“I’m going to be in Helsinki for a day. What’s one thing I absolutely must do?” I asked my Finnish friends as I found myself in the city (it was cheaper to fly out of Helsinki than Tallinn, so there I ended up). True to form, they didn’t disappoint, recommending a day trip to Suomenlinna — a series of four interconnected islands just a short ferry ride away complete with hiking and walking trails, the ocean, and a craft brewery.
In short, Mary heaven.
Suomenlinna (“Castle of Finland”) was first constructed in the late 1700s to reinforce the country’s naval defences. In 1991, the Suomenlinna fortress was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The ferry ride from Helsinki’s market square is brief (15 minutes) but scenic, offering lovely views of the waterfront and the Finnair Skywheel.
Upon arriving at the Main Quay, there are ample tourist resources including an information office and full-size maps. You can’t really get lost on the well-marked trail to the King’s Gate, and there’s lots to see and do while you roam around pretending that you’re in Game of Thrones. (Come on, King’s Gate totally sounds like something right out of GoT.)
Being an old fortress, Suomenlinna is filled with old fortifications, catacombs, and other historical buildings. Some are clearly marked and well-maintained, while others have fallen by the wayside over time. There are many nooks and crannies in which to crawl, climb, and otherwise scamper. Feeling adventurous and with little regard for personal safety, I wandered into some unmarked catacombs and peered out of the giant windows.
Hilariously, I spotted a group of historical re-enactors, so I pretended that I, too, was an 18th-century explorer in the catacombs.
After a short bout of silliness, I soon continued on my way to the King’s Gate. Be sure not to miss a detour to Suomenlinna Beach, a true northern gem. The air is clean, fresh, and appropriately sea-salty, and wildflowers were in bloom. I wish that I’d had the foresight to bring a picnic! Alas, I settled for a granola bar and juice and watched on enviously as a more well-prepared group of Spanish tourists rolled out baskets of sandwiches and snacks.
I actually never made it to the King’s Gate as it appeared that they were taking advantage of the low season to do some maintenance. So after a leisurely afternoon of exploring and sitting by the sea, it was time to treat myself to some local brews at Suomenlinnan Panimo (Suomenlinna Brewery) before heading back to Helsinki. None of the Pacific Northwest hop-bombs I’ve grown used to — I sampled a series of ales and pilsners and found them well balanced, smooth, and flavourful. They made the perfect accompaniment to a tasting plate of Finnish delicacies including reindeer salami, bear sausage, pheasant, pate, braised chantarelles and pickles. Definitely not veggie friendly, sorry Grandma.
I’m no food photographer, but I’m pretty proud of how this turned out (and amazed that I had the self-restraint to take a photograph before wolfing it all down).
Let’s not beat around the bush. Finland can be expensive (so I kind of took it to an extreme, whoops). By complete and utter fluke, I managed to snag the very last bed at CheapSleep, by far the most affordable hostel in town.
Bed in an 18-bed dorm (female only) at CheapSleep: 18€ per night
Ferry from Helsinki to Suomenlinna: 5€ round trip
Public transit (bus, tram, train): 3€ per trip / 8€ for a day pass / a multi-day pass gets cheaper
Splurge meal at Suomenlinna Brewery because why the heck not: ~30€