Fortress and history

Travellers’ continuing interest

When the construction work on the Viapori fortress by Helsinki started in 1748, few travelers had any interest in Helsinki. In the travel books of the time, Finland was presented as a transit point to Lapland or Russia; however, the reputation of the Viapori fortress soon reached ears outside Sweden. Printed images of the majestic walls spread around Europe. In the 19th century, the Viapori fortress was already mentioned in several travel guides.

The development of tourism began after the wars in the 20th century, and in the 21st century, the Suomenlinna sea fortress is one of the most popular attractions in Finland. Read more about tourism at the fortress from the 18th century on through the links below!

The construction of the Viapori fortress on the barren Susiluodot islands by Helsinki was started in 1748. At the time, Helsinki was a small town with very simple, unimpressive housing stock. Helsinki had a convenient location: it was possible to reach the city on the King’s Road, and the city harbor was often praised.

The small town had a good location for tourism. The fortress construction site started a new era in Helsinki, bringing wealth to what had been just a small town. Factories, brickworks and sawmills were quickly established in the city, and labour poured in from all corners of the country.

Helsinki’s appeal as a tourist destination remained small. The city could only offer very basic services, so most visitors would stay in private homes. At the time, Helsinki was a city of wooden houses, with only a few stone houses and approximately 1,000 inhabitants. When walking across town, the visitor had a good chance of running into cows among the local passers-by. In the eyes of visitors, Helsinki was utterly put into the shade by the new Viapori fortress.

In the 18th century, the educated classes became interested in traveling, and especially the young men of the upper classes were eager to educate themselves through a Grand Tour of Europe. The destinations of their journeys were in the south in southern Europe and Italy, and for Europeans, the remote North was an exotic and wild wilderness. The rise of non-fiction and travel literature brought about a general interest in foreign countries and cultures.

In the travel books of the time, Finland was presented as a transit point to Lapland or Russia; however, the reputation of the Viapori fortress soon reached ears outside Sweden.

Paintings and drawings of the new fortress depicted its power and modern technology. Printed images of the majestic walls spread around Europe, and in 1784, William Coxe named the fortress the Gibraltar of the North. The Viapori fortress was mentioned in many travel books and considered the only attraction on the way to St. Petersburg.

Visitors had to undergo background checks, as the fortress construction work had to be kept safe from spies. If a traveler was deemed honorable, they would be heartily welcomed to Viapori.

Edvard Daniel Clarke, explorer and a teacher at the University of Cambridge, visited the fortress in 1800. He was thoroughly impressed by the walls and the cannons, not to mention the ice road leading from the mainland to the fortress. In the fortress, Clarke got to know the busy social life of the officers, which he enthusiastically described: “The officers at Viapori lead quite comfortable lives, and they have all brought their families along. The social life at the fortress is very busy. The balls and parties often have over forty ladies present, many of them real beauties.”

Especially in winter, the conditions at the fortress  were quite rough. In the winter of 1781, Abraham de Frese, the major of the fortress, reported that two or three wolves were threatening his pet bears and had already eaten most of the cats and dogs at the fortress.

Some visitors found the fortress threatening and bleak. In 1799, Johan Bonsdorff described Viapori as a terrible place where green nature had been entirely destroyed, with rocks and walls only making the place more grim.

As the Finnish War ended, Finland was annexed by Russia, and the Viapori fortress surrendered itself to Russia in 1808. The Russian era started a new period, during which Viapori would be used as a garrison and a naval port for the Russian navy.

Interest in travel kept growing in the 19th century. The middle classes were becoming wealthier, allowing them to travel more, and new methods of transportation, such as steam ships and railways, made traveling faster.

The Viapori fortress was already mentioned in several travel guides. Steam ships brought visitors from Turku and Tallinn to Helsinki, and new attractions, such as the Kaivopuisto spa, opened in 1834 and offering visitors its health-enhancing waters, attracted Russian tourists to the city.

Russian journalist Faddei Bulgarin visited Helsinki for the University jubilee in the summer of 1840. Having fought in the Finnish War in 1808–09, he was already familiar with the city.

In his writings, Bulgarin highlighted the advanced culture and accomplishments of the Russians. It was still necessary to know the right people to gain access to Viapori, but Bulgarin’s visit also included a tour of the fortress. He was greatly impressed by the rugged fortress, the masses of rock, the gardens and the small wooden houses.

“My perspective to Viapori was entirely poetic. To otherwise fully grasp the structure of Viapori, it is not enough to merely glance at the defences. You should explore the fortress and live there for a long time, although I do not feel even remotely inclined to do so,” Bulgarin writes.

