If you are preparing for your visit to Helsinki, you should know that one of the obligatory stops on your trip is the Suomenlinna Fortress, which is located on the main island of the Helsinki Archipelago. The fortress is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and today houses a large number of museums, restaurants and other activities that can vary depending on the time of year you visit.
As a curiosity, it should be noted that the fortress, throughout history, has been used as a defence of three different kingdoms: Sweden, Russia and Finland. Besides, today it continues to be one of the districts of the city of Helsinki and about 800 people continue to live on the islands that make up Suomenlinna.
The history of the Suomenlinna fortress
The construction of the fortress, commissioned by King Frederick I of Sweden, began in 1748 when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden, and in 1750 the fortress was given the name Sveaborg (Viapori in Finnish). The person in charge of the design and construction of the fortification was Augustin Ehrensvärd, an important Swedish military architect, to protect the country from the expansionism of Imperial Russia.
The fortress was used as a naval base in the Russo-Swedish war and in May 1808, during the Finnish War, it passed into the hands of the Russians who maintained it for the next 110 years. With the Russian Revolution and the Independence of Finland, Viapori was recovered and received the name Suomenlinna (“Castle of Finland”). The fortress has also been used in other war conflicts, such as the Finnish Civil War or the 2nd World War. Finally, in 1972, the army left the island and it was transferred to the Ministry of Education and Culture. The fortress has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991 and many of its buildings are considered masterpieces of military architecture.
How to get to Suomenlinna Island
Suomenlinna is only accessible by boat and the journey takes about 15 minutes. Two types of boat can be used to reach the island: the ferry or the JT-Line water bus. Although both depart from the same location, the exact point of departure is different. Below you can find more information about these two options.
Get to the island by ferry
This service is operated by the Helsinki Region Transport Authority (HSL) and is part of the Helsinki public transport network. Therefore, the ferry service accepts HSL tickets. The island is located in zone A, so you will need a valid ticket that includes that zone (AB, ABC or ABCD).
If you don’t have a ticket, you can buy it at one of the machines located at the departure dock or through the HSL app. Besides, in summer, you can also buy tickets at a kiosk in the market square. It is important to note that tickets are not sold onboard, so you will have to have one before boarding.
The ferry departs from the east side of the market square, located opposite the Presidential Palace. In Suomenlinna, the ferry arrives and departs from the main pier on Iso Mustasaari Island, located on the north coast of Suomenlinna.
Get to the island by water bus
The water bus service is operated by JT-Line and is only available between May and October. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket office in the market square or onboard the bus. It is important to note that HSL tickets are not valid on this service.
The water bus leaves from the cruise ship pier in the market square. At Suomenlinna, the bus departs from Artillery Bay Pier and also stops at King’s Gate. Besides, some one-way trips from the square to Suomenlinna also stop at Lonna Island.
Things to do in Suomenlinna
Before commenting on the main tourist attractions that you will find on the island of Suomenlinna, it should be noted that there are a large number of signs that will indicate the direction to all the important places. In addition, there is the so-called blue route, 1.5 kilometres long, which crosses the entire fortress from north to south and will facilitate the visit to all the points of interest. The route begins at the main pier in front of Jetty Barracks and ends at King’s Gate, and is indicated with blue signs.
In Suomenlinna, you can find different historical places that you can visit, among which are Jetty Barracks, King’s Gate, Bastion Zander, the Church of Suomenlinna or the dry dock. Besides, there are a total of six museums and up to thirteen bars and restaurants where you can stop to rest.
The jetty barracks, built during the Russian era, is the first building seen when arriving at the main quay. It was built between 1868 and 1870 with the aim of housing soldiers and prisoners.
The King’s Gate is the emblem of Suomenlinna and was built between 1753 and 1754 in the place where the ship carrying King Adolph Frederick of Sweden was anchored during the construction of the fortress.
The Zander Bastion, located in the southern part of Suomenlinna, has been the stronghold of the fortress flag throughout its history. Today, the flag flies atop the bastion between May 12 and September 29.
The Suomenlinna Church, which can be seen from the southern part of the city of Helsinki, was built in 1854 as a Russian Orthodox military church. After the independence of Finland, the church was transformed into an Evangelical Lutheran temple.
Suomenlinna Church is a popular venue for weddings, concerts, and other events, so you might come across one of them during your visit. Also, the crypt of the church can be rented for small events.
The Suomenlinna dry dock is the oldest in Finland and one of the oldest operating dry docks in Europe. Its construction began in 1750. Today, the dry dock basin is used to repair wooden sailboats. Besides, the area is also home to a blacksmith shop, a shipbuilding yard and a sailboat workshop. The inner basin is emptied and re-flooded twice a year: in autumn when the ships enter the dry dock and in spring when the ships set sail.
However, it should be noted that public access to the dock area is prohibited, so you will have to approach the observation deck to see the dry dock and the boats.
Museums in Suomenlinna
There are a total of six museums in Suomenlinna and they are located in different locations. It is important to remember that the entrance to each museum is purchased separately. However, during the summer months, it is possible to buy a combined ticket that gives access to all the museums in Suomenlinna.
The Suomenlinna Museum, which is the only one open all year round, shows the history, restoration and present of the fortress. The Ehrensvärd Museum deals with the history of the Swedish period of the fortress and features various artistic works and weapons dating back to the 1760s. The Military Museum Pavilion tells of the four wars that Finland has fought since independence. The Toy Museum has a collection of dolls, teddy bears and other vintage toys from the early 19th century to the 1960s. The Customs Museum shows the history of smuggling in Finland. Finally, the Vesikko submarine, used in World War II, is located on the island of Suomenlinna and can be accessed during the summer season.
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