Bastions, barracks and a King’s gate; anyone visiting Helsinki should definitely spend a few hours at the Suomenlinna sea fortress that is located just outside the Finnish capital. We went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in April 2016 and this is a summary of our journey to the islands that are so popular among locals and tourists alike.
Suomenlinna: A Short History
Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg as it is known in Swedish, was built on six islands by the Swedish crown in the 18th century as a reaction to Russian expansionism. Its original Swedish name means the Fortress of Svea. Actually the fortification was known as Viapori in Finnish until Finnish independence in 1917. The name Suomenlinna means Castle of Finland and the name has its foundations in the post-war patriotic and nationalist sentiments. The construction commenced in 1748 and it was designed by Swedish count Augustin Ehrensvärd. Without getting too deeply into the history of the fortress, one should note that it belonged to Sweden for less than 100 years. Sveaborg surrendered to Russia on May 3, 1808 and shortly thereafter Finland became a part of the Russian Empire. The reasons for the surrender remain somewhat unclear and it is indeed a fascinating topic for anyone interested in military history. We share a few links at the end of this post where you can read more.
During the Russian era Suomenlinna was considered to play an important role in safeguarding the capital of the empire, St. Petersburg. The fortress was heavily bombarded during the Crimean war after which it was extensively restored. In modern times the fortress has lost much of its importance due to technological developments. However, after the Finnish civil war about 10,000 prisoners of war were interned at a camp at Suomenlinna. One tenth of the prisoners died.
These days the site is both a tourist attraction and a home to about 900 permanent inhabitants. One of the islands houses the naval academy and there is also a penal labor colony on the site. In other words, what used to be a military fortress is now a living community.
In short, during less than 300 years the fortress has been ruled by three states and it has been involved in some of the main historical events in the region. The area breathes history, while being a relaxing and peaceful place for a visit.
Suomenlinna: Our Favorite Things to See
Visitors can enjoy long walks, cozy cafés, long picnics and interesting museums at Suomenlinna. There are six kilometers of walls and plenty of sights, so there is absolutely something for everyone. One of the most interesting sights is the last surviving Finnish submarine Vesikko, which is one of the six museums located on the islands. Keen museum visitors might also be interested in checking out the toy museum or the military museum. Naturally there is a more general Suomenlinna Museum as well.
Another one of our favorite places is the iconic King’s Gate, the entrance gateway to the fortress. It is located approximately 1.5 km from main quay. Here one finds the famous words carved by Augustin Ehrensvärd, serving as an echo from times long gone: “Posterity, stand here upon your ground and never rely on outside help.“
On sunny days many locals come to Suomenlinna for a picnic and we can surely understand why. The views from the walls and cliffs are amazing and there are many green parks and a lot of space. Sitting there, on the cliffs, relaxing and enjoying the sun is one of the greatest things about Suomenlinna. The proximity to the city makes it the ideal half day trip. Just remember: some places are made for walking and this is one of them. This is also one of those places that is covered with cobblestones. So bring comfortable shoes for your feet and possibly a hat to protect your ears from the wind.
Suomenlinna: How to Get There
You reach the fortress by ferry. The ferries leave from the Market Square and they are very frequent. The trip only takes 15-20 minutes and during the journey you have the chance the enjoy Helsinki from its best side – the sea.
Should you feel like staying for a while longer, you actually can! There is a hostel on one of the islands! We haven’t tried it but it’s supposed to be quite nice.