A lovely, lively, alluring picnic ground during the summer months; a brutally cold, hard, desolate, sea fortress and living museum during winter. I couldn’t say exactly how cold it was the day I visited Suomenlinna (this was mid February 2015), but it felt nice and warm by comparison when I returned to Helsinki later in the day, where I could confirm it was minus nine degrees.
Suomenlinna (which means Castle of Finland in Finnish) originally went by the name of Sveaborg (which means Castle of Sweden in Swedish). Finland, as you may have already guessed, was ruled by the Swedish Empire at the time.
The need for the great sea fortress of Suomenlinna
In 1703 Peter the Great founded his new capital, Saint Petersburg, on the Baltic Sea, kickstarting Russia’s emergence as a maritime power and threat.
The Russo-Swedish War of 1741-1743 (there have been at least nine Russo-Swedish wars), in which Sweden lost a large portion of Finland to Russia (the land was later returned to them in exchange for a good word said for the Russian heir apparent Adolf Frederick) inspired Sweden, in 1748, to begin construction of Suomenlinna, an immense sea fortress in the Baltic Sea built over a cluster of six islands.
Suomenlinna was intended to defend the Swedish Empire against Russian expansion, and it successfully withstood an attack by Russian forces, and played a vital role in the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790.
But during the Finnish War of 1808 – 1809 (also staged between Russia and Sweden) the fortress quickly capitulated and for the next century fell under Russian rule.
Suomenlinna was extensively damaged by a combined Anglo-French bombardment during the Crimean War, but the fortress withstood the attack and repelled the attacking party.
In the lead up to WWI the fortress became part of the fortification network designed to protect Saint Petersburg.
Russian rule ended in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, Suomenlinna subsequently became a part of the newly independent Finland.
Currently there are 900 people living on the combined islands that make up Suomenlinna, which in 1991 was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Many of the military buildings have been ironically re-appropriated into artists’ studios. There is also an art school that operates during the summer months for school children.
Practical Information and how to reach Suomenlinna:
The easiest way to reach the island is to catch a HSL ferry service from Helsinki’s Market Square (opposite the Presidential Palace). The ferry trip takes twenty minutes each way. Services are frequent in summer; less frequent in winter. More transport info here.
Read more on the Fortress of Suomenlinna in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.