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On an island off Helsinki sits Suomenlinna, a sea fortress and UNESCO World Heritage site. Suomenlinna was built during the Swedish era (1748-1808) as a base for the Archipelago Fleet, or the “fleet of the army.” The archipelago fleet was a branch of the Swedish armed forces created to protect the Swedish coasts during several wars, including the Seven Years’ War, the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-90, the Finnish War of 1808-09, and the Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814. In 1991, Suomenlinna became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and today, the seven islands that compose Suomenlinna remain inhabited and active. Suomenlinna is home to 11 restaurants and cafes, a grocery store, and even a hostel, where I stayed during my visit to Helsinki. Whether you’re a history buff or simply enjoy great views, Suomenlinna is a must-see when you’re in Helsinki.
Getting to Suomenlinna
The only way to reach Suomenlinna is by ferry from the Market Square in Helsinki. The HSL ferry runs 1-4 times per hour year round and takes 15-20 minutes. You can find the full schedule here. The ferry departs from the east side of Market Square and arrives at the main pier on the north shore of Suomenlinna. You must purchase your ticket from the ticket machines on the departure pier prior to boarding, as tickets are not sold on the ferry. If you have a Helsinki Card, the ferry ticket is free. If you wish to bring your car, you must make a reservation in advance as there is only space for 1-2 vehicles on each ferry. You may, however, bring bicycles onto the ferry without a reservation.
In the summer months (May – September), there is also a water bus that departs from the Kolera-allas area of the Market Square and arrives in the Suomenlinna centre pier, King’s Gate, and Lonna Island. You can view the full timetables for the water bus here.
While there are tours available to guide you through the island, there is a marked route that is quite easy to follow on your own. Once you get off the ferry in Suomenlinna, go through the arch, which will put you on the blue route. The blue route is the main route that runs across the island and will take you past all of the main sights. It is marked by blue signs and is approximately 1.5km (1 mile) long. You will also find information boards along the route that provide information about some of the main sights, including the Russian merchants’ quarter, Church Park, Great Courtyard, Piper’s Park and the fortifications of Kustaanmiekka. I would highly advise getting a copy of one of these maps, as I found it to be very helpful in guiding me across the island. The island is fully accessible, so if you are traveling with a wheelchair, you can use the accessible map here.
As you walk across the island, you’ll see many different types of residential buildings for the 800 people who live on the island. Coming from a place where oftentimes entire street blocks sport identical looking houses, I was fascinated by the variety in color, structure, and material that these residences displayed.
Suomenlinna also has a different kind of residence: a prison. However, this prison is different from a traditional prison. The Suomenlinna prison is an open prison, where prisoners are free to come and go as they please. The 70 or so inmates at this prison go to work everyday in the greenhouse, and there are bunnies running around the prison facilities. The inmates know it would be easy to escape, but they also know that if they escaped, they would just be captured and taken back to prison – a regular prison – where conditions are much worse.
If you’ve never heard of open prisons before, you’re probably thinking that the open prison concept is a new one. However, open prisons have been around in Finland since the 1930s. The focus is more on rehabilitation, and this is the last step an inmate takes before his transition back into society.
There are also six museums on the island that you can visit to learn more about Suomenlinna and its history. The Suomenlinna Museum is the only museum on the island that’s open year round, whereas the other five museums are only open during summer months. These five museums are the Ehrensvärd Museum, the submarine Vesikko, Military Museum’s Manege, Toy Museum and Customs Museum. As I visited Suomenlinna in November, most of these museums were closed.
Food / Drink
There are 11 restaurants/cafes on the island. Inside the Jetty Barracks, which is the building that houses the arch to the fortress, is a restaurant and brewery. I had a hearty tomato soup there on a chilly day, and it really hit the spot. They also had a big selection of beers that I’d never heard of before, so I enjoyed trying that. It will cost a little more to eat out, so if you are on a budget, head over to the grocery store on the island and buy your dinner there.
Suomenlinna is my favorite part of Helsinki. It it so interesting to me how this tiny island of 800 residents sustains itself in many of the same ways a big city does – even by providing its residents with a brewery.
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I had never heard of this before but it looks really remote and off grid. I love your description of the place. And the gloomy pictures of course!
Thanks for appreciating our gloomy photos 🙂 It’s crazy how a sight so gloomy can be so beautiful at the same time. I love finding off the grid places, so this was a real treasure for me!
