A Day in Old Town Tallinn

Finland was the primary focus of our trip, but Helsinki is so close to Tallinn that we couldn’t resist popping over to Estonia for a day. There’s a ferry that runs direct from city to city and takes just over 2 hours. We did the evening run and arrived in Tallinn around 11pm and took a taxi to our hotel. We had a small crisis before leaving Helsinki. I thought we were staying in a hotel and was checking my email for the address before leaving and found an email detailing instructions on how to get into the apartment (I had assumed there was reception). The instructions said that the code to get in would be texted to us the day before, which is a major flaw because obviously our phones didn’t work in Europe. I frantically emailed them for the code, but fortunately Katie was able to call them on her phone and get it for us. We’re just relieved we made this discovery in Katie’s apartment and not at the entrance to the hotel, which is not manned and we would have be locked out of without wifi at night!


So crisis averted and fortunately, the apartment was lovely! All our hotel bookings in Finland were very expensive, but Tallinn was cheap and the location was unbelievable! Tallinn is centered around the Old Town, but there’s not much actually in Old Town for accommodations. Our hotel was right on the edge of Old Town and was a large 1 bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and living room. This was amazing the following day because it was really cold and we loved having the apartment to pop back to every couple of hours to warm up.

We had a nice breakfast at a nearby café and did a bit of exploring around Old Town. We started at the Town Square, which we were right next too, and just meandered around the city. The streets are mostly pedestrian only and very confusing, but Old Town is small enough that you can’t ever really get lost. It’s a really beautiful place though – Old Town is split into two parts, the upper and lower city – and it’s completely encircled with old stone walls, so it really lives up to its name of being “Old”.


We decided it was a good place to learn some real history and we found a free walking tour at 11am. It needs 10 people to run and I was convinced it wouldn’t get enough because it was really not busy, but we ended up with 14! There were a few people traveling around like us, but a bunch of the guests were on a cruise. It seemed like an odd time of year for a cruise (especially considering they were Australian and it’s summer in Australia), but hey, who am I to judge!

The tour was excellent! Our tour guide had grown up in Estonia and was the same age as me. She shared lots of personal anecdotes from her family history that really made the tour come alive. Estonia has a long and storied history, like most of Europe, but here it’s mostly about occupation. Her history lesson dated back to the 1200’s, when Estonia first fell to Danish occupation. Denmark occupied the country for a long time and constructed a lot of early Old Town. Old Town is interesting because the Upper part of the town has a great view, which is actually very unique because Estonia is super flat and the highest point in the country is only 318 metres high.


The story changes in the 1500’s when Estonia submitted to Swedish occupation. From there, the history sounded very similar to what we learned of Finland when we visited Suomenlinna. The Swedes ruled the country until early 1700’s, when they were succeeded by the Russians, same as in Finland. There was a brief period of independence in 1918 following the Russian Revolution that lasted for 22 years, until the Soviet Union invaded again in 1939. This reign lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall and Estonia re-gained their independence in 1991.

Despite the long Russian rule, there’s limited Russian influence around Old Town. During first independence, the Estonians tried to remove as much of the visible Russian monuments around town, save for the beautiful St. Aleksander Cathedral, which apparently they didn’t have the money to tear down. But our guide felt that throughout time, it’s generally become a beloved part of the Old Town.


Russian influence is still very evident in Estonia today though, with some 40% of the population speaking Russian. It was 1 day to a year from when Russia first invaded Ukraine when we were there, which was a somber reminder of how recent Estonia’s history really is. Our guide explained that though there is a large population of Russian-speaking Estonians, Estonian is the only national language and there is still a lot of animosity between the Russian and Estonian speaking Estonians. Her grandmother actually spent several years in a Siberian labour camp and she indicted that her father’s generation are still very opposed to the Russian speaking Estonians and don’t mix with them, even though most Estonian-speaking Estonians of that generation are also fluent in Russian. In contrast, she felt her generation wasn’t so caught up in segregation, but still didn’t mix with one another because these days, neither can speak the other’s language, so it’s too hard to communicate.


