Because Mr O and I had two weddings we didn’t really have a honeymoon. So for the last three years (and hopefully all out future years together) we’ve been taking a little trip over our anniversary. This year we decided to complete our tour of the Baltic States by visiting Tallinn in Estonia and then hop on the ferry and check out Helsinki in Finland. Estonia is the smallest of the Baltic States both geographically and by population size with only 1.3m living in the whole country and almost half of them in the capital, Tallinn.
We flew in on the disgustingly basic Ryan Air at the crack of dawn, which got us in at almost midday with the time difference. Since Tallinn is so small it only took us fifteen minutes to get to our hotel by taxi at the very reasonable cost of €8. We stayed at Hotel Bern, which was excellently located just outside the Old Town. It was a cute, cosy little hotel which I would recommend with one caveat. It’s attached to a youth hostel and bar and those living in one and drinking in the other like to come into the shared courtyard and drunkenly shriek in the wee hours.
We didn’t waste much time before we went exploring and decided to head to Maiasmokk Kohvik, which is the oldest of the many Cafes in Tallinn. It has been in the same spot since 1864 and they have barely changed any of the decor. I really loved the teacup ferris wheel in the window. It was here that we discovered that Estonians are really big on tea and coffee and pairing it with cake. Maiasmokk Kohvik serves a number of traditional cakes, pies and pastries as well as more familiar ones and the lady who served us was happy to make recommendations. As it was lingonberry season many of the cakes featured these deliciously sweet little berries.
From there we went for a wander through the Old Town. Tallinn has the best preserved Gothic Old Town in Europe with most of its original town hall still existing. Its made of up of charming little cobbled roads packed with cafes, shops and bars all situated around a large town square which is perfect for grabbing a coffee or drink in. The overall effect is lovely and its easy to see why Tallinn Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What is very interesting is that it’s also one of the most digitally advanced cities in the world with the best wifi!
We also went for a wander around the markets. Estonia is well known for linen and wool and there were some amazing crafts available. I almost bought this hat until I found out it was made out of real fox.
We had our dinner at a restaurant called Peppersack. This traditional restaurant is just outside the Town Hall Square located in a historic building. Apparently it was named after a merchant who once owned the house. Peppersack was a derogatory name for merchants based on the fact that they made their money from trading spices but this particular merchant was proud of how he had made his fortune and actually changed his name officially to Peppersack. The food we had was delicious and insanely cheap considering the the amazing quality.
On day two we wanted to make sure we maximised our time so we decided to go for a ride on the Tallinn tour bus, which has three routes around the city. It’s pretty cheap at only €22 and a good way to learn a bit about the history of the city. However it’s not the best tour I have been on and if you have more time to explore on your own I am not sure I would recommend it.
Our first stop was Kadrioru Park which is a stunning 70 hectare urban garden and also the home of the Presidential Palace. We enjoyed the stunning flowerbeds, beautiful fountain and bandstand on the lake as well as the quirky statues. On a nice day it’s an absolutely gorgeous place to relax and take in a bit of nature.
After the park we decided to check out the Tallinn Botanical Gardens because it was such a nice day and I can’t say I was disappointed. They had an impressive palm house, Japanese garden, cactus room, rock gardens, rose garden, iris garden and endless trees.
I loved not only the giant swings in the herb and vegetable garden but also this flowerbed that was planted to resemble a scarf.
Our final stop off on the first bus route was the Tallinn Balloon, which is a giant tethered helium balloon that rises to 120m in the air and gives you an amazing panoramic view of the city. I have to admit that I was absolutely bricking it but getting to see the five churches of the Old Town, along with its main defensive tower, Fat Margaret, the harbour and all its lovely greenery from above was totally worth the temporary terror. Would you believe that the spire of St Olaf’s Church (seen below) was once the tallest building in the world?
We decided to have a late lunch in Manna La Roosa a kooky restaurant and bar around the corner from our hotel. It had the most amazing electic decor that was sort of rock ‘n roll and tattoo inspired. Not a corner was without some kind of crazy decoration. It also had delicious, unusual food (I had a berry and parma ham salad) and lashings of the delicious Estonian black bread and garlic butter that gets served with everything.
