As a destination, Åland Islands are seriously underrated. Most backpackers who visit Finland will only find their way to the country’s capital or to the mystic Lapland, making Åland Islands an off-the-beaten-path gem for the Nordic explorer. To many, the name Åland may sound unfamiliar, while the historically minded might recall Åland as the only success League of Nations ever had, efficiently preventing war between Sweden and Finland and legally attaching the archipelago to Finland. To be honest, I was a little bit reluctant to visit Åland. In my mind I was already battling for breathing space between school groups and families with children while being stuck on a rock with nothing to do but swim. And I hate swimming.
These images might have been inspired by my last visit to the islands. I had been there once, seven years prior to this, on a class trip from lower secondary school. While I did have a good time, I was mostly underwhelmed by the simplicity of the landscape and attractions that could not stand up to places like Taj Mahal or Opera House that I’d only seen in pictures.
Now that I’m a little bit older, I found it easier to love this quiet little island. I saw that the rolling green fields and red wooden houses, while humble, boasted their own kind of presence that made me think of vintage movies and rustic romance. Perhaps my admiration was a little bit mixed in with mild homesickness, since the rural landscape reminded me a lot of the region where I’m from. While travel usually takes me to places crowded with exotic smells and thick crowds, it was pleasant being able to just spend an evening paddling in knee-deep water and watching swans noisily take off. I finally appreciated the peace and quiet.
Here’s five reasons why you should add Åland Islands to your list as well! Hope you like the pictures, I had a lot of fun playing around with my new baby – a 40-150 mm telephoto lens.
Nature is everywhere.
When you think about Finland, nature is probably the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not surprising – after all, a Yale study found Finland to be the greenest country in the world, with other Nordic countries following close by. While it is true that you are surrounded by nature wherever you go in Finland, in Åland this rings even more true. With a population of mere 28,500 and just one real town, the whole island remains very rural and close to nature.
It’s so peaceful.
Ben and I accidentally visited at a time when very few tourists come to Åland. In early June, school year is just starting to wrap up in Finland, so there are very few groups on class trips; meanwhile, the midsummer rush hasn’t started yet, either. While we were lucky, there really isn’t a bad time to visit the islands since it easy to lose yourself from the tour groups and families into the embrace of mother nature. There are many secret spots around the island that only the locals know about – one of those was used for the sunset pictures that you can see sprinkled around this post.
There are a few hotels operating in the only town and the arrival port Marienhamn, but I strongly recommend you rent a cabin from one of the guest houses from further away the city to get closer to the nature. We had booked a room at Djurviks Gästgård, but since the guesthouse wasn’t busy, they had prepared out own cottage for us, complete with a mini fridge and a cozy mezzanine floor for sleeping. The couple went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed ourselves and now that I’ve got a looming translation deadline ahead I just wish I could go back.
All in all, the atmosphere on the island felt very laid-back. As the sun shone, we slowly explored the coast and the roads and sleepy little hamlets spotted between farmlands and forests. We spend a few hours just walking in the shallow waters beside our accommodation and it didn’t feel like a waste of time. It was very easy; very relaxed. Åland isn’t a host to many big attractions, which gives you time to just enjoy the experience of being there. I didn’t feel obligated to do anything, but at the same time it was easy to launch into these little explorations and call them adventures. I left my laptop at home. Staying in Åland felt like mental detox.
Cycling there is awesome.
Åland is mostly flat with some moderate elevation on the north of the islands, which makes it a perfect place to explore on a bicycle. (Well, that, and the public transportation system runs only a few times a day.) The roads are well-maintained and well-signed, and since distances between towns and attractions are fairly small, you can cover a lot of ground in just one day. It’s a pleasant ride between lush green fields and wooden houses, sometimes peeking out to the Baltic ocean before swerving back into orderly pine forests or waving hellos to herds of sheep or yaks lazily grazing on their pastures. Many guest houses rent bikes, or you can get one from Marienhamn.
If you don’t cycle a lot, though, consider how far you want to ride. After not having been on a bike for almost two years, nearly fifty kilometres of cycling in one day made it pretty hard to sit…
Fun fact – most of the roads in Åland are slightly red since they have been built using rapakivi granite, a kind of uncommon granite that is actually found in other parts of the world as well but which bears the Finnish name in almost every language – perhaps because the man who first described it was Finnish. (If you ever think your job is boring, at least you can get comfort from the though that you’re not the guy who describes rocks.)
It’s rustic & romantic & weird.
While Åland is a part of Finland, it is more Swedish than Finnish. When the League of Nations decided in 1920 that the archipelago should belong to Finland, a majority of the population of Åland resisted. However, in the recent decades Ålanders have shown very little initiative to detach from Finland, and a very small minority is in favour of Åland becoming completely independent. The official language is Swedish, and some people speak very little Finnish. English is rather widely known as it mostly is in Nordic countries. However, people are seemingly proud of their island, with menus written completely in Swedish and the Åland pennant merrily flying on flagpoles. The island is demilitarised and is widely autonomous.
The houses in Åland are an epitome of romantic Nordic design and rustic charm. Colourful wooden houses dominate the streets of Marienhamn and are dotted across the rural landscape, while stone constructions dating back from the Viking times can be found around the islands.
It’s easy to get there.
As if you needed any more incentives to visit… There is an airport, but the unquestionably best way to travel between mainland Finland and the Åland Islands is on a ferry. Since the ships operating from Finland are actually big cruise ships rather than humble little ferries, it is possible to enjoy the trip in the comfort of your own little cabin, or alternately purchase a deck ticket which is usually cheaper (but not available on night ferries). If lady Fortune decides to smile upon you, you can expect five and half hours of sea travel in blasting sunshine (which we got! yesss), idly watching the passing sea and summer cottages on tiny islands, lounging on the skydeck behind a bar which serves surprisingly affordable drinks and doesn’t mind too much if you spend the whole trip there. In case the weather doesn’t hold up, the ships usually have a plethora of restaurants, bars and cafes to sit in, or you can just hang out on a window sill and watch the sea.
Ferries run year-round from both Helsinki and Turku (or from Stockholm, if you’re coming from Sweden), although I would recommend you catch it from Turku rather than Helsinki. The ride is shorter, there’s a train that takes you straight to the harbour, and you could squeeze in a little exploration of the city itself – which, fun fact, used to be the capital during the Swedish reign.
The tickets to the ferry are usually very affordable. I managed to get mine for 22 euros return.
Have you ever visited Åland Islands or heard of them?