We spent most of the tour in the Upper city, which has less tourist amenities and more history. We visited two lookouts, which provide a great view down on to the Lower part of the city and the more modern parts of Tallinn. We didn’t explore much of Tallinn beyond Old Town because we only had 1 day, but we did walk outside of Old Town to the “hipster district” (so named by our guide, we don’t know how legitimate this label is).

But before leaving Old Town, we treated ourselves to my favourite meal of the entire trip! Our guide recommended a small restaurant called Rataskaevu 16 and it was so delicious! We started with mulled wine and homemade rye bread for an appy and then I had an elk steak and Seth had a wild mushroom risotto. Then we finished off with an Estonian cheese platter for dessert. I’m not a big foodie, but it was heavenly! Although I was sad to learn after the fact that what the Scandinavians call “elk” is what we call “moose”, which was a little less exciting have grown up in Newfoundland. Seth also informed me that caribou and reindeer are also basically the same, the name just depends on what part of the world you’re in.


The “Hipster District” isn’t too far from Old Town, so we walked over to the Balti Jaama Turg, which is a giant indoor market with tons of food options and clothing stalls. We found some snacks and spent an hour browsing through the stalls. One thing I noticed in Helsinki, and subsequently in Tallinn, is that there is a lot of quality thrift options. I was sorely tempted by a floor length puffy jacket while thrifting, but figured it would have limited use in wet Vancouver, so I let it lie.

If you continue a little further, you get into more of an industrial area filled with lots of beautiful murals. There’s a collective of artists working in most of the spaces and we did some exploring before taking a break for a beer at one of the breweries. The dark caught up with us after that and we decided to return to Old Town for dinner – it was a nice meal, but compared to our amazing lunch it was a bit forgettable.


A Dip in the Baltic Sea

It wasn’t that cold while we were visiting Helsinki, around -6 degrees, but apparently we’re wimps after living in Vancouver and it was quite cold being outside all day. So on our second full day we decided to shake things up a bit and start with a visit to the Winter Garden, which is actually housed in a greenhouse. I was fully expecting to pay entrance for the garden since it’s indoors, but we were thrilled to discover that it’s actually a city space that’s free to visit! You don’t need a lot of time to see the whole thing, but it was a nice green activity on a cold day.


Plus it’s near the Helsinki Aquarium, so we decided to visit that afterwards. Katie didn’t even know Helsinki had an aquarium, but it came up in my google search, and being married to a biologist, we have a bit of a tendency to visit aquariums whenever possible. We’ve also been to the SeaLife aquariums in Portugal and New Zealand on previous vacations (and of course, Vancouver Aquarium, our personal favourite). The Helsinki SeaLife was a lot bigger than I was expecting; it wasn’t unique to the sealife in the region, but still made for a fun visit. Great if you have kids!

We still had a bit of time to kill before Katie finished classes, so we decided to go skating! There are several free ice skating rinks around the city and we hit up the one at the Tapiola metro station. We had to pay to rent skates, but if you bring your own, you can use the rink for free. There’s a large area that’s great for beginners, and then a big loop skate going around the lot. I don’t really go skating a lot, but I’ve come to really love it over the past few years! We warmed up with hot chocolate before meeting up with Katie to go to Kiasma, an art museum in downtown Helsinki.


The Kiasma had a special exhibit on Markus Copper that Katie wanted to see. He’s a Finnish artist that seemed to specialize in art that makes people feel uncomfortable. He definitely succeeded, a little too much in that his art made me feel too uncomfortable and I had to tap out. It was a bit of a marriage of mechanics, engineering, and sound, but with a bit too much focus on torture and destruction for my liking, although the engineering of his work was definitely impressive. Katie loved it and did the whole exhibit, but Seth and I popped out a did another exhibit they had on Lapland instead. The exhibit usually lives up north in Rovaniemi and features work by all kinds of Lappish artists. It was still a bit weird (I admit, I’m not that cultured), but I preferred it.


