Helsinki and Tallinn: Baltic Sisters
by Rick Steves
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral tops the hill in Tallinn's Toompea district. The Russians built it over the supposed grave of a legendary Estonian folk hero, Kalevipoeg
Helsinki and Tallinn are two great capitals in Northern Europe. Just 50 miles and a two-hour ferry ride apart, these two cities -- facing each other across the Baltic Sea from their respective countries of Finland and Estonia -- are not only neighbors, but soul sisters.
Finns and Estonians share a similar history -- first Swedish domination, then Russian, then independence after World War I. But while Finland held on to its freedom through the Cold War, Estonia was gobbled up by the expanding Soviet Empire and spent the decades after World War II under communism, regaining its freedom in 1991.
Today both are enjoying good times as members of the
In spite of its Swedish roots, old Helsinki feels Russian. When the Russians took over Finland in 1809, they moved the capital to Helsinki and hired German architect Carl Ludvig Engel to model the city after their capital, St. Petersburg. This resulted in fine Neoclassical squares and stone buildings with white trim and columns. Because filming in Russia was not possible during the Cold War, movies like "Gorky Park" and "Dr. Zhivago" were actually filmed in Helsinki.
Helsinki's grand boulevard, the Esplanade, provides wide and inviting sidewalks for shoppers and a people-friendly park up the middle. At the top of the Esplanade is Market Square, Helsinki's delightful harborfront square. The colorful outdoor market is worth a stop for the quickest, cheapest lunch in town. The salmon grills are a favorite. Everyone from the Finnish president to tourists stop by for a dash of local flavor.
At the shore is a wooden deck with washing tables built out over the water. The city provides this for locals to clean their carpets. A good Saturday chore in summer is to bring the family carpet down to the harborfront, scrub it with seawater, and let it air-dry in the Baltic breeze.
A short ferry ride takes you across the harbor to Helsinki's most important sight: Suomenlinna Fortress. The Swedes built it with French financial support in the mid-1700s to counter Russia's rise to power. Think of it as European superpower chess. The Russians moved to St. Petersburg. The French countered by moving a Swedish castle to Helsinki, stopping the Russian offensive -- for the time being. These days it serves as a popular park with scenic strolling paths.
From Helsinki's harbor, ferries zip across the Baltic to Tallinn. The trip is so easy that Finns routinely visit Tallinn to eat, drink, and shop more cheaply than at home. On summer weekends, the city virtually becomes a Finnish nightclub.
Tallinn once consisted of two feuding medieval towns. Toompea -- the upper town on a hill -- was the seat of government ruling Estonia. The lower town was an independent city, a Hanseatic trading center filled with German, Danish, and Swedish merchants who hired Estonians to do their menial labor.
At the center of the lower town is Town Hall Square, a marketplace through the centuries. The 15th-century town hall dominating the square is now a museum with city history exhibits; climbing its tower earns a commanding view.
Like many tourist zones, Tallinn's is a commercial gauntlet with medieval-themed restaurants and enthusiastic hawkers of ye olde tasty treats. It's also
Climbing the stairs from the lower old town into Toompea, you'll notice that the architecture tells a story. For instance, the Russians built the
Near the cathedral, Tallinn's
After suffering through a challenging 20th century, Tallinn has joined Helsinki as a vibrant and welcoming destination. While both cities have their own story to tell, they also share a common heritage -- and spirit of resilience.
Helsinki and Tallinn: Baltic Sisters Video Travel Guide
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.
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Vacations & Travel "Helsinki and Tallinn: Baltic Sisters"