Suomenlinna is a sea fortress built on 8 islands just south of Helsinki, the capital of Finland. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and people still live on the island today.
The fortress was actually built by the Swedish crown (who ruled Finland at the time) in 1748, and named Sveaborg (Castle of the Swedes). It was built as protection against the Russians who at the time were expanding their power in Europe. During the Finnish War, Sweden surrendered the fortress to Russia in 1808, which meant the occupation of Finland by Russian forces. Russia held the fortress all the way until Finnish independence in 1918.
The fortress was then renamed in Finnish to Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) in 1918 for patriotic and nationalistic reasons. The fort is now no longer used as such, but instead houses a number of interesting museums documenting its history, beautiful sea views, and of course the fort itself is interesting to walk around.
How to get to Suomenlinna island
Suomenlinna is accessible only by water. A ferry service runs from the Market Square in Helsinki to the island throughout the year; it’s operated by HSL and all of their schedules are online (but the ferries run 1 to 4 times per hour during the daylight hours, so are fairly easy to find). During summer and autumn, there is also a water bus service available.
The trip to Suomenlinna takes 15–20 minutes and gives beautiful views back to Helsinki and across the water. I visited the island during the winter, and the boat trip through the ice-covered waters was a unique experience in itself – it was incredibly beautiful.
What to do on Suomenlinna
1. King’s Gate
The King’s Gate is the iconic symbol of Suomenlinna. It was built in 1753 as the entrance to the fortress. When I visited, the whole sea was frozen so stepping through the gate from the island gave way to gorgeous views over an expanse of ice.
2. Suomenlinna Church
The Suomenlinna Church was built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1854, with the typical domes and spires associated with similar churches. However, at the beginning of the Finnish era it was converted in to a Lutheran church – the domes lost their ‘onion’ shapes and the tower was made quadrangular.
3. The Jetty Barracks
Another Russian era building, the striking pink jetty barracks are one of the first things visitors to the island see, as they form the main gateway to the fortress. The barracks were designed to accommodate up to 250 soldiers.
4. Bastion Zander
This is the main area where you can get a good view out from and over the fortress. This is also the location where the Finnish flag flies, though when I visited it wasn’t flying. This is because it only flies from 12 May to 29 September (and I visited in Jan). The flag hoisting date is significant because the flag of an independent Finland was hoisted over Suomenlinna for the first time on 12 May 1918.
5. Great Courtyard
The Great Courtyard served as the main square and administrative centre of the fortress. The houses surrounding the courtyard included the fortress commandant’s house and the main guard house. In the middle of the square you can now see the tomb of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the founder of the island.
6. Suomenlinna Museum
If you only have time to visit one museum on the island, make it this one. It tells the story of the history, restoration and present use of the fortress and is open all year round. There is also a short film about the fortress as well which is a good option if you have children with you and don’t have time to read all the boards.
7. Ehrensvard Museum
This musuem is located in the official residence of the fortress’s commandants, and is focused on telling the history of the Swedish period of the fortress. It is named after the first proprietor of the building and founder of the fortress, Augustin Ehrensvärd. The musuem is only open during the summer though, so I didn’t get to visit this one.
8. The Military Museum
The Military museum exhibits Finland’s story during the wars it has fought for its independence. This includes the Civil War in 1918, the Winter War in 1939–1940, the Continuation War in 1941–1944 and the Lapland War in 1944–1945. This was my favourite museum on the island as I’m very interested in WW2 history. I know it inside out from British & German perspectives, so to understand the battles faced by other countries, like Finland, is always so interesting.
9. Submarine Vesikko
By far one of the most popular attractions in Suomenlinna, this WW2 submarine has been restored so you can visit inside it and see the cramped interior where around 20 crew members worked below the sea.
10. The Toy Museum
Suomenlinna Toy Museum is housed in one of the wooden houses of the island, and is a collection of old dolls, antique teddy bears and other old toys from the early 19th century until the 1960s, with wartime toys and games a speciality. The house is also home to a cafe so win win for 30 minutes of your time.
Tips for visiting Suomenlinna
- I absolutely loved the unique experience of visiting in the snow, so I really recommend going in January or February. That said, some of the museums are closed so if you want to be able to do everything, then the shoulder spring or autumn seasons may be better for a visit
- Wear sturdy footwear – the island is deceptively big and there are walls to climb, cannons to explore and cobbled paths to navigate
- Give the island a whole day. The museums alone can take hours of your time and are well worth exploring.
- Get the first ferry of the day to avoid the crowds. The fortress island opens at 8am, but many of the museums don’t open until 10am. A good idea is to get there early, walk around enjoying the crowd free views and then head to the museums as other people start to arrive.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found this post interesting and that it might have made you want to visit Suomenlinna one day! I can’t wait to return to explore more of Finland – the Northern lights in one of those panoramic huts are definitely high on the post COVID travel list. Stay safe and happy travelling all.