First of all: Thanks to Jesper and Susan from The Biveros Effect for this incredible post. This is the first seed of a collaboration between Mapping The Map and Biveros. Don’t miss what Jesper and Susan explain about Åland Islands. It is really a paradise in the north of Europe.
Water as far as your eyes can see, red granite cliffs and a tranquility that calms your soul. Welcome to the beautiful Åland Islands! 6500 skerries and islands in the Baltic Sea form an autonomous and demilitarized region that is located between Finland to the east and Sweden in the west. It is the only monolingually Swedish-speaking region in Finland and it is also the smallest region in the country. With approximately 30 000 inhabitants, you rarely feel overwhelmed by the crowds. Believe it or not, it is also the area in the Nordic countries with the most hours of sunshine!
A walk through Mariehamn, the only town in the region, reveals that the islands have a fascinating history. This is, however, just a small glimpse of the passing of time. The one who decides to explore the islands further finds a castle, old military fortifications, and ruins of religious importance. Once upon a time, the Åland Islands were strategically important.
One particularity about the Åland Islands is that the area is outside the EU Custom’s Union. This means that many huge passenger ferries make quick stops here in order to sell duty-free products.
Like in all Nordic countries, there is the freedom to roam. Essentially, this means that everyone has the right to set up their tents almost anywhere. As the nature is so beautiful, I definitely recommend visitors to take the opportunity to explore the islands by bike and by water. If camping is your thing, then you might even want to spend the night on a deserted beach.
What to See and Do?
As Susann grew up on the Åland Islands, she has a clearly good picture of where to take any visitors. Here’s our suggestion for the places that are worth a visit.
Mariehamn & Kobba Klintar
Mariehamn is the only town on the Åland Islands and as such, we recommend you to make a stop here. In the summertime, there are a lot of interesting events. Among other things, there’s the week-long music festival Rockoff and the Maritime Days. Summer really is the best time to visit. This is also the time to try some Finnish ice-cream. Did you know that both Finland and Sweden rank in the Top 5 worldwide as far as ice-cream consumption is concerned?
Mariehamn is quite small; there is one main pedestrian street, two harbors, and a few museums. The maritime museum in the Western Harbor is well worth a visit! Throughout history, the sea really has played an important role in the lives of the people of Åland and the museum tells you all about it. Back in the day, many young men sailed the seven seas while working on ships. Sjökvarteret, or the Maritime Quarter, lies just north of the Eastern Harbor. A stroll here reveals boat-building activity, a smithy, and facilities for other traditional handicrafts. There is also a museum. Stop at the restaurant for Åland style pizzas and tasty soup.
In the town center, you should definitely visit one of the cozy cafés and try a local delicacy – the Åland pancake! Other local treats include beer, black bread, and potato chips.
As we already mentioned, the region is autonomous and it’s something you will soon notice. For one, everyone speaks Swedish. In fact, many of the inhabitants there do not speak any Finnish at all. A second interesting fact is that you must make a trip to the post office in case you want to send postcards to friends and family. You see, Åland has its own stamps. So, it might also be a good idea to send a postcard to all the stamp collectors you know. The heart of the autonomy lies in Självstyrelsegården, which is where you find the local parliament and government. These bodies have legislative and executive rights in many different areas that belong to the internal affairs of the region.
Mariehamn is located on a peninsula. Right before the huge passenger ferries from Stockholm, Turku, Helsinki, and Tallinn enter the harbor, the passengers might catch a glimpse of a small islet with an old-fashioned house and a pyramid. This is Kobba Klintar – an old station for maritime pilots. Nowadays it’s a wonderful place to enjoy a cup of hot coffee and some local pancake. If you’re lucky, try to get a local to give you a ride on their boat. Otherwise, you can book a trip with a tour company!
Mariehamn is fairly modern. It only dates to 1861, when Russian Tsar Alexander II decided to build the town. His wife, Tsaritsa Maria Alexandrovna served as inspiration for the name of the town. If you want to dive deeper into history, you should grab your bike and visit other parts of the islands as well. There are small ferries that traffic the other islands in the archipelago as well.
Kastelholm Castle and Bomarsund Fortress
The Åland Islands have a rich history that it does not only share with Finland. For a long time, Finland, as well as the Åland Islands, were a part of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1809, Sweden lost the area to Russia who remained in control of the islands until Finland’s independence in 1917.
Kastelholm Castle stands at a very beautiful location by a fjord in the municipality of Sund. It is about 25 kilometers from Mariehamn. The castle was built in the 14th century and its heyday was in the 15th and 16th centuries. It fell into ruins in 1975. These days the reconstructed castle serves as a museum. Next, to it, there’s a cozy open-air museum, Jan Karlsgården. Here visitors can see typical buildings from different parts of the islands. In the beginning of December, people from around the island attend the Christmas market here. Just a few steps away is the Prison Museum Vita Björn. It was built as early as 1784 to serve as a prison and it operated until 1975.
Not far from Kastelholm Castle is the main remnant from the Russian times. The Russians began building the Bomarsund Fortress in 1830. A whole town grew around it. However, it didn’t take long before English and French troops attacked the fortress and destroyed it in 1854. The fortress was never completed. These days you can visit the ruins of the fortress and the town around it, as well as some watchtowers. The island of Prästö lies next to Bomarsund. It is famous for its six Russian military cemeteries and two museums showing the history of Prästö and Bomarsund.
And if you have spare time on your hands…
Of course, there are even more sights on the Åland Islands. We have gathered a few more sights below on the map. And if you have even more spare time, then you should definitely experience the archipelago!
If you ever visit the Åland Islands, you’ll probably be astonished by its tranquility. It is a place where you can be active – there are lots of possibilities for biking, golf, fishing, sailing, and other water sports. But it’s also a place to rest and relax. And perhaps learn a bit of history!
The people behind this blog post
Jesper and Susann live and work in Stockholm, Sweden. Jesper is originally from Sweden, while Susann comes from the Åland Islands. They met while working in Bratislava and soon realized that both suffer from itchy feet and a restless mind. The result is a lot of travel and a blog called The Biveros Effect. On their blog, they share their travels as well as other recommendations. Don’t miss the guides on what to see in Bratislava or on the Åland Islands.