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Twin pearls of the Baltic Sea: Tallinn & Helsinki

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By Terhi Pääskylä-Malmström  •  07.07.2017

Tallinn and Helsinki are two capitals with only 80 kilometres of Baltic Sea and a two-hour ferry ride between them. The cities form a unique twin capital, sometimes referred to as Talsinki. It might even be that in a few decades the cities will be connected by an undersea tunnel – a future prospect being researched as we speak. 

Whatever happens with the tunnel, the cities are already linked with a practically non-stop ferry connection from early in the morning until late in the evening. In 2016, 8.4 million people took a ferry from one city to another. Many of them work across the gulf, some visit their friends and relatives or enjoy a vacation in the neighbouring capital. Others are tourists just like you, wanting to visit both cities during the same trip.

Estonia and Finland are close to each other also linguistically. Estonian and Finnish languages belong to a group of Finno-Ugric languages, and are very similar with each other. Some words are nearly or exactly the same, although it is very hard to master the neighbouring language without some serious learning. What makes it funny – or even a bit risky – is the amount of similar-looking words with completely opposite meanings. E.g. the Estonian word for mill, “veski”, means toilet in Finnish. To make it easier for you, we have gathered a TOP 5 of the best sights in both cities. You can’t go wrong with these!

Tallinn TOP 5


1. Hanseatic Old Town

The Old Town of Tallinn, dating back to the Middle Ages, is one of the best preserved Hanseatic town centres in the whole world. It is also included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The heart of the Old Town is the lively Town Hall Square  with its gothic Town Hall , built in the early 15th century. The Town Hall Tower  is guarded by a weather vane picturing Old Thomas, considered to be the city’s defender. On the other side of the square you can see the Town Hall Pharmacy, the oldest continuously running pharmacy in Europe.   

The winding streets of the Old Town are covered with cobblestones and lined with fascinating architecture. One of the most unique streets is the narrow St. Catherine’s Passage, also one of the most romantic streets in Tallinn. It’s a cosy home to the St. Catherine's Guild, a collection of craft workshops and artists using traditional methods in their various artworks of glassware, ceramics, jewellery and much more. For a handicrafts fan, a visit to the Masters' Courtyard  is a must, as well!

The Old Town is surrounded by a medieval Town Wall, of which 1.9 kilometres and half of its towers still stand to this day. Most of the wall’s 20 defensive towers are open to public, offering a chance to climb up, explore and probably even visit a museum inside. The most popular tower museums are Maiden’s Tower  and Kiek in de Kök, of which the latter also serves as the starting point for visitors interested in the fascinating system of hidden tunnels, the Bastion Passages, that run underneath the city.  

According to a Finnish joke, the old town of Helsinki is also situated in Tallinn, so make sure to enjoy it here. If you want to see something this old, you won’t find it up north. 



2. Panoramic views of Tallinn

To enjoy the beautiful views from up high, go to one of the many viewing platforms of the city. At the Toompea Hill you will find those of PatkuliPiiskopi and Kohtuotsa, the last one offering the most romantic view over the red-roofed Old Town. 

More panoramic views can be admired from the amazing tower of St. Olav’s Church  – once the tallest building in the world. To reach even higher, take a bus trip to the 314-metre TV Tower outside the city centre. When the weather is nice, you can even see Helsinki in the horizon.


3. Arts & greenery in Kadriorg & Pirita

The neighbourhood of Kadriorg is a must for those loving fine art and greenery, and it’s easy to get there by tram. Beautiful houses, some of them dating back as far as the 18th and 19th century, have been renovated, just waiting to be admired. Why not pop in for a lunch or a cup of coffee in one of their fine cafés?

Kadriorg Park with its romantic Swan Pond and Japanese Garden is an ideal place for a stroll in the sun. The President of Estonia likes it here, too – the Presidential Palace is situated right next to the Kadriorg Art Museum. Let your footsteps lead also to the Kumu Art Museum or the nearby Song Festival Grounds, the birthplace of the Singing Revolution. The site is also home to the Estonian Song and Dance Celebration, drawing together up to 34,000 performers and 200,000 spectators every five years. 

Those enjoying glittering waters and beautiful cityscapes should continue their adventure along the Pirita Promenade, a two-kilometre paved pathway stretching along the waterfront from Kadriorg to the popular Pirita Beach. Admire the ever-changing silhouette of the city, listen to the splashing of the waves, breathe in the fresh air – and don’t forget your swimwear!


4. Kalamaja – hipster heaven

Ten years ago, the Kalamaja district was shabby and suspicious. Today, it is the most popular neighbourhood in Tallinn, filled with beautifully renovated wooden houses and the city’s trendiest restaurants, bars and cafés. It is the “it” place for young, trendy hipsters, as well as anyone enjoying a mix of olden days and a modern, vibrant atmosphere.

