Fifteen minutes by ferry from Helsinki’s Market Square and a world away lies the sea fortress of Suomenlinna. The islands comprising this fortress are home to roughly 850 residents who mingle with the daily tourists arriving from Helsinki.
Suomenlinna is comprised of restaurants, a visitors center, a brewery, museums (don’t miss the Vesikko WWII Submarine Museum), a grocery store and walking trails throughout the islands. A visit to Suomenlinna gives tourists a taste of Finland in another age, when Finland was under Russian rule.
Near the visitors center, tourists will see a group of old houses with some built in the 18th century which were part of the previous Russian trading block. These houses were built by traders to help support the Russian garrison. I instinctively knew these buildings were Russian versus Finnish as the construction reminded me a lot of the houses in the film “Doctor Zhivago”.
Across the road from the former Russian trading block is the Suomenlinna Church, which was one of my favorite places on the islands. This church was originally built under the Russian regime of Czar Nikolay I as an Orthodox military church and was completed in 1854. A photo immediately inside the church shows what Suomenlinna Church looked like under Russian rule.
In 1918, during the Finnish Civil War, the Russian fortress was annexed by Finland and renamed Suomenlinna. The church became a Lutheran church and was altered in 1928 to look more Lutheran. My favorite part of the church is the gaslight lighthouse on top which was installed in the 1960s and is still in use today for air and marine traffic.
Inside the church is a simple, but elegant, interior and the church congregation is still active. Services are conducted in Finnish and visitors may want to check times to experience a bright interior with minimalist décor. The lighting is well designed and functional, while lit candles throughout the church add to the beauty. Also be on the lookout for several monuments to soldiers including during the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44). Outside the church is a bell that was cast in Moscow in 1885, which is the largest church bell in Finland.
On leaving the church, I recommend at stop at Café Vanille in the Russian trading block. I loved the rustic atmosphere of this café as the inside reminds me of what a café would have looked like decades ago. Daily specials might include sausage or sweet potato soups, and for those hardier types who like sitting outside in cold weather, outdoor chairs include warm blankets. I opted for coffee and a blueberry tart for around eight euros. A word of caution to visitors is to look out for hungry seagulls. I was inside the café waiting for my coffee, with my tart sitting outside. Suddenly, I saw another diner run toward my table waving her arms, as a seagull had suddenly dived into my tart!
For visitors to Suomenlinna, I would recommend waterproof shoes with good support, as the cobblestone trails can be tough. A jacket is also recommended even in the summer as temperatures can change quickly with the winds.
Suomenlinna is an active community set within islands filled with history. I would recommend allocating a lot of time to explore the entire sea fortress, making sure to spend time visiting Suomenlinna Church, one of the islands’ hidden surprises. Suomenlinna is Finland at its best.