Probably the most popular tourist attraction, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and my personal favorite, the sea fortress Suomenlinna should be on the top of your list for a visit to Helsinki. Between the gorgeous setting on the islands, six museums and lots of cafes and restaurants, there should be something for everybody to enjoy a trip to Suomenlinna!
After a series of defeats of the Swedish by the Russians and the loss of several forts in the Russian-Swedish war of 1741-43, Sweden decided to build a new fortress to defend Finland! In 1748 they started the largest construction project in Sweden – more than 7,000 workers started to build one of the largest fortresses ever built in Europe and considered invincible! Helsinki only had a population of 2,000 people, making Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg, the Swedish name) also the biggest city in Finland! When the next war came, in 1808, the Russians seized Helsinki quickly and besieged Suomenlinna. Despite the Russian force being smaller than the defending army behind their massive walls, the fortress commander surrendered, for reasons still not quite clear today, and leaving Finland to become part of Russia. You can find out a lot more details, including a very good movie, at the excellent Suomenlinna Museum on the island. It is my favorite museum on the island and should be part of your tour! It’s astonishing to see how much money and effort was poured into the fortress, how vast the construction was including the dry dock to build a fleet inside the fortress – and how much of a city it became with a community, schools and social events! If that doesn’t quench your thirst for information, there are also a military museum (very similar to the one in Helsinki), a submarine built in the 30s you can walk through, a customs and a toy museum as well as the Ehrensvaerd museum to honor the fortress’ commander!
The fortress is spread out over four islands with many of the buildings, walls and gun emplacements still in place, making for an impressive site to tour. Even if you are not a history buff, with the many green parks and beautiful ocean views all around, it also makes for a wonderful spot to wander, relax and enjoy a summer day with a picnic! There are 12 restaurants and cafes on the islands, giving you plenty of choices for a drink, ice cream or a meal during your visit!
Suomenlinna is easily reached by ferry from the Helsinki harbor, only 15 minutes away (EUR5 round-trip). Think of it as a mini-boat tour that takes you across the Helsinki harbor to the main quay on Suomenlinna! You’ll have a tourist information center and facilities as soon as you get off the ferry. From there, a well marked “blue route” (1.5 km or 0.9 miles long) will take you on a walking tour across the islands and past the most important sites. All the museums, sights and restaurants are clearly marked, so you can’t miss anything. About halfway through the walking tour, near the bridge between the two islands, you will find the Suomenlinna Museum (EUR6.50) – a must see to understand the fortress’ history. From there, the “blue route” will take you to some impressive gun emplacements and walls at the Southern End of the fortress. Your walking tour finishes at the King’s Gate where the Swedish king would arrive for inspections. There are many pleasant spots all over the island to sit down and relax or you can take a break at the restaurants near King’s Gate or near the main quay to have a meal. To plan your trip, keep in mind that you have to get back to the main quay to catch your ferry back to Helsinki! You can find all the up-to-date information here!
Insider Tip: If you don’t have lot of time (or don’t want to walk this much), you can take the short version of the tour: Take the JT Waterbus (EUR7) from the Helsinki harbor instead of the ferry, direct to the Suomenlinna Centre pier near the museum. Take a quick tour of the Suomenlinna museum and take the walk along the “blue route” to King’s Gate. From there, board the JT Waterbus back to Helsinki – you save yourself the walk from the main quay as well as the walk back from King’s Gate, saving almost ¾ of the walking. Make sure that you keep an eye on the time – the JT Waterbus only runs once an hour, so you might want to plan a drink or meal near the King’s Gate quay while waiting for your boat! You can find their schedule and prices here!
Regardless of whether you are looking for a history tour or just a leisurely island trip and picknik, Suomenlinna is a great place to visit and was my favorite sight! It makes for a great half-day or day trip when in Helsinki in the summer – enjoy!