I visited Helsinki, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia, after it became apparent that Denmark will not be providing the goods when it comes to snow. I’m living in Scandinavia in winter, so I’ve really been hoping for a winter wonderland and my experience in Helsinki and Tallinn gave me just that.
I travelled to Helsinki with my friend Steph but we only had one night there before travelling to Tallinn. We’d heard that Tallinn was a nicer city to visit so we decided to spend more time there, but we gave ourselves another day after Tallinn to explore Helsinki a little bit. A lot of people go to the north of Finland to experience the wild winter, sleeping under the northern lights and sledding with huskies but due to budget and time restrictions we just stayed in the capital and explored some of what the city had to offer. Aside from our sauna visit, we just wandered around the city for a few hours (it was too cold to stay outside too long), and saw the Helsinki Cathedral, Uspenski Cathedral, the old school trams and a few of the city parks.
Sauna and Ice Swimming
One of the things that Finnish people love to do is a sauna followed by an ice swim. Traditionally they just cut a hole in a frozen lake, making it a true ice swim. We decided to visit one of the most popular sauna spots, Löyly. Given that there are almost as many saunas as people in Finland (roughly 3 million saunas and 5 million people), there were so many to choose from, but we opted for the most touristic one. I actually don’t know why I paid 19 Euros to be uncomfortably hot in a room full of barely dressed, sweating strangers, but as the saying goes…when in Rome, do as the Romans do. And why not do it in one of the best spots?
There were two large, co-ed saunas and then a shared lounge room with a big fireplace. Because it is located on the waters edge, there’s a ladder down into the Baltic Sea which made for a pleasant, icy dip. Apparently my bikini bottoms are my big girl pants, because I put them on and headed out onto the snow coated deck to plunge myself into the near freezing water a couple of times after cooking in the sauna. The water was so cold that the handles of the ladder were coated in ice and it took my breath away, so needless to say, I was only in for a few seconds. You can see the video proof on my Instagram here. I actually preferred the cold water to sitting in the sauna though, I don’t know how the Finns do it. I was uncomfortable after a few minutes and had to leave.
Despite my lack of appreciation for the heat, I would still recommend trying the sauna; it’s a big part of the Finnish culture, and in the wider Nordic region for that matter, and apparently has a lot of health benefits, even the ice swim!
I’m not going to lie, I had never heard of Tallinn until Steph said we should go there on the ferry from Helsinki. I’m so glad she did!! The ferry across to Estonia from Finland was actually a large cruise ship, it only took a couple of hours and wasn’t too expensive, I think from memory it was around 40E return. We arrived to another snowy scene and headed to our AirBnB, which was located right in the heart of the Old Town. We really couldn’t have picked a better spot! It was across the road from St Nicholas’ Church and Museum, and at the foot of Toompea Hill, which is home to a castle, a couple more churches and the current parliament house.
We were there for 3 days, which was plenty of time for sightseeing as it’s a pretty small city, especially in the Old Town. We did a 2 hour walking tour which was great to understand the history of the town, I highly recommend doing one of these in any city you visit. The rest of the time was spent exploring the city; we didn’t do anything very touristic. Because I’m such a connoisseur of local cuisine, we only had supermarket food except for one night when we decided to treat ourselves and go out for dinner…at Wok to Walk. It’s a noodle joint, and that was sarcasm.
Highlights of Tallinn
I loved walking up Toompea Hill to see the snow-clad town below and another highlight was the quirky markets, Balti Jaama Turg. It was home to some delicious looking food stands, clothing stores and a bunch of Soviet memorabilia amongst a plethora of antiques and knick-knacks.
I lied earlier, we did actually try some local food. Well…some treats to be exact; one night we went to a dessert store and tried one of the local treats; Vahukoore kukkel nustikanoosige (that may be spelled completely wrong, check the sign in the picture below). It was basically a jam donut with a heap of whipped cream, quite delicious! And then I was a true [big] kid in a candy shop when we visited the Kalev store. I found it quite strange that the bespoke chocolate store sold its products for cheaper prices than the supermarkets etc, because usually it’s the other way round (looking at you, M&M stores!). So, needless to say, we sampled a fair few goodies and stocked up on some to bring back with us.
So, overall, Stephanie and I both loved Helsinki and Tallinn. Although we didn’t go deep into Finland to get more “Finnish” experiences like seeing the Northern Lights or riding a husky/reindeer sled, I really enjoyed my trip away. You can bet that I looked like a right muppet, playing in the snow any chance I got and stopping to try and catch snowflakes on my tongue, but sometimes you just have to get lost in the moment.
Have you ever visited Helsinki or Tallinn? What would you recommend for someone who wants to visit either?