I love places that are only accessible by Ferry! And the fact that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site makes me want to go even more. Your pictures are lovely! I love the slightly eerie atmosphere they seem to capture 🙂
Thank you! I was surprised by how simultaneously beautiful and eerie everything looked. I love exploring UNESCO world heritage sites too – if you make it to Helsinki you must visit Suomenlinna!
It looks cold and eerie there, but I think it adds to the appeal a little. I have never heard of this island, or the open prison concept. Very intriguing! I’ll have to check it out someday!
I have never been here and never been to Helsinki. But this definitely earned a place in my bucketlist. I can feel the nostalgia of the place just by looking at the photos and it is really lovely.
Thanks so much, Jan! I would’ve been happy just checking out the beautiful scenery on Suomenlinna, but the fact that there’s so much history behind the sea fortress makes it that much better. I hope you get to visit one day!
I am not a history buff but I am a foodie and I can imaging eating my way through all the restaurants. Great to know it so accessible from Helsinki. I’ll be checking this out next time I am in Europe.
That’s such a good idea, Allison! I would love it if you went one day and did a food tour of the entire island. In fact, if you do end up doing that one day, let me know and I’ll be there!
I visited Suomenlinna a few years back and have fond memories of a beautiful summer’s day on the water. The sun was shining and locals were out sunbathing on the rocks. It’s a fort that is well worth visiting, especially if you’re a history buff.
I would love to visit again in the summer. I loved the gloomy atmosphere, but it would be so cool to be able to sun bathe on the rocks. I imagine it would be a much cheerier vibe!
Suomenlinna prison caught my attention. I have never heard of the open prison concept before. It makes a lot of sense if you are interested in making sure inmates are truly reintegrated into society. This place looks off the beaten path, would love to get there one day!
I had never heard of the open prison concept before either! I actually didn’t even know about it when I got there and had to google it later because I was curious as to why there was only a small gate separating the prison from the rest of the island. I agree it’s a great idea for transitioning prisoners back into society so they can more easily integrate back into “normal life” once they get out.
We have never heard of Suomenlinna nor the concept of open prison. Suomenlinna does look like an amazing weekend getaway to a tranquil place. Completely in awe of the Suomenlinna Church it looked to me straight out of some classic movie 🙂
Yes, the church was beautiful! And if you are looking for a quiet weekend getaway, this is your spot. I think it gets busier in the summer months, but at least when I was there in November, there were hardly any people walking around the island.
Wonderful guide! Going on a ferry is always a treat. I’ve never been to Helsinki, but I’ll make sure this is on my list once I get there!
The ferry was definitely a fun experience, especially since the views from Helsinki Market Square to Suomenlinna were gorgeous. I hope you get to visit Helsinki and Suomenlinna one day!
I honestly had no idea they had so many restaurants (11 wow). I will have to take another visit soon!
It does seem like a lot for an island, doesn’t it? As Allison suggested above, it would be really fun to do a food tour around the island and hit up all 11 restaurants 🙂
I’ve never been to Helsinki (actually never been anywhere in Europe before!). Looks like a very interesting place to visit!
I love Scandinavia, and Helsinki is no exception! I hope you get to visit one day 🙂
We have yet to make it to Finland, so we are totally unaware of anything about it. This was a real eye opener. We do love historical sites, so I am sure we would enjoy this adventure.
You would love Suomenlinna then! I didn’t know anything about Finland before my trip either, but between the free walking tour I took in Helsinki and wandering around Suomenlinna, I learned a lot more about Finnish history than I would’ve expected. I hope you get to visit Suomenlinna one day 🙂
Hey Diana, this was a lovely post! I missed Suomenlinna on my last visit to Helsinki, and I’m glad you covered it in such great detail. Especially interested by the bit about the open prison – so fascinating. I’m curious about what it was like to stay at the Suomenlinna hostel, and also wondering if you got the Helsinki Card? Thanks!
