Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, Helsinki, Finland Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, Helsinki, Finland

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Suomenlinna is one of the biggest sea fortresses in the world. Included on UNESCO's1 world heritage list in 1991, it is also known as Sveaborg2. Suomenlinna3 is located off the coast of Helsinki on several different islands.

A Short History

Suomenlinna was designed to protect Sweden's interests4 in the Baltic Sea against Russian expansion towards the west. Work began in 1748 and was led by Augustin Ehrensvärd. By the end of the century Suomenlinna had more inhabitants than Helsinki itself at that time. In 1808 Suomenlinna was surrounded by Russian troops as part of a war between Sweden and Russia. The fortress quickly surrendered without a proper fight. This surrender lowered the morale of the other groups and the whole of Finland was soon occupied by Russians.

During the Russian occupation period the fortress also experienced its only proper battle: during 1855 a large Anglo-French fleet bombed Suomenlinna for several days as part of the Crimean War. Heavy damage was caused, but this time the defenders didn't surrender.

After Finnish Independence was declared in 1918 the area was handed over to the new nation's army. Following the civil war the fortress was used for a year as a prison camp and later as a garrison. Technical development quickly reduced the fortresses military importance and in 1973 Suomenlinna was handed over to the civil government.

Suomenlinna Today

Suomenlinna consists of eight islands, totalling a land area of around 0.8 km²5. The fortress's wall length is about eight km6 and there are 290 buildings within the fortress. Today, Suomenlinna is home to 850 and workplace for 400 people all year round. It hosts several cafes, restaurants, museums, a shop and even a summer theatre. Suomenlinna is a variety of things to different people: home, work, a major tourist attraction, and one of the most popular recreational areas in Helsinki.

Getting There

Suomenlinna is an island, so most of the time7 you'll have to use the boat that leaves from Helsinki's market square. During winter it runs once or twice every hour; in summer it runs twice an hour from early in the morning until late evening. Any ticket valid in Helsinki's public transport system, excepting single tram tickets, is automatically valid for the ferry to Suomenlinna. Special return tickets can also be bought from vending machines at the pier, at the Railway Station or from the City Tourist Bureau. Tickets bought in advance need to be validated using the machine at the ferry terminal before boarding the ferry.

A Summer Outing

Helsinki, like any other capital city, has numerous 'have-to-see' places. If your time is limited just remember that though everything else can be dropped from your list, but not Suomenlinna. The day of your trip, head to the food shop on the ground floor of the Stockman department store to buy picnic supplies. Don't worry, it is not as expensive as it looks and you can get practically anything from there. Then head for the market square and have a cup of coffee, tea or anything and watch people going about their lives, whilst you wait for the ferry. Upon its arrival, simply board and be on your way to Suomenlinna.

After docking in Suomenlinna, start walking, but please remember that if something looks like a private home it probably is. Locals are proud of their island and generally welcome tourists as long as they don't pop in their backdoor. The Visitor Centre, an information base for visitors, is located in the middle of the fortress at Tykistölahti bay. Visit the museums, exhibitions or simply look around and admire one of the few spots in Helsinki that architects haven't managed to destroy. Walls and cannons form an excellent playground for kids. Or if you like wooden boats and ships the Suomenlinna shipyard is the place for you.

When you start feeling hungry start picnicking8. If the day is warm and you choose to sit on the shores, just remember that very large ships go through the narrow strait of Kustaanmiekka and if you are not alert you and your meal can be washed into the sea by the waves. The same goes for swimming: basically it is fine as long as you don't swim in the fairway of Kustaanmiekka. If the day is windy you can still find good spots protected by the walls. Current Finnish law allows outdoor drinking if it's not disturbing anyone9.

After you have had enough outdoor life, why not head for the 'Kotiharjun sauna'10, the last wood-heated public sauna left in Helsinki. The district of Kallio also has the largest concentration of small pubs and bars in Finland. Most of them are by no means trendy, but they work as an excellent starting point for a pub crawl on your way back to the city centre.

1United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.2An old Swedish name meaning 'Swedish Castle'.3Finnish for 'Finland's Castle'.4Finland was part of Sweden at that time.50.31miles².6Five miles.7In a very cold winter it can be possible to walk across the frozen water although this is not advised.8Aren't you glad you picked up all that food?9Not that we expect anyone reading this to need that information.10In Kallio, address Harjutorinkatu 1, subway station Sörnäinen, open from Tuesday to Friday from 2pm to 8pm and on Saturdays from 1pm to 7pm.

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