We spent 13 days exploring south western Finland and northern Estonia. Neither country is terribly high on most people’s “must see” lists, but we like to get off the beaten path. In fact a disturbingly large number of people didn’t even know where Estonia was, when I mentioned it. Its one of the former Soviet republics, just west of Russia, and directly south (across the Baltic Sea) from Finaland. Especially in Europe, you have to make an effort to get away from the unwashed masses, lest you find yourself waiting in line for 6 hours to see the Eiffel Tower. SAS very recently started flying non-stop from SFO to Copenhagen, and to promote the route, they had an absolutely amazing sale (try flying to Europe in non-winter for under $800/person). We connected through Copenhagen, to Helsinki, Finland. I will say that Copenhagen’s Katstrup airport is a fairly nice airport. Not too big, modern, and very European (hard wood flooring, and black & yellow signage). The flights were ok, nothing special. I had flown on SAS once before, back in 2012, when I did my mid-winter Norway trip. Would I fly them again? Only if they had the best fare for the route, otherwise, I wouldn’t give them my business, as there’s nothing remotely special about their economy class offering.
We landed in Helsinki in late afternoon, and immediately upon exiting the airport, the weather was not all that great. It was cloudy & windy, and a bit on the chilly side. Yes, this was northern Europe in mid-May. We took the FinnAir airport bus into the center of the city. It was convenient, cost significantly less than a taxi, and just slightly more than a public bus (which would have taken about twice as long). By the time we were dropped off beside the central train station, the sun had broken through, and we had a 20 minute walk to the hotel for the night. At this point, we were rather exhausted, having been awake almost non-stop for the better part of the past 2 days (minus a few brief, uncomfortable naps on the flight). We ate dinner at a cafe/bar place just down the street from the hotel, and attempted to get some sleep. Except for the fact that it was a Saturday night, and apparently a lot of Finland seems to be heavy, loud, obnoxious drinkers (more on this later), and due to the high latitude, the sun literally doesn’t set until close to midnight. Thus we had a fairly fitful night, and thanks again to the high latitude, the sun was up by 4AM, and so were we (thanks jetlag!).
Since it was a Sunday morning (and obscenely early too), there was just about nothing open for breakfast. We had to catch a 7AM train, and the only place open was a sandwhich shop in the station. All things considered, it wasn’t horrible. However, the train station itself at that hour was creepy. There were way too many homeless & deranged people wandering around the station, and to make things more annoying, we couldn’t figure out how to get our train tickets. I purchased them months in advance online, so that I could supposedly print out the actual tickets from a machine upon arrival. However, every ticket machine recognized my reservation, yet silently refused to print out a ticket. Normally, this would be the sort of thing that could be straightened out in the ticket office, but it didn’t open until 7AM (the same time that our train was to depart). Turned out the train was maybe barely 25% full, and when we explained the situation to the conductor (once the train had already departed), he didn’t seem to care that we didn’t have real tickets, scribbled something illegible on our print out, and all was fine. The 2 hour trip to Turku (the old, previous capital) was quite pleasant (I’m sure the fact that we shared the entire train car with an elderly couple didn’t hurt either). While it was still quite overcast outside, the scenery was mostly a mixture of rolling farm land, and birch forests. We arrived in Turku on time, and immediately walked (dragging our bags) about 8 blocks west to our hotel for the night. Thankfully they allowed us to check in at just past 9AM, we dumped all our bags, and then headed out for the day to explore the town.
Our first stop was Turku Castle, which dated back to the late 13th century. To get there, we had a longish walk to the north end of town, of nearly 2 miles. The castle was absolutely awesome, and was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip. It was huge, but beyond that, the self guided tour was quite extensive, winding its way through (what seemed like) the entire complex, with very well labelled signs. It also helped that many of the rooms had period furniture, so the place felt lived in, and alive. There were also docents in period costume in many of the larger rooms, who were eager to talk about the castle. After the castle, we walked back into the center of town, and enjoyed the gorgeous weather.
