A few months ago, the Washington Post ran a travel article on Tallinn, calling it “one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe” and describing its past links to Russia. Since we were originally planning on this being a small add-on to a Russian trip, it seemed like a great idea to toss in Tallinn. Plus, it’s just fun to say “Yeah, that time that we were in Estonia…”
It turned out to be even easier to add Tallinn to our itinerary when we decided to focus our trip on just the Nordic countries. The trip between Helsinki and Tallinn is a very short, fairly cheap 90-minute ferry that runs about 6-8 times per day in the summer. Even luckier for us, the hotel we booked in Helsinki was literally three blocks from the Linda Line ferry terminal (the group that does the majority of the trips between the two cities; there are a few other companies that make the connection as well, but they’re generally older, slower boats with only 2-3 trips per day). That quick walk to the ferry made our 6 am wake-up time much more bearable – we just strolled onto the boat and napped for the entirety of the journey.
Perhaps we should have spent at least a few minutes of that ride to study our Rick book, because when we got off the boat, we immediately just started following the crowd in the general direction away from the harbor. We got about a kilometer away when Richie realized that the self-guided Rick walk was supposed to start immediately after we exited the boat, so we consulted the trusty map and retraced our steps. It might’ve been nice if Rick had mentioned that his map was not to scale, because the memorial for the passenger ferry Estonia (which sank in 1994, a fun fact we discovered shortly after leaving our own passenger ferry) was not located on the water, as he described, but literally just out of sight from where we had been moments ago, thinking we had walked too far. Sigh. So we once again retraced our steps, and found ourselves at the memorial and the Fat Margaret tower, which marks the entrance to the old town.
We strolled down Pikk Street, one of the main streets of the Old Town, and found our first stop, St. Olaf’s church. Rick told us that the tower could be climbed for a mere 1 Euro per person, and said that the views were great. Richie asked me, very skeptically, if I really was up for climbing 234 stairs. Well, no, but now that he doubted me, I was.
Approximately 25 steps into the process, I decided that perhaps I should learn to be a little less stubborn and proud.
The views at the top were really gorgeous, though, and definitely worth the 1 Euro. They were NOT, however, worth the 234 steps, as our walk through the Old Town gradually went uphill and ended at a spot nearly as high, with almost as picturesque views. No huffing and puffing required. Thanks for mentioning that three pages later, Rick. We’re no longer friends.
If the sheer number of 234 stairs doesn’t clue you in, this is not a trip for those with a fear of heights. Here’s what it looks like up top:
As you can see, there’s exactly enough room for one person to stand before the big steeple of the church starts sloping upwards. So, when you have to move to let someone pass, as I did several times, you either have to hug the really hot copper sloping steeple, or you have to get up close and personal with the fence. I trusted the steeple more than I did the fence.
After we climbed right back down the 234 steps, waving at the poor woman who climbs those steps at least once every single day to monitor the tourists, we were in need of liquid refreshment. We stopped at a cute little cafe whose menus were printed in Estonian and Russian. “Coke” is understood in every language.
I made a stop at the restroom, and when I came back, I held out my camera to Richie, saying “You have GOT to see this!” Taking the camera gingerly, he asked, “Did you really just take a photo in the bathroom?” Yes, yes I did. My experience was as follows: I was directed to the bathroom at the back end of the cafe, and when I walked up, someone was just exiting. We didn’t speak the same language, but clearly she was a little baffled by her restroom experience. I walked in not knowing what to expect, and found this.
Yep, that’s a tunnel in the bathroom, covered in clear plastic or glass and lit up with some pretty powerful artsy lights. This was approximately 2 feet from the toilet. There were no signs or explanations as to why there was a tunnel in the restroom, or why it should’ve been lit like an art exhibit. My attempts to discover its origins through the power of Google (yes, my Google history now includes “tunnel in restroom tallinn”) resulted in only other baffled travelers’ comments on TripAdvisor.
We continued our walk down Pikk street, which was really lovely – lots of old buildings that were beautifully preserved in various styles, from Gothic to Art Nouveau and everything in between – and made our way to the town hall square.
The old town hall is the centerpiece of the square, and it’s surrounded by souvenir stands and restaurants begging you to take a look at their menus. We gave in to one particularly tempting place and spent a leisurely lunch wanting to throttle the merchant who was selling loud kazoos to very small children.
After lunch, we continued the Rick walk over to the Russian Orthodox church. Along the way, we entered this neat little walkway, which is still the place where the mayor and the prime minister will meet to discuss important agreements between the city and the country. It seems a little strange to conduct business in a hallway, but hey, it’s a pretty one.
The Russian Orthodox church was unfortunately undergoing some reconstruction, and photos weren’t allowed inside. But it was even more beautiful than the one in Helsinki, with similar vibrant colors and paintings but just much, much more.