In the late afternoon we hopped on one more tour bus around the Old Town but we weren’t able to get on and off since it was the last bus of the day. It was at that point that we realised that we would have loved one more day in the city. Mr O very much wanted to go to the Seaplane Harbour and I wanted to check out Kiek in de Kok. Hopefully we will be able to visit Tallinn again one day.
We had our last dinner at a restaurant called Spot, which was also just outside the Town Hall Square. Again the food was amazing and cheap. I had guinea fowl and I couldn’t believe how juicy it was. It’s apparently also very well known for champagne and its signature dessert, spotted dog, which we were too full up to try.
We managed to have a bit of a lie in the next morning before heading down to the harbour to catch the ferry to Helsinki. The Finnish capital is only 80km away so travelling between the two cities by sea is a very common thing to do and pretty cheap. A one way ticket only cost €30 and the journey took two and a half hours. The ferry had loads of bars and cafes to hang out in as well as plenty of shops. Things are a lot cheaper in Tallinn than Helsinki, especially alcohol, which is only sold in state shops in Finland so lots of Helsinkians (??) head across the water to stock up. I both celebrated and cursed Mr O for buying a gigantic bar of delicious Estonian Kalev white chocolate with rice krispies and dried blueberries in it. I am still forcing myself to resist in on a daily basis.
We arrived in Helsinki in the middle of the afternoon and decided to take a stroll to our hotel which was in the centre of the city over the road from the main train station. We knew our visit was going to be interesting when we spotted this statue en route. Welcome to Helsinki! This time we stayed in Hotel Seurahuone, which was big but friendly and had an amazing breakfast – oven baked spelt porridge anyone?
On the recommendation of one of Mr O’s colleagues we decided to take the ferry to Suomenlinna, which is a sea fortress across six islands about 15 minutes from the mainland. We had just missed the hourly ferry when we got to the harbour but it gave us the opportunity to check out the food and craft market in the area and to try some local food in the form of tiny fried fishes called, muikku. It was probably a bit too late in the day to embark on the journey since by the time we arrived the museums, cafes and bars on the islands had already closed. It was still a very pretty place to explore and with interesting ruins gardens and er… canons. The ferry ride is also a great way to get a look at Helsinki from a distance.
After all our adventuring around Suomelinna we were really hungry so we headed to Ilves, which is a self-confessed rock ‘n roll restaurant. I had my first burger in three months and I have to say it was probably the best I have ever had especially considering its unusual toppings of apple, blue cheese and gherkin mayo.
In the morning we headed to the Senate Square to join a free walking tour around the city. Our guide Valentina took us on a three hour tour around all the city’s major sites while sharing some of Helskinki and Finland’s history. Finland was once part of the Swedish empire where it gets its name. It was literally the last country in the empire so the Swedes used to mark it on the map with the Latin word for “end”, “fin”. After that is was annexed by the Russians who turned it into a Grand Duchy and decided to turn Helskini into a kind of mini St Petersberg. The Russians did allow the Fins a fair amount of autonomy which is how it ended up with two cathedrals.
The first one is a beautofil white Lutheran cathedral, which symbolises the most common religion in Finland (although apparently Fins aren’t too bothered about religion – clever Fins).
The other cathedral is a Russian Orthodox one which the Russian rules built on a hill in an area that they kept especially for themselves. The exposed brick cathedral was especially supposed to look big and imposing in order to remind the Fins who was in charge.
During the tour we had the opportunity to stop off at the harbour again where Mr O got the opportunity to try out reindeer meatballs and elk sausages, which he had been keen on from when we arrived. I sampled the cuisine too and I have to say it was pretty tasty.
The rest of the tour took us to the beautiful Esplanade Park, which features a statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the national poet of Finland who wrote the national anthem as well as the art deco road that Tove Jansson the creator of the Moomins grew up on.
At the end of the tour it was time for us to head back to Helsinki airport to catch our flight to London but we couldn’t resist popping into one last shop…