Åland Islands – not many have heard of this fascinating archipelago. I learned about its very existence only a few years ago, as studying google maps is my guilty pleasure. After we moved to Estonia, I put Åland Islands on top of our travel bucket list and started researching the ferry connections immediately. We did not wait long for this trip to happen and spent a few days on Åland last summer. Unfortunately, not everything went as smooth as we would wish. In effect, we developed some kind of love-hate relationship with the islands. But before I explain it further, I would like to answer all the questions that have probably just popped up in your mind.
Åland Islands – where is it?
First and foremost: where is Åland Islands archipelago located? Is it one of those beach destinations in South-East Asia? Another tiny country in the Caribbean that nobody has ever heard of? Neither of these two. Åland lies in Northern Europe, on the Baltic Sea, right at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, which separates continental parts of Sweden and Finland. That being said, Åland is definitely not the first choice when planning a beach vacation of one’s dreams. But climate is not the only thing that makes it a cool place to visit.
Are Åland Islands a country?
The archipelago consists of nearly 7000 islands, yet only 60 are inhabited, by a total of 28 500 people. But what is their nationality? Knowing the location of the Åland Islands, you must be already asking these two questions:
- Is Åland a country?
- Are Åland Islands in the EU?
The answer to both is more complex than you would expect. First of all: no, the Åland Islands are not a country. Throughout its history, the archipelago formed a part of Sweden, Finland, and even Russia, but developed the strongest ties with the first one. Nowadays, the Åland Islands belong to Finland, though. Their eventual fate was decided by the League of Nations, which obliged Finland to grant the Ålanders the autonomy they deserve. As a result, the official language spoken on the Åland Islands is Swedish. Children don’t even learn Finnish at schools unless they want to. The territory of the archipelago is demilitarized. Åland has its own parliament, flag, license plates, and Internet domain (.ax). As the Finnish territory, the islands belong to the European Union but remain outside its taxation. That might be the reason why some call Åland Islands tax heaven.
How to get to Åland Islands?
Even though the Åland Islands are relatively near some main European cities, they can be considered a remote location. But don’t worry, the archipelago is well accessible, and the transportation choice is wide.
The easy way
You can get to the Åland Islands by boat or by plane. In most cases, you will arrive in Mariehamn, situated on the main island. If you choose to fly, you can get to Mariehamn airport with direct flights from Helsinki, Turku, and Stockholm. If you prefer a longer but more scenic way of traveling, choose one of the ferries. There are a few boat connections to Åland from continental Finland, Sweden, and Estonia. Some of them are very expensive, with others you can travel on a budget. You can find all the possible connections on the Visit Åland website.
But we decided not to go for the easy solution. And, although we currently live in Estonia, we chose not to take the ferry Tallinn-Mariehamn. One reason is the fact that we wanted to see more than just the main island, the other being the high cost of such service, as our travel pack consists of two adults, a dog, and a van.
The first step of our journey was the ferry to Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Afterward, we drove to Kustavi, which is about 230 km away. As far as we are concerned, all the ferries within Finland are free of charge. Including those on Åland Islands, but excluding the ones in between the archipelago and the rest of the country. Furthermore, the rule doesn’t apply if you want to use short ferry connections to get all the way to the main island in one day. That might sound a bit tricky, but it makes sense. Otherwise, smaller islands would only be used as transfer points, and they are not ready for such traffic.
Thus, what we did was a small island hopping, which we totally recommend. We took the free ferry from Kustavi to the next island (route Kivimaa – Vartsala). Having driven to the opposite side of the island, Vuosnainen, we boarded the paid ferry to the Åland Islands (route Osnäs – Åva). We stayed overnight on the island of Torsholma, and used the two and a half hours long connection on the following day (route Torsholma – Lappo – Kumlinge – Enklinge – Hummelvik). Eventually, to reach the main island, we boarded the Toftolinjen ferry. You can check all the routes within the archipelago on the Ålandstrafiken website. We left Åland Islands two days later from Eckerö onboard the ferry to Grisslehamn, Sweden.
Top 5 things to do on Åland Islands
Åland Islands offer a variety of things to see and do. There was no rush on our few-days-long road trip through the archipelago, and we knew from the very beginning we wouldn’t see absolutely everything. Along with the most famous sights, like Kastelholm Castle, we visited many off-the-beaten-path places. The trip had its ups and downs. There were views to kill for, some disappointments, and one close encounter with death. Based on this emotional roller coaster, we prepared our top 5 Åland Islands experiences list.
