I've just returned back from a six day trip to Estonia, Finland and Latvia, with my daughter, Laura. We travelled by ferry, bus, tram and plane and managed to fit so many things in in such a short space of time including visiting the capitals of all the three countries along with seeing their major tourist attractions.
Day 1 - London to Tallinn, Estonia
As we had to rearrange this trip at short notice due to family circumstances, we flew from London Stansted which is somewhere I've never been before. Our flight to Tallinn in Estonia lasted just under 3 hours. As we had only hand luggage, we rushed through passport control and onto a waiting bus which took us into the city centre at Tallinn. We were not asked for a fare for the bus so managed to travel for free but I think we were supposed to prepay tickets and swipe them in the bus. We had a twenty minute walk to our hotel which we found quite easily at around 11pm. The room was in a basement floor down two flights of stairs and felt a little claustrophobic but was fine for just the one night.
Day 2 - Tallinn, Estonia to Helsinki, Finland
The next morning we travelled through the labyrinth like tunnels to find the breakfast room. My breakfast consisted of hard boiled eggs, olives, pickled tomatoes and chillies, and a strong coffee to set me up for the day ahead. We checked our of the hotel and walked up to the main square where we purchased our first postcard and sent it off to grandma.
The next hour was spent looking around the wonderful medieval old town, much of which is on the UNESCO world heritage list, and primarily taking in the sights of Toompea, the Cathedral Hill, which includes Toompea Castle, St Alexander Nevski Cathedral and the Cathedral of St Mary.
On our way to the ferry terminal, we climbed up the steps of the church tower at St Olaf's church, built in the 12th century and dedicated to King Olaf of Norway, which was a little crazy. It was a stone, spiral staircase that was extremely crowded and took us 30 minutes to climb up and down but the views from the top were amazing. We carried on past the Great Coastal Gate and Fat Margarets Tower to the ferry terminal for our 12:00 sailing to Helsinki, Finland.
We sailed on the MS Finlandia, a ship on the Eckero Line with the capacity to carry 2080 people, and had booked the tickets by phone a week ago for a very reasonable 53 euros return for the two of us. The ship was enormous with numerous bars, dance bars, entertainment areas, restaurants and plenty of seating. I was very impressed with the facilities and enjoyed listening to the Estonian acoustic guitarist in one of the bars to while away the two hour and a half hour crossing.
There was a short walk from the ferry to the ferry terminal at Helsinki where we bought two single tickets to the central station - an adult one for €2.50 and a child for €1.30. Our hotel was a 20 minute walk from the station, and, after checking in and dumping our bags, we set off for a walk around the Toolo Bay area.
The wall took us around both Toolonlathti and Tokoinranta lakes and we got to see the National Opera House, the Music Centre and the Ateneum. Laura and I were really impressed with the amount of greenery around the city as well as the amount of exercise that was going on - and that wasn't just the cyclists who were everywhere in Helsinki.
In Toolo Bay Park there were many outdoor gyms, cycle paths, a Tai Chi class and even an open air couples dancing session. After the walk round the park we went to some of the shopping malls, one of which was six floors high and had an underground area which linked to the central bus station. Apparently the mall (called Kampii) was the biggest single construction project in all of Finland's history. We spent a lot of time in the Moomin shop (the creator of the Moomins , Tove Jannson , came from Helsinki) and bought some souvenirs too. (Moomin ones, of course! )
Feeling tired after a long day, we headed back to the hotel for an early night so we could make the most of tomorrow.
Day 3 - Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia
After a rather agreeable buffet breakfast we set off to see Helsinki Cathedral and the old market square before checking out of our hotel. We then visited Kiasma, a contemporary art museum which exhibits the contemporary art collection of the Finnish National Gallery. The museum had some fabulous exhibits inside including a 3D figure of a man which was made out of plaster and appeared as if it was pixelating, a massive picture of a flower made out of sweets and a 3 square metre collection of multi coloured ribbons that you could walk through and immerse yourself in.
Later that afternoon, on the ferry crossing back to Estonia, we talked about the differences between the two cities. Helsinki was a very modern city with many shopping malls and modern facilities whereas Tallinn had a fabulous old town to explore. Helsinki was a lot more expensive that Tallinn. Whereas Tallinn was very built up, Helsinki had lots of green space and water within the city and many people rode bicycles to transport themselves around the city.
The walk to our hotel from the ferry terminal didn't take long and before long we'd checked into the most luxurious hotel on this trip which has its own water park, saunas and Olympic size swimming pool. Later that evening, after a swim, slide and sauna, we went for an evening stroll around the old town, which was quite enchanting with its medieval entertainers, flower market and horse drawn carriages.
Day 4 - Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia
The next day we checked out of our hotel and walked across the new town of Tallinn to the central bus station where we caught out bus to Riga in Latvia. The bus journey took four and a half hours and was quite uneventful although the free coffee and wifi helped to while away the time. The bus cost 38 euros for a return which I thought was quite reasonable. Although half of the trip followed the coast road down to Riga, the views were mainly of forests - so much greenery, it was lovely to see. What I have found unusual on this trip is that we haven't needed to show passports when going from country to country - I suppose that when you fly you get used to showing your passport and expect it every time that you travel to different countries.
Upon arrival at Riga bus station late in the afternoon , we were directed to our hotel by the tourist information staff. It was only a 20 minute walk away but, although the hotel was really nice, the walk to it was through a dodgy looking neighbourhood. After checking in, we dumped our bags and set off on a walking city tour. The city was lovely with lots of interesting architecture, monuments and views. We took in the central market, the freedom monument, Riga cathedral, the house of blackheads, the Latvian riflemen monument and Riga castle. Oh, and a lovely pizzeria for our dinner!
Day 5 - Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia
On Thursday, our last full day, we organised a Segway tour of Riga which was brilliant. The guide showed us around many sights we hadn't seen yesterday, including getting an outdoor lift to the top of the Radisson Blu hotel to get a fabulous view of the city and seeing some of the fabulous architecture around Latvia. He gave us lots of interesting facts around the route such as: half the population of Latvia speak Russian as their first language, the Latvian currency used to be called the Lat before they converted to the Euro and the Lithuanian currency used to be called the Lit, the official language of Latvia is Latvian and the official language of Lithuania is Litvan. We also discussed Latvia's joining of the European Union. His view was that it was a good thing because it meant he could travel wherever he wanted and it has increased tourism to Latvia. When I asked him about immigration, he said that there had been an influx of immigrants from Asia, not from Europe as in the UK, but it was difficult for non-Latvians to get work because jobs are given to friends and family first.
After the tour we bought souvenirs and went back to the hotel to gather our luggage (a small rucksack each). We then walked through the market to buy some provisions for the bus journey back to Tallinn, Estonia.
The journey back to Tallinn was pretty uneventful and we arrived late in the afternoon. After a short walk to our hotel and a quick change we went out into the old town for a lovely Indian meal followed by a McDonald's caramel sundae. Yum!
Day 6 - Tallinn, Estonia to Stansted, London to home
After a short bus ride we ended up at the airport and then another airport and then home.
Laura's favourite part of the trip was the Segway tour in Riga and her favourite city was Tallinn as she thought it was really pretty. I really enjoyed the modern art museum in Helsinki, exploring the old town in Tallinn and the Segway tour of Riga too. Maybe these countries are not on most people's list of places to go, but we found then fascinating and would heartily recommend you try them out for yourself.