The next morning we had the first of several really awesome european/scandanavian breakfasts. Herring & lox, plus awesome muesli and yogurt make me happy. Europe really knows how to do yogurt right. None of that sugary, watery crap that is so common in the US (especially before the Greek yogurt fad kicked in). After checking out, we hauled ourselves and our bags the 8 blocks back to the train station to catch the train north to the town of Tampere. We didn’t have any truly amazing plans there. In fact the primary reason we stopped at all was because Denise really wanted to try the blood sausage which is supposed to be a local speciality. We planned to walk a big loop through the town, assuming that we’d find food stands along the way. First stop was a Spy Museum, which David really wanted to check out. It was ridiculously expensive, small (two rooms), and half the exhibits weren’t even in English. Regardless, David seemed pleased, and after an hour there we continued our walk. The town itself was rather charming. It had a waterfront, with huge hulking brick warehouses (converted into shops) on one end, and an old fashioned town square on the other. We thought we had found the blood sausage when we stumbled upon a street fair, but there was no blood sausage (lots of pizza though). Despite all of this, we never were able to find the blood sausage. That afternoon, we caught the train onward to Hämeenlinna, our stop for the night. As we were pulling into town we got an amazing view of Häme Castle, just across the river. Despite the fact that the train station in Hämeenlinna was a long walk from the center of town (where our hotel was), it was a nice town, with a fairly compact center. The hotel we stayed in was my favorite of the entire trip, and it also happened to be the least expensive (which says a lot in Finland).
The following morning we got up, had a really delicious breakfast, and walked a short distance to the west end of town, to explore Häme Castle. The weather wasn’t terribly forgiving that day, with strong winds, and overcast skies. On a few occasions, it seemed as if it would rain, but thankfully it never did. The castle grounds themselves were quite impressive, with huge ramparts, a moat and birch forest around the perimeter. However, the self-guided tour inside the castle wasn’t nearly as engrossing as the tour we took of Turku Castle just 2 days earlier. One of the problems was that this castle had very few windows, and as a result was quite dark inside many of the rooms. But in addition, little effort was put into signs for the tour, which made it frustrating & confusing to find our way around (and what few signs did exist were not even in English). One thing that we found interesting in Finland (and to some degree also Estonia), was that Swedish (and Danish & Norwegian which are very very similar) is almost a second language. The train stations actually posted all signs in both Finnish & Swedish, as if they were equals. Then if there was a 3rd translated language it tended to vary between English, Russian, and occasionally German. Later that afternoon, we swung by the hotel again to pick up our bags, and then make the long hike back to the train station. One of the repeated frustrations about train travel in Europe (at least the parts that I’ve been through), is that they charge to use public restrooms. I’m sure they do it to prevent people from doing things in there that they should not be doing, but at the same time having to pay 1 euro just to use a toilet offends me. And its not even that the bathrooms are kept in pristine condition. They were in marginally better condition than your average public bathroom in the US. We waited about an hour for our train to Helsinki. Once on the train, I discovered that it had free wifi, which was a nice perk. We pulled into Helsinki by late afternoon, and then had a not short walk to our hotel for the next two nights. We were really looking forward to this hotel, as it was going to be the ‘fanciest’ of the trip, and was unique as it was in an old converted prison building. The walk there was fine, and the checkin process went smoothly, however everything after that point was disappointing. Our room was in the basement, with windows that were above eye level. Also, they used a fold out couch as the bed for David, and once opened, it literally filled up nearly all the remaining floor space. This made the room feel really small & claustrophobic. On top of that, due to the super thick (old prison) walls, there was just about no usable wifi signal in the room. Any time we wanted to use the wifi to do anything (check email, look up walking directions, research something we saw or planned to see), we had to sit in the hallway outside the room just to get wifi. We didn’t have advanced plans for dinner that night, and figuring that this was supposed to be a “nice” hotel, we figured we’d give the hotel restaurant a try. This was a huge mistake. Both the food, and service was horrible. Even though the restaurant itself was nearly empty, our server seemed to forget we existed *before* we were even served our food. On top of that, they served david his main course along side the appetizers, such that he was finished eating before we were served our main course. I foolishly ordered beef brisket, and it was served buried under cream sauce, plus it was tough as leather. It takes talent to screw up brisket. Then Denise ordered a latte with dessert, and they served it in a drinking glass. wtf? We retreated to our rooms after that miserable meal, and looked forward to the next few days in Helsinki.