Telliskivi Creative City, an old factory area, is the artsy heart of the district, full of restaurants, small boutiques, Estonian design shops and culture venues. The neighbouring Depoo Street Food Market and Balti Jaam Market offer a fascinating peek into the lively Estonian market culture and its healthy, yet sometimes exotic groceries.

Not too far away lies also the Seaplane Harbour, home to a world-renowned maritime and military museum. Enjoy the informative exhibitions in the old seaplane hangars and visit historic ships, e.g. the famous submarine Lembit and the Suur Tõll, Europe's largest steam-powered icebreaker.



5. Rotermann Quarter – an architectural gem

Back to the city centre, there is one more place to go. Rotermann Quarter  is an award-winning architectural pearl right in the heart of Tallinn, next to the Harbour and the wonders of Old Town. A busy-working factory area in the 19th century, then badly dilapidated during the Soviet Era, this quarter has emerged from its cocoon and become a bustling commercial and cultural centre, connecting old and brand new with good taste. 

This is the place for some shopping – try Estonia’s major sweet maker Kalev, selling chocolate and other candies, or the brand new Tallinn Design House. And after all that, why not sit down for a nice, refreshing smoothie, sum up your adventures and get ready for a trip to Helsinki!

Helsinki TOP 5


1. Neoclassical Senate Square

The oldest part of Helsinki is situated around Senate Square. The most spectacular of the buildings surrounding the square is the Helsinki Cathedral with its glowing white walls, sturdy granite stairs and beautiful sculptures of the twelve apostles. The cathedral celebrates its 165th anniversary in 2017 – so it’s still a youngster compared with its siblings in Tallinn’s Old Town.

However, the oldest building in Helsinki, the Sederholm House, built back in 1757, lies across the square, hosting the Helsinki City Museum. Around the square you can also see the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland. The statue of the Russian emperor Alexander II stands in the middle reminding us that, in deed, there was a time a hundred years ago, when Finland was a part of Russia. 


2. Lively Market Square 

Just a block away from the Senate Square lies the lively Market Square, famous for its traditional Finnish delicacies such as fried vendace with mashed potatoes and coffee with sweet bun. But beware of the seagulls – and this is not a joke! – they are very defiant, ready to snatch your food whenever you look away. 

The Market Square is lined with the sea on one side and some important buildings on the other: the City Hall of Helsinkithe Presidential Palace and the Main Guard Post at the very corner. And while you’re already next to the SkyWheel, why not take a spin to admire the view and then dip yourself into the waters of Allas Sea Pool, a spa complex with warm outdoor pools and – of course, saunas! 


3. Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Take a ferry from the Market Square and find yourself in the unique island of Suomenlinna, one of the biggest sea fortresses in the world, only 15 minutes away from the busy life of the capital’s centre. 

Suomenlinna holds a historical fortress, museums and some wonderful cafés, and even though the island is small in size, you can spend a whole day there exploring and relaxing. That’s what many locals do: Suomenlinna is a popular picnic location among the Helsinkians, as well as a home for some 800 people. 


4. Museums and culture in the heart of Helsinki

This rather new Kansalaistori Square (Citizens’ Square), especially popular among youth and skateboarders, lies in the heart of the city, between the Musiikkitalo Music Centre and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, next to the Parliament and the National Museum of Finland. Only a stone’s throw away is the Finlandia Hall by the famous architect Alvar Aalto, and even the Finnish National Opera is within walking distance. This is the spot to feel the culture! 

On the other side of the Central Railway Station, famous for its granite sculptures holding lanterns in their muscular hands, there is one more important museum to be found: the Ateneum Art Museum, the home of Finnish art and exhibitions of famous international artists.


5. Bohemian rhapsody

The neighbourhood of Kallio is something for those who enjoy a touch of bohemian lifestyle over the stylish façade of the city centre. Being an old workers’ neighbourhood and one of the trendiest at the moment, Kallio is filled with various bars, cafés and restaurants, ranging from Finnish specialties to vegan, international, exotic and beyond. One of the area’s landmarks is the Kallio Church, which is decorated with Art Nouveau style murals and plays a bell melody from the Finnish national composer Jean Sibelius. 

Not too far away is also a place for those enjoying roller coaster rides and ghost trains: Linnanmäki Amusement Park has entertained fun-loving Finns and their guests since 1950. Don’t forget the neighbouring Sea Life taking you on a fascinating underwater voyage. 

Kallio is also the home of many public saunas. Try the wood-heated Kotiharjun Sauna with loads of local and international fans, and tell your new friends about your adventures in the twin city of Talsinki.

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