It seems that tourism in Helsinki has two seasons: Mid-summer and dead winter. In the summer, all attractions are open, cruise ships make port at the Market Square, the islands are open for hopping, and everyone does their best to enjoy every second of the short lived season. In the winter, from what I gather, Helsinki is a jumping off point for everyone headed up north to visit Santa (literally) and see the beauties of Lapland and the Northern Lights.
However, we are not currently in either of those seasons. Jimmy and I landed in Finland at the very end of the summer season, and are sensing that fall is not going to stick around too long. Maybe a few more weeks, if we are lucky. But because of that, we missed Helsinki’s high season. Now, most of the museums are closed as they switch exhibitions, the ferry’s are slowing down, and the stalls in the Market are thinning out as there are fewer and fewer visiting cruise liners.
So as we finally got a round to playing tourist this weekend, we did not have many choices. We have wandered around nearly every corner of the city (though I am sure there is more to discover) but we really wanted to experience one of the key sites of this city. Suomenlinna is, fortunately, open year round and seems to be one of Helsinki’s most proud sites. It is a pleasant 15-20 minute ferry out of Market Square to the sprawling fortress island that for centuries has served as the city’s main line of defense.
From what I had read, I was expecting more of an Alcatraz-type of an experience, with less of a chain-gang vibe: an old fortress and barracks, odd surviving artifacts placed around, and a nice view here and there. However, what we found was far more lovely than that.
This island is actually quite large. Aside from its 800 permanent residents, the fortress also houses 6 museums, a handful of quaint arts and crafts boutiques, 7 uniquely charming cafes, and 5 varying restaurants. You could literally eat and tour and eat and shop all day out there.
Whats more, is that it is a sprawling wonderland of beautiful sea swept hillsides, meandering paths, and picturesque bridges, all connected by old stone fortress walls (which you could also spend all day exploring). We were rather disappointed that we forgot a picnic or -at the very least -a thermos full of hot (mmmmaybe spiked) cider.
What is so very interesting about this fortress is that it has served as a main defense point for three distinct states. Its construction began in 1748, when Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden. During this era, it served as a naval base in the Russo-Swedish war. In 1808, during the Finnish War, it surrendered to Russian forces and was then turned into a Russian naval base for the next 110 years (yes, until 1918). During this time, it was badly damaged during the Crimean war. The Finnish Civil War in 1918 saw the fortress used as a prison camp and eventually annexed by Finland. During World War II, it was used as a coastal artillery, anti-aircraft artillery and submarine base. It has sense been transferred to the administration of the Ministry of Education and Culture and, in 1991, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The fortress still shows distinct signs of the three different periods that it was ruled. Heavy artillery guns still face west off the coast of the ramparts as a reminder of the period of Russian rule. A WWII era submarine serves as a small museum and coffee shop. Many early cannons are left from the Swedish era, as well as the well preserved fortress walls and administrative buildings.
It was a very fun place to visit and spend a blustery Sunday afternoon. We scrambled around the rampart walls, strolled along the (horrible) cobble stoned streets, popped into a few shops, and took in the beautiful full colors and low light. I am certain we will be back; perhaps in the winter for a picturesque stroll (though we will not forget the thermos then!) and certainly in the summer for a picnic and more adventuring.