Gulf of Finland Capitals: Tallinn and Helsinki

July 17, 2012

We have spent the past few days in the capital cities of Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland. The two cities are located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) across the Gulf of Finland from one another. The Gulf of Finland is part of the Baltic Sea and extends about 250 miles (400 kilometers) from roughly the top of Estonia in the west to St Petersburg, Russia in the east.

Our time began in Tallinn, one of the oldest capital cities in Northern Europe. To arrive there from Riga, Latvia, we took a 4 1/2 hour trip in a half-full bus. As we crossed the border into Estonia the forests that we had seen in Latvia diminished and were replaced with bushes and colorful fields.

Upon arriving in Tallinn, population 416,000, we made our way about two miles (three kilometers) from the bus station to our hotel in the old town of the city. We found that there was an amazing contrast between the rather non-descript Tallinn city center and the Viru Gates entrance to the old town. As we walked through the gates Darren turned and asked if we would be seeing Walt Disney soon. It did almost look like we had entered Fantasyland.

Tallinn’s old town was built between the 12th and 16th centuries and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We spent most of our time here. Full of preserved buildings, little shops and great restaurants, there was plenty to do. It was easy to get lost walking down the narrow cobblestone streets, but that was half the fun. Keeping the spire of the town hall in view allowed us to track our current position and find our way back at the end of our wanderings.

The other major landmark that we used as an old town compass was St Olaf’s Church. The first written records refer to it in 1267. St Olav’s was actually the tallest building in the world between 1549 and 1625 at a height of 522 feet (159 meters). Rebuilt at least three times since then, the church is now about 407 feet (124 meters) tall. We climbed up to the viewpoint, which is located about halfway up the steeple. The stairs rise up in a narrow circular corridor, and must be shared between those going up and down; it was not for the claustrophobic! At the top we were rewarded with clear views of both the old town and of the Gulf of Finland.

It was across the Gulf of Finland that we headed when we made our way to Helsinki. We booked a morning ferry to take us on the 2 1/2 hour crossing. It rained off and on most of the time so we found a place to sit in the large indoor public area of the ferry and watched as the crew performed a children’s show that catered to the many vacationing families on board, complete with a bingo game and Olympic-themed exercise segment.

The crossing went by quickly and we docked just a couple of blocks from our hotel, located on Katajanokka Island, just east of the city center. Our hotel was actually in a former prison which had closed only 10 years ago. The hotel has kept the prison theme, which included our morning breakfast buffet being served in the ‘Jailbird Restaurant’. Our room was among the best we have had during our entire trip.

A younger and larger city than Tallinn, Helsinki has a population of about 600,000 and was established in 1550. The downtown area consists of bold buildings such as the railway station, Parliament House, Finlandia (concert) Hall and two iconic churches, the Helsinki Cathedral and the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral. We walked along parks and a lake to view the Olympic Stadium that was used during the 1952 Olympic Games.

Contrasting our tour of these structures was a visit to the island of Seurasaari, located northwest of the city center, to spend time at the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum. This museum, just over 100 years old, contains typical historic structures brought in from all over Finland to depict building traditions from the 17th to 20th centuries. There are 85 mostly wooden structures nestled within the island forest. We enjoyed the scenic walk as much as seeing the buildings.

There were about 20 buildings open the day we were there and we went inside farmhouses, storerooms, country manors and even a sauna. The highlight was the Karuna Church, which is the oldest building in the collection and was built in 1685. The inside of the church was simply beautiful with a small wooden ship hanging from the ceiling and paintings of the twelve Apostles located along the organ loft railing. The church is popular wedding place and there are occasional organ concerts scheduled. We were disappointed that the next concert was a week away.

We enjoyed learning more about the history and culture of both Tallinn and Helsinki. Our time in Northern Europe continues with an overnight ferry trip to the largest city in Scandinavia, Stockholm, Sweden.

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