We awake the next morning and went to what we thought would be the most amazing breakfast of the trip. While it wasn’t bad by any means, it was definitely not any better than the breakfasts we had at much less fancy restaurants. Our plans for the day were to go on a self-guided, 4 mile walking tour of the city in the morning. Thankfully the weather was perfect, with bright sunshine (although a touch colder than I would have preferred). We had a few ideas for the afternoon, but wanted to wait to see how tired we were from walking before deciding anything. The tour itself was quite nice, as it started at market square (right on the waterfront), and then roughly followed along the water as it wound its way south and then west. A large chunk of the first half of the tour went through what was basically the diplomatic quarter, as we walked past literally dozens of different embassies & consulates. The vast majority looked like very classy mansions & castles. The American embassy looked incredibly out of place, and had a huge fortified wall in front, with a fairly modern looking office building behind it. The second half of the tour was a bit less impressive than the first, as it mostly just wandered down nondescript city streets with office buildings & apartments. We finished up just around lunch time, where we ate at a really great food tent serving freshly caught & fried seafood. After lunch, we decided to do another self-guided walking tour, this time heading north from market square, and would end right at our hotel. This tour was nice, but I preferred the one from the morning. It had better views, more interesting buildings, and seemed to be in a much more vibrant part of the city. While doing this tour, David started to complain that he didn’t feel well, and his throat hurt. Sure enough, by the time we finished walking and had returned to the hotel, he had the beginnings of a full blown cold, and was whining non-stop about how much his throat hurt. That evening we went to (what claims to be) the oldest Russian restaurant in Finland. It might very well have been the best dinner of the entire trip, had David not been miserable, and made everyone else around him miserable. Despite that, the food was amazing.
We awoke the next morning to find miserable weather. Pouring rain, wind & it was cold. This turned out to be the worst day of weather on the entire trip. As we needed to checkout of the hotel that day, and then walk a non-trivial distance to the ferry terminal (to go to Estonia), we mostly killed time in the hotel for a chunk of the morning. We checked out just before lunch time, and then walked (in the rain) to a surprisingly awesome Nepalese restaurant, just a few blocks away. Yea, its a very strange choice of food, but it turned out to be a hidden gem. The food was somewhat similar to northern Indian food. After that, we walked further (in the rain) in the general direction of the ferry terminal. We spent some time at the University of Helsinki’s gem & mineral museum (free admission!). It was surprisingly nice for a free, hole in the wall type museum. Finally, we trudged the final distance (still in the rain) to the ferry terminal. Before heading off to Estonia, I’ll comment a bit more about alcohol in Finland. Perhaps we saw a non-representitive percentage of Finns, but this country seems to love booze & ice-cream. Everywhere we went, we routinely saw two things in great numbers. Bars, full of people early in the mornings, and ice cream stands. The bars were just kinda odd. But for a country that has long, very cold winters, they seem to still enjoy eating ice cream. We saw tiny ice cream stands in every town we travelled through, on multiple street corners, and all over parks. Keep in mind that it barely hit 80F most days that we were in Finland (and on a few days didn’t even get up to 70F), yet the ice cream stands were open & doing a brisk business. It was just odd.
