If you ever are lucky enough to spend a day in Helsinki, all the guidebooks will recommend you go to Suomenlinna Island, known for hosting a huge fortress and monumental complex which was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1991 for its military interest. You won’t have a hard time finding information about it; it is one of the most beloved sites by the Finnish and it serves as a background for many wedding pictures. However, I dare your adventurous self to take a leap to the opposite side of the city, to the Northern island of Seurasaari. If you are following a low-budget, time-tight sort of plan as I was, this is the best option for you, since you do not have to pay for an overrated ferry transfer and it is only about 20 minutes bus ride from the city centre. I’d say that, while the Finnish enjoy taking pride on Suomenlinna, they maintain Seurasaari as their best-kept secret, which I only discovered by chance on the reverse of an exhibition leaflet.
Make your way to Seurasaari
If you take the bus 24 at any point in the city, it’s as easy as to step off at its last stop (“Seurasaari”, pronounced sew-ra-sah-ree). The ticket for the bus can be bought straight from the driver or at any Kiosk; it costs around 2.30€ and it’s valid for 2 hours. I genuinely thought I’d make it to the bus back in time to use the same ticket, but the island absorbed me in such a way that I had to pay for a new one – and I’d do it again. The bus line runs across many popular points across the capital, which you can visit on your way to the island or on your way back to the center. I’m talking about the Hietaniami historical cemetery, which hosts victims of all religions from the II World War; the Hietaranta beach in front of it is used as a (very chilly) waterfront area by locals, and a bit further South you’ll find the famous monument raised in honor of beloved composer Jean Sibelius’ (1865-1957), also worth a visit. Make sure you tell the bus driver where you’re going, since the bus won’t stop unless someone pushes the button and the car park in front of the island is not easy to identify.
The first thing you’ll see beyond the entrance ticket booth (adult fee is 9€, subject to reductions), is a white wooden bridge taken straight from a fairytale. It is for pedestrians only and it has a couple of gazebos from which to admire the birds and grassland that grows on the shores of the Baltic Sea. On the other side of the bridge, the splendorous Seurasaari Open Air Museum welcomes the visitor with an impressive exhibition of the Finnish architecture over three centuries of history. I know, the idea of spending three hours outdoors in the freezing Scandinavian autumn does not appeal everyone; but a warm coffee or chocolate from any of the cute wooden huts on the trail will take every shiver off your body. The itinerary shows 17th and 18th century farmhouses, summer houses, granaries, wind and watermills and even entire streets of old huts which are 100% real, brought from all corners of Finland to concentrate in this little island a unique architectonic heritage centre. There even is a chapel in Viking style in whose courtyard rest the founders of the museum, the Heikels. Back in 1909, they dreamt of preserving the Finnish inland folklore and diversity by rescuing those buildings from the ruin. They found by chance that this piece of land was unused and decided to transplant (literally) the houses, beam by beam. They turned it into a journey across time and cultures which shows the visitor how life was in the Scandinavian countryside when heaters and phones were unheard of.
The informative panels are very self-explanatory and, although the itinerary is designed chronologically, visitors are welcome to wander freely through the hills as many locals do. Unfortunately, when I went to Helsinki the museum was under restoration works, so I did not get the chance to see the inside of some buildings, but I still enjoyed it to the most.
In need for a break?
After some walking across the ages of time, the body asks for some rest. The best place to have a nibble and bring the frozen fingers back to life is the picturesque yellow restaurant on the Northern edge of the island. There you can try the local cuisine while enjoying privileged views across the sea and over to the Northern city skyline.
Other things to do
Even if you’re not into museum stuff, it is the perfect spot to appreciate the Scandinavian flora and fauna in such a short trip from the city. Finnish families come here to enjoy quality time with their children in sunny Sundays; the slightly sloping paths are also a great place to do jogging and dog walking.
The Open Air Museum organizes folkloric shows and Finnish performances across the year, especially at summer. Children can also enjoy workshops and arts & crafts activities using the same materials that Finnish children used 300 years ago. At Midsummer every year, a huge pile of wood is built on a tiny isle just off Seurasaari’s coast, and according to the tradition, a newlywed couple have to lit it in order to provide Helsinki with good luck until the following summer. A curiosity: in Seurasaari island, a short walk from the restaurant, there is one of the only three nudist beaches in the whole Finland (shame you have to pay for it).
When leaving the island, do not forget to look back: you’ll see, mostly covered by ivy and almost abandoned, a mysterious and dreamy house which overlooks the visitors who dare to cross the bridge over to the enchanted island of Seurasaari.
In a nutshell…
If you truly want to experience the roots of the Finnish culture, do not hesitate to visit Seurasaari, even if it’s only for the sake of walking under swinging poplars along the shores of the Baltic Sea. Trust me, you will leave feeling wiser and at rest with the Finnish white sky.