An introduction to the Åland Islands, a popular summer destination yet little known outside the Nordic Region. Here's what you need to know about Åland.
Tucked away between Sweden and Finland at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, the Åland Islands are a wonderful destination for a relaxing summer escape.
With sandy beaches, picturesque cycling routes, and quaint villages, it's no wonder these islands have become a favourite retreat for Scandinavians.
Although relatively unknown outside the Nordic region, the islands' natural beauty and untouched landscapes offer a refreshing break from bustling city life.
Ninety percent of Åland's population resides on the largest island Fasta Åland. To the east, there are about 6,500 smaller islands and skerries.
Åland islands facts
Are you curious about these islands? Perhaps you've never heard of them before. Maybe you're even planning a trip as part of a visit to Finland, Sweden, or a wider tour of the Nordic region.
Whatever your perspective, you're sure to learn something today. Here are some fascinating facts about the Åland Islands.
1. The islands are an autonomous part of Finland
Åland is part of Finland. However, the region enjoys extensive autonomy, with its own government and parliament. It maintains a unique status to protect the rights and culture of the local Swedish-speaking population.
2. Swedish is the official language
Approximately 86% of islanders speak Swedish as their primary language. It is the official language of the islands, despite their status as Finnish. Less than 5% of the population speak Finnish as their native language.
The language of instruction in publicly financed schools is Swedish. In mainland Finland, bilingual municipalities provide schooling both in Finnish and in Swedish, while Swedish is always taught as a foreign language.
3. The Åland crisis was the first test of the League of Nations
The Åland crisis was a diplomatic conflict between Sweden and Finland in the early 1920s. The majority Swedish-speaking population desired reunification with Sweden, while Finland claimed historical rights to the territory.
The question of sovereignty was the first test of the League of Nations. The organisation decided that the islands should remain part of Finland, but with extensive autonomy.
4. Åland is a demilitarized area
Concluded following the League of Nations decision, the Åland Convention of 1921 mandates that the Finnish government maintains the territory as a demilitarised zone.
5. You'll pay in Euro on the islands
Despite Swedish being spoken throughout the islands, the Euro is the official currency of Åland.
However, most businesses in Åland unofficially accept the Swedish krona, although this won't always be advertised.
Things to do on the Åland islands
Åland boasts a fascinating blend of Nordic culture. But fear not, as with the rest of the Nordic region, English is widely spoken, so visitors can easily immerse themselves in the island experience.
If you're planning a trip, consider including these highlights in your itinerary.
Mariehamn: The delightful capital of Åland, Mariehamn is home to most of the island's 30,000 inhabitants yet remains far from a bustling metropolis. Stroll along the quaint streets of Mariehamn, admiring the picturesque harbours and exploring Åland's maritime history.
Notable attractions include the Åland Maritime Museum and the Pommern, a fully rigged sailing ship anchored in the harbour.
Kastelholm Castle: Travel back in time by visiting the medieval Kastelholm Castle, located about 16 miles northeast of Mariehamn.
Once serving as a royal residence and prison, the castle and its surrounding area now offer a captivating insight into the region's history. Annually, the castle hosts a medieval festival featuring food, dancing and jousting.
Explore the archipelago by boat and bicycle: Experience Åland's maritime culture by embarking on a sailing trip or hiring a boat to navigate the stunning, sheltered waters and islands. Rent a bicycle to traverse the well-maintained coastal paths and charming villages.
Birdwatching walks: Åland attracts bird enthusiasts eager to spot the numerous resident and migratory species.
Lågskär island and the Kummelskär bird station are among the top locations, while the Ramsholmen Nature Reserve and Getaberget viewpoint offer excellent nature walks.
Visit Åland's churches: The medieval stone St. Olaf's Church in Jomala and the stone church in Vårdö are just two of the many picturesque churches scattered across Åland.
Food and drink in the Åland Islands
As with many island communities worldwide, availability and the seasons influence the menus found in restaurants.
Historic preservation techniques blend with global spices and fresh ingredients sourced from the fertile soil and lengthy growing season to create dishes that are uniquely Åland.
Look for the AX label on menus, signifying local ingredients and support for the local communities. One example is the organic cheese, yoghurt and ice cream produced from the milk of five cows at Mattas gårdsmejeri farm.
Also, don't miss out on a glass bottle of Amalias Limonad, handcrafted in southern Åland and containing 20% cold-pressed juice from Åland berries.
Where to stay in Åland
Bored of chain hotels? One of the joys of a stay on Åland is the different styles of accommodation. For example. many of the islands' farm buildings and country estates have been converted to host guests.
Granlunda Gård is a new equestrian center with a farm hotel next to the stables. Want a truly unique experience? The simple, four-bed cabin known as the ‘hermit cottage’ is the only one on Sviskär island, meaning guests will have the entire island to themselves.
How to get to Åland
Travelling to Åland by boat is a long-standing tradition and an integral part of the Åland experience for both Finns and Swedes.
The fastest routes from Grisslehamn and Kapellskär in Sweden take just 2-3 hours. However, most international tourists will likely prefer travelling from Stockholm. From the Swedish capital, Viking Line and Tallink Silja both operate ferries, offering a fantastic view of the Stockholm archipelago during the 5.5-hour journey to Åland.
Ferry options from Finland include services from Naantali/Turku and Helsinki. From Estonia, Tallink Silja serves Åland en route to Stockholm. Advance booking is essential for all ferry services, especially if you're travelling in the summer or with a car.
Ensure you check the part of Åland your chosen ferry sails too, particularly if you are without a car. Once on the islands, regular car ferry services connect many of the inhabited islands. Advance booking is crucial, although standby queues are available at larger harbours.
Alternatively, you can fly to Åland. Regular flights are available from Helsinki in Finland and from Stockholm Arlanda in Sweden. In the years to come, Åland could be one of the first places in Europe to launch commercial electric flights, following a partnership with Swedish company Heart Aerospace.