Suomen is derived from the Finnish word for the people of Finland. In Swedish, they’re known as Finns. Yet, ironically, the island fortress off the coast was founded by Swedes but carries the Finnish name. Confused?
In the mid-18th century, Finland was still part of the Swedish kingdom, as it had been for 600 years. In 1747, the Diet (ruling council) in Stockholm decided to erect a fortress on one island to serve as a staging area for military forces in the region. The goal was to have a local presence to stave off the Russians, who were already making threatening gestures. The fortress, called Sveaborg (‘fortress of Sweden’) was completed some dozen years later.
The rule passed to Russia in 1809 when Finland became a Grand Duchy after Sweden ceded the territory. A deal brokered by Napoleon between Tsar Alexander and King Gustav. Then, shortly after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Finland became a truly independent country and the fortress’s name was changed to Suomenlinna (‘Castle of Finland’).
But whatever the name signifies, the islands that hold several related structures – just a short ferry ride from Kauppatori (Market Square) – are a tourist delight.
Actually covering different islands, the central fortifications reside on one (Kustaanmiekka) that is the main attraction. As you would expect, you’ll see crumbling stone walls and battlements. What will surprise you is just how well maintained the area is, thanks to the locals.
There is evidence everywhere of the action seen by the fortress. During the Crimean War (1854-1856) the walls were shelled by French and British naval vessels beginning on August 9th, 1855. For two days the Russian and Finnish inhabitants endured the pounding of the allied guns. Though extensive rebuilding was undertaken, there are many walls, earthworks, and other sections that still show signs of that first ‘modern’ war.
But tourists will find today a beautiful sea view, grasses dotted with colorful flowers and a number of interesting museums to explore.
About a thousand people actually live on the islands, among whom are those who care for (among other things) the Finnish submarine Vesikko. The Naval Academy of Finland is housed on one of the islands. There’s even a prison, though it’s not available for viewing by the general public.
There are buildings that serve as artist’s studios, with many interesting works on display. During the summer theatrical performances delight both residents and tourists alike.
On Sarkka, there are additional fortifications and a fine restaurant. Another provides an interesting church with a lighthouse in the steeple and a cannon and chain for fencing. And don’t miss the famed Kings Gate that appears on the old Finnish 1000 Finn mark banknote. (The Finnish Mark was replaced by the Euro in 2002).
Open year ’round, a few of the islands are connected by sandbars and bridges and one can walk from one to the next. One can explore the tunnels, then have a bite to eat in one of the many coffee shops or restaurants. Check out the pizzeria on the tip of Kustaanmiekka built into the casement vaults. Or, eat do-it-yourself style. In the summer, the islands make for a particularly fine spot to have a picnic.