A place of no return. This is what the island of Seili was for most people who were brought here from the 17th century up until 1962. Seili is a must-see in Southwest Finland. Not only is it an excellent destination to experience the beautiful and unique Finnish archipelago. The dark history, in stark contrast to the paradise the island is today, will keep you spellbound every minute of your adventure. Here’s a complete guide to help you plan your visit to the fascinating island of Seili.
A paradise with a gruesome history
Photo: Seili is located along the Little Archipelago Trail, close to Nauvo (Nagu in Swedish). A visit will allow you to experience the beautiful Archipelago Sea.
Arriving on the beautiful island of Seili, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the hundreds of people brought here by force. Birds are happily chirping away, butterflies flutter by over the flowery meadows and the light salty breeze from the Archipelago Sea all have an instantly calming effect. The lush vegetation is a green so intense it almost seems airbrushed.
Photo: From the ferry jetty it’s around 500 metres to the main building and restaurant. On the way you’ll pass charming archipelago houses.
Walking from the ferry jetty up the hill, traditional wooden houses suddenly emerge. Most of them were built during the 19th century and are painted in the characteristic archipelago red and white colours. Old fishing nets, oars and other typical traditional archipelago paraphernalia adorn the walls of some of the houses. The scent of lilacs in the air is absolutely mesmerising for bees, butterflies and visitors alike.
No matter how wonderful this place appears to the modern-day visitor, the fact is that for many people throughout centuries, this was a place with no way out. From the 17th century up until 1962, when the hospital was closed for good, an estimated 800-900 people were brought here. A vast majority of these people were never allowed to leave.
History part 1 – early settlement
Photo: The first fields and meadows were cleared on Seili during the Middle Ages. Today they are part of the unique landscape found on the island.
Seili has been permanently inhabited since the Middle Ages. However, archaeological evidence suggests that there has been human activity on the island for a much longer period of time. Ancient remains, like a burial cairn and sacrificial site, suggest that the first people must have arrived over a thousand years ago.
Several species of fauna that are considered archaeophytes have been found. An archaeophyte is a species that is non-native to a certain region and has been introduced by humans during ancient times. Tower mustard, sand leek and hare’s foot clover are examples of archaeophytes found on Seili.
History part 2 – the final destination for leper patients
Photo: The inside of the wooden church on Seili is truly remarkable in all its simplicity. Made of pinewood grown on the archipelago islands, the untreated wooden interior has beautifully stood the test of time.
In 1619, while Finland was still a part of Sweden, the Swedish king Gustaf II Adolf issued an order to build a leper hospital on the remote island of Seili located in the archipelago of Southwest Finland.
At this time leprosy was a dreaded disease that was considered a certain death sentence. Because of the risk of infecting others, patients were isolated from the rest of the community. Often patients had to be transported by force to the island. There they were left to spend their last days under harsh circumstances.
Seili seemed the ideal place for such a purpose. It was remote and isolated by water, making it almost impossible to escape. The sandy ridge on the island made the gravediggers’ job easier.
Photo: The wooden church on Seili was built 1733-1734. Apart from some minor restaurations, it has remained relatively untouched, which makes it even more interesting for modern-day visitors who are transported back in time when stepping into it.
Four years later the first patients arrived. Legend has it that the patients had to bring with them the wooden planks for their own coffins. Nearly 700 patients were brought to Seili during the 17th and the 18th century. Most of them died on the island.
Until this day it remains a mystery where these people were buried. They weren’t buried in the church graveyard, since leprosy was considered God’s punishment for some sin they had committed.
For a long time it was believed they were buried on in the meadow near the church. However, archaeologists haven’t been able to find any evidence to prove this theory. Some have suggested that perhaps they were burned, even though this was uncommon during this era.
History part 3 – mental asylum for women
Photo: The main building on Seili, the hospital building, was built during the 19th century. The oldest parts are from 1850. The adjacent so-called gate building is even older, finished in 1803.
The last leper patient died in 1785. Even though leprosy disappeared from Finland, the next phase in the island’s history is no chirpier. The leper hospital was converted into a mental asylum. It became the first state-owned mental hospital in Finland. At first both men and women, were treated on the island, later solely women were sent here.
For most of them Seili became their last home, a place they were sent to with little or no hope of coming back from. The women sent here were considered beyond repair, incurably mentally ill.
Today many of them wouldn’t be diagnosed with any mentally illness whatsoever, let alone such a hopeless diagnosis that it demanded they be locked away for life. During this time however, psychiatry and diagnosis of especially women’s mental illness was still in its infancy.
Women, who were disobedient, acted “unmorally” or had a feisty temper were considered mentally ill, as were some women who committed adultery. Many women were sent here just because they were considered difficult or for some other reason were unwanted in the outside world. Some were also very poor.
On the other hand, Seili also had patients who had committed horrific crimes, like for instance murdered their own children. All these different women lived together in the same building.
