Glorious Åland Archipelago is a geopolitical anomaly: it is Finnish owned and Swedish speaking, but it has its own parliament, flies its own blue, gold, and red flag, issues its own stamps, and uses its own web suffix: ‘dot ax’. Its ‘special relationship’ with the EU means it can sell duty-free and make its own gambling laws. Åland is the sunniest spot in northern Europe and its sweeping white-sand beaches and flat, scenic cycling routes attract crowds of holidaymakers during summer. Yet outside the lively capital, Mariehamn, a sleepy haze hangs over the islands’ tiny villages: finding your own remote beach among the 6500 skerries (rocky islets) is surprisingly easy. A lattice of bridges and free cable ferries connects the central islands, while larger car ferries run to the archipelago’s outer reaches.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The core of the Åland Archipelago is a dozen or so larger islands that are connected by bridges. Known as Fasta Åland (Ahvenanmaa in Finnish), this ‘mainland’ comprises 70% of the archipelago’s land area – including its only town. It’s also home to 90% of Åland’s population. Fasta Åland offers more historical sites, cultural attractions, and recreational activities than any other island – as well as receiving the vast majority of tourists. Åland’s capital is Mariehamn, on the southern edge of the mainland. From this urban center, the islands stretch north, west, and east, connected by bridges but still sprawling across the Archipelago Sea. This means that even the Fasta can feel like a remote island. If that’s what you’re going for, it’s easy to find a quiet corner, surrounded by nature and sea but still within striking distance of the capital.
The capital of Åland, Mariehamn was named by Alexander II after Empress Maria, and its broad streets lined with linden trees recall its Russian heritage. Nowadays it’s a bustling, touristy place – home to parks, museums, minigolf, hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, galleries, and more. During summer, visitors flood the bike paths, tour boats, and pavement cafes. The calendar is packed with music festivals and cultural fairs, and folks stay out all night soaking up the midnight sun. Of course, it’s not all fun and games in the archipelago’s only city. Two out of every five Ålanders live and work in Mariehamn, and Åland’s parliament and government are also here. In summer, however, this workaday world fades into the background as holidaymakers take over the town.
The sprawling municipality of Jomala sits just above Mariehamn, spanning Fasta Åland from its east coast to its west. Its two main centers are Kyrkby in the east and small Gottby in the west, but the landscape is dotted with villages, guesthouses, and the occasional museum. Jomala’s patron saint, St Olaf, has left his mark on this municipality – you’ll see him on the Jomala coat of arms and inside his namesake church. The latter is said to be among the oldest churches in Finland, with many ancient sculptures and frescos to prove it.
Quiet Hammarland is a geographically prominent municipality, stretching from central Åland up to the northwestern corner. The main village is Kattby, which is where you’ll find the ancient Sankta Catharina Kyrka. This is one of the archipelago’s oldest inhabited areas, as evidenced by the Iron Age burial sites near the church. There’s no reason to make a dedicated trip to Hammarland, but it’s worth a stop if you’re passing through en route to Eckerö or Geta.
On the far-western edge of mainland Åland, delightful Eckerö is the archipelago’s closest point to mainland Sweden – just a two-hour ferry ride from Grisslehamn. While the island maintains an off-the-beaten-track atmosphere, it does contain a handful of excellent accommodation options and some offbeat but interesting sights. Eckerö is also home to Åland’s loveliest stretch of sand at Degersand beach.
Geta calls itself the ‘top of Åland’ – not only because it encompasses the archipelago’s northern tip but also because it’s home to one of the islands’ highest peaks. As such, Geta is a popular destination for hiking, or just for taking in the panorama from the Soltuna Restaurang.
In the northeastern corner of Åland Fasta, the municipality of Saltvik is the island’s highest ground, with the ‘peak’ of Orrdals Klint maxing out at 129m. It’s also among Åland’s earliest settled spots. Archaeological excavations have recently revealed farms and houses dating as far back as the 6th century. In particular, Vikings sharpened their swords in Saltvik for centuries: the main village, Kvarnbo, was likely their capital on Åland. The festive annual Viking Market celebrates this heritage.
Sund is situated 30km from Mariehamn, just east of the main island group. It’s connected to Saltvik by a bridge, but it’s still a long haul from the capital. It’s worth the trip, however, as Sund is home to Åland’s highlight attractions: the muscular medieval castle Kastelholm and the battle-scarred ruins of the Russian stronghold at Bomarsund. In the midst of these historic sights is the island’s most talked-about eatery, Smakbyn, which spearheaded the locavore movement on Åland. Midway between Kastelholm and Bomarsund is Sund’s largest town, Finby, with all services.
Vårdö sprawls across the Archipelago Sea, barely maintaining its connection to its compatriots on Fasta Åland. This cluster of isles – connected by bridges and ferries – stretches up to the two islands of Simskäla (Västra and Östra; West and East, respectively), with rustling silver birches, isolated beaches, and views over the countless skerries (rocky islets). Vårdö is a handy stop if you’re traveling to the outer islands on the northern archipelago route, with ferries departing from Hummelvik.
Åland’s central municipality fans out around Godby, the island’s second-biggest ‘town’ – though with 800 people, it’s scarcely a metropolis. While Finström itself is light on sights and activities, it’s not a bad base for exploring Åland. The central location offers easy access to the historic sights in Saltvik, while Mariehamn is just a quick jaunt down Rte 2. Finström is interwoven with waterways, offering gorgeous scenery and the occasional swimming beach. And it doesn’t hurt that the island’s tastiest beer is brewed in the neighborhood.
When the occupying Russians needed a shipping route in the late 19th century, their prisoners of war dug the Lemström Canal. Today it remains one of Lemland’s defining features. About 5 miles east of Mariehamn, the canal is a popular destination for bike rides from Åland’s capital. Ambitious cyclists might venture further into Lemland to admire the 14th-century church Sankta Birgitta Kyrka, or visit the home of a 19th-century shipping magnate at Skeppargården Pellas.
There aren’t too many reasons to make the 30km drive to the eastern edge of Fasta Åland, where Lumparland juts into the sea, reaching out to its neighbors in the southern archipelago. But one compelling reason is to catch a ferry, either to nearby Föglö or out to Kökar. You can even ride a ferry all the way back to Turku or Naantali on the Finnish mainland. But whatever their reason for being here, travelers will discover the charming old wooden church Sankt Andreas Kyrka.