Often traveling to two cities offers a greater understanding of both through the comparison and contrasts the visitor experiences. Such is the case with Helsinki, the largest city and capital of Finland and Tallinn in Estonia. Travel affords deep reflective practice for those who may be reinventing life. As we look forward to new paths in life, travel is great to remind us of the change in life over time. Helsinki and Tallinn offer the visitor such times.
The travel season is relatively short to both cities except for those hardened or well prepared through good clothing for the cold. For the summer, the temperatures range from a cool 59F (15C) up to a hot 86F (30C) in the warmest month of July. Visitors will enjoy up to 19 hours of sunlight in the summer. Both temperatures and the amount of sun plummet in the winter reaching average days that are well below freezing with blankets of snow, to the point where the sea itself freezes over, and it is never fully daylight. Naturally tourists then generally see both cities in the summer.
Comparisons between the cities go back as far as their ancient history as King Gustav of Sweden who, in 1550 founded Helsinki as a rival of its counterpart across the water – which later became Tallinn. Both are strategically important due to their sea ports and, as a result, have been run over by military forces in their histories. Tallinn grew to prominence as a summer retreat for the Russian Tzar Alexander the Great who built a modest summer palace there.
Helsinki is a modern European Capital with all the amenities you would associate with that status. While not large, it also was not bombed much during the second World War so its older Renaissance buildings are beautiful. Similar to Amsterdam, Helsinki promotes travel through the city by bicycle, with many commuters coming in by train and picking up the bike they left the night before at the train station. Pack comfortable clothes and rent a bike, you can easily see most of the city in a couple of days, able to easily hop off to see sights of interest and move on at your leisure.
Helsinki is a city of neighborhoods and a tour on bicycle is perfect. You can travel around the edge, by the water on bike paths, then move inward to sights of interest as your mood suggests. Be sure to stop at the charming market at the edge of city center on the wharf. The Deco facade on the train station should not be missed, nor the two magnificent cathedrals – all within an easy distance from each other.
For a day trip the visitor will want to take a short ferry to the island of Suomenlinna to see the Sea Fortress. A hardy walk takes you through the fortress and the properties surrounding it. Lived on by a small community of people, Suomenlinna residents have opened charming cafes and a doll museum, making the trip well worth the time.
A short (2 hour) ferry ride across the Baltic Sea and the visitor can easily stay in Helsinki, and travel to Tallinn for a day trip, leaving early in the morning (7am) and coming back about 12 hours later. Because of Tallinn’s historical attributes, I recommend availing yourself of the great tour supplied by the Finnish tourist agency just off of the seaside market in Helsinki. While Tallinn is also a modern city, with skyscrapers overlooking the harbor, the old walled town is an unspoiled remnant of medieval Europe and not to be missed. The tour guide meets you in Tallinn, takes you for a very interesting tour to the summer palace of the Russian Tzars, the top of the hillside where the Nobles lived, and then down through the medieval trading part of the city where you can be left off at a cafe specializing in Estonian food. This leaves you the afternoon to stroll and shop until the car picks you up to go back to the ferry.
The contrast in the cities is one that takes us from the days of Peter the Great and his wife Catherine in Russia and the politics of the merchant class versus the royalty in Tallinn to the mixtures of the modern city with its historical roots in its buildings. Tallin would be the relatively unspoiled medieval city center with narrow cobblestone streets, walls that surround the city and traditional roofs, building structures, etc. It also is a fun place to learn about the natural animosities and power struggles between the merchants and the royalty of the time. The merchants having enough power to wall their city and to not allow noblemen in after dark, thus saving themselves from the ravages of meanness that can occur when some people feel they are better than others.
The most startling part of Talinn’s history though was its singing revolution as it earned its independence from Russian domination in 1991. Thousands of people joined together in song, singing of Estonian independence (a crime at the time and a clear message of intent to revolt) thus earning them a place in history as a completely peaceful revolution and launching them to quickly become one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.
Reflecting back on a trip to theses two cities, and short visits to both, leaves me wanting to return, to dig deeper into the lives of these friendly people and to further enjoy the contrasts available here. I found it to be a charming and enlivening visit to one region where so many types of European experiences can be found.