Helsinki and Tallinn: Baltic Sisters
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 newfound 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 memory. The bandstand in front hosts nearly daily music and dance performances in summer.
The island that guarded Helsinki's harbor for centuries is now a popular park, with delightful paths, fine views, and a visitors center. On a sunny day, it's a delightful place to stroll among hulking buildings with recreating Finns. The island has one good museum and several skippable smaller museums, including a toy museum and several military museums.
With its prominent green dome, gleaming white facade, and the 12 apostles overlooking the city and harbor, this church is Carl Ludvig Engel's masterpiece. The stark interior is pure architectural truth. Open a pew gate and sit, surrounded by the saints of Protestantism, to savor Neoclassical nirvana.
This house of worship was built for the Russian military in 1868 (at a time when Finland belonged to Russia). Uspenski is Russian for the Assumption of Mary. It hovers above Market Square and faces the Lutheran Cathedral, just as Russian culture faces Europe. The cathedral's interior is a potentially emotional icon experience. Though it's worth a visit, the orthodox cathedral in Tallinn is more richly decorated; skip this one if you're visiting both cities and are short on time.
This is a handy option for a good, traditional sauna with a coarse and local crowd. Pay for a towel, find a locker, strip (keep the key on your wrist), and head for the steam. Cooling off is nothing fancy — just a bank of cold showers. A woman in a fish-cleaner's apron will give you a wonderful scrub with Brillo pad-like mitts, and you can relax with the beer-drinking regulars on the sidewalk just outside.
Now also numbered tram #2 for part of its route, this tram's figure-eight loop through the middle of town seems made-to-order for a tourist's joyride (and the tourism office even hands out a free little map descriping the route).
This museum showcases Finnish artists (mid-18th to 20th century) and has a fine international collection, including works by Cézanne, Chagall, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. They also have good temporary exhibits.
Sailing from Helsinki to Tallinn
Four different companies offer ferry trips between Helsinki and Tallinn. Unless you're bringing a car, the Linda and Viking lines are usually the most convenient, as their docks in Helsinki and Tallinn are easy to reach by foot or public transport. Fares run €20–55 one-way (evening departures from Helsinki and morning departures from Tallinn tend to be cheaper; student and senior discounts available). Advance reservations aren't essential, but usually save a little money, ensure your choice of departure, and provide peace of mind. If you travel round-trip on the same day, your ticket will cost barely more than a one-way fare, but you'll have just a few hours on shore. Prices differ only slightly from company to company — base your choice on the most convenient departure times and ferry terminal locations. Make sure you know which terminal your boat leaves from and how to get to it.
This expansive seaside park, home to a summer royal residence and the Kumu Art Museum, is just a five-minute tram ride or a 25-minute walk from Hotel Viru. Stately, peaceful, and crisscrossed by leafy paths, the park has a rose garden, duck-filled pond, playground and benches, and old czarist guardhouses harkening back to the days of Russian rule. It's a delightful place for a stroll or a picnic. If it's rainy, duck into one of the cafés in the park's art museums.
This main branch of the Art Museum of Estonia brings the nation's best art together in a modern building designed by an international (well, at least Finnish) architect, Pekka Vapaavuori. The entire collection is accessible, well-presented, and engaging, with a particularly thought-provoking section on art from the Soviet period. The museum is well worth the trip for art lovers, or for anyone intrigued by the unique spirit of this tiny nation — particularly when combined with a stroll through the nearby palace gardens on a sunny day.
Mati Rumessen is a top-notch guide, especially for car tours outside of town.
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. During the festival, the singers rehearse from Monday through Thursday, and then, on Friday morning, dress up in their traditional outfits and march out to the Song Festival Grounds from Freedom Square. 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).
Locals insist that Estonia didn't formally lose its independence from 1939 to 1991, but was just "occupied" — first by the Soviets (for one year), then by the Nazis (for three years), and then again by the USSR (for nearly 50 years). The exhibit is organized around seven TV monitors screening 30-minute documentary films, each focusing on a different time period.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in the north of Europe — exploring two great capitals on the Baltic Sea: Tallinn and Helsinki. Thanks for joining us.
