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Urban nature: the Helsinki islands
4 minute read
Panorama picture over a bridge leading to the Suomenlinna fortress island

Credits:: AdobeStock

10 local picks for an easy escape into nature

The archipelago of Helsinki consists of around 330 islands, providing a great gateway to lush green forests, sandy beaches and coastal nature that could fool you into believing you’ve travelled further afield. But unlike the outer archipelago, the Helsinki islands mix all the best amenities of a city – cafes, bars, restaurants – with the feeling of being in the archipelago.

Many Helsinkians like to hop on a ferry for a quick trip to one of the islands. These are the top 10 local picks for an easy escape into nature:

 

Pihlajasaari, “Rowan island” – Beach, cliffs, trees & meadow

Aerial view over a Pihlajasaari island
Credits: Julia Kivelä

Only a 10-minute trip from southern Helsinki, Pihlajasaari is the most popular island among Helsinkians to spend a sunny summer’s day. The island is famous for its picturesque sandy beaches and rocks, offering great spots for sunbathers and swimmers. There is a protected grove on Läntinen Pihlajasaari, nestled between the rocks. The island also features a coastal meadow and boasts a range of bird species. A good way to explore the islands’ nature and history is the two-kilometre-long nature trail. The island is perfect for day-long picnics but, if you want a day off from the kitchen, then you can enjoy the delicacies of the restaurant Pihlajasaari.

a woman swimming in the Baltic sea in the coast of Helsinki
Credits: Mariia Kauppi

Vartiosaari, “Guard Island” – Berry and mushroom picking

Vartiosaari is in the inner archipelago of Eastern Helsinki, between Laajasalo and Tammisalo. Vartiosaari’s history is intriguing: it’s believed that the island was used as a guard ground to warn locals of imminent attacks during the Viking Age. A warning fire was lit on a rocky hill soaring to 32 meters above sea level. A thousand years later, the island become a popular site among Helsinki’s bourgeoisie who built villas there. Nowadays, the abundant berry and mushroom crops attract visitors during the summer and autumn months. On the island, there's a 2,5-kilometre nature trail, along which you'll find traces of the ice-age: a glacial block and glacial pothole – the latter also known as a giant's kettle.

Kaunissaari, “The beautiful island” – Camping with amenities

Reaching Kaunissaari is easy: you can jump on a ferry at Vuosaari. The island is situated on the crest of the sea and provides amazing views. In fact, Kaunissaari is one of the farthest islands from the city, with the ferry trip lasting around 40 minutes. The island is known for its long beaches and rich fishing grounds. The diversity of flora and fauna is also impressive and many campers head to the island to enjoy them. The island has cooking shelters and cabins up for rent. There’s a restaurant where you can get smoked salmon soup and book a sauna. Heads up – there’s another Kaunissaari in Kotka region. Both beautiful but different islands.

Suomenlinna – Nature with cultural heritage

Take a trip to the string of islands that make up Helsinki’s famous sea fortress for an immersive historical experience that still promises plenty of nature. Head to the western and southern ends of the Susisaari island where miniature paradises have formed between boulders and in the tiny coves. Many migratory birds stop to graze or nest at Suomenlinna, such as white-fronted geese and swans. Getting there is easy – you can use a public transport ticket and take the municipal ferry from the Market Square.

Two women walking in a nature trail in Suomenlinna fortress island
Credits: : Julia Kivelä
An aerial view of Suomenlinna fortress and the nature
Credits:: AdobeStock

Seurasaari, “The island of good company” – Meet the playful squirrels

Seurasaari is a popular recreational area in Meilahti, western Helsinki, which can be reached by crossing a white wooden bridge on foot. You’ll be welcomed by a flock of tame ducks – and perhaps a few swans and geese – who reside on the island and are delightfully unbothered by visitors. The island features a wide range of habitats, with particularly diverse flora in the south-east part of the island. The entire island is an open-air museum with houses and outbuildings from around Finland rebuilt on the island for display. These uninhabited buildings offer hiding places for bats in the daytime, making Seurasaari Helsinki’s most diverse bat habitat. While you might not be able to spot these nocturnal animals catching up on their beauty sleep, one thing is hard to miss: the squirrels. Squirrels are very tame in Finland and the population on Seurasaari are exceptionally social.