1. Enjoy the unique nature
Take just one look at the ÅIand Islands map, and you will see the richness of local nature. The landscape, consisting of so many islands, islets, and skerries, needs to be breathtaking. And believe me, it is. If I were to describe the nature of Åland with just one word, it would be: raw. After all, this is a Nordic country. There are some impressive flat rocks you need to walk on, and forests you need to smell.
Make sure to include hiking trails in your travel itinerary. They will not tire you, as Åland is moderately flat. We did the 2,5 km hike on Torsholma island. The trail is slightly difficult to find, and there are two possible starting points. We chose the one near the local kindergarten. When walking in nature, take a look around and try to spot the representatives of local fauna. We managed to see baby foxes, sea eagles, and, unfortunately, vipers.
2. Visit Mariehamn – the only town on the archipelago
Don’t expect to see towns when driving through the Åland Islands. You will spot groups of houses here and there. You may struggle to find a shop, though, or to meet another person. There is only one place with relatively high human density on the whole archipelago. However, although it is the capital of the autonomous territory and the seat of its Parliament, Mariehamn is still not a city. It is a town with almost 12 000 inhabitants. And you should definitely visit it. After the short exploration of the very center, head toward these two sights.
The Maritime Quarter
It is one of the biggest attractions of the Åland Islands, and it’s not overrated at all! The Maritime Quarter, or Sjökvarteret, consists of the old harbor, which is still in use, a museum, and a restaurant. There are some boat repair facilities, as well as traditional handicraft stalls. We arrived in Mariehamn early in the morning and started sightseeing at The Maritime Quarter. Thus, most of the attractions were still closed, but we enjoyed having this space just to ourselves.
About 15 minutes walking distance from The Maritime Quarter, the scenery takes a complete turn, all thanks to an idyllic island named Lilla Holmen. This place is just magical. You only need to cross the bridge to get there, and there is no entrance fee. On the island, there is a lovely park and a peaceful sandy beach. If you’re lucky, you can spot many wild bird species. Otherwise, you can watch the animals kept in cages. I did not enjoy the latter, though. The island’s wildlife is amusing enough, and there is no need for a mini-zoo.
3. Go to an open-air museum
Even if you are not a museum enthusiast, you should still visit the Jan Karlsgården open-air museum. If not for the historical and cultural part of it, then at least for the pleasant walk. The admission is free of charge, but even if it was paid, it would be worth every penny. In the museum, you can see how the Ålanders lived back in time. There are many traditional houses along with the windmills and farm buildings. All in the beautiful scenery.
4. Photograph the boathouses
If you have ever seen any pictures of the Åland Islands, the traditional boathouses were probably present in most of them. For one simple reason: they are just perfect objects to photograph. You will find them not only in The Maritime Quarter but also in many other locations throughout the archipelago. Our favorite cluster of boathouses is called Käringsunds Gästhamn, and it’s located near the port, where ferries to Grisslehamn leave from.
5. Aimlessly wander around
There is no strict agenda you should stick to when traveling to Åland Islands. And there are many hidden gems to discover. Therefore, when you are preparing a trip plan, leave some space for spontaneity. Spend some time wandering around, driving your car, riding a bike, or simply walking. Whichever direction you choose, there will always be something interesting to see. It may be one of the traditional windmills, a chapel, or a small beach. Just follow one of the red roads, which owe their color to the local granite, and let it take you into the unknown.
Åland Islands with a dog
Finally, we got to the worst part of our vacation on the Åland Islands. And, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the archipelago’s dog policy. The islands are, in general, very dog-friendly. Pets are welcome on every ferry within the archipelago with no extra charge. Moreover, our dog, Fabio, visited the Jan Karlsgården open-air museum with us. The only place he couldn’t enter was Lilla Holmen in Mariehamn. We understand the reasoning and respected the rule by taking shifts when visiting the island. Our dog would be an intruder among various wildlife species that live there. Other than that, dogs can enter protected areas and hiking trails, under the condition of being leashed.
Åland Islands seem like a dog paradise, don’t they? And yet, on our trip, we almost lost Fabio forever. All because of the viper, which our dog mistook for a stick. Therefore, if you ever travel to the Åland Islands with your pooch, have eyes in the back of your head. The only veterinary clinics are located on the main island, in Mariehamn and Godby, and have relatively short opening hours. We cannot recommend any, though, as our experience is limited to one phone call.
Days to remember
I am almost certain neither of us will ever forget the time we spent on the Åland Islands. Partially because of our traumatic adventure, but mostly because of the magic of this region. We really like this archipelago, somehow underestimated and often overlooked. Åland marks the beginning of our exploration of the islands on the Baltic Sea. During the very same road trip, we also visited Swedish Öland and Danish Bornholm. Having come home, to Tallinn, we decided to see the Estonian islands, as well. The first one we went to was Saaremaa.