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5 Days in Helsinki and Tallinn

Author: LSKahn
Date of Trip: August 2009

I urge all of you to read my report on my home exchange in Finland before reading this report.

My home exchange ended when my exchange family returned. I had always intended to spend a few days in Helsinki before returning and that is what I did. My exchangers, by the way, even invited me to be their guest until the August 15, 2009, date of my return. I declined as I thought that would be pushing hospitality and I really did want some time in Helsinki.

To get to Helsinki, I took the local train (cheaper than the intercity and about the same time) from Lahti. Lahti is about an hour north of Helsinki (either by bus or driving). Arriving I went to tourist information to collect brochures to local sites and to get information about boats to Tallinn where I wanted to do a day trip the following day. I also bought my 5 day tourist transportation pass in the train station. I found the tourist pass to be convenient, but Helsinki is very compact and I wasted a few euros on the 5 day pass because much of the time I just walked everywhere.

My hotel was the Sokos Albert (not to be confused with the more upscale Sokos). I had a basic room which was a bit larger than the room I had at the Sokos in Turku but not luxurious. It worked for me. No sauna in the room. The hotel did have a sauna (separate hours for men and women), but I never had time to use it. My first chore was getting to the hotel and I took the #6 tram to get there. Helsinki is so compact that, by the end of my 5 days there, I was no longer consulting the map much of the time.

After checking in and dumping the luggage (always a chore even though I travel very light), I went out just to walk around. I immediately saw posters for “Mary Poppins” in Finnish and decided that would be a hoot. After asking, I went to Stockman’s Department Store on the 8th floor and purchased a ticket. I did see a gorgeous food section in Stockman and had the most delicious “pulla” bread there that I had in Finland. “Pulla” is a sort of challah like braided bread with a slightly different taste. It has raisins and sugar on top. I made a mental note to go back to Stockman’s for more food tasting, but I never had the time.

From Stockman’s I headed over to the Esplanade, a long public park with a couple of statues, that ends at the harbor with all the food stalls and souvenirs that basically cater to the Baltic cruise traffic. I had some reindeer meatballs for dinner!

The next day I rose at the crack of dawn (well, I am exaggerating because dawn in Helsinki is at about 4:00am in the summer) because I was taking the first Linda Line catamaran to Tallinn. I had checked out the boat location the previous day as no way I wanted to be late for this. There are a lot of options for boats to Tallinn. I chose this one because it gave you the most time in Tallinn and was the fastest.

The boat leaves you in Tallinn’s port which needs a lot of work. It is undeveloped and not a place you would want to hang around because there is just a lot of broken glass (presumably from drinkers) no seaside restaurants, etc. There is a lot of potential there, but Estonia is recovering from years of Soviet rule and has a lot of problems. The port is apparently not a priority. I just followed the crowd over to the old city and quickly was there. I made the decision to devote my entire time to the old city, so I just saw sights there.

Tallinn was, by the way, the only place where I had trouble using my bankcard to get money (Estonia is not on the euro although it is part of the EU). After making the tour of the ATM’s and even inquiring at a Swedish bank about why my card was not working in their ATM, I was told it was a problem with my bank. Since the card worked fine throughout Finland, it was not a problem with my bank, but a problem with the ATM’s of Tallinn. Fortunately, I had some emergency traveler’s cheques, so that is what I used to get Estonian money. Merchants will take euros but their “commission” was worse than the ripoff rates at the money exchanges.

The highlight of my day was a 2 hour “free” walking tour in English that was really terrific and explained a lot about the city. You pick up the tour across the street from tourist information in the old city. I put “free” in quotes because you are asked for tips at the end. I gave about what I thought I would have been charged had I paid for the tour. You get an overview of the entire old city and many photo opportunities. You do not go inside any of the museums on this tour. After the tour I had a light lunch at Balthazar, a restaurant that advertises itself as a garlic restaurant. I did not go to Old Hansa, the most famous restaurant in the central section of the old city. I thought I might have dinner there later, but I just was not up for a big meal. After eating, I only saw two of the museums: The old apothecary museum (free, basically one room) and the torture museum (There was a charge but I can’t remember how much). The latter was full of gruesome torture instruments. Since most of the museums close at 4:00pm-6:00pm, there is not much to do in Tallinn after that except walk around, buy souvenirs and eat.