While the ferry to Estonia was scheduled to depart at 2PM, I had read some horror stories about how the particular company that runs this ferry (there are 4 different companies going between Helsinki Finland & Tallinn Estonia) tended to cancel the ferry whenever the weather was bad. I was dreading the worst, but when we walked into the terminal, the ferry was still listed as being on time. We waited patiently, and shortly before two there was an announcement to line up to board. We didn’t see the ferry outside, but figured it was either out of view, or was going to pull up shortly. However, after standing around for nearly 30 minutes, nothing. Finally, almost 20 minutes past 2PM, the ferry pulled in, and we boarded. The ferry itself was quite a bit smaller than I expected (two levels, and could hold maybe 200 people tops). But the small size meant that it could travel faster, and we pulled out about 30 minutes late. The inside had reasonably comfortable seating, and they claimed to have free wifi, but I couldn’t connect to anything. The ride itself was mostly boring, as the rain & fog was so thick, that there was no visibility outside. However, as we moved southward, the sky cleared a bit, and we actually saw the Estonia coastline about 20 minutes before landing. The dock we pulled into in Tallinn looked like a huge, hulking Soviet era monstrosity. It was comprised of massive stone ‘bricks’, with tons of graffiti. Once we walked further away from the waterfront, and closer to the center of the city, it definitely looked much less depressed. The walk to the hotel wasn’t too bad, and the checkin process was fairly straightforward. While the hotel itself was ok (nothing specifically good or bad), the view from our 7th floor room window was amazing. The entire western side of Tallinn’s old town was directly in front of us. We had one of the best preserved medieval cities before us. That picture at the top of the page? That was taken from our hotel room window! That evening, we wandered into old town for the first time to look for somewhere good for dinner. Old town was amazing, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets, with old buildings everywhere. The town square had a huge old clock tower. It was everything you’d imagine when thinking of ‘old Europe’.
The next day we awoke with plans to spend the entire day (mostly) aimlessly exploring old town. The weather, however wasn’t all that great, as it was cold, foggy and damp. This turned out to be an odd trend while we were in Tallinn. Every day, the fog rolled in, and hung around for much of the day. Sometimes it would clear a bit around dinner time, but other than that, it felt like San Francisco weather. Despite the less than ideal weather, we still had a great day. Tallinn put a lot of effort into preservation, including small signs on buildings with notable historical significance. The only formal attraction that we saw that day was the Kiek in de Kök (which sadly charged extra for a “photography ticket”, so I took none). It was still a rather interesting, hulking piece of history, with steep spiral staircases in the tower, and a lengthy tour of the tunnels below. For dinner that night, we went to (what was voted) the best restaurant in Estonia, Neh. In short, it was amazing. The service was very professional, but the food was the highlight. Everything was delicious, and pretty. What was even more of a plus, was how (relatively) inexpensive food is in Estonia, especially when compared to Finland. In Finland, just about every meal cost 1.5-3x what we’d pay for equivalent food+service in the US (even when including a tip, something that is not done in many European countries). However, in Estonia, the cost was almost the inverse ratio, with most meals costing a third to three quarters as much. At Neh, the three of us at a multi-course meal (starter, main, drinks & dessert) for just under 100 euros. Which reminds me, its just about impossible to get free tap water in a restaurant in Estonia. If you ask for water, they’ll serve bottled, and if you ask for “tap water”, they’ll look at you like you’re mad.
On our second full day in Estonia, we went on a guided, driven tour out to western Estonia, with Andrew, the “head honcho” from Est Adventures. Overall, the tour was quite nice. While the ‘Western Wonders’ tour that we signed up for wasn’t supposed to be private, due to the fact that it was still May (thus, early in the tourist season), we were the only group on the tour. The hub for the sites was Haapsalu, an old town on the west coast of Estonia. However, first, we stopped at a 700+ year old monastery ruins, which were in surprisingly good condition. We got to explore (going all the way up the tower on a narrow, crumbling spiral staircase) all over he building & grounds, before heading on. The main attraction once we got to Haapsalu, was its namesake castle. The castle was fairly elaborate, with many rooms, a huge chapel (with a ghost story), tunnels & a bell tower to explore. The stone spiral staircase leading to the top of the bell tower was utterly crazy. Beyond being ridiculously steep & narrow, it didn’t even have a sane handrail. And of course, the bells started ringing, which were deafening. After the castle, we wandered through town a bit, along the waterfront, to a nice cafe, where we discovered the wonderful drink known as Kvass. It was like drinking a dark rye bread, and was delicious. After lunch, we started the drive back towards Tallinn, but made a few stops along the way. We explored an abandoned Soviet era airforce base, an abandoned mansion from the 19th century, a mansion from the 17th century (which is slowly being restored), and a mansion from the 19th century that is now a restaurant.