We actually saw a wedding party leaving here, which was a lot of fun – I’m not sure whether it’s an Estonian tradition or just what these people did, but the cars honked the entire way leaving the church, and the bride and groom got out to take a few pictures in the middle of one of the streets. It’s a good thing she had one of her bridesmaids wear a dress made entirely out of a safety jacket. I’m not sure what exactly the other bridesmaid is wearing, but I’m betting my friends are very glad that I didn’t choose something similar as it involves a neon yellow corset tied up the back.
We also saw the Toompea Castle, which now serves as the Estonian Parliament building, and the attached Tall Hermann tower. The tower is very symbolic to Estonians, as they defiantly removed the Russian flag and replaced it with the old Estonian flag in the days of the USSR’s collapse.
During our walking tour, we also saw approximately five million churches. After awhile, Richie stayed outside and photographed other things while I paid the fees to see the interiors. They were mostly similar to many other European churches, but there was one that had hundreds of coats-of-arms covering the walls, dating from the 1600s up through the early 1900s, which was really neat. Then we came to the point where we saw the viewpoint that DOES NOT require 234 curvy steps to enter. Darn you, Rick Steves.
Thus ended our Rick walk. We had another drink at a nearby cafe, since we realized it was 2 pm and our return boat wasn’t leaving for another 7 hours. We had quite the amount of time to kill. So, we started heading off to some of the other recommended sites. The first was the Balti Jaam market, which Rick mentioned was not of much use for tourists other than the photo opportunities. It’s just past the train station, and Rick wasn’t lying – it’s the local market where everyone speaks either Estonian or Russian. I think the highlight was when we saw that you could buy tombstones there. Right next to the dill and the cranberries. That’s one-stop shopping, people.
We then headed to the other end of the old town to check out the Sweater Wall and the glassblowing alley. The sweater wall once held grandmothers selling hand-knitted items, and now features people pretending to be grandmothers selling faux-hand-knitted items. Nothing there or in the glassblowing places struck our fancy, but it was a fun end to our walk through the Old Town.
One of the sights I wanted to see the most was Kadriorg Park and the Kadriorg Palace. The park and palace were built as the summer home for Tsarina Catherine by Peter the Great in the 1700s. The art museum contained within the palace was closed for the summer, but the photo of the exterior and the park in our guidebook was enough to sell me on it. Our not-so-trusty Rick book mentioned that it was a quick tram ride or an “easy 15-minute walk” down one of the main city streets. We opted for the walk, since we still had several hours to kill. Twenty minutes later, we bought a tram ticket for our return trip as we still weren’t in sight of the park. It took probably thirty minutes total, and when we arrived, Richie plopped down and said “Go see what you want… I’ll be right here.”
I trotted off to the palace, which did not disappoint. It was adorable and had a lovely rose garden in the back, complete with fountains and angry god-statues spearing things.
Rather than explore the whole park, since my feet were at this point killing me, I headed back to Richie and enjoyed some laying-in-the-grass time. It was a gorgeous day for it.
We finally gathered up the energy to use our return tram tickets to get back to the Old Town for some delicious Indian food at Elevant. It was the perfect way to end our day! We strolled back to the ferry terminal, noting that Texans seem to be appreciated worldwide, since every city we’ve visited has had something like this:
Just your typical Estonian-Texan honky tonk.
On our way back to the boat, I had to snap a picture of this – this is the first building we saw in Tallinn upon arriving, which was when we thought we might’ve been a little lost. I really like the spray-painted “exhibition” sign (just below the arrow, if you can’t see it). It lends a little authenticity. Sadly, we did not appear to be there for their opening hours. I’m sure we missed a true diamond in the rough.
We boarded our ferry back to Helsinki at around 9 pm, and that was basically the end of our trip! We got up the next morning and flew home to two exhausted puppies, who had been playing with Laci and the other dogs they stayed with non-stop. It was so good to be back home, but I am already missing the cool temperatures of Scandinavia. Today we reached 99 degrees, which may not sound hot to those of you currently experiencing 100+ in Dallas, but you should try it in the land of very little air conditioning.
One thing that did disappoint me about the trip – no stamps in my passport! I know the Schengen agreement has probably saved countries lots of money, and saves lots of time for tourists and frequent travelers, but I miss the days of having a new stamp for every country in my passport. I think, of the four countries we were in, we had our passport glanced at once for about 3 nanoseconds (by a guy in a t-shirt and flannels, no less).
Our next trip is Barcelona in mid-August, so for those who have been, any tips or recommendations would be greatly appreciated! Let me know if you’re planning a trip to any of the countries we visited and I’d be happy to return the favor 🙂