My husband and I recently returned from a week-long trip to Helsinki, Finland. I had a work conference there, and since it was only three and a half days long, we had a few days beforehand to spend some time in Finland as tourists. One of the first stops we made in beautiful Helsinki was to the intriguing sea fortress known as Suomenlinna, and it was wonderful! If you ever find yourself in Helsinki, a visit to Suomenlinna is a must-do.
History of Suomenlinna
Suomenlinna literally translates to “Castle of Finland” in Finnish, but there isn’t a castle there nor was it built during Finland’s independence! You see, Finland was originally part of Sweden for about 600 years. From the 12th century until the early 1800s, Finland was the eastern part of the Swedish Empire. Sweden began to lose part of its eastern territory to Russia in the early 1700s, and in an attempt to bulk up its defenses, Sweden decided to build a new fortress in Finland. And so, construction of Suomenlinna began around 1748.
Originally called Sveaborg (or Viapori in Finnish), Suomenlinna was supposed to have been constructed over a period of about four years, but in reality, it took closer to 40! In 1808, Suomenlinna was attacked and taken by the Russians, who would retain control of Suomenlinna for more than a century.
During Russia’s control of the fortress, Suomenlinna was initially expanded but then later left to decay and decline (and was even bombarded for several days during the Crimean War!) When Finland gained independence in 1917, Suomenlinna was still under Russian control but eventually was transferred over to Finland in 1918.
It wasn’t until Finland took over Suomenlinna in 1918 that its name was officially changed from Viapori to Suomenlinna. Finland worked to restore and repair the fortress, and Suomenlinna served as a military base for several decades. The military left the island in the mid-‘60s, and the island was eventually turned over to civilian control (though there is still an active naval academy there.) Later in 1991, Suomenlinna received UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and restoration and repairs continued on the fortress.
Today, Suomenlinna is one of Finland’s most visited tourist destinations, and it is home to more than 800 residents who live in several of the fortress’s restored facilities. In addition to the naval academy that still exists at Suomenlinna, the fortress also houses a halfway-house program for prisoners, one of the oldest operational dry docks in Europe, and a church whose steeple doubles as a lighthouse. There is a hotel and conference center, as well as eleven restaurants and cafes where residents and guests alike can enjoy a bite to eat while enjoying the spectacular and unique setting of Suomenlinna.
How to Get to Suomenlinna
Being a sea fortress, Suomenlinna can only be accessed by boat (there is actually a tunnel connecting Suomenlinna to the mainland, but it’s only used for utilities and emergency purposes). We took the main ferry, which is probably the most common way to get there, but there is a waterbus that travels there in the summer, too. Or…you can arrive on your own boat!
Helsinki has fantastic public transportation, and the ferry ride to Suomenlinna costs the same as a tram ride. If you’re traveling to Helsinki, I highly recommend downloading the “HSL” app, from which you can buy and display your public transportation tickets. We bought a 3-day pass, and it was good for everything, including the Suomenlinna ferry, which makes multiple trips every hour to the fortress.
The ferry terminal in mainland Helsinki is located in Market Square. We arrived after the ferry had already started boarding, and since it was our first day in Helsinki it wasn’t really clear to us how to use our public transport tickets. Like idiots, we stood at the turnstiles for the ferry for about five minutes, trying to figure out how to get through and onto the ferry.
As it turns out, you just walk through the turnstiles! They’re not activated by anything and you don’t need to show anyone your ticket to board (though you may be asked to show your ticket on board if they do an inspection, so DO be sure that you have a valid ticket).
The ferry ride to Suomenlinna only takes about 15 minutes, and it was just barely warm enough for us to sit outside so that we could enjoy the beautiful scenery. If you don’t know much about Helsinki, or Finland in general, you might not be aware of just how many islands they have there! Finland has the second largest number of islands of any country (after Sweden), and Helsinki has more than 300 islands itself.
On our way to Suomenlinna, we marveled at all of the beautiful islands, some inhabited, that dotted the Gulf of Finland. As sailors, we also thought about how important local knowledge or really detailed nautical charts must be if you want to drive a boat around there!
Suomenlinna is made up of eight islands, five of which are connected by bridges or sandbars. The main ferry will drop you off at the top of Iso Mustasaari island, which is the northern tip of Suomenlinna.
