Just a 15-minute ferry ride from the Kauppatori (market square), a visit to Suomenlinna, the ‘fortress of Finland’, is a Helsinki must-do. Set on a tight cluster of four islands connected by bridges, the Unesco World Heritage Site was originally built by the Swedes as Sveaborg in the mid-eighteenth century.
From the main quay, a blue-signposted walking path connects the main attractions. By the bridge that connects Iso Mustasaari and the main island, Susisaari, is Suomenlinnakeskus, which has tourist information, internet access, maps and guided walking tours, daily in summer and weekends only in winter. Within the centre is Suomenlinna-museo, a two-level museum covering the history of the fortress. It’s very information heavy, but the first part gives good background. There’s also a 30-minute audiovisual display.
The most atmospheric part of Suomenlinna is at the end of the blue trail, the southern end of Susisaari. Exploring the old bunkers, crumbling fortress walls and cannons will give you an insight into this fortress, and there are plenty of grassy picnic spots. Monumental King’s Gate was built in 1753–54 as a two-storey fortress wall, which had a double drawbridge and a stairway, the ‘King’s Steps’, added. In summer you can get a boat back to Helsinki from here, saving you the walk back to the main quay.
Several other museums dot the islands. Perhaps the most interesting is Ehrensvärd-museo, once the home of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the man responsible for designing and running the fortress. An attractive 18th-century house, it holds numerous portraits, prints and models giving an insight into daily life on the island. Ehrensvärd’s tomb sits outside in the square, and opposite is a busy shipyard where sailmakers and other workers have been building ships since the 1750s. The dry dock holds up to two dozen boats being built or repaired.
Along the shore from here is another fish out of water. The Vesikko is the only WWII-era submarine remaining in Finland. It saw action against the Russians. It’s fascinating to climb inside and see how it all worked. Needless to say, there’s not much room to move.
Near the main quay, there’s a supermarket, hostel, brewery pub and the distinctive pink Galleria Rantakasarmi. One of the best-preserved remaining buildings of the Russian era, it now has various exhibitions.
Near here, the church was built by the Russians in 1854 and served as a Russian Orthodox place of worship until the 1920s when it became Lutheran. It’s the only church in the world to double as a lighthouse – the beacon was originally gaslight but is now electric and still in use.
Also on Iso Mustasaari is Manege, which commemorates WWII and displays heavy artillery. Quite a contrast is the nearby Lelumuseo, a delightful private collection of hundreds of dolls and almost as many teddy bears. The cafe here serves delicious homemade apple pie.
Taking a picnic is a great way to make the most of Suomenlinna’s grass, views and (hopefully) sunshine. There are also several cafes and restaurants. At around 5.15pm it’s worth finding a spot to watch the enormous Baltic ferries pass through the narrow gap between islands.
Ferries to Suomenlinna depart from the passenger quay at Helsinki’s Kauppatori, arriving at the main quay on Suomenlinna and stopping at other points on the islands in summer. Tickets (single/return €2/3.80, 15 minutes, three times hourly, 6.20am to 2.20am) are available at the pier. In addition, JT-Lines runs a waterbus at least hourly from the Kauppatori, making two stops on Suomenlinna (single/return €4/6.50, 20 minutes, 8am to 7pm May to mid-September).