Photo: Contrary to what was the custom at other mental asylums in Finland at this time, on Seili, all patients had their own cell. The state-mandated interior design with the geometric shapes were thought to be soothing.
As the women were considered incurable, the aim of the hospital wasn’t to rehabilitate. The women who could would work with different chores on the island. The most dangerous and aggressive patients were isolated in their rooms.
A handful of patients that were considered reliable were allowed to walk about freely. Most, however, lived in prison-like conditions on the island for the rest of their days.
For more on diagnostics of female patients on Seili check out researcher Jutta Ahlbeck’s doctoral thesis on the subject here (the doctoral thesis is in Swedish, but there’s a summary in English available).
Photo: The graves of mental patients were marked with white crosses.
Seili today – a research centre and summer paradise
Photo: M/S Östern leaving after having dropped off passengers at Seili. The nesting seagull remains unfazed and doesn’t seem to mind the ferry docking and leaving three times a day.
After the mental asylum was closed in 1962 a new chapter begun in Seili’s history. Today, a lot of important scientific work regarding the archipelago environment is carried out on the island.
Some parts of the old buildings have been converted into museums relating to the hospital. Others are now used by the Archipelago Research Institute, that is part of the Centre for Environmental Research of the University of Turku.
A lot of the work carried out on the island is related to climate change and how it affects the archipelago.
Photo: On the left is the old sauna building that today is used as a laboratory by the researchers. Before the mental asylum closed the sauna would be heated every Friday for patients and on Saturdays for the staff and their families.
In addition to this, many enjoy Seili as their summer paradise. There are around ten privately owned properties on the island, mainly used during the summer months as summer cottages.
Remember to bear this in mind during your visit and to respect both the unique and beautiful nature as well as the people who have their homes here. Don’t litter, wander into people’s gardens or damage the sensitive flora and fauna.
Seili is part of the Natura 2000 network. The island is a protected area, which means that gathering any plants or flowers is forbidden.
Photo: Furry summer workers of Seili. Sheep and cows arrive at the beginning of each summer to take care of the unique landscape on Seili.
The landscapes on Seili is unique and a protected cultural heritage. Human activity has influenced the nature here since the Middle Ages, forming fields and flowery meadows in the rugged archipelago milieu.
There are three types of environment on the island of Seili. The northern part is dominated by pine forest, in the middle you’ll find open heritage landscapes and in the southern part of the island there’s lush, rich grass-herb vegetation. The heritage landscape in the middle with cliff meadows and the hazel bush groves in the south are some of the most rare ecosystems in Finland.
To date, there are 29 endangered species recorded, including several species of rare butterflies. In particular during spring, Seili is a paradise for ornithologists. In case you can’t visit, but would like to check out the birdlife, check out the live osprey web camera here. A little chic hatched the first of June!
The name in Swedish, Själö, stems from the world “säl”, meaning seal. Nowadays sightings in this region aren’t that common. The seals are shy and the waters around Seili have a lot of boat traffic. But who knows, if you look closely, you might be able to spot one sticking its little round, grey head up before ducking down under the waves.
How to get to Seili
Photo: On this map in Nauvo (Nagu) the two Archipelago Trails can be seen, the larger one and the smaller one.
Seili is an island located in Southwest Finland, in the Archipelago Sea. It’s part of the smaller Archipelago trail, the Little Archipelago Trail, that goes from Turku to Parainen and Nauvo, through Seili to Rymättylä and Naantali.
Seili is an island without connecting bridges, so the only way to get here is by boat or ferry. If you’re travelling by boat you can visit Seili independently. There’s a guest harbour with ten berths and sauna available. Coordinates are 60, 2385° N and 21,9606°E.
Photo: The ferry M/S Östern in Nauvo (Nagu) before leaving towards Seili.
Most passengers arrive by ferry. There are a few different alternatives depending on where you’re travelling to Seili from.
From Nauvo M/S Östern transports passengers three times a day during high season. The price for an adult passenger is 7 euros per direction. The journey from Nauvo to Seili takes 30 minutes. More info on M/S Östern here.
From Turku, M/S Norrskär and M/S Fanny transport passengers to Seili.
More info on how to get to Seili here.
Photo: M/S Österns drops of passengers at Seili and then continues to Hanka. Island hoppers can continue to Turku from Hanka.
Eat, sleep and bathroom breaks
Photo: The building called Fyyri is two-storey building designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel and built in 1827. The name Fyyri stems from the Swedish word for lighthouse, “fyr”. Supposedly a light would shine towards the sea from this building.
Where can I eat?
- In 2017 a restaurant, Restaurant Seili, opened on the island.
- The restaurant is located in the hospital building.
- The restaurant offers both lunch and a la carte dining in the evening.
- For lunch one can chose between a lunch of salad and soup or the lunch buffet.
- If you’re not in the mood for a full lunch, the selection is pretty limited (based on our visit in June), mainly just ice cream and the occasional pastry.
- In theory it is possible to pay with credit card. However, the connection is not always great, which might complicate payments made by card. Bringing a little cash just in case is never a bad idea.
