The fascinating capitals of Finland and Estonia offer a chance to sample each country's history, art, and distinct love of life. We'll start in Helsinki with its Neoclassical old town, modern flair for design, and steamy saunas. Then it's just a two-hour boat ride to Tallinn — with its medieval charms and new-found prosperity — celebrating its freedom and thriving in its post-USSR renaissance.
If you've got some time, dip into this old-fashioned, gazebo-like oasis of coffee, pastry, and relaxation (get what you like at the bar inside and sit anywhere). In the 19th century, this was a popular hangout for local intellectuals and artists. Today the café offers romantic tourists waiting for their ship a great €3-cup-of-coffee memory. The bandstand in front hosts nearly daily music and dance performances in summer (Eteläesplanadi 1, tel. 07/663-880, www.kappeli.fi).
This island fortress is now a popular park with several museums and a Visitors Center located about five minutes from the boat dock. Don't miss the Suomenlinna Museum within the Visitors Center, where the complete story is presented in a fascinating 25-minute "multi-vision" show. Also on the island are a toy museum and several military museums. The island is large — actually, it's four islands connected by bridges — and you and your imagination get free run of the fortifications and dungeon-like chambers. When it's munch-time, you'll find a half-dozen cafés and plenty of picnic opportunities (tel. 09/684-1880, www.suomenlinna.fi).
With its prominent green dome and the 12 apostles overlooking the city and harbor, this church is Carl Ludvig Engel's masterpiece. Finished in 1852, the interior is pure architectural truth. Open a pew gate and sit, surrounded by the saints of Protestantism, to savor Neoclassical nirvana (on Senate Square, http://tuomiokirkko.kirkkohelsinki.net).
This Orthodox cathedral hovers above Market Square and faces the Lutheran Cathedral as Russian culture faces Europe. The uppermost "onion dome" represents the "sacred heart of Jesus," while the smaller ones represent the hearts of the 12 apostles. The cathedral's interior is a potentially emotional icon experience. Its rich images are a stark contrast to the sober Lutheran Cathedral. While commonly called the "Russian church," the cathedral is actually Finnish Orthodox, answering to the patriarch in Constantinople (Kanalgatan 1, tram stop: Ritarihuone, tel. 07/220-683, www.helsinginortodoksinenseurakunta.fi).
Sailing from Helsinki to Tallinn
Two companies offer fast boats that link Helsinki and Tallinn. You can reserve in advance by phone or online, or buy tickets from a travel agency, but it's rarely necessary (Tallink/Silja, Helsinki tel. 09/228-311, www.tallink.ee; Linda Line, Helsinki tel. 09/668-9700, www.lindaline.ee). Fast-boat trips may be canceled in stormy weather (in which case you'll be put on a bigger, slower boat). The helpful Helsinki Expert desk in the Helsinki tourist office sells tickets and posts a sheet clearly explaining departures and costs.
This seaside park and cute, pint-sized summer residence, a 10-minute tram ride from Tallinn or a 15-minute walk from Hotel Viru, was built by Peter the Great for Czarina Catherine after Russia took over Tallinn in 1710. Occupying Peter's palace, the Foreign Art Museum (Väliskuunsti Muuseum) has a very modest Russian and Western European collection in a pretty building with sculpted formal gardens out back (tel. 606-6400, www.ekm.ee). The park is stately and peaceful, with a rose garden, duck-filled pond, and old tsarist guard houses harkening back to the days of Russian rule. The mansion on the far side of the gardens is the local White House (although it's pink) — home of Estonia's president.
Kumu Art Museum
This striking building designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori houses the very best of Estonian art through the ages, although little survives from before the 19th century and much of the collection was destroyed during World War II. The permanent exhibition is shown in three parts: The third floor features classic art until World War II. The fourth floor is "Difficult Choices," an exhibit devoted to art from the last half of the 20th century (fascinating for its Soviet influence and Social Realism). And the top floor (fifth) features contemporary art (tram #1 or #3 to the end of the line, 200 yards behind Kadriorg, at end of Weizenbergi street, tel. 602-6000, www.ekm.ee).
Local Guide Mati Rumessen
Mati Rumessen is a top-notch guide, especially for car tours outside of town (509-4661, www.tourservice.ee, email@example.com).
Song Festival Grounds
At this open-air theater, built in 1959 and resembling an oversized Hollywood Bowl, the Estonian nation gathers to sing. Every five years, these grounds host a huge national song festival with 25,000 singers and 100,000 spectators. While it hosts big pop-music acts, too, it's a national monument for the compelling role it played in Estonia's fight for independence (grounds are free, open long hours, bus #1, #5, #8, or #34 to Lauluväljak stop).
Museum of Occupation
With funding from a wealthy Estonian-American, this compact museum tells the history of Estonia under Nazi and Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1991. Opened in 2003, it's organized around seven TV monitors screening documentary films in English and Estonian, each focusing on a different time period. In the basement by the WCs is a collection of Soviet-era statues of communist leaders (Toompea 8, at corner of Kaarli puiestee, tel. 668-0250, www.okupatsioon.ee).