Baltics or Bust: Estonia!

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

BALTICS OR BUST! The second country Ashlyn and I visited on our whirlwind trip through the Baltic States was beautiful Estonia! If