Helsinki: Seurasaari and its Squirrels

Seurasaari is one of the many islands that make up the fringes of Helsinki. It lies to the northwest of the city, connected to the mainland by a white, wooden footbridge that is easily accessible from the city centre via the 24 bus. There are a few things that make rocky, forested Seurasaari special among Helsinki’s hundreds of islands, and which have led us to visit it more often than any other park during our three months here.

The sun sets on a mysterious rock circle, Seurasaari

Probably the most distinguishing feature of Seurasaari is its open-air museum, which is open from mid-May to mid-September. Over the past century or so, various parts of farmsteads and other buildings from 18th-20th century Finland have been transported to the island to form a museum that gives visitors an intimate look at the Finnish culture of that time. These mostly wooden structures, ranging from small storehouses to saunas (of course) to a 1790s manor house, give the forested island an atmosphere of historical importance. One of the most striking buildings is the Karuna Church, which was built in 1685-86 by a Baron Arvid Horn, so that he could marry a woman of whom his father did not approve. The sconces are shaped like arms gripping taper candles, a replica of an old ship of the line hangs from the ceiling, and the fencing outside is severe, black, and spiky. As you can probably imagine, this gives the place a slightly eerie feel.

You can walk through Seurasaari and see these buildings from the outside without paying, but in order to venture inside the buildings and talk to the employees (who are easily identifiable as they are all dressed in era-appropriate clothing), you need to buy a ticket.

Another striking feature of the island is its friendly, fearless wildlife. On our recent visits, we have walked within centimetres of great tits, sat next to a group of goslings, listened to the work of a woodpecker, and been the objects of the curiosity of tufty-eared red squirrels. One evening, as we sat by the water and watched the sunset, a fox trotted past us whilst going about his twilight business. Despite its proximity to the city, the island is a great spot for nature-loving locals and tourists alike.

At the heart of Seurasaari is the festival ground, complete with a grill and stash of firewood so that the public can have their BBQs without damaging the nature around them. We visited the island for the first time at Easter, when the festival ground was the setting for a large bonfire, around which the people of Helsinki gathered to ward off any evil spirits. The event seemed to focus on children, some of whom dressed up as witches and took part in a kiddie version of karaoke, but groups of every age could be seen sitting on the grass around the festival ground with food and drinks. Another bonfire, which we will sadly miss, takes place at midsummer and this year will celebrate Finland’s 100th birthday.

Easter bonfire at Seurasaari festival ground

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