Riga + Tallinn + Helsinki

I have to be honest – before booking my flight to Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia, I first needed to look them up on Google Maps to find out where they were.  However, it’s trips like these that usually make for the best memories because you have no preconceptions or expectations of the cities you are traveling to.  I decided to take a trip to these Baltic countries since I was able to find very cheap Ryanair flights from Bremen (about an hour from where I live in Germany) to Riga and back from Tallinn (around 50 euro round trip).  Also, from Tallinn, I took a ferry to Helsinki for 2 days which I couldn’t pass up since I was in the area.  Of the three cities on this trip, I enjoyed Riga the most due to the people I met and the lack of tourists compared to Tallinn.  Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the most scenic medieval settings I’ve been to, and they definitely know it as they’ve stationed people around each street corner dressed in medieval garb.  Being one that usually searches for authentic experiences, I was a bit disappointed in that aspect of Tallinn (if I want to see something that touristy, I’d go to a Renaissance Fair).  With that being said, it was still a beautiful city and serves as an excellent connection to Finland via ferry!


The first city, and my favorite of the trip, was Riga.  These buildings caught my eye on my first day there, and I made sure to revisit them many times after that.  The square and church behind them seemed to be popular meeting places for free city tours.


As with most old towns, Riga had many beautiful small streets, this one being a particularly scenic one with the church tower in the background.  Also, in this photo is one of the many amber shops located throughout Riga.  I saw a lot of amber jewelry for sale, testament to the fact that the Baltic Region is known for having the largest amber deposit in the world.


This is one of the center squares in the old town, with a stage set up for a special event that I unfortunately never saw.  I love the architectural style of the buildings lining the plaza.


Right outside of old town is a large park, which also had a small river passing through it.  I love seeing such large green spaces located directly in city centers.


The hostel I stayed at in Riga offered a lot of activities in the city – one being a weapons package at a local shooting range.  Being American, I couldn’t pass up the chance to exercise my 2nd Amendment rights in a foreign country – I was able to shoot a glock, pump aciton shotgun, and of course my favorite – an AK47.  Another unique aspect of Riga that I experienced was the black market located in “Little Moscow,” the former Jewish Ghetto during WWII.  If you take some time to sift through the loads of junk they have, you will most likely find something very interesting and unique such as old USSR medals and badges.  In addition to the black market, Riga also has a legitimate, massive city market which sells everything from fruit, bread, and fresh eels to coats, hats, and fishing poles.


Another square in Riga that I passed through on my first night.


My favorite plaza at night – absolutely beautiful.  I highly recommend visiting Riga, especially for the food and drink.  While I do not have any pictures, I can compare Riga’s food prices to that of Prague, as well as the quality of beer.  I ate three times at a restaurant/bar in old town called Ala, and each time ordered very delicious, filling meals of meat/fish and potatoes for only $6-7.  The beer was also very unique, my 2nd favorite only behind Czech, and reasonably priced too, around $2-3 a pint.  I would definitely say that one of the main reasons I liked Riga was that it reminded me of a smaller Prague.


From Riga, I took a 4 hour bus via Eurolines to Tallinn that only cost around $15, an excellent deal.  Immediately upon entering Tallinn, I noticed how developed and urbanized it was compared to Riga, something that I’m sure is due to Estonia’s prowess in IT and internet.  Estonia boasts one of the fastest internet connections in the world (with almost every place offering free public wifi), as well as being credited with the creation of the Skype software.  In addition, the Elvish spoken language in the Lord of Rings films was based off of the Estonia language.  (Credit goes to my couchsurfing friend Marianne for those fun-facts about Estonia).  While the majority of Tallinn’s center is highly developed, its old town seems to remain as an authentic medieval city, with numerous towers rising above the rooftops.


My favorite building in Tallinn was definitely the Orthodox Church, being that it was my first taste of Russian Orthodox architecture.  I sat in this park admiring the building for over an hour, planning out my first trip to Russia in my head.


I love the buildings that surround Tallinn’s main square, Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square).  The square was a hub of activity, as are most central plazas, and was full of people during the day and into the night.


Much like Riga, Tallinn’s old town had the beautiful, winding streets lined by buildings unique to the Baltic region.  Compared to Riga though, Tallinn definitely catered more to the tourists with its many  souvenir shops and medieval-themed restaurants.


Another shot of Raekoja plats at dusk.  It had rained earlier, which allowed the cobblestones to reflect some of the lights from the buildings.  I love the cobblestone look here in Europe, as most US cities don’t have them.


Tallinn is located directly on the Baltic Sea/Gulf of Finland, which I tried to show in this photo from the bell tower overlooking Town Hall Square.  On the right side of the photo, you can see the ferries that link Tallinn with Stockholm, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg.  I can’t speak for all of the ferries, but the one to Helsinki is a unique experience.  I recommend taking the Saturday evening Eckerö Line, as it is full of Finns taking advantage of the duty free alcohol aboard the ship.  Complete with a dance floor and live band, this 20 euro ferry trip is definitely a can’t miss.


During my last day in Tallinn, it started to rain so I took cover in one of the numerous cafes scattered throughout Old Town.  When I exited an hour later, the rain had stopped and the setting sun was just peaking through the clouds, creating the awesome, natural lighting conditions in this photo.  I found the streets of Old Town interesting, with the two different types and patterns of cobblestones emphasizing the division between the parking and driving lane.


A nice, modern green space bordering one of the main walks on the edge of the old town.


I really like this building, situated between a fork in the side-streets in Old Town.


While trying to photograph one of the many towers of Tallinn, someone got in the way…


One more photo of the buildings lining Town Hall Square, this time at night.  I love the way the lights reflect off of the wet cobblestones, as well as the shadows that the silhouettes of the people create.


A view of a few of the towers as well as the Orthodox Church, framed by the window of the Town Hall bell tower.  I stayed in the tower for over an hour, watching the sunset behind the clouds of the passing storm.  As I approached the door at the bottom, I found it closed and locked.  After a few seconds of panic and knocking, the lady opened it and informed me that she had just locked it for the night and was about to leave – a very close call.


After recovering from my surprise ferry experience (I had at first intended to sleep), I set out to see Helsinki.  Unfortunately, due to the short daylight and extremely foggy weather, I don’t have many photos of city.  However, while walking around the Helsinki, I noticed that it had a distinct atmosphere and an impressive amount of activity on the streets, even with the unfavorable weather conditions.  The building behind the statue of Emperor Alexander II in Senate Square is one of the iconic images of Helsinki – the Lutheran Cathedral or Tuomiokirkko.


This one one of my favorite streets that I saw in Helsinki because of the diverse amount of activity happening along it.  On the left, there is  the normal array of residences and small city shops, while on the other side of the street is a bike lane and pedestrian boulevard that borders the marina. After only a day in the city, you can tell that the city is heavily influenced by its proximity to the sea, especially by the food.  In one day, I ate salmon salad, salmon soup, and a salmon sandwich, all of which were delicious.


The Lutheran Cathedral shot from outside the Russian Orthodox Church.


The city also has an impressive amount of green space, which I imagine is very lively during the summer months.  However, even on a wet and cold day, I came across this couple admiring the Lutheran Cathedral from one of Helsinki’s many parks.