He examined the construction work and water basins of the fortress. He described the home of Engineer Captain Nybäck: “The house of the honourable N. I. Nybäck has an extraordinary location! It is a small wooden house by the sea. Under the windows, just a few steps away, they have a small vegetable patch on a rock on which the waves crash. During a storm, the splatter is sure to reach the windows of the house. The view through the windows to the sea and the islands is beyond comparison.”

After the Finnish declaration of independence, the name of the Viapori fortress was changed to Suomenlinna, the “Castle of Finland”. In many ways, it was considered necessary to erase the indicators of the preceding era: the fortress was given a new, Finnish name, and the domes of the Eastern Orthodox church were taken down. On 12 May 1918, The Finnish flag was hoisted up on the Kustaanmiekka flag hill.

Soon, plans were made for the development of Suomenlinna. The objective was to draft a plan of use for Suomenlinna, but the various aims, based on military and industrial needs as well as the historical value of the site, were conflicting. The defence forces had very little interest in developing the area and its tourism, and collaboration with the State Archaeological Commission was challenging. It was commonly acknowledged that tourism in the area should be developed, but no institution was capable of taking on the main responsibility for the work.

The Ehrensvärd Society, still active today, was founded in 1921 and appointed with the task of spreading information on Suomenlinna. The society opened the Ehrensvärd Museum in the Commandant’s House and ran a cafe in the Piper park.

The rigidity of the ferry traffic posed a great problem for visitors, as the Defence Forces was still primarily responsible for the traffic, and it was mainly maintained for military transportation needs. In the 1930s, measures were taken to improve the traffic and routes to the fortress, and the renewed Ehrensvärd Museum was opened in 1939.

The State Archaeological Commission focused on preserving the fortress and its walls. The 1930s saw an increase in domestic travel, which was also visible in the growing interest towards Suomenlinna. The number of tourists on the islands increased to over 60,000 visitors over the 1930s. Thus, it was obvious that tourism services would need to be developed.

The wars brought tourism to a halt. During the war, the fortress was used as an anti-aircraft battery station and a submarine base. After the war, the development of tourism was quickly continued, especially with regard to the 200th anniversary of the fortress and the Helsinki Olympics of 1952.

Landing rights were no longer required from 1948 on, which aided tourism significantly. In the same year, the Finnish Tourist Association took over the responsibilities of transport to Suomenlinna and guidance on the island. The significance of the area as a tourist destination increased, and the locals of Helsinki were eager to use the island as a recreational destination.

Measures were taken to improve the reputation of the fortress as a tourist destination. In 1946, the Ehrensvärd Society made a proposal to develop the fortress. The idea was to introduce new services to the islands and improve water transport. In addition to the ferry ticket, visitors were charged an entrance fee to the museum area leading to Kustaanmiekka. Even more services were established to prepare for the Olympics, and the restaurant Walhalla was opened in 1950.

From the 1950s on, the fortress was primarily considered a tourist attraction. Strong associations to the Finnish era were linked to Suomenlinna through postcard illustrations and dedicated attractions.

The efforts of the Finnish Tourist Association did not increase the volume of visitors, and developing tourism on the island required new arrangements among the Ehrensvärd Society, the Finnish Tourist Association and the Defence forces. As a result, the Ehrensvärd Society took over the guided tours, which started in 1963. At the same time, entrance fees were abolished. The Finnish Tourist Association dissociated itself with the work on the island. The new arrangements helped to increase the visitor volumes.

Suomenlinna was turned over to civilian administration in 1973. To manage the administration and development of the fortress, the Governing Body of Suomenlinna was established under the Ministry of Education and Culture. In 1974, a development plan was drafted for Suomenlinna, also providing a basis for its development as a tourist attraction. The development is based on preserving the cultural heritage of Suomenlinna and developing the island as a residential area and historical monument in co-operation with the City of Helsinki.

Suomenlinna was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1991. The year 1998 marked the 250th anniversary of the fortress, and the Suomenlinna Centre was opened to celebrate the occasion. Today, the centre’s services are available to visitors all year round.

The number of visitors to Suomenlinna has continued to grow, and with over 900,000 visitors every year, the sea fortress is one of Finland’s most popular tourist destinations. Suomenlinna attracts visitors from both Finland and abroad: it offers an ideal environment for exploring a historical world heritage site, or just spending a day relaxing. Many visitors come to the island during the summer, but the number of wintertime visitors is steadily growing.

In the 21st century, Suomenlinna offers a convenient tourist destination, easily accessible around the year with a single ticket for the ferry operated by the Helsinki Region Transport Authority. Passes and entrance fees are no longer required.