Right next to the ferry stop is a tourist information center and introductory exhibit that is open year-round, so if you don’t know what you want to do during your visit, this is a good place to start. You can also pop in there to pick up one of their brochures and maps so you can start your adventure at Suomenlinna!
What to Do in Suomenlinna
In researching Suomenlinna prior to our trip, I had learned that they offer guided tours, so as soon as we got off the ferry we headed down to the Suomenlinna museum to buy our tickets. From June through August, tours are offered several times a day every day in five different languages. In the off-season, though, they’re only offered once a day on Saturdays and Sundays in English and Russian.
The tour lasts about an hour and takes you to several of what they consider the “must-see” sights of Suomenlinna. It’s a great way to get your bearings and decide which places you might want to visit after your tour.
If you don’t want to do the tour, though, you can simply follow their Blue Route, which is a 1-mile trail that also guides you to the highlights of Suomenlinna. When you disembark the ferry, just follow the blue sign markers and you’ll find all the key sights of Suomenlinna (you can see the trail on this map).
In addition to the tour and Blue Route, there are six different museums on the island, each with its own ticket price. If you visit in the summer, you can buy a discounted combo ticket for all the museums so that you can save a bit of money on your visit. Most of the museums are closed in the off-season, though, so be sure to check their calendar for open hours on the day you wish to visit.
We only visited one of the museums during own visit, and that was the submarine museum, which is housed in Finland’s last remaining submarine, Vesikko. Suomenlinna was once home to Finland’s fleet of five submarines. Four of the five submarines have since been destroyed, and Vesikko is the only one that remains. Apparently, the submarine once held 20 crew-members, but as you walk through its interior, you’ll likely wonder, as we did, how 10 people fit in there let alone 20! It must have been mighty cozy…
If you work up an appetite while exploring Suomenlinna, they have multiple restaurants and cafes on-site, though, many of these are closed in the off-season as well. Again, you’ll want to check their calendar to find out how many amenities will be available when you visit.
We had hoped to visit the Suomenlinna Brewery located next to the ferry terminal, but they are, unfortunately, closed on Sundays, which is when we visited. We did, however, enjoy a beverage on the terrace at Cafe Piper. There is a gorgeous view of the Gulf, and we were treated to the lovely sight of a 3-masted tall ship sailing by while we sat there.
We also particularly enjoyed seeing the old dry dock, which is the oldest dry dock in Finland. It was built in 1750 shortly after the construction of the fortress began, and it was originally powered by a windmill! Today, it’s still in use and flooded and emptied just twice a year.
What we enjoyed most during our visit, though, was simply wandering and exploring. We stayed outdoors for the most part and loved finding all the various little tunnels and “hobbit-house” type structures dotting the hillsides. There are walkways along the cliffs with beautiful views of the Gulf and plenty of old structures to climb in and on.
I could have stayed there for many, many more hours because it just seemed like everywhere we looked there was something interesting to see and explore! We visited on a cool but sunny day, but if you go in the summer, you’ll have a wonderful time adventuring and enjoying cool drinks at one of the many outdoor cafes or terraces. No matter what you do there, though, just go! You won’t be disappointed with any visit to Suomenlinna, and your visit to Helsinki won’t be complete if you don’t go check it out!
Have you already been to Suomenlinna? Let me know what you thought the first time you visited this magical place!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Suomenlinna: Ferries depart from the Market Square in Helsinki, Finland
- Check their website for travel details.
When to Go
- Suomenlinna is open year-round, but many of the attractions and amenities are closed during the winter.
- Check the Suomenlinna calendar to find out what will be open and when on the day you visit.
Tips for Visiting
- Give yourself an entire day to visit Suomenlinna. While it might not seem like a very big place, there are tons of nooks and crannies to explore!
- We enjoyed our late September visit, but several of the amenities and attractions had already closed for the season. If you want to experience Suomenlinna to the fullest, visit from June through August.
- If you visit Suomenlinna in the summertime, you can purchase a combo pass which will allow you to access all six museums at a discounted price.
- One-hour tours are offered at Suomenlinna year-round. Tours are offered in five languages in the summertime and in English and Russian in the off-season.
- If you’re not sure what to do during your visit, be sure to check out their brochure in advance and then follow the Blue Route once you arrive. This will help you to see all of Suomenlinna’s highlights!
- And if you can’t make it there in person, check out this video with views from the Blue Route.