to visit Suomenlinna by sea. The ferry operates through the year, leaving from central Helsinki, and there are also water services during the summer season. It only takes about 15 to 20 minutes to reach the islands, making Suomenlinna a very convenient day or half-day trip from Helsinki.
The best option to visit Suomenlinna is to take the ferry that leaves from the east side of Market Square, right opposite the Presidential palace. On the way back, the ferry departs from the main quay on Iso Mustasaari island. The ferry is part of the city transport network of Helsinki, so you can also use the Helsinki Region Transport Authority tickets in this service. Tickets need to be purchased in advance from the machines on the quayside, as well as from the ticket booth at Market Square during the summer months.
If you're visiting during summer, it is also possible to take one of the JT-Line water buses, specifically numbers 19, 43 or 46. They depart from the Artillery Bay quay and make an additional stop at the King's Gate. Some services also stop at Lonna island. Tickets are not part of the Helsinki Region Transport Authority and need to be purchased separately either at the booth at the Market Square or onboard.
Once on the islands, it is possible to explore the fortress on your own or taking one of the guided walking tours offered by the Suomenlinna Centre. The tours last for one hour and will take you to the islands of Susisaari and Kustaanmiekka, where most places of interest are located.
I joined one of the guided tours courtesy of the Governing body of Suomenlinna and can definitely recommend it. You can check the start times and available languages on the site www.suomenlinna.fi.
Suomenlinna is not only one of the most famous tourist attractions in Finland, it is also a lively community off mainland Helsinki where a community of about 800 residents still live today. Some of the former fortifications and old garrison buildings have been restored into residential properties, studios and offices, as well as restaurants and museums. This makes Suomenlinna a very unique place in Helsinki, where history and everyday life are mixed together, giving you a unique overview of the older and newer history of Helsinki.
As soon as I left Market square in one of the frequent ferry services, I was presented with wonderful views of Helsinki's port. As I approached the fortress, the journey was filled with beautiful small islands and houses completely different from mainland Helsinki just behind me.
The fortress was constructed when the Kingdom of Sweden owned what is known today as Finland. Weakened after the wars with Russia in the first half of the 1700s, the Swedish decided that it was necessary to reinforce the defences of Finland, as it was located just across the sea from the imperial city of St. Petersburg. The fortification was finished in 1750 and it was named Sveaborg in Swedish and Viapori in Finnish.
Only a few years later, in May 1808, the fortress surrendered to the Russians, marking a new era in the history of this fortification. The Swedes were forced to leave the islands and all ships and equipment were transferred to the Russian Empire.
When Finland declared its independence in 1917, the fortress remained under the Russian control. It wasn't until 1918 during the Finnish Civil War that the fortress was transferred tot he Finnish Government. In 1918, it was renamed Suomenlinna ('Castle of Finland'), reflecting the independence and annexation to the state of Finland.
My guided visit started from the Visitor Centre, located just a few minutes walk from the quay.
On my way there, I passed by the Russian trading block, a small neighbourhood with ornamented wooden houses along the road that used to belong to Russian garrison traders. These supplied goods for military and civilian needs, also acting as pharmacists, butchers and bankers for the entire garrison area. They also kept food in stock against any siege.
The beautiful houses in the trading block are different in style from the rest of the fortress, as well as other wooden houses in Finland. Their typical features include four-column verandas, high entrance steps and stone base, as well as ornamental eaves and window frames. The arrangement in which the building's gable ends face the road was copied from market squares in Russia as an appreciation of Russian folk architecture.
Six of the buildings in the original block have survived until today. Nowadays, the buildings are privately owned and mostly residential.
I met my guide just outside of the Tourist Centre, who gave us a compelling introduction to the islands and their history.
Our first stop was Church Park, location of three of the most important buildings on Iso Mustasaari island: the church to the left, the four-story 'Noah's Ark' to the right, and right behind the crown work Ehrensvärd.