There was a bicycle tour in English given by the same people who did the walking tour, but I was not up for it after all the walking I did on the first tour. I thought it might be a bit much to do both in the same day. The bike tour visits sites outside the old city. Perhaps if I ever go back, I will do that one.

I did walk around on my own and ate some of the sugared almonds that are sold all over Tallinn and discovered one market where they were selling woolen sweaters and hats and another that was selling flowers. I did not make any purchases.

Hanging out in the main square, there was music from some of the restaurants and Hari Krishnas running around. Some things are familiar wherever you travel.

And that was my day trip to Tallinn.

As those of you who read my reports on the home exchange know, I had already visited the old fortress of Suomenlinna and the National Museum before my 5 days in Helsinki. What I basically did with my 3 full days in town was a lot of walking. I saw an art museum and one devoted to “Cultures” that had a very interesting exhibition on Surrealism. I never buy museum cards that allow admission to many different museums for a fixed period of time because I find I do not use them. I can do no more than 3 hours of museums at once without a break. For me that means no more than one a day. I did go in the Lutheran Cathedral (the big white one on the photographs) but I never got into the Russian Orthodox Upensky Cathedral. It closes at 4:00pm and had just closed when I tried to get in. I intended to go back but never had the time.

I took one harbor cruise that went all around the harbor past the light house and a different one (only the Sun Line does this one) that goes through the canals. Of course, I did see “Mary Poppins” in Finnish! It was great! Just like Broadway, but in a language I could not understand. The language did not matter as I know the film inside and out and I had seen the musical in New York previously. I was there on opening night and even got interviewed for Finnish TV. I have no idea if they used my interview or not. Since I had not heard from anybody that they had seen me on TV, I presume they didn’t. By the way, Polish TV interviewed me in Tallinn. No idea if that was used either.

I also saw the church in the rock a Finnish Lutheran church that is build right into the rock. Quite something to see. When I got to the church, I had to wait to get in because there was a wedding. It was a Japanese wedding. Japanese couples often go outside Japan to have a western wedding. Apparently the church was one of the places where they do it. I know it goes on in Hawaii and on Prince Edward Island in Canada (they love the “Anne of Green Gables” series of books). The couples doing it are, for the most part, not Christian. You never know what people will do. We all took photos of the professional photographers taking photos afterwards. Then we got into the church.

I also spent a day at Seurasaari an open air museum where old Finnish buildings have been gathered so that you can visit them all in one place. It cost 6 euros and was well worth it. There were college students acting as interpreters. I love those sorts of places as you can get a feel for the life that once was. I bought some patterns for some traditional Finnish aprons for my sister (she does wardrobe in NYC for shows and would not need to read the directions to fool with them) as well as a music CD. My favorite souvenirs of trips are CD’s and artisanal jewelry. They provide nice memories and do not take up a lot of room in the suitcase!

On my last full day in Helsinki (and the last full day of the trip), I went on a morning search for the poster from “Mary Poppins” and eventually secured one (free, but it is at the framer’s where, no doubt, it will not be free). Great conversation piece! In the afternoon I basically did a long walk which got cut short due to an impending thunderstorm. I ended at 5:00pm at Kappelli’s in the Esplanade where some friends met me. They treated me to dinner. Nice restaurant, but I don’t remember the name.

All that was left for me was to take the bus to the airport on my last day. I had plenty of time to get there and the bus was easy to find. In the duty free shop I found a piece of jewelry that cost about the same amount as the euros I had left. As you know if you read the first two reports, I did not go to Lapland. In case anyone asks if I saw any reindeer, I snapped a photo of a stuffed reindeer outside one of the duty free shops. Then it was time to board my flight home.

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