I have always said that the only time to visit Finland and truly enjoy it is the summer. Naturally, there is something magical about Finnish Lapland in the winter, but Finland is simply so much more than just that. In the summer, the Finnish landscape comes to life with lush green forests, colorful flower meadows, and warm rocky coasts. And there is one place which embodies Finnish summer better than any other: the Finnish Archipelago. Visit Åland, the largest island group in the archipelago for the perfect maritime summer feeling. We love the Åland Islands so much, we have created a comprehensive guide for your first visit. It is predominantly geared towards short weekend getaways, but we have also tried to include options for you to extend your stay.
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This guide includes:
- How to get to Åland
- Where to stay in Åland
- What to eat and drink in Åland
- What to see and do in Mariehamn
- Cycling in Åland
- Explore further
* Åland was included in our round-up of the 8 most beautiful places in Finland. Guess which other places made the list? 😉 *
How to Get to Åland
Åland is located in the Baltic Sea, between Finland and Sweden. Although it was part of Sweden for most of its history, today Åland is an autonomous state under the authority of Finland. Mariehamn is Åland’s capital and only city which makes it the perfect base for further exploration.
Getting to Åland is very straightforward and the easiest coming from either Stockholm, Sweden or Turku, Finland. Most people take the ferry in, but another alternative would be to take a plane or come in by bike. If you are unsure which way to go, let us enlighten you 🙂
Travel to Åland by Plane
Currently, there is one airline serving the airport in Mariehamn (MHQ), Finnair. Flights with Finnair depart Turku once per day and Helsinki twice per day. Flights from Helsinki can be prohibitively expensive, but the direct flight from Turku is somewhat more affordable at as little as 90€ return. Please note that there is no bus service between Mariehamn airport and the city.
Travel to Åland by Ferry
There are five carriers operating in and out of Åland, but the biggest and most convenient carriers are VikingLine and Tallink Silja, both harboring in Mariehamn on their routes Stockholm-Mariehamn-Turku as well as Stockholm-Mariehamn-Helsinki. Both operators have ferries departing twice per day. Smaller harbors are served by the ferry lines Finnlines, Eckerö Lines, as well as Ålandstrafiken.
Travel to Åland by Bike
A more ambitious way of getting to Åland is to cycle all the way from Turku. The route is about 200 km long and includes several ferry crossings. Alternatively, you can also take your motorbike or car, but please note that there may be restricted space on the ferries for large vehicles.
Where to Stay in Åland
The most convenient location to stay for a relaxed weekend getaway is probably Mariehamn. Not far from nature, but with the convenience of a small town, Mariehamn has everything you need. There are a couple of mid-range hotels in the city, including Park Alandia and a few upscale hotels, including Hotel Arkipelag and Hotel Savoy.
Another popular option an in keeping with the charming surroundings is to rent yourself either into a B&B or a traditional Finnish cottage. Although they may be further from the city center, they are often located on the beach and offer a bit more freedom. Many can be booked through booking.com and may run you as cheap as 50€ per night.
Foods You Must Try in Åland
The food in Åland is distinctly Nordic, almost like a lovechild between rustic Finnish cooking and slightly more elevated Swedish cuisine. Those who’ve spent any time with me will know of my love for bread. And honestly, in Åland I could live on bread alone, it’s that delicious.
Traditionally, bread in Åland is a dark bread made from malt and dark sugar which gives it a subtle sweet flavor. It is often topped with smoked salmon or herring. If you are looking for it in the supermarket or on your breakfast menu, it is called saaristoleipä in Finnish or svartbröd in Swedish. Buy some traditional Åland cheese along with it if you can – look out for Kastelholm cheese!
Speaking of bread, one of the things you simply have to try in Åland is plåtbröd, often dubbed an Åland-style pizza. The place to eat it is Pub Niska, located in the maritime district of Mariehamn. The brainchild of star chef Michael Björklund serves flatbread with toppings such as cold-smoked salmon and horseradish cream. Their mainland outlet was one of our go-to restaurants in Turku, because it was simply that delicious.