A closeup of a squirrel eating nuts from hand
Credits: Konsta Punkka

Harakka, “Magpie” – Island of birds and butterflies

In summertime, you can hop on a connecting ferry to Harakka from the UIlanlinna pier at Kaivopuisto park. The island was previously a restricted access military base, but is now a recreational area that hosts artists and artisans in the island’s various studios. Many rare plants and butterflies live on the island alongside an exceptionally large number of nesting birds, so visitors are advised to stay on the marked paths. The Harakka Nature Centre offers activities and information on the Baltic Sea, coastal nature and sustainable living. Pick up a map and a bird guide from the Nature Centre and go explore the kilometer-long nature trail. In cold winters, you can reach the island on foot by crossing the frozen sea.

An aerial view of a small urban island covered in trees
Credits: Kari Ylitalo

Lammassaari, ”Sheep island” – Accessible and Instagrammable

First things first: despite its name, there are no sheep on this island. The sheep actually live on the nearby Kuusiluoto island during summertime. Sheep or no sheep, Lammassaari is the perfect place for nature hikes and amateur photography – just not for sheep enthusiasts. You can get to Lammassaari on foot by walking across the duckboards (wooden walkways) from Pornaistenniemi, surrounded by beautiful reeds. Together with the nature trail, the duckboards forms an accessible recreational path of approximately 3,5 kilometres. Lammassaari is part of the Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti nature reserve, and every spring and autumn, there are thousands of migrating birds on the island. There are also private cottages in the area, so visitors are advised to stick to the marked paths for residents’ privacy.

A woman taking pictures while standing on a nature trail duckboards
Credits: Jussi Hellsten

Vallisaari, ”Rampart island” – Lush green trees and moss-covered cliffs

Vallisaari is truly unique when it comes to urban nature. For many years, Vallisaari was a military base that was closed to the public, but was subsequently abandoned for just under a decade. This lack of human interference has allowed the nature on the island to thrive, especially as the plaster used on the old military buildings created extremely fertile soil. Walking through this unique environment, it is easy to forget that you are just a 15-minute ferry ride away from Senate Square in the heart of the nation’s capital. Unless you want to be reminded: from the belvedere facing the sea, there is a view over to the city and Suomenlinna fortress island. Vallisaari also has great summer cafés and restaurants that serve a range of cuisines, from Filipino streetfood to artisanal ice cream.

A basket full of cinnamon rolls
Credits: : Julia Kivelä
A swan and two cygnets swimming in Baltic Sea
Credits:: Julia Kivelä

Lonna – Small & cute island

Only a seven-minute boat ride from the Market Square, Lonna is a tiny oasis that’s open to visitors during the summer season. On Lonna, the human impact on the nature has been significant. The history of the island as military territory during the Russian period is still present in the alien plant species of Russian origin. Approximately 20 bird species nest in Lonna, including barnacle geese, eider and the common gull. The island is also home to a swan couple that has been nesting together for years – a testament to the powerful beauty of the island, even swans feel it. A lovely cafe and restaurant on the island guarantee that you won’t go hungry.

A sauna terrace next to Baltic sea in Lonna island full of people
Credits: : Julia Kivelä
Sweet Waffle on a plate
Credits:: Mariia Kauppi

Isosaari, ”Big island” – An overnight trip across the water

From the Market Square, you can embark on a 40-minute boat trip that takes you to Isosaari, an island with views across the open waters. For centuries, Isosaari has served as a landmark for sailors and a base for fishermen, and later as a military base and a research centre. The island is mostly covered by forest but you’ll also find sandy beaches, all of which are easy to explore thanks to gravel roads and paths. The public sauna is heated on the days when cruise ships arrive, so time it well if you fancy bathing. If you’d like to stay overnight, Isosaari has options from camping to a hotel boat. The carbon neutral “Nolla” cabins with minimalistic Nordic design offer an accessible and interesting way to relish the spectacular archipelago surroundings.

People sitting inside a carbon neutral minimalistic “Nolla” cabin with a seaview
Credits: Mona Salminen

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