Helsinki and Tallinn each suffered through a challenging 20th century. But today both are enjoying good times. Long-time Baltic cousins, Finns travel to Tallinn for affordable R&R, and people in Estonia watched Helsinki TV all through the Cold War to at least know what freedom and prosperity looked like back when they didn't have it.
In Helsinki we'll stroll with Finns on their grand esplanade, explore the "Gibraltar of the North," visit both of Helsinki's iconic cathedrals, simmer in a sauna, and cruise the islands of Helsinki's harbor. Then we'll cross the Baltic to Estonia, and stroll Tallinn's remarkably preserved Old Town, relax in the gardens of a Russian Palace, check out Social Realism — Estonian style — and learn how Estonians sang their way to freedom from the Soviet Union.
In the north of Europe, the Baltic Sea is ringed by Russia, the Baltic nations, and the Scandinavian nations. We start in Finland's capital, Helsinki, and then ferry to Estonia's capital, Tallinn.
Helsinki is the only European capital with no medieval past. It was founded and ruled by the Swedes in the 16th century to be a strategic Baltic port. But the location was poor and it never amounted to more than a village. Then, in the 18th century, the Swedes built a huge fortress in the harbor, and Helsinki grew and prospered.
Today, with over half a million people, Helsinki is by far Finland's leading city. In spite of its Swedish roots, old Helsinki feels Russian. That's because when the Russians took over Finland in 1809 they made it Finland's capital, modeled after their capital, St. Petersburg — stone buildings, white trim, and Neoclassical columns.
Since downtown Helsinki wasn't built until the 1800s, it was more logically designed and laid out than other European capitals.
Helsinki's grand boulevard, the Esplanadi, provides wide and inviting sidewalks for shoppers and a people-friendly park up the middle. The city seems designed to promote a sense of community, and on warm summer days people take full advantage.
Café Kappeli is an Old World oasis of coffee and relaxation. In the 19th century, this was a popular hangout for Russian officers, local intellectuals, and artists. The bandstand features live music almost daily in the summer.
The arrival of cruise ships — sliding through tight passages between Helsinki's surrounding islands — energizes the city each day. Most travelers arrive by cruise ship. The towering Viking and Silja ships are each floating hotels for the thousands making the scenic island-studded trip from Stockholm.
Hopping off their boat, visitors head directly for Helsinki's delightful and vibrant harbor square. Explore the colorful outdoor market; part souvenirs and crafts and part veggies and fruit.
Rick: The strawberries here are famous...
Strawberry seller: They are famous...
Rick: Can I try?
Strawberry seller:& Yeah — they are very nice ones and these ones are grown on the islands, the archipelago of Finland.
Rick: And organic from the islands?
Strawberry seller: Yep, really nice ones, no pesticides used.
Rick: Mmm, nice, I'll have a little box please.
The market is the place for the most casual, quick-and-cheap lunch in town. The salmon grills are a favorite. Everyone from the Finnish president on down to visiting tourists stops by for a dash of local flavor.
While Helsinki's history is short, monuments to it are everywhere. The Czarina's Stone, with its double-headed eagle of imperial Russia, was erected in 1835 to celebrate the visit by Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra.
This fountain has become a symbol of Helsinki, the city nicknamed the "Daughter of the Baltic." The voluptuous figure, modeled after the artist's Parisian mistress, was a scandal in its more puritan day.
A short ferry ride takes us across the harbor to Helsinki's most important sight. Suomenlinna, an island guarding Helsinki's harbor, served as a strategic fortress for three countries: Sweden, Russia, and then Finland. It's now a popular park with a fascinating story.
The fortress was built by the Swedes, with French financial support, in the mid-1700s to counter Russia's rise to power. Russia's Peter the Great had just built his new capital, St. Petersburg, nearby on the Baltic, and he was eyeing the West.
Think of it as European superpower chess. The Russians moved to St. Petersburg. The French countered by moving a Swedish castle here to Helsinki; stopping the Russian offensive...at least for the time being.
The fortress was Sweden's military pride and joy. With five miles of walls and hundreds of cannon, it was the second mightiest fort of its kind in Europe, after Gibraltar.
Built by more than 10,000 workers, the fort was a huge investment and stimulated lots of innovation. In the 1760s, this was the world's biggest and most modern dry dock. After the construction of this fort, the village of Helsinki became a boom town supporting this grand "Gibraltar of the North."