On our last day in Helsinki, we finally got some sun and had the full Finnish experience by going to the sauna. Sauna is huge here and Katie recommended Loyly, which is located right on the water. We went early to get a proper seafood lunch (we had Pike Perch and it was delicious) and then spent an hour at the sauna. It’s a public sauna, so they have it set up with a shared area and 2 large saunas. It was a bit of a trial by fire entry to sauna starting with the public sauna though. The Finns prefer their sauna REALLY hot and it was a bit of an adjustment for me. At first I’d be okay with it, but every time someone would pour water on the rocks I’d feel like I was choking and have to leave for a minute. Not to be deterred though, we did it several more times after that and it grew on me a lot! The public sauna was actually a wood sauna, so I didn’t like the smoke, whereas all the other saunas we did were electric.


But my favourite part of Loyly is that it’s right next to the sea and they have it set up so that you can go outside and do a proper dunk in the cold salt water! So of course we had to do it. It was -12 degrees on the day we visited and the water was -0.6 degrees and just starting to become slushy and frozen. It’s actually not that bad when you’re doing it right after sauna (because you have lots of body heat) and you can immediately go back to the sauna after, so I ended up jumping in the Baltic Sea 3 times! But it’s definitely a totally different experience for the people that walk to the Sea, swim, and then have to get out and get dressed while still being cold. I’m not ready for that yet, but the cold water therapy while doing sauna was actually really lovely.


We spent a bit more time exploring the city after that and went to the Kamppi area of town to see the library. As a book nerd, I love libraries and this might possibly be the coolest library I’ve ever been to! Lots of libraries have really neat architecture (I’m a big fan of the Vancouver library for example, and even the MUN library), but not only did this library have cool architecture, it was just a really cool contemporary space. The bottom floor had reception and a café/restaurant, and some larger event spaces with big windows and high ceilings. The middle floor was the least interesting to look at, but had the coolest amenities. The center of the floor was just a big tiered hangout space where people could meet or study and they had all kinds of break-out rooms focused on creativity.


There were sewing stations where you could rent a sewing machine for the day; there were instruments to rent and recording spaces you could use; there were VR and video gaming rooms; there was a huge 3D printer you could make use of; and tons of bookable rooms for collaborating. In short, it’s everything I think a modern library should be. It was really all about meeting the needs of the community and providing access to things the average person might not have otherwise. And it is clearly appreciated because the space was packed with people! Then finally, the top floor housed the books, another small café, and lots more hangout and study/reading space. It was just one giant room, with floor to ceiling windows and a profile that matched the external architecture. It didn’t have as many books as I expected if I’m being honest, but again, I think it was focused on being modern and mostly housed contemporary texts instead of academic ones. Personally I appreciated this – there’s always going to be universities for that purpose and I liked that this library kept in line with its theme of primarily being a community space.

Snowy Adventures in Helsinki

Even though this blog is mostly focused on hiking and adventures, I initially started it 13 years ago as a travel blog! After a long pandemic, it’s exciting to finally have some travel adventures to write about. My last major trip was to New Zealand for my honeymoon just before the pandemic, so I’ve been excited to start traveling again. My cousin Katie is studying new media art in Helsinki, so I decided to book a trip to visit her in early 2022. I ended up cancelling that trip because of the Omicron outbreak, but I decided to make another attempt at it this year, and fortunately, this time it was successful!


Seth and I planned the trip for two weeks at the end of February, starting in Helsinki. The last time I was in Europe was 10 years ago when I lived in the UK for a year in 2012, and I forgot how fun it is to travel there. The last time I visited I was flying from the East Coast of Canada, so I had a lot further to go from Vancouver. We flew through Chicago and Stockholm, and it was a pretty rough flight over. Our flight was late leaving Vancouver and we had less than an hour to transfer when we arrived in Chicago. In most circumstances this would be plenty of time, but we were dismayed to learn that our flight to Stockholm was in another terminal and required us to transfer by bus and go through security again in order to make our flight. Security was extremely busy and after much running through the airport, we made it just in time for the final boarding call.


