In summer, Helsinki is a slice of maritime paradise, enjoying over 80 miles of shoreline and consisting of about 330 islands, or “saari,” in Finnish.
Nothing says summer quite like island hopping—whether it be in Greece, Croatia, Spain, or even Finland. Helsinki’s sun-worshipping residents will regularly hop on a water bus or sail their own boat to an island to play in the water and lounge on the beach, enjoy a picnic, go fishing, cleanse their minds and bodies in the sauna, take in an open-air concert, or dine in a renowned restaurant. When they have more time, they’ll also pitch a tent or rent a cottage on islands further out to loll away a few days or luxuriate in the season’s endless light at their island homes.
Only 1.8 miles from Helsinki’s City Center, Pihlajasaari is a favorite with locals. Actually two islands separated by a wooden footbridge, the 64-acre island was once home to private villas but is now a municipal recreation area of wooded areas, groves and beaches accessible to all. The island is especially appreciated for its sandy beaches and large rock formations perfect for sunbathing. It also features adorable beach cabanas in green, red, and mustard yellow and a grand Victorian-style clapboard mansion-turned-restaurant. And, this being Finland, there are two saunas—an electrically heated one of up to six people and a wood-heated one for up to seven. These have to be booked in advance at +358 (0)9 310 71518 (click here to learn more). Return water bus tickets with JT-Line cost €7.50 for adults.)
Suomenlinna is an old sea fortress island and UNESCO World Heritage site first occupied by the ruling Swedes in the mid-19th century, and later, the Russians. Today the island has an easygoing vibe with a genuine lived-in feel. That’s because it’s home to 800 eco-conscious residents, all of whom have undergone an application process, and appeals particularly to hobby sailors and hipsters. Suomenlinna boasts six museums, including a submarine museum and even a toy museum (a top choice among locals for its cozy cafe), as well as 13 restaurants and cafes. The fortress isle even has its own brewery located by the jetty pier. Guided walking tours of the island are given in Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian, or Chinese and cost €11, but are free to Helsinki Card holders. Round trip ferries from Market Square are €7, while three-island (Suomenlinna, Lonna, and Vallisaari) island-hopping tickets cost €8.
Vartiosaari has an intriguing history. It’s thought that the island was used as a guard post to warn locals of imminent attacks during the Viking Age. Today, this 202-acre island is home to grand country houses and other holiday homes and is a popular draw for visitors who come to forage for berries and mushrooms in summer and fall. Gorgeous views of the sea can be had from rocky outcrops. Most people come here by private boat, but there are water buses departing from the Reposalmi boat jetty. It will take 45 minutes to an hour by public transport from the City Center to Reposalmentie, but then the boat ride takes only five minutes. Alternatively, go adventurer for a day and rent a kayak from Natura Viva, or join one of their six-hour private guided kayaking excursions to Vartiosaari and its nature trail—only €98 per person (minimum four participants).
Part of the Suomenlinna fortress area, Lonna is sometimes referred to as “Suomenlinna’s little sister.” The tiny speck of land is so small you could walk its perimeter in under 10 minutes. Like many islands around Helsinki, Lonna has a military history, once serving as a demagnetization base for sea mines. The demagnetization machinery is still there, but now there’s an inviting restaurant specializing in local and organic Finnish cuisine. In summer, the island attracts a lot of 20 and 30-somethings as it’s used as an outdoor concert venue. Perhaps more popular still are the spanking new wood-burning sauna, arguably the best sauna experience anywhere, and Leon the Landseer, the island dog. A two-hour time slot (€16) should be booked in advance. Round trip ferries from Market Square are €7, while three-island (Suomenlinna, Lonna, and Vallisaari) island-hopping tickets cost €8.
The site of a famous spa in the 19th century, Uunisaari is located in front of Helsinki’s Kaivopuisto Park. This island is actually composed of two islands separated by a narrow strait which can be crossed via a pontoon bridge, but only in winter. The Helsinki Swimming Club opened a long, sandy beach on the island in 1934 and Uunisaari has been a magnet ever since. Locals enjoy picnicking here, but there is also a cafe/restaurant serving cinnamon buns, salmon soup, salads, and vegan burgers. There’s a sauna, of course, and if you’re a group of eight or more, you and your pals can reserve the sauna entirely for yourselves. In summer, a free boat service to the island operates from Kompassilaituri quay.
One of the few islands you can reach by foot, is a veritable open-air museum which honors the traditional rural Finnish way of life. The 87 farmhouses, manors, cottages and outbuildings have all been relocated from around Finland, offering a glimpse into Finnish country life from the 17th to the 20th century. Each year the museum puts on a Midsummer bonfire, a centuries-old tradition in Finland and other Scandinavian countries typically celebrated between June 21-24. The best place to enjoy the show is from Seurasaari Bridge, where you can view the bonfire rafts blazing on the water and log floaters demonstrating their skills. This year the festivities are set for Friday, June 22, and will include folk dancing, a puppet show, craft demonstrations, and a garland-making workshop. To reach the island, take bus number 24 or tram number 4. If you’re going to the Midsummer bonfire fete there will also be a special ferry from Market Square.
Vallisaari, another old military defense island that was abandoned and left to return to its natural state, only just opened to the public in summer 2016. It now falls within the protected national park system, boasting the most diverse flora anywhere in Helsinki. The island is carpeted in dense woods, grass, and unusual wildflowers, making it the perfect place to partake in forest bathing. Physically, little has changed here in half a century or more. The old battery, storage facilities, and wooden cottages formerly inhabited by officers and later civilians still stand, and strolling along the island’s well-marked and informative nature trails feels like stepping into a time warp. In the last year, they’ve opened a proper restaurant and there are also a few kiosks with picnic tables. Round trip ferries from Market Square are €8, while three-island (Suomenlinna, Lonna, and Vallisaari) island-hopping tickets also cost €8.
Like Suomenlinna, Vallisaari, and Lonna, Harakka shares a military past, with one of its buildings once serving as a chemical testing facility. With its gardens, embankments, rocky crags, and little marshes, the island now attracts bird watchers (“harakka” is Finnish for magpie) and artists who rent studios here. Blessed with a rich array of flora, bird and butterfly species, the island is home to an educational nature center, nature trail, and art exhibitions and workshops. Boats depart from the Ullanlinna pier at Kaivopuisto Park. Return fare is €5 for adults.
More secluded than the other islands listed here, Kaunissaari is 14 miles from Helsinki. Helsinkians come here to escape city life, renting one of the three available cottages or pitching a tent. Mushroom picking, fishing, row boating (rowboats can be rented), hiking, nudist sunbathing on its sandy or rocky beaching, and exploring the nature trail are just some of the activities that can be pursued on Kaunissaari, or “Beautiful Island.” After a naked dip in the invigoratingly cold water, you can of course enjoy one of the saunas (sauna reservations: +358 (0)9 310 71445). Ferry service with Norsöline (website in Finnish only) takes about 50 minutes. Return fare €20 for adults.
Owned by the Lutheran church, Mustasaari, or Black Island, is especially popular with families with kids. The island is mostly blanketed with forest and features a nature trail, a playground, a chapel, a beach with shallow water, and a cafe famous for its cinnamon buns, known as korvapuusti in Finnish. The ferry leaves from Taivallahti jetty at the end of Etelä Hesperiankatu. Return fare €4 for adults.