Åland (Finnish: Ahvenanmaa) is an autonomous area in the Baltic Sea, consisting of one main island and a surrounding archipelago. While legally a part of Finland, in practice the islands run their own affairs and are rather different from the mainland.
The Åland Islands (pronounced "Oh-lahnd") are a group of small islands officially belonging to Finland but awarded a wide degree of autonomy by a League of Nations decision in 1921 that settled a long-running dispute between Sweden and Finland. Still at the time when Åland was under Russian sovereignty, a treaty was concluded between Russia, France and the United Kingdom at the issue of the Crimean War, by virtue of which the islands were demilitarized. Finland assumed the same obligation upon achieving independence. Among other things, Ålanders have their own parliament, publish their own stamps, are exempt from military service and maintain a special tax status in the European Union.
The archipelago consists of around 80 inhabited islands plus around 6000 uninhabited islands, islets and rocks. The total population is only 26,530 (2004), 90% of which lives on the main island Åland (also known as Fasta (Mainland) Åland), which includes the capital Mariehamn.
Åland is divided into 15 municipalities and one city Mariehamn.
There are plenty of ferry connections between Åland and mainland Sweden and Finland. Primarily for tax reasons, ferries plying between Helsinki and Stockholm all stop off at Mariehamn or the nearby (30km east, approximately) jetty of Långnäs, making this the easiest and cheapest way to get in (although docking often happens at inconvenient times in the middle of the night - the Långnäs stops). Mariehamn also has a small airport that serves flights to mainland Finland and Sweden.
It takes two hours from Grisslehamn to Eckerö. From there the line 1 bus connects to Mariehamn.
It takes two hours from Kapellskär to Mariehamn. This is by far the fastest route between Stockholm and Mariehamn, unless flying.
Ålandstrafiken ferries are free to pedestrians and to motorists between the smaller islands. For pedestrians bus lines 4 and 5 from Mariehamn go respectively to Hummelvik and Långnäs, each of which is a terminal for a route to the Finnish mainland.
A combination of ferry between the islands and a bicycle on the islands themselves is the most popular option.
The trip to Åland through the archipelago is something you will never forget. Choose a route through either the southern or northern archipelago. Bookings can be made for trips to and from an intermediate port. Trips from one destination port to another can only be made if you spend a night on the some of the small islands. The archipelago ferries is served by Ålandstrafiken .
The islands are monolingually Swedish, a point of some contention in otherwise bilingual (or, in practice, frequently Finnish monolingual) Finland: Närpes, Korsnäs and Larsmo are the only mainland municipalities to be monolingually Swedish.
Although Finnish is optionally taught in schools, most Ålanders choose not to study it, and while many signs are written in Finnish in addition to Swedish and often English, you should not attempt to get along in it. For your information, communication between Finns unable to speak Swedish and Ålanders is done in English, which is very widely spoken, even by many elderly, so stick to it if you can't speak Swedish or something closely related to it.
The official currency is the euro (€). Swedish Krona (SEK) is usually accepted in most shops and restaurants during the peak season.
Please note: Shopping in Åland is very expensive. Due to import of most goods, with sometimes unsurmountable difficulties in filling the stores with enough supplies, prices in most stores are in the EU highs, mostly 10-50 percent higher than in the Stockholm or Helsinki metropolitan areas. Prices on some groceries can be even higher, with oatmeal and gruel selling at more than double the price in, say, Stockholm or Helsinki.
Recipe: Ålands pancake
Åland has its own parliament, its own executive government and is generally autonomous from Finland. The cultural heritage though is mostly Swedish.
Speaking Swedish and being a part of Finland, the people of Åland regard themselves as a separate and independent nation, and appreciate if you refer to them as one.