- There’s also a summer café close to the church selling coffee, pastries, ice cream and Seili souvenirs.
Are there toilets?
- There’s plumbing in the main buildings that are open to the public.
- Visitors can use toilets free of charge for example in the hospital building.
Is it possible to stay the night?
- There are several different alternatives for accommodation in the charming, traditional 19th century buildings.
- Although you can opt for a room of your own, must alternatives have a shared bathroom.
- In total there’s accommodation for 70 people.
- More on accommodation here.
How to explore – audio, guide or independent tour
Photo: View from the former hospital building. The old windows are absolutely stunning.
You can choose to walk around the island independently, take the audio tour or go on a guided tour. The guided tour and the audio tour complement each other quite well. Thus, a combination of the two is great for those hungry to learn all there is to know about this fascinating place.
In a nutshell:
- Walking around independently is a good alternative for those who want to save a few bucks and have read up diligently on the history beforehand.
- You can enter the old mental hospital free of charge.
- There are eight information boards with interesting facts provided along the way.
Photo: The voice on the audio tape will lead you around the island, telling you when to stop and in what direction to look.
The audio tour really managed to bring facts and statistics to life. As the focus is more on people and their stories, this tour is suitable even for the less history-minded visitors. The audio tour is also shorter than the guided tour and more suitable for visitors in a hurry. You can stop the audio tour whenever you like by hitting pause. This might for example be practical for some travellers, for instance those with infants or small children.
In a nutshell:
- The audio tour costs 5 euros and lasts for around 45 minutes.
- It can be purchased in the restaurant located in the hospital building.
- Note that the entrance to the church is not included. The entrance fee to the church is 3,50 euros.
- The tour concentrates on relating previously unheard tales from Seili.
- All memories and stories told are true stories gathered through interviews with people who lived on Seili.
- The music that can be heard on the tape is recorded in the old wooden Seili church.
- Make sure to check that the audiotape has been reset so it starts from the beginning. When we visited neither one of our audiotapes started from the beginning and before we realized this it was a bit confusing.
- Also make sure your check that the battery has been charged. My audio tour suddenly stopped since the battery died. The audio tour moves around the island, so it was a bit annoying having to return all the way back to the restaurant for another tape and then head back to where we were on the tour.
- The audio tour is available only in Swedish and Finnish.
Photo: If you want to opt for the guided tour, make sure you choose a ferry that fits into these plans.
In a nutshell:
- The guided tour costs 9 euros and lasts for a little under 90 minutes.
- You need to sign up for the tour in the restaurant located in the hospital building.
- The guided tour is a more traditional tour than the audio tour, with a guide leading a tour group around the most interesting sites.
- This is a good alternative for those who don’t know a lot about Seili’s history and want to learn the basic facts as well as have the chance to ask questions.
- You’ll also learn about the research being done on the island today.
- With the guided tour the entry to the church is included.
- More about the guided tour (in Finnish) and when it starts here.
- Information about guided tours in English here.
Combo of audio and guide
For those looking for a deep understanding about the island, its history and the people who have lived here a combination of both the audio and the guided tour might be a good idea. If you have the time and budget for a combo, you’ll get the best of both worlds.
For most parts, the content of the audio tour differs from the guided tour. However, some facts you’ll hear twice.
The dreaded ticks
Photo: Grassy meadows are favoured by ticks waiting to pounce on their next victims.
Seili is no exception. As is the case all over the archipelago region, as well as most of Southern Finland these days, ticks lurk in the dense vegetation. Although small and seemingly harmless, ticks can potentially be very dangerous. In Finland there are two tick-borne diseases to look out for. One is lyme disease (borreliosis) and the other is tick-borne encephalitis (TBE).
There’s no reason to panic or avoid the archipelago, but it’s important to be aware of these little parasites. Before going to bed, make sure you check for ticks. The longer an attached tick goes unnoticed, the more dangerous it potentially gets. Remember that the tiniest ticks can be so small you barely see them.
To minimize the odds of running into ticks you can avoid straying from the paths. Ticks enjoy high, grassy vegetation and meadows. If however you do feel the need to venture away from the paths, here are a few tips. Wearing long sleeves and trousers and tucking your trousers into your socks makes you less attractive for any ticks waiting on their prey.
When to visit
Photo: Bees in ecstasy on the island of Seili as tens of lilac bushes bloom during early summer each year.
Around ten thousand tourists visit Seili every summer. A visit to Seili should without question be done during spring, summer or early autumn since most facilities are closed during winter.
Although July is usually one of the best months to choose weather-wise, it might be smart to consider June or August. In July the number of visitors on Seili peak and both the ferry as well as the most popular sites on the island can get somewhat crowded.
If you’re a fan of lilacs, make sure you visit during early summer. Depending on weather, tens of over century-old lilacs usually bloom during the last week of May or first weeks of June. This amazing flowery fragrant fest is a must for all lilac fans.