The island Fortress of Suomenlinna was recognised by UNESCO as an outstanding example of military architecture of its time, representing both the general fortification principles of the 18th century, and the specific characteristics unique to military buildings. It was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1991, and continues today to be one of Helsinki’s most popular tourist attractions, while remaining home for around 850 permanent residents. Originally named Viapori, or Sveaborg in Swedish, Suomenlinna was built on the six islands of Kustaanmiekka, Susisaari, Iso-Mustasaari, Pikku-Mustasaari, Länsi-Mustasaari and Långören.
The construction of Sveaborg began in 1748, when Finland was still under Swedish control. Easily the most important person in the long history of the fortress was Count Augustin Ehrensvärd, a Swedish noble and military officer, who oversaw the construction during three building phases. Ehrensvärd was more than just a military officer (he had risen to the rank of Field Marshall before his death, and has created the Swedish Archipelago fleet), he was an inspired military architect and an artist, you can still view various examples of his work in the fortress. His tomb, a monument erected by King Gustav III, is located on Susisaari island.
In 1750, two years after construction had begun, the fortress was opened and named Sveaborg, or Viapori in Finnish. During the Russo-Swedish War that was fought from 1788 to 1790 it operated as the principal base for Sweden’s military operations. Another war between the two great powers in the Baltic was fought in 1808 and 1809, with Viapori being laid siege to by Russian forces, and eventually surrendering after 3 months. Sweden would lose this war, and seven centuries of its control of Finland came to an end, with Russia becoming the occupier. Immediately after taking over Viapori, the Russians began an extensive building program, extending the dockyard, reinforcing the fortifications and adding many new barracks. During the Crimean War, Viapori was heavily bombarded by the Anglo-French fleet, and sustained severe damage. Following the end of that war, much rebuilding and repairs were needed. In 1906 the fortress was the site of a military rebellion following revolutionary unrest in Russia. In 1917 Russia underwent a revolution, and on December 6th Finland declared its independence. The following year the Finnish government took over Viapori and renamed it Suomenlinna. Following independence, Finland engaged in a civil war, after which the government set up a prison camp for Red prisoners. In 1919 various units of the Finnish Defence Forces were quartered there, beginning the Finnish garrison era, which lasted until 1973 when the Governing Board of Suomenlinna was established.
Although the presence of military on the islands has been considerably reduced since 1973, the Suomenlinna garrison continues to house the Meristakoulu, or Naval Academy, of the Finnish Navy. Today, Suomenlinna is more than just a part of Helsinki, it is a town in its own right with over 850 permanent residents, providing work for some 400 people all year round, rising to 500 in the summer.
Suomenlinna is not merely a museum of considerable significance, but a living and thriving community. Since the mid 1980s, when the Nordic Arts Centre was established there, Suomenlinna has also become known as an avant-garde cultural location, with several buildings having been converted into artists studios and let by the administration at reasonable rates. There is an art school for children during the summer, and a summer theatre whose open-air performances regularly get packed houses. The islands are very popular with tourists and Helsinki mainlanders not just for the culture, but as a recreational haven – there are parks, a small beach and numerous picnic sites: in 2016 alone over 1 million people visited!
The first stop for many tourists is the Visitor Centre where they can pick up a Suomenlinna brochure, which includes a detailed map of the islands and is published in 9 languages: Chinese, English, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. You can also purchase books, gifts and postcards in the centre, or visit the Suomenlinna Museum which is housed in the same building and shows the widescreen Suomenlinna Experience in the auditorium.
There are a number of dining options in Suomenlinna, from sumptious gourmet feasts to café snacks. At the top end of the range is Restaurant Walhalla, featuring the dining hall caponiere Delwig, with a vaulted ceiling, which seats 180 to 200 people, and the smaller cabinet Boije which seats 30 to 40 people. Walhalla is known for its high-quality wine selection and extensive menu. In the summer season Walhalla operates Pizzeria Nikolai with tables set in the labyrinthine casemate vaults and on the sunny terrace. There is also the Walhalla Sun View Terrace & Bar, which offers excellent views of the archipelago and is built on several levels. Suomenlinna Brewery Restaurant is famed for the tasty islander’s buffet with a sumptuous offering of seasonal delicacies, including smoked fish, that it provides in the summer. It also operates a micro-brewery, and sells beer brewed in the traditional way: Helsinki Portteri, Höpken Pils, Coyet Ale, Amphion Ale and Spithead Bitter. Bastion Bistro operates in wooden infantry barracks built in 1892. It is open throughout the year. The menu features straightforward bistro food and a lunch on weekdays. There are also six cafés on Suomenlinna.
The fortress itself is the principal site of interest, the most interesting features being the King’s Gate, the Great Courtyard, the Docks, the Jetty Barracks, the Crownwork Ehrensvärd, the Suomenlinna Church, the Bastion Zander, and Suomenlinna Prison Camp Memorial. Five of the islands are connected by either bridges or sandbars. These are Kustaanmiekka, with the largest concentration of fortifications, Iso Mustasaari, Länsi-Mustasaari, Pikku Mustasaari, and Susisaari. The walls are 7km long, and there are over 100 cannon still present.
There are six museums located on the islands; Suomenlinna Museum, Ehrensvärd Museum, the Toy Museum, the Military Museum’s Manege, Customs Museum, and the submarine Vesikko, which opened as a museum in 1973. Art lovers can visit the Jetty Barracks Gallery, which organises high-quality exhibitions of contemporary art and features a print art collection, “Pieni”(small), for sale. Gallery Augusta is a versatile art space for exhibitions and events run by HIAP, hosting their annual international summer exhibitions as well as other exhibitions, performance events and HIAP Talks throughout the year. Viaporin taidekäsityöläiset ry is the association of artisans of Suomenlinna, promoting arts and crafts made in Suomenlinna as well as supporting and exhibiting their members’ work. The Arts and Crafts Summer Shop b34, located on Susisaari island, presents and sells high-quality products and art, such as pottery, textiles and silverware, made by member artists, during the summer season. Artists working solely in ceramics are supported by Ceramic Studio Pot Viapori, while the Hytti ry association operates a glass studio in the Virtue Bastion on Susisaari island where glass blowing techniques are demonstrated on request. Finally, there are artisan studios located on in the bastion Hårleman on Susisaari island, some of which are open to visitors during the summer season.
Suomenlinna has a rich calendar of events, which includes changing exhibitions in the museums and galleries as well as specially crafted guided tours. In the second week of March the island hosts the Viapori Winter Blues music festival, and towards the end of August it hosts the Viapori Jazz Festival. In the middle of the summer, historical costumes can be admired in the Les Lumières festival, and the open-air theatre has become a much loved staple in the Helsinki cultural diet. In September the historical military camp recreates battle scenes, while May is the time for Väkevä Viapori, the residents’ festival. The highlight of the winter season is the Arts & Crafts weekend, organised in the spirit of Christmas.