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  • Writer's pictureTupur Chakrabarty

The Island Fortress of Helsinki

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Time visited: September 2022

Time spent: 5 hours

If you Google 'top attractions in Helsinki', or 'one place you must visit in Helsinki', chances are the first or second recommendation would be Suomenlinna (Swedish name Sveaborg), the island fortress, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site, just three kilometres from Helsinki.

The easiest way to get to the island is by taking the HSL-operated ferry # 19 (Kauppatori to Suomenlinna) from the east side of Market Square, opposite the Presidential Palace. The ferry operates from 6:20 am to 2:20 am - yes, AM; and the frequency is every 20 to 40 minutes depending on the season and time of day/night. The journey is all within Zone A, so an AB ticket is needed. In August 2022, we paid €9.00 for an adult day ticket and €4.50 for a child. Children under 7 travel for free.

We boarded the 9:40 am ferry and were on Suomenlinna in 15 minutes. What we hadn't realised before arriving on the island was that several hundred people lived there!

From the Main Quay, where the ferry arrived, we first walked to Suomenlinna Church. Built between 1849 and 1854, this unique church boasts a lighthouse, installed sometime between the early-to-mid-2oth century, in its tower. The lighthouse is still used for air and sea traffic! Apparently, the beacon flashes four times, which is the Morse code for 'H', for Helsinki - we would've loved to see that! The exterior of the church is quite plain, but the yard is surrounded by impressive cannons and chains, which were used to close the straits during the Swedish regime. Do walk around to the back of the building to take a look at the largest church bell in Finland. Guess how much it weighs, without Googling it of course, and tell us in the comment!

The gravel road from the quay to the church was busy and dusty because of construction and renovation work, which is very common there in summer and early autumn, when days are longer. We left all that behind and walked through the park at the back of the church and arrived at the Museum.

We like museums, but exploring a sea fortress with stone bastions and cannons and dark tunnels, and a stunning view of the Baltic Sea from the embankments had to come first! From the island of Iso Mustaa, where the church and museum are, we crossed a small bridge to Susisaari, and started walking towards the King's Gate Quay.

King's Gate, which is the ceremonial entrance of the fortress, used to be on a separate island called Kustaanmiekka, which was connected to Susisaari by a bridge, but the narrow gap between the two islands was filled in the 1860s, which changed the shorelines of the fortress. I'm not sure if there are 'before' and 'after' photos...

We walked on the east half of the now-joined islands, climbing grass-covered mounds (where allowed of course!), venturing into low, dark tunnels, and posing with cannons, not necessarily in the same order!

From King's Gate, we took the high, fenced Kustaanmiekka shoreline path running parallel to the Baltic Sea to return to Susisaari. We stopped at Suomenlinna Beach for a little while, sitting on the warm rock under the dazzling sun, watching a sailing boat leisurely pass by, and listening to the gentle lapping of the water.

We climbed the wooden stairs back to the path and after some more cannon-posing along the way...

....we arrived at the Great Courtyard, the construction of which was completed in 1760. The tomb of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the founder of the fortress, is in the centre of the courtyard. Apparently, King Gustav III of Sweden himself designed the burial monument of Ehrensvärd. It took 11 years to build - from 1772, when Ehrensvärd passed away, to 1783, when Suomenlinna became his final resting place. We explored the tunnels in the Great Courtyard too - they were a lot less dark and more aesthetic!

It was past midday. After a quick snack of korvapuusti at the cafe inside Suomenlinna Centre, we entered the Suomenlinna Museum. Adult tickets are €8 each, and child €4. We first watched a short film about the history of Suomenlinna and then went on to see the exhibits. It's impossible to describe everything you see in a museum, That's why I choose a few exhibits that catch my eye. Some I have chosen from the Suomenlinna Museum are a work boat from the 18th century; and some building items including panelled doors, traditional windows, brick walls; an olden-day commode toilet and a wash basin.

The last place we wanted to visit on Suomenlinna was the dry dock - Viaporin Telakka. We'd never seen a dry dock in our lives. All we knew was that it'd be a big space. Now we know it's deep too! The space is filled with water and the ship in need of repair is floated in. The water is then drained and the ship fixed. For the ship to leave the dry dock, water is poured in again. Such a clever process!

In addition to what we saw on Suomenlinna, you could visit the Toy Museum and Submarine Vesikko if you were visiting in summer, and the Military Museum of Finland all year around.

The construction of Sveaborg, meaning the Castle of Sweden, commenced in 1748 to defend the Kingdom of Sweden, which Finland was a part of, against the Russian Empire. However, the Finnish War of 1808-1809 saw Sweden surrender the fortress to Russia and it became a Russian naval base for 110 years. Even though Finland became independent on 6 December 1917, Russia still controlled Sveaborg, or Viapori, as it was called in Finnish. It was annexed by Finland the following year, during the Finnish Civil War. It was renamed Suomenlinna - Castle of Finland.

Suomenlinna is one of those places where you cannot decide whether to feel anger, sadness and shame for the history of occupation, war, imprisonment and death, or to rejoice at its extraordinary innovation, engineering and resilience. And then you end up doing both.


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