How to spend a perfect weekend in Åland
These Swedish-speaking Finnish islands are just a ferry ride from Helsinki or Stockholm
What’s that—you say you’ve never heard of Åland?
The truth is, while people in Scandinavia might be well acquainted with the Åland Islands, they might not be quite as prominent on other people’s radars. I know they weren’t on mine. I actually hadn’t even heard of the Åland Islands until a few months ago, and while I thought it would be interesting to visit this small autonomous area in Finland, I hadn’t expected to fall as hard as I did for it.
Part of what I loved about Åland was how little I had known about the islands before visiting. I constantly felt like I was discovering hidden gems, and I left with a long list of reasons why everyone needs to visit—and why I need to return!
I love island hopping, so I was excited to find that Åland consists of about 80 inhabited islands and over 6,000 uninhabitable islands. But for a place that feels so hidden and remote, Åland is surprisingly easy to get to. You can choose to fly into Åland or, better yet, take the ferry! It’s only a few hours from both Helsinki and Stockholm. And a night in a cabin on the ferry is actually cheaper than a hotel in either Helsinki or Stockholm, so you’ll be saving money by going to Åland!
If I do convince you to visit Åland, you might be wondering about things to see and do and places to eat and stay while there. But don’t worry; I’ve got you covered!
Bicycle or cross-country ski
Åland is an incredibly active place—even in the winter, it seems like the locals spend as much time as possible outside. And since the islands are quite flat, it’s the perfect place for cross-country skiing in the winter or cycling in the summer.
If I were to return for a weekend, I would love to do a bicycling trip, staying at different guesthouses on Åland’s many islands.
Like Norway, Finland also has “everyman’s right” so you can enjoy the Åland countryside freely, even camping as you please (though of course make sure to follow the regulations!).
Watch a soccer game
This is probably my boyfriend Dan’s influence, as I now watch a lot of Arsenal games, but I was excited to hear that IFK Mariehamn, Åland’s club team, plays in the Finnish premier league. And in 2016 they were league champions, something just about every Ålander I met managed to casually work into the conversation.
Åland is clearly incredibly proud of their football team, and I would have loved to catch a game while there.
Stop by the Maritime Museum
I’m not a museum person, but visiting Åland’s Maritime Museum was a good way to learn about the area’s history. It’s also full of different interactive games for children, so even if you’re not really into exhibitions, I have a feeling you won’t be bored there.
Even I can get excited about visiting a museum where you can climb a mast and see an original pirate flag! It’s no surprise that the Åland Maritime Museum was voted Finland’s Museum of the Year in 2016.
Lying between Sweden and Finland with a Swedish-speaking population, Åland has played a key role in Finnish history. Speaking with Ålanders about their relationship to both Sweden and Russia in the past, as well as their dual identities as Ålanders and Finns, I finally began to understand the complexity of the Finnish heritage.
Finland was ruled by Sweden for centuries before becoming part of the Russian empire in the 19th century, which ultimately led to the birth of an independent Finland after the collapse of the Russian empire.
At Bomarsund you can see the remains of a Russian fortress that was destroyed by Anglo-French forces in the Crimean War. The remains also happen to lie on one of the prettiest areas of the island!
Åland is Swedish speaking, so of course fika—the art of the coffee break—is a big deal there. Even if you’re not into coffee, you need to stop by Bagarstugan for some lunch or pastries, because oh my goodness it is so adorable! Bagarstugan is in an old wooden house that was built as a bakery, and you can still see the ovens where they used to bake the bread. And the decor is just so cozy.
Then you should go for a second fika at Uffe på Berget because there’s no such thing as too much fika, right? Uffe på Berget has a gorgeous view out over some of Åland’s islands, plus you can also climb up their tower for an even better view and outdoor fika!
Relax in the sauna
People may speak Swedish on Åland, but this is Finland, so of course the locals are obsessed with their saunas! Most homes and hotels will have access to some sort of sauna on Åland, or you can head to Mariebad in downtown Mariehamn to enjoy the sauna, Jacuzzi, and a swim!
Find a bite to eat
Ålanders are incredibly proud of their local produce. In fact I think every single meal I ate, including the hotel breakfast, was made from at least some local produce. Apparently Åland even grows 70% of Finland’s apples!
But if fruit and vegetables aren’t your thing, then maybe this will excite you: Åland also produces beer. Stallhagen Microbrewery definitely seems to be special. And aside from the beer, the food there was delicious!
Alternatively, if Stallhagen is too far out of town for you (it is in the countryside), then you can eat at Dino’s, which serves equally delicious food and is conveniently located in Mariehamn’s center next to Hotel Arkipelag.
Where to stay
I stayed at Hotel Arkipelag, which is conveniently located in downtown Mariehamn and serves an amazing breakfast. I definitely recommend staying there!
Having grown up in New England with an American father and Norwegian mother, Silvia Lawrence traveled for five years through over 70 countries before choosing the mountains of Rauland, Norway, as her home. She is now a full-time travel blogger at heartmybackpack.com.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.