Today Suomenlinna is most appreciated by locals for its scenic strolls. Explore the park. There are ramparts to ramble, and cannon to ponder. Cafés nestle in the shade of the walls. You'll find Finns on the rocks, and families enjoying their humble beach.
Back in town, Helsinki's Senate Square — with the Lutheran Cathedral as its centerpiece — is one of the finest Neoclassical squares in all of Europe.
The buildings, which formed the original square, burned down in 1808. Then, after Finland became part of the Russian Empire, the czar sent in his leading architect, Carl Engel, to rebuild the square and give it the stature and elegance it has today.
This statue honors Russian Czar Alexander II. While not popular in Russia (in fact, he was eventually assassinated), Finns liked him. He gave Finland more autonomy in 1863, and never pushed the "Russification" of Finland.
The staircase leading up to the cathedral is a popular meeting — and tanning — spot. This is where students from the nearby university gather...and couples meet.
With its stately dome and statues of 12 apostles, the Lutheran Cathedral overlooks the city and harbor. Finished in 1852, its austerity is striking. I like to take a moment, surrounded by Finland's great reformers, to savor Neoclassical simplicity.
Physically, this church seems perfectly Protestant — unadorned — with the emphasis on two things: preaching (with its prominent pulpit), and music (with its grand organ). Statuary is limited to the Reformation big shots: Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon (Luther's intellectual sidekick), and the leading Finnish Reformer, Mikael Agricola.
A follower of Luther in Germany, Agricola brought the Reformation here to Finland. He also translated the Bible into Finnish. Agricola's Bible is to Finland what the Luther Bible is to Germany, and the King James Bible is to the English-speaking world.
Nearby, also overlooking Helsinki, is the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. It faces the Lutheran Cathedral much as Russian culture faces Europe. Built in 1868 for the Russians back when Finland belonged to Russia, its main dome represents the "sacred heart of Jesus," while the smaller ones represent the hearts of the 12 apostles.
Today this is the spiritual home of the city's Finnish Orthodox community. Its interior offers a rich experience. Icons of saints oversee flickering candles, which represent prayers of the Orthodox faithful. These plush Eastern images are a stark contrast to the spare Lutheran Cathedral.
Helsinki is set in a natural wonderland. And hopping a boat tour for a 90-minute cruise makes that very clear. The several hundred islands of its archipelago provide a delightful playground. Leaving the harbor you pass mighty ice breakers in their summer slumber. With the capacity to break through 15 feet of ice, they're a reminder of the bitter Baltic winters. Lonely cabins cap glacier-ground granite. Finns are good at getting the most out of the long days of their short summer. Many have family cabins here, and a standard feature is a free-standing sauna.
But you don't need a cabin to enjoy a sauna. At this neighborhood sauna the regulars gather daily. Each morning the wood fire is stoked. That afternoon — in parallel facilities — men and women come to relax. For the Finns, the sauna is a lifestyle. Popular year-round, it's especially appealing in the long, cold winters. Buckets of icy water are great for dousing when you get too hot. Finns claim that bundles of birch twigs enhance the experience — increasing circulation, opening your pores, and spritzing the air with a wonderful birch aroma.
Cap the experience relaxing with the local gang on the sidewalk just outside.
Public trams can serve as a handy vehicle for a budget, do-it-yourself tour. Helsinki's tram #3 makes a scenic city loop. It runs every few minutes; tickets are good for an hour, and it's great for hopping on and off to sightsee.
The train station was built in the early 1900s. Its stern figures with lamps recall a time when this city provided light to a mostly rural nation and the rest of the world seemed very far away.
A couple stops away is the city's main shopping drag. The Three Blacksmiths statue has stood here since 1932. Locals say it celebrates human labor and cooperation, and shows the solid character of the Finnish people.
Finland stood courageously strong against the Soviet Union, and artfully maintained its independence through the Cold War. Today, tucked up here in the far north corner of Europe, this city seems to celebrate both peace and culture.
Six hundred stainless-steel pipes, shimmering in a park, honor Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. The monument is built on solid rock, as is so much of Finland.