Stallhagen Micro Brews
Stallhagen microbrewery is located about 15km North of Mariehamn and employs German and Czech brewing techniques for their slow brews. Make sure to try their smoky Baltic porter which is produced according to an old local recipe! Their on-site pub serves hearty food such as fish, game, and lamb dishes.
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Åland pancakes are entirely different from any other pancake you will ever eat in your life. In many ways, it rather resembles a baked custard cake than a traditional pancake. It consists of a porridge made either of semolina or rice mixed with eggs, sugar, and cardamom. It is baked in the oven just long enough for the eggs to cook through which leads to its soft and wobbly texture. Finally, it’s cut into pieces and served with heavenly stewed prunes and a scoop of whipped cream. You can find the sweet treat in nearly all cafes, but our favorite spot for an afternoon treat was certainly Bagarstugan, one of the coziest cafes you will ever see.
What to See and Do in Mariehamn
Mariehamn is a relatively small town with very little to actually see. However, it’s a cute little town to walk around in and discover its hidden gems. Start your walk at the leafy green Esplanaden Boulevard which runs from Västerhamn to Österhamn.
Halfway you will find St Göran’s Church, designed by famous architect Lars Sonck, and completed late in 1927. It’s a beautiful example of the Nordic brick style. The boulevard is surrounded by traditional wooden houses, some of which once belonged to the city’s wealthier shipowners.
Adjacent to the East end of the boulevard you will find Torggatan and Strandgatan, the city’s main shopping streets. In this area, you can also find city hall as well as the seat of the Åland parliament. It’s the perfect place to grab some ice cream on your way to Sjökvarteret, the Maritime Quarter. Located at the Northern End of the East Harbor, this area has been dedicated to boat building for a long time. Take a stroll along the pier or maybe pop into the small museum (unfortunately no information in English).
To the west, you will find the ferry terminals, as well as the Sjöfartsmuseum (Maritime Museum) as well as the Museumship Pommern. As you might suspect, the Maritime Museum houses pieces associated with maritime history such as sea chests and ships in bottles. The bulk of the collection, however, is made up by preserved historic boats. Outside the museum, the Pommern is anchored which once sailed between England and Australia. Today it is part of the museum. (Please note, the Pommern is closed for restoration until summer 2018).
When you’re done sightseeing, why don’t you pack your beach bag and head over to one of the city’s beaches? Mihir and I loved being close to the beach even though we were staying smack in the city center. The closest beach is Lilla Holmen, located off the East Harbor.
Cycling in Åland
Bikes can be rented from pretty much all hotels as well as independent bike rentals. The most popular is Ro-No who have outlets in the Eastern as well as the Western Harbor. In order to rent a bike, be it from your hotel or an independent company, you should consider the following things:
- You may have to present an ID.
- Rented bikes and accessories need to be returned undamaged.
- You may be charged for necessary repairs.
- In some cases, you may need to pay a returnable deposit.
- Bike rental will cost you approximately 10€ per day.
The best thing about cycling in Åland is that anybody can do it, no matter your level of physical fitness. During our stay, Mihir and I did a very simple 20 km ride to one of Åland’s southern islands, Järsö. In order to get there, you exit Mariehamn in a south-eastern direction until the bike lane merges onto route 30. Although there is no bike lane going south, it is very safe to cycle as there is minimal traffic. The route is incredibly scenic and just a pure pleasure cycling along. At the end of route 30 on Järsö, you will find the cutest little cafe with the most delicious cakes called Stickstugan. Take a rest here before you return to the city – it’s certainly worth it! Below you can find a map guiding you from the city center to Järsö and back.
Åland has too much to offer to cover in this post and than could be explored during a short weekend stay. If you are planning to stay longer, why not explore a little more around the islands? Some of Åland’s most iconic sights are actually located outside Mariehamn, such as the Ruins of Bomarsund, Kastelholm Castle, or Jan Karlsgarden Open Air Museum. For a more adult adventure, head to Smakbyn Distillery and try some of their special blend of apple brandy!
Åland is also the perfect place to indulge in past times such as kayaking, boating, golfing, fishing, and more. Check out the Visit Åland tourism page in order to discover more!
Now, what do you think? Has Åland made your bucket list? Or have we missed anything important? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!