The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Europe’s most underrated island-hopping escape
With great food, beautiful beaches and fascinating history, the Helsinki archipelago is Scandinavia’s best-kept secret, says Tim Abrahams
The islands of Helsinki are only just opening up fully to the outside world. Although they are only a short trip from a city that looks Scandinavian, they provide a totally different experience: something more Baltic, more unmistakably Finnish, some with elfin names such as Lonna and Melki, others that are orcish and double-vowelled.
There is a culture of small-boat ownership in the city, so until now the islands have been mostly visited by local Finns, hopping over with picnics in the summer. However, now that the city of Helsinki is opening the islands up thanks to cheap ferries – whilst pledging, mercifully, to leave them undeveloped – they are increasingly ours for the discovering.
This is excellent news, not least because all are extremely suitable for day trips from Helsinki, most from the Market Square jetties. This gives your trip on a small ferry a lovely informal starting point, from the heart of the city and away from the busy Tallinn and Stockholm routes (fresh strawberries from the market are a perfect dish for the open upper deck).
But what makes the islands particularly worthy of a dedicated visit is that although they are often within swimming distance of each other and all share a certain odd feeling of calm after strife, they each boast very separate characters. There is a geological serendipity to this, of course – islands no bigger than 200 acres dot the sea at regular intervals off the mainland, but the way in which they have been used historically creates huge variety.
Several islands were owned by the military until the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of this one, and – because they were untouched during this time – they bear witness to more than their recent history. Most are abandoned to nature to some degree or other: most are wooded or full of long grasses and flowers such as bellflower and St John’s wort. Even better, newly accessible possibilities are always emerging, as the Helsinki government has plans for a new water taxi service, which will grant easy access to the more eastern – and untouched – islands.
If at first you get the feeling that the Finns don’t know what to do with these wonderful natural assets, amid the grasses under a blue sky, it’s a feeling that’s short-lived. Ten minutes after setting foot there, you realise that this is because they like them just as they are: wonderfully weird, green and waiting to be explored.
Suomenlinna every hour, depending on the season, from Kauppatori (Market Square). Foot-passenger tickets cost around £5 return, but if you have a travel day pass for the city’s metro system (£7), it is free (15-min journey time; hsl.fi/en)
Separated by a narrow but very deep channel from Suomenlinna, through which the huge ferries between Helsinki and Tallinn plough, Vallisaari is a rockier, much wilder island with a more varied history. Nature runs riot, but the woods are dotted with a strange array of objects: radar emplacements, semi-ruined tsarist cannon batteries and other odd buildings. The Finnish department of defence owned it throughout much of the 20th century and only opened it to the public in 2016. Every visit still has a frisson of trespass to it, as nothing much has been added – just trails through the woods and somewhere to get a coffee before catching the ferry back. Natural habitats are well established, and birds such as whitebacked woodpeckers and red-breasted flycatchers draw ornithologists. To add a further layer, the island was chosen as the site for the Helsinki Art Biennial in 2021 (evidence of which lingers: a graffiti-covered old school building and strange timber structures amid the trees), and is set to host a second iteration in June this year. You’ll get some of the best views of the Gulf of Finland from here, too.
How to get there Ferries only run during the spring and summer, leaving on the hour from the port in Helsinki. Tickets cost £6 for a round trip (20-min journey; portoline.net)
This island, which only opened to the public in 2017, lies in the outer archipelago and was the furthest outpost of the complex of fortifications built by the Russians. It is particularly unique thanks to the Finnish soldiers who once inhabited it, as the challenging living conditions meant they were granted higher recreational funds than their peers. The result is a pretty decent nine-hole links golf course and numerous saunas – including a public one, which you can access for free with your ferry ticket. (If trying a sauna is on your Finland bucket list – and it really should be – this is one of the best ways to do it: away from the city, in a coastal setting, amidst nature.) Even the return ferry is a joy, passing the inner islands, including larger ones and small private ones.
How to get there Ferries to Isosaari operate from Kauppatori from mid-May to mid-September. The ferry takes about 40 minutes, and a return ticket costs £19 for adults and £10 for children aged five to 16
This tiny island is just 820ft long and less than half a mile from the mainland. Nevertheless, it still feels like its own separate universe, largely because it is the home of the Sarkanlinna restaurant, which has inhabited a former fort on the island since 1924. Converted by the functionalist architect Oiva Kallio, the main room of the restaurant is an incredible timber-vaulted space, which feels like the interior of a huge, luxurious yacht (Kallio was also partly responsible for introducing yachting to the island – a much more egalitarian sport in Helsinki than other cities). Each year from July 21 – which marks the beginning of the season – the restaurant becomes one of the best places to indulge in the Finns’ unofficial national dish: crayfish accompanied by oodles of dill and butter. It’s one of the most popular restaurants in Helsinki during the summer, so booking is advised (ravintolasarkanlinna.fi).
How to get there
Ferries to Sarkka run from Ullanlinnanlaituri, the pier in Ullanlinna, Monday to Saturday from 8.30am to 10pm, every 30 minutes, with a slightly later start on Sunday. A return ticket costs £6.50. It’s all pretty informal – you call the ferry by lifting a wooden call sign, and it often runs past 10pm if it’s been busy in the restaurant
Once a haven for Helsinki’s wealthy, and one of the most desirable spots for a private villa (some of which still remain), today this island has been mainly given over to public recreation. It boasts two public saunas, including an angular modernist one built by architecture students, but the big sell here is the beaches. Whereas other islands meet the sea abruptly, granite greeting the Gulf, Pihlajasaari has long stretches of sand – although, perhaps counterintuitively, the naturist beach, one of only two in the whole of Finland, is rocky. There are actually two islands, western and eastern Pihlajasaari, connected by a footbridge, the latter of which provides the possibility to camp, with uninterrupted views of central Helsinki.
How to get there Six ferries a day run from the western suburb of Ruoholahti to Pihlajasaari. Tickets cost £7 for adults (10-min journey; jt-line.fi/eng)
The Finns like the islands as they are: wonderfully weird, green and waiting to be explored