Sibelius, who composed in the late 19th century and early 20th, wrote music that stirred the national soul. His music — like paintings by Finland's romantic artists hanging in the National Gallery — evokes the vast forest land, mythic legends, deep pagan roots, and heroic struggles of a stoic nation. Music and art that is uniquely Finnish contribute to the staying power of this small country of five million.
A selection of ferries make the 50-mile crossing between Helsinki and Tallinn nearly hourly. Because of the ease of this delightful two-hour cruise and the variety a quick trip over to Estonia adds to your Nordic travels, pairing Helsinki and Tallinn is a natural.
Stepping off the boat in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, you feel you've traveled a long way culturally from Finland. It's a mix of east and west. Tallinn's Nordic Lutheran culture and language connect it with Stockholm and Helsinki. But two centuries of czarist Russian rule and nearly 50 years as part of the Soviet Union have blended in a distinctly Russian flavor.
Finns and Estonians share a similar history — first Swedish domination, then Russian, then independence after World War I. Until 1940, the Estonians were about as affluent as the Finns. But then Estonia was gobbled up by an expanding Soviet Empire and spent the decades after World War II under communism. When the USSR fell, Estonia regained its freedom, and in 2004 it joined the European Union.
Tallinn has modernized at an astounding rate since the fall of the Soviet Union. Its business district shines with the same glass-and-steel gleam you'll find in any modern city. Yet nearby are the rugged and fully intact medieval walls, and the town within these ramparts has a beautifully preserved Old World ambience. Among medieval cities in the north of Europe, none are as well-preserved as Tallinn.
The Town Hall Square was a marketplace through the centuries. It's fine old buildings are a reminder that Tallinn was once an important medieval trading center. Today it's a touristy scene full of people just having fun.
Through the season each mid-day, cruise-ship groups congest the center as they blitz the town in the care of local guides.
Like many tourist zones, Tallinn's is a commercial gauntlet. Here, there's a hokey torture museum, strolling Russian dolls, medieval theme restaurants complete with touts, and enthusiastic hawkers of ye olde taste treats.
But just a couple blocks away is, for me, the real attraction of Tallinn — workaday locals enjoying real freedom and better economic times: Still-ramshackle courtyards host inviting cafés. Bistros serve organic cuisine in a chic patina of Old-World-meets-new.
And just outside the walls, it seems there's no tourism at all. Under towering ramparts, the former moat is now a park...perfect for a warm afternoon stroll.
In the 15th century, Tallinn consisted of two feuding medieval towns: The upper town — on a hill, called Toompea — is from where the country of Estonia has long been ruled. The lower town was an independent city. As a member of the Hanseatic trading league, it was an economic power here in the Baltic world.
This thriving port town was filled with mostly German merchants who hired Estonians to do their menial labor. The Old Town feels Germanic with streets lined by the fancy facades of those 15th-century big-shot merchants.
This merchant's home functioned as his warehouse and office as well. Its elaborately carved door evokes the wealth of Tallinn's business class in those days.
Stairs lead from the lower Old Town into the fortified upper town, Toompea. Climbing into Estonia's historic capital, it's clear the architecture tells a story.
Neighboring Russia has always loomed large and threatening over little Estonia. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built here by Russians in 1900. While a beautiful building, most Estonians don't like this church.
It was built to face the Estonian parliament building, clearly designed to flex Russian cultural muscles during a period of Estonian national revival. This tower survives from the original Toompea castle. Nicknamed "Tall Hermann," it's a powerful symbol here.
For 50 years, throughout the Cold War, Estonian flags were hidden away, and the Soviet flag flew from atop this tower. Then, as the USSR was unraveling, Estonians proudly and defiantly replaced the red Soviet flag with their own.
Today, while Toompea is filled with Estonian government buildings, it's also simply a pleasant place to stroll and enjoy some romantic viewpoints.
Russia's influence over Estonia goes back long before the Soviet Union. When Russia took over Estonia in 1710, Czar Peter the Great built the stately Kadriorg Palace for his czarina, Catherine. The Czarina's private garden is now Tallinn's finest public park. The standard progression as divine monarchies give way to modern democracies, and the former guardhouse now serves coffee to commoners.
The leading sight within the park is the Kumu Art Museum, Estonia's striking national gallery, opened with pride and fanfare in 2006.