The crownwork comprises the southern flank of an ambitious plan for a public square originally drawn up by Augustin Ehrensvärd, a Swedish military officer and architect. The external side was designed to form an imposing grey stone defensive wall, but its casemates and wings were used for naval shipyard workshops, storerooms and offices for the naval command.
During the Crimean War in 1885, the building was badly damaged during the bombardments, and the top two floors of the wings weren't built. Nowadays, the crownwork houses rooms for conferences and events, as well as offices and flats.
The Suomenlinna Church was built during the Russian regime, by order of Czar Nikolay I, to function as a military church. The Alexander Nevsky garrison church was completed and inaugurated in 1854.
After Finland gained independence the church was consecrated at Christmas in 1918 to function as a Lutheran church. The following year, the five Byzantine-Russian style cupolas of the four small towers were pulled down.
In 1920, a gaslight lighthouse was installed in the church tower, which is a unique combination in the entire world. Today, it uses electricity and continues to function as a lighthouse for air and sea traffic, at a height of 52 meters from sea level.
We crossed the narrow arches of the fortress to reach the Great Courtyard, built by Ehrensvärd in the 1760s to serve as the main square.
Badly damaged during the Crimean War, it is surrounded by the fortress commandant's house and the main guard house.
Right in the middle of the square is the tomb of Ehrensvärd himself. After his death in 1772, he was buried elsewhere for 10 years until the tomb was completed.
Surrounded by water, the history of Suomenlinna is inevitably linked to navigation. As such, one of the most important landmarks of the islands is the dockyard.
The dockyard dates back to 1747, when the Swedes decided to build the Viapori fortress as a base for their fleet, called the Finnish squadron. The most important part of this fortress was a dry dockyard used to build and store ships and that remained in use until 1790.
When Finland became part of the Russian Empire in 1809, Viapori turned into a Russian garrison. The dockyard fell into disrepair due to lack of use and multiple buildings were damaged during the Crimea War.
It was only during the First World War that the Russians decide d to re-establish the dockyard as a naval base. When Finland gained independence in 1917, the fortress changed hands once more.
During the 1920s and 30s, the Finnish armed forces built aircrafts at the dockyard and kept there their submarines. The dockyard went through an important renovation just before the Second World War and it was used to build ships for the Soviet Union as war reparations until it was handed over to the Governing Body of Suomenlinna in 1985.
But Suomenlinna is not only historical buildings and constructions. Today, the islands are one of the most popular options for a day out among the locals.
Our guide told us how drinking in public is not allowed in Finland unless you're doing a picnic. This is why many locals travel to Suomenlinna to have picnics during the summer days to take advantage of this loophole and enjoy the very small but popular sandy beach on one of the islands.
Right next to the beach is the island of Kustaanmiekka, offering beautiful views of the original bastion fortress as well as the late 19th-century Russian defence line with sandbanks and artillery emplacements.
As our tour was coming to an end, we did a semi-circle and headed back to our starting point. As a first time visitor with barely any knowledge of Suomenlinna, the guided walking tour offered by the Suomenlinna Centre was a great presentation to the islands and their history.
I spent the rest of the afternoon taking a stroll and enjoying the beautiful views. Suomenlinna is not only about history and fortress, it is also the perfect stop to relax and mix with the locals after a busy day exploring Helsinki. Without any doubt a must-see if you're visiting the Finnish capital!
Where to sleep in Helsinki
For my stay in Helsinki I booked a private room in the Hostel Domus Academica. Located in Kamppi, a central neighbourhood around 20 minutes walking from most touristic spots, it offers over 300 rooms, all of them with private bathrooms and aa kitchenette. The hostel also has a morning sauna that can be used by all guests.
My double room was very spacious and offered everything I needed for my stay. The fact that it included a kitchen was extremely handy, especially in a rather expensive country such as Finland.
The booking included a buffet breakfast at Laulumiehet, a restaurant located on the ground floor of the hotel. Served in a buffet style, it offers a great selection of fruits, vegetables, breads, cheese and cold cuts, as well as organic products and gluten-free options.
I was looking for a comfortable room in a central location for a reasonable price, and that's exactly what I found!
All opinions are my own.