Fortunately, things went a lot smoother in Stockholm and we immediately indulged ourselves on the plentiful selection of pastries that seem to be available all over Europe. I tried as many as I could while we there and I’ve come to the conclusion that almond croissants are my favourite. Seth is more partial to the cinnamon buns. We flew through the night to get to Stockholm, but we didn’t sleep because of the time difference. It was a beautiful day in Stockholm when we arrived, with green grass, blue skies, and sun… not that we left the airport to enjoy it.


We had one final flight across the Baltic to Helsinki. It’s only about a 40 minute flight and as we approached Finland, the sun disappeared into the clouds and thick layer of mist lay over Finland. We only got our first glimpse just before landing in a snow covered wonderland. When I checked in with Katie before the trip, she told me it had been very warm and that Helsinki had no snow, but apparently we brought it with us because it snowed for 3 days straight after we landed. Everyone assured us Helsinki is much more beautiful in the snow and we enjoyed watching the snow settle on the trees and a think layer of sea-ice freeze over the Baltic.

Katie lives slightly outside Helsinki in a community called Espoo, where she’s going to school at Aalto University. Helsinki is well connected by bus and train though, so we didn’t have any problem getting around (except at the end of the trip when the buses went on strike!). We arrived at her place around 1pm, which is 3am Vancouver time, but we forced ourselves to stay awake to try and adjust to the jetlag as quickly as possible. It made for a long tiring day, but we didn’t regret it the next day.


We figured the easiest way to fight the exhaustion was to keep moving, so Katie took us out to explore Helsinki. We went for a little walk around her neighbourhood and were immediately introduced to how the Finns feel about cold therapy. Katie lives by the water and pointed out a dock that the locals frequently swim from year round. We were only there for about 10 minutes and saw a half dozen people coming in and out of the water. I like a good cold dunk, but it takes a special kind of person to get undressed in the freezing cold, get in the water, and then have to get dry and re-dressed… also in the freezing cold.

We jumped on the metro to make our way to downtown Helsinki. It was all a bit of a blur, but we visited the rail station and some of the large cathedrals that dominate the Helsinki skyline. I admit, Helsinki is not the first place I think of when I picture Europe, but it still felt very European. It’s not as iconic as London or Paris, but there’s lots of old and interesting architecture and I really liked how the city is nestled along the Baltic. We opted for an early supper along the water at a pizza restaurant, which was delicious, but the point at which we both started crashing. So we ended up returning to Katie’s and we were both asleep before 8am. Seth’s head hit the pillow at 7:30pm and I swear he was asleep in less than 30 seconds!


We woke up early the next morning to a beautiful sunrise. Our first full day was much less tiring, but no less eventful. Katie had classes, so we entertained ourselves by finding some more pastries in which to indulge and continuing our exploration of the downtown. Suomenlinna came highly recommended, so we decided to visit. It’s a small island located 15 minutes out of downtown Helsinki by ferry. It’s home to a small community of less than 1000 people and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a lot of history associated with this island, so I’ll do my best to summarize (my first attempt on Instagram was corrected by the official Suomenlinna account, whoops!).


Finland was originally part of the Kingdom of Sweden, which is why a lot of people in Finland still speak Swedish and you see Finnish, Swedish, and English on most signs. Suomenlinna was a military fortress constructed by Sweden in the mid 1700’s, and originally went by the name of Sveaborg, to protect against invasion from Russia. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful and the fortress was ceded to the Russians in the early 1800’s. It was held by the Russian’s until 1917, when Finland declared independence and Russia willingly departed the fortress and the country. It was renamed Suomenlinna by Finland.


It’s very well preserved and fun to visit a fortress that’s actually seen a bit of action throughout the years. I believe it’s Helsinki’s most popular tourist attraction and was especially beautiful in the snow. Unfortunately there are no guided walking tours in the off season (only on Saturdays) so we visited the museum first and then proceeded to walk around the entire island, exploring the stone walls and cannons and making a visit to King’s Bridge. In the evening, Katie showed us around her university campus and all the cool creative projects that are underway in the art building, and we finished the night with some Nepalese food.