While Estonian art evolved in step with the rest of Europe, it was also shaped along the way by the nation's history. For instance, 19th-century Romanticism was the artistic style of Estonia's aristocratic German landlords, who enjoyed art featuring idyllic Estonian peasant women in folk costumes and idealized settings. Local artists continued to paint in sync with European styles from Impressionism through Cubism, and so on.
But Estonian art parted ways with Western Europe after the Soviet takeover in 1945, which brought the end of artistic freedom. The Soviets insisted on one kind of art: Social Realism. This was beyond censorship. Art had to actively promote the Communist struggle. The Estonian artists' union was forced to renounce individual expression and be "re-educated." The Stalinist formula: "National in style but socialist in content." Painters produced themes like this, titled Excellent Young Communist Workers.
Industry was celebrated. Mining was big in Estonia, so miners were portrayed as heroes, marching like soldiers to their glorious work.
Soviet women were shown not as the idyllic cliché of traditional motherhood but as strong laborers, working side-by-side with men. They were entirely engaged in the quest to reach the communist ideal. Here, a woman oversees the bolstering of agricultural production.
Posters were a natural fit for Social Realism. They could be mass produced. They generally came with a proclamation — this one reads, "It is good to work hard and buy government bonds." And they carried the propaganda message to every corner of society.
In the 1960s things began to change. Many Estonian artists took a more independent and avant-garde approach, injecting hints of social commentary into their work. This angered Khrushchev and many of these artists ended up in Siberia.
But as the Soviets would eventually learn, change was unstoppable. Western ideals began to infiltrate. Estonia was the only part of the USSR where pop art was recognized. Painters featured utopian scenes viewed through the eyes of alienated urbanites. Artists flirted with the psychedelic as a new generation came of age.
Local guide Mati Rumessen, who grew up under Communism and did his military service as a driver in the Soviet army, is joining me to help us better understand the challenges of living 50 years under the Soviets.
Mati: I remember when Viru Hotel was the only skyscraper in the city, and because KGB was very curious of every word spoken by foreign tourists, we had a local joke that the house was built from Soviet wonder material, so--called "micro-concrete," which would be 60% concrete and about 40% of microphones.
Tallinn's vast and blocky suburb of Lasnamae, with about 90,000 apartment flats, dates back to Communist times. The Soviets attempted to Russify Estonia by planting or moving people into this country. Because of that about a quarter of all Tallinners are ethnic Russians.
And, as is clear at this predominantly Russian market, the plantation of people — as it seems is always the case when governments move people for political purposes — leaves a poorer and struggling ethnic minority, and their reluctance to assimilate leaves long-term social challenges.
Nearby is the stage from where the people of Estonia gathered to demand their independence. The Song Festival Grounds, which hosts massive choral festivals, is a uniquely Estonian institution. This is a national monument because of the stirring role it played in Estonia's fight for independence.
With only a million people, lodged between Russia and Germany, and without a strong military, Estonians asserted themselves with song. They say being together and singing together was their power.
Rick: 300,000 Estonians gathering here to sing together…
Mati: Yeah, one day in 1988, one third of Estonian nation gathered here to sing. To sing about the freedom, about the independence, to show to the rest of the world and especially to the Soviet side that we are tired to be one part of the Soviet system. And, as we can see now, almost 20 years later, that it was successful.
Tallinn's Museum of the Occupation rounds out the story. Suitcases are a reminder of people who fled the country leaving everything behind. Displays show how Russians managed to keep the Estonians in line. Surveillance was a part of daily life. Prison doors evoke the countless lives lost in detention and deportation. And the communist leaders who once lorded over the Estonian people are now in the basement guarding the toilets.
With freedom, Tallinn has joined Helsinki as a vibrant and welcoming destination. Each has a unique charm: Helsinki with its thriving esplanade, striking Neoclassical design, and island escapes. And Tallinn, with its medieval Old Town witnessing the emergence of a new prosperity.
While Tallinn and Helsinki each have their own story, traveling here we share in the good times of two resilient and flourishing nations. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling.
As a member of the Hanseatic trading league, it was a power here in the economic world.
Woman/puppet: You sir you want to have a taste, come and have a taste.
Rick: All I want you to do is say hi to the camera.
Creepy dolls: Hiiiiiii.
Rick: Say come to Tallinn.
Creepy dolls: Come to Tallinn…