Image: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Rick Steves
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral tops the hill in Tallinn's Toompea district. The Russians built it over the supposed grave of a legendary Estonian folk hero, Kalevipoeg.
Tribune Media Services
updated 3/9/2011 6:15:57 PM ET 2011-03-09T23:15:57

Helsinki and Tallinn are two great capitals in Northern Europe. Just 50 miles and a two-hour ferry ride apart, these two cities — facing each other across the Baltic Sea from their respective countries of Finland and Estonia — are not only neighbors, but soul sisters.

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Finns and Estonians share a similar history — first Swedish domination, then Russian, then independence after World War I. But while Finland held on to its freedom through the Cold War, Estonia was gobbled up by the expanding Soviet Empire and spent the decades after World War II under communism, regaining its freedom in 1991.

Today both are enjoying good times as members of the European Union. And now they share another commonality: currency. In 2011, Estonia became the latest nation to adopt the euro (Finland was one of the first, in 1999) — making it even more of a natural to pair Helsinki and Tallinn in your travels.

Russian influence
In spite of its Swedish roots, old Helsinki feels Russian. When the Russians took over Finland in 1809, they moved the capital to Helsinki and hired German architect Carl Ludvig Engel to model the city after their capital, St. Petersburg. This resulted in fine Neoclassical squares and stone buildings with white trim and columns. Because filming in Russia was not possible during the Cold War, movies like "Gorky Park" and "Dr. Zhivago" were actually filmed in Helsinki.

Helsinki's grand boulevard, the Esplanade, provides wide and inviting sidewalks for shoppers and a people-friendly park up the middle. At the top of the Esplanade is Market Square, Helsinki's delightful harborfront square. The colorful outdoor market is worth a stop for the quickest, cheapest lunch in town. The salmon grills are a favorite. Everyone from the Finnish president to tourists stop by for a dash of local flavor.

At the shore is a wooden deck with washing tables built out over the water. The city provides this for locals to clean their carpets. A good Saturday chore in summer is to bring the family carpet down to the harborfront, scrub it with seawater, and let it air-dry in the Baltic breeze.

A short ferry ride takes you across the harbor to Helsinki's most important sight: Suomenlinna Fortress. The Swedes built it with French financial support in the mid-1700s to counter Russia's rise to power. Think of it as European superpower chess. The Russians moved to St. Petersburg. The French countered by moving a Swedish castle to Helsinki, stopping the Russian offensive — for the time being. These days it serves as a popular park with scenic strolling paths.

Eat, drink and shop in Tallinn
From Helsinki's harbor, ferries zip across the Baltic to Tallinn. The trip is so easy that Finns routinely visit Tallinn to eat, drink, and shop more cheaply than at home. On summer weekends, the city virtually becomes a Finnish nightclub.

Tallinn once consisted of two feuding medieval towns. Toompea — the upper town on a hill — was the seat of government ruling Estonia. The lower town was an independent city, a Hanseatic trading center filled with German, Danish, and Swedish merchants who hired Estonians to do their menial labor.

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At the center of the lower town is Town Hall Square, a marketplace through the centuries. The 15th-century town hall dominating the square is now a museum with city history exhibits; climbing its tower earns a commanding view.

Like many tourist zones, Tallinn's is a commercial gauntlet with medieval-themed restaurants and enthusiastic hawkers of ye olde tasty treats. It's also Muzak hell: Billy Joel melodies done a la Kenny G. But, for me, just a couple of blocks away is where you'll find the real attraction of Tallinn — work-a-day locals enjoying freedom and better economic times. Still-ramshackle courtyards host inviting cafes. Bistros serve organic cuisine in a chic patina of old-world-meets new.

Climbing the stairs from the lower old town into Toompea, you'll notice that the architecture tells a story. For instance, the Russians built the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in 1900. Facing the parliament building, it was clearly designed to flex Russian cultural muscles during a period of Estonian national revival. It's a beautiful building, but most Estonians don't like it.

Near the cathedral, Tallinn's Museum of Occupations tells the history of Estonia under Nazi and Soviet occupation. Suitcases are a reminder of people who fled the country, leaving everything behind. Displays show how Russians kept Estonians in line through surveillance. Prison doors evoke the countless lives lost in detention and deportation. And statues of the communist leaders who once lorded over the Estonian people are now in the basement guarding the toilets.

After suffering through a challenging 20th century, Tallinn has joined Helsinki as a vibrant and welcoming destination. While both cities have their own story to tell, they also share a common heritage — and spirit of resilience.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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