Snow covered cobblestones. Beauty around every corner. I can feel the history that lives on this island as my wheelchair bumps along the path. Bump… Bump… Bump. My head falls down and to the side along the way, but it doesn’t bother me. I know that what lies around the next corner of this island will be just as impressive as the last. This is Suomenlinna.
Located just a 15 minute ferry ride from mainland Helsinki, Suomenlinna Island is, in my opinion, Helsinki’s best attraction. And that’s saying a lot because the city has tons to offer. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what all Suomenlinna had to offer when planning my trip, but it was Helsinki’s top rated attraction on TripAdvisor so I knew I had to at least check it out. After all, I have seen forts in Alabama and many other places during my travels, so what’s the big deal? Well, Suomenlinna is much more than just a fort… although, the fort is extremely impressive. It’s actually an entire island where under 1,000 people live in a peaceful environment away from the bustling capital city of Helsinki. There is a school, library, grocery store, and more to make the island feel like home to the residents. If they’re in need of anything more, then mainland Helsinki is not far away.
As I said, to get to Suomenlinna you will need to take a ferry. The ferry departs from the eastern side of Market Square every 30 minutes or so in the winter and up to four times per hour during the peak season of summer. Getting onto the ferry in my powered wheelchair was easy, as there was a leveled ramp to get on board. Once on the ferry, you can sit inside where it’s warm and there are large windows so that you can still have quite a view. Since we rode the ferry to Suomenlinna in the winter, the sea was frozen over and I could hear our ferry breaking through huge blocks of ice along the way. It sounded pretty crazy, and I may or may not have been a little freaked out by it, but it was a cool experience and we were able to snap some interesting photos of the icy waters on the way to Suomenlinna.
Once we arrived to the island and exited the ferry, we met up with Jani, our guide for the day. I always think that having a guide is a good idea because they really know the history of the place and can answer any questions that you may have during your visit. Jani was superb and if you’d like to reserve your own private guide, click here. There are also guided group tours available on Saturdays and Sunday’s during winter, but a group tour may not follow the wheelchair accessible route as well as a private guide will.
While much of Suomenlinna is historic and therefore, not as accessible as it would be if it were built today, wheelchair users can still see most of the island and have a great time. There is even a map on Suomenlinna’s website that shows the wheelchair friendly route to exploring the island. It came in useful for me, as this route tries to avoid the steep and bumpy terrain, while still showcasing all the major attractions on the island.
On the day that I visited, it was snowing pretty hard and at first, I was worried that the snow would make it difficult to move around the island. However, my powered wheelchair handled the snow very well and I think that all of the snow even helped smooth out the cobblestones for me since they basically had a sheet of ice over them. My wheelchair just kind of glided over them. Also, we were able to get some pretty epic pictures thanks to all of the snow. I’m not sure what Suomenlinna looks like in the summer, but with the snow in the winter it was breathtaking. I truly believe that winter might be the best time to visit Helsinki.
During our guided tour of Suomenlinna, we were able to see many sights. Upon getting off the ferry, the first thing that we saw were the Jetty Barracks. It’s a pink building that was built to accommodate 250 soldiers and it now houses the visitor information center, a couple restaurants, and an accessible restroom. Other highlights included Suomenlinna Church and the Suomenlinna Museum. The church is not really accessible to go inside, but the view from the outside is terrific. At the museum, there are various artifacts on display and you can watch a short informational film about the history of Suomenlinna. I enjoyed the film and highly recommend spending 25 minutes watching it, especially if you’re a history nerd like me.
Work on the fortress of Suomenlinna began in 1748 when Finland was under Swedish rule. It was meant to be a maritime fortress and a base for the Archipelago Fleet. Just 60 years later, it was besieged by Russian forces and was a military base under Russian administration until Finland became independent in 1917. At that time, it was named Suomenlinna, which means “Castle of Finland”. By naming it this, it helped the Finnish people proclaim their independence and was sort of a symbol for them. Suomenlinna has had an interesting history and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
After checking out the sights of Suomenlinna and learning about the history, we wanted to grab a bite to eat at Viaporin Deli & Cafe. This cafe is located inside the Jetty Barracks and does have a ramp to get in. It serves sandwiches, soups, salads, and more, but I opted for a slice of chocolate cake and a cappuccino. They had quite a few pastries and cakes to choose from and mine was delicious. Since Viaporin Deli is located right in front of the main quay, where the ferry will pick you up to take you back to the mainland, it’s a good idea to stop in here for some lunch before you leave Suomenlinna.
After a spectacular few hours of exploring everything that the island had to offer, we said goodbye and boarded the ferry back to Helsinki. Being at Suomenlinna was a remarkable experience that I’ll never forget and I can’t recommend it enough. Sure, the island can be a little difficult with a wheelchair in certain places, but that makes it all the more worthwhile. So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your extraordinary visit to the historical gem of Helsinki – Suomenlinna.
*I was invited to Suomenlinna as a guest of the #HelsinkiSecret Residence, but all opinions expressed in this post are my own.