On the third (and final) full day in Estonia, we did a self-guided bike tour through Lahemaa National Park, which was about 90km east of Tallinn. We met up at City Bike, in Tallinn’s old town, to choose our bikes & gear for the day, then we loaded into their van, and drove out to the park. The drive out was pleasant, and by late morning we reached Palmse, the starting point for the 35km bike ride. For the first (and only) full day in Estonia, we had amazingly great weather. The route was really nice, mostly back country roads, with few cars, nice scenery. The first half or so was mostly past wide open fields full of dandelions, or farm pasture (it was also quite windy). However, as we moved north, and closer to the coast, the forest closed in, and it was primarily deep, verdant forest for the remainder of the ride. We stopped for lunch in the tiny, old fishing village of Altja, in this wonderful pub. It had long wooden tables & benches, candle light, and a nice menu. After lunch we continued biking onward, through more forest, and a few small towns, all the way to the end of the road in Käsmu on the Baltic coast. The bike shop picked us up on time, and we were dropped off back in Tallinn before 6PM. Since the weather was still great, and we were a bit early for our dinner reservation, we wandered down to the waterfront for a bit, to watch the ferries coming & going.
The next day, we had to get up super early (5AM) to catch our ferry back to Helsinki. The weather was crappy again (cold, windy & foggy), and the walk to the ferry terminal wasn’t much fun. The ferry itself was huge, with cars & trucks loading down below, as we had a long walk on an elevated walkway to the passenger deck. The trip was uneventful, and they even had (painfully slow) free wifi. The walk from the ferry terminal on the west side of Helsinki to the hotel was over 3km, and wasn’t much fun. After dropping off our bags, we walked to the Market Square docks, to take the ferry to Suomenlinna. Suomenlinna is a military fortification dating back to the 18th century, spread across a series of islands. Overall it was nice, although I was somehow expecting more. I think the issue is that it looks extremely impressive & formidable in photos that are taken from the air and/or a distance. However, once you’re wandering around, it just feels like a bunch of walls, bunkers & dark tunnels, and its difficult to get a sense of context. Also, there aren’t many signs explaining what anything is, other than in a very generic “you are here” sense. David probably had the most fun of all of us, as he loves the whole exploring tunnels & climbing around sort of thing. Throughout the day the weather wasn’t much fun, as it would start drizzling off & on. By mid afternoon, we’d wandered around the majority of the fort, and caught the next (they ran every 20 minutes!) ferry back to the city. After that, we headed back to the hotel to formally check in, and relax a bit. For our last dinner in Finland, we had reservations at Juuri. Overall, it was a really nice meal, although the service was super slow (I think we waited nearly 40 minutes for our main courses), and there were ants all over the place. When we alerted the server to the ants, her response was “oh, we always get those in the summer, but I’m surprised they’re here now”, and left us to smack them.
Our flights home the following day went smoothly, although we got into SFO over an hour late due to “heavy air congestion”. First we circled in the sky for nearly 40 minutes, then we sat on the ground, waiting for a gate, for another 25 minutes.
Overall, it was a really nice trip, and I enjoyed most it quite a lot. I think we all preferred Estonia to Finland, mostly because it felt much less “europy”, and more authentic. All of the pictures from this trip are posted HERE.