Hey Nicole, thanks so much for reading, and glad you enjoyed it! The Suomenlinna hostel is perfect if you are looking for a quiet place away from all the noise of a big city. It was set up kind of like a larger cabin. You walk in, and there’s a hallway with dorm rooms on both sides. There is not really a common area there or a bar or kitchen or someplace for the hostel guests to socialize with other guests. This was kind of a bummer, but of course you can still meet other travelers in your dorm room. I ended up making some friends on my free walking tour of Helsinki that I hung out with on that trip. It was also a slight hassle to have to take the ferry back to my hostel at night because I had to keep track of what time it was when I was out at the bars in Helsinki and make sure I didn’t miss the last ferry back to the island. Otherwise, it was a perfectly fine place for me to stay! I did not get a Helsinki Card on my trip. I don’t think it’s necessary – especially for shorter trips – because you can pretty much walk everywhere you want to go in Helsinki. Hope this helps!
I’ve never heard of Suomelinna before but it seems like a fascinating place. The open prison concept is interesting .
Brianna – I had never heard of the open prison concept before I went, and I was very interested to learn about it! I think it’s a great way to help prisoners reintegrate with society in preparation for their release.
Helsinki, and the rest of Scandy is on my must visit list. It’s just difficult for me to work out the best time to visit there as it’s so far away for me. Loved reading all about this place.
Scandinavia is my favorite, so I hope you get to visit one day! We’re working on a Scandinavia series right now so look out for some more posts on Scandinavia in the upcoming weeks 🙂
I have never heard of Suomenlinna, but it really sounds worth a visit – from the journey there to the open prison. Fascinating.
There were so many interesting things to see on the island, Sarah! Aside from the natural beauty, there is so much history behind the island which I really enjoyed learning about.
An open pride is a great concept, I mean can you imagine being locked up for years and then just being thrown back into society? That would be a very difficult transition. I’ve actually never heard of these islands actually, lots of amazing places to explore!
Bell, I am completely with you on that, but unfortunately in many places (the U.S. for instance), prisoners are thrown back into society without any integration efforts. They are given maybe $30 for transportation to go wherever they need to go to, and that’s it. I think that’s why a lot of ex-prisoners end up back in prison because they do not receive any help to transition them back into living a “normal” life. I hope you get to visit Suomenlinna one day!
Suomenlinna is so charming with some amazing views. The place is new to me, goes to show that there are so many unknown gems out in the world waiting to be discovered. I love the fact that the place in addition to its rich natural beauty also has a rich history. This makes it all the more interesting.
So true, Vyjay, it’s the best of both worlds! Hope you get to visit one day.
What an awesome read! I actually didnt know about this place, but am on a hunt to see as many UNESCO sites as I can (I am at like 12 so far?). I cant wait to get to Finland either!
That’s a lot, Ehsanul! Do you have a favorite? Hope you get to visit Suomenlinna someday.
UNESCO sites always brighten my touristy days even when the clouds are so dreary. Glad that Suomenlinna was a success and will certainly swing by if I’m ever in Helsinki.
I haven’t run into a UNESCO site that I didn’t like yet! They really are the best. Hope you get to visit Suomenlinna one day.
Side trips like this are so great and since I love history the area looks fascinating. I’ve read some research-based articles about open prisons, but I haven’t read one from a traveler. Thanks so much for sharing! Pinned!
Thanks so much, Lara! I would actually love to read some research-based articles on open prisons because I had never even heard of the concept before visiting Suomenlinna. I think it’s a very interesting concept and wonder how it could be incorporated in societies like the U.S.
I definitely haven’t heard of this place before – but man, it is certainly intriguing! Thanks for sharing such a detailed post! I’ll add it to my Bucket List folder for future reference 🙂
It was a very different and intriguing place! I hope you get to visit one day 🙂
That’s why I love travel bloggers…. you get to know places that are off the grid:) This place looks eerie and mysterious; maybe because of the gloomy weather BUT truly an adventure… Thanks for sharing.
I love finding off the grid places and hope to share more of those with you and our other readers 🙂 It was pretty eerie but also beautiful at the same time. It is really a one of a kind place. I hope you get to visit one day!
Wow, I have never heard of Suomenlinna ever but that looks interesting though very cold! I love the Prison “Gate”! I think I have seen goats better secure on the farm! Were you able to see prisoners from over the “Wall”?
It actually wasn’t that cold at the time – if you have a coat that should be fine. Haha you’re so right about goats being more secure on a farm. I was there in the evening and did not see any prisoners outside. I actually thought about going in to check it out because I had no idea what it was at the time and thought maybe it used to be a prison but was now a museum or something. I almost voluntarily walked myself into prison! I was pretty relieved I didn’t when I got back to my hostel and googled it and found out it is a fully operating prison.
I really love Suomenlinna 😀