Åland - the hidden gem of Finland
June 27, 2019
If you are getting tired of busy urban life, going to Finland is probably a good idea. But instead of visiting the main and well-known destinations like Helsinki or Rovaniemi in beautiful Lapland, you should head for the archipelago in the Baltic Sea, just between Finland and Sweden. It consists of around 6500 islands and skerries but only 60 of them are inhabited. Åland is an autonomous, Swedish speaking part of Finland with its own parliament and even flag. The biggest island is called Fasta Åland, and it is home to 90% of 30,000 inhabitants of Åland. Here, you can embrace some solitude. Åland is ideal for a nature getaway.
Take pleasure in a peaceful nature
Setting aside its interesting relationship with mainland Finland, Åland is a perfect destination for anyone who is trying to find peace and quiet. The main island is studded with beautiful and crystal clear lakes. They are all very inviting but try to resist the urge to get your tired feet wet. Lakes, or their parts, usually belong to house owners living around on the banks. The safest place to swim is actually in the sea. Just remember, before you decide to jump from one of many red cliffs, Baltic is a cold sea. If you rent a boat or pay for a boat tour, you can see seals bathing in the sun on rock beaches of smaller islands. Meeting a moose is nothing unusual too. Those big mammals are very shy though, so you need to be quite lucky to see one during a short holiday. I saw only one, and that was after spending more than 6 months on Åland. Very common and majestic residents are eagles. Their huge and typical silhouette is unmistakable on the clear summer sky.
No hills but eye-catching views
All the islands are pretty much flat. The highest peak of Åland is Orrdalsklint reaching comfortable 129.1 meters above sea level. On the top, you can find a cabin for hikers, an observation tower, a little café opened during summer, and stunning view. Thanks to the lack of high hills, Åland is a great place for bicycling. Roads are red and very well kept, even though some smaller ones are just gravel roads. There are not many possibilities to get lost because honestly, there are not so many roads.
Let’s keep it practical – Where to stay?
You can rent one of many cottages on a seaside or lakeside, or you can stay in one of many hotels. If you are thinking about your budget, it is important to remember that Åland is part of Scandinavia (plus, it is an island), and prices are higher. Especially accommodation can be costly. But do not worry, Couchsurfing flourishes here too. Locals will let you in their homes, and often even drive you around on a boat. And if you are keen on spending nights under the open sky (which you should try to do anyway because the light pollution is very low and stars very bright), Åland offers few campsites.
How to get there?
Even though there is an airport here, you will probably arrive by ferry either from Sweden (Kappelskär, Stockholm) or mainland Finland (Turku, Helsinki) because plane tickets are very expensive. I would recommend trying Viking line, their ferries are clean, Wi-Fi is working, and food is great.
Eat like locals
While visiting you should definitely try local food. The most popular dish is Pannkaka. It could be described as a very thick pancake, and its main flavor is cardamon. It is served with whipped cream and raspberry jam. Probably no one will be surprised that locals eat a lot of fish. A typical dish is, for example, Ledholmare – herring burger with onion. Also, if you get the chance, try local black bread. It tastes sweeter, and it is not so fluffy as we are used to in Europe.
Mariehamn – the center of it all
The capital and the biggest city of Åland is Mariehamn, and it is home for 40% of the population. It has two harbors, and also it probably the city your ferry will anchor in. It is a pretty little town, with the main street, several hotels, pubs, restaurants (try Diablo pizza or Dino’s bar), cinema (movies are usually with Swedish and Finnish subtitles), swimming pool with cool outside pool overlooking the bay, casino, and one disco club Arken. That is also the place to be on Friday or Saturday night. Night ferries full of young (or older) Swedes and Fins arrive, and the fun can begin. Normally quite empty town fills up with people of all ages and styles. It feels like every single person on Åland is parting, and mostly in Arken. If you arrive in the summer (highly recommended) you may be lucky enough to experience one of music, craft or historical festivals.
Architecture and sailing
Very close to the city center you can find architecturally interesting Saint George’s Church drawn by Finnish architect Lars Sonck. In the Western Harbor, there is the Flying P-Liner Pommern museum ship anchored, it is the last original windjammer in the world. For one ticket you can visit Pommern and Maritime Museum, where you can see one of the original skull and crossbones pirate flags, and learn about life on the sea.
Kobba Klintar – favorite local’s spot
While in Mariehamn, you can pay for a boat excursion (summer months) to Kobba Klintar – the old pilot station. You will see still working fog horn (you can even hear it, once per day during summer season), learn about the life of pilots on this little piece of land, swim in the sea or watch huge ferries passing by. And when you are tired, you can have coffee in local café or make a picnic of your own. Ålanders are very proud of this place, and there is always someone ready to share stories.
Kastelholms – the only castle
Åland has a rich history, and the Kastelholms Slott is one of many pieces of evidence. Well preserved, and the only castle on Åland from the 15th century is an interesting place to visit. After exploring the castle, I highly recommend visiting the Vita Bjorn Prison Museum too. It served as a jail for over 200 years, and it is the oldest building of its kind in Finland.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Åland fell under Russia, and they decided to build a huge Bomarsund fortress to protect the Empire. Construction wasn’t completed, only two towers out of twelve were standing, when British and French troops attacked in 1854. In the end, more than 2000 men surrendered and became prisoners, and the fortress was demolished. All left behind are those impressive ruins, showing the evidence of cannonball fire.
Why is it worth it?
Even though Åland is probably not becoming very popular travel destination any time soon, there are not great touristy attractions or world-famous art, and fun nightlife (except for Friday and Saturday), it is a gorgeous piece of land barely peeking out of cold waters of the Baltic Sea. It is a calm, recharging, and historically interesting place to visit. If you are looking for not so well-known destination where you can chill, enjoy beautiful nature, and slow down, Åland is the place for you. Just remember that during the offseason (October-April) life on Åland concentrates to Mariehamn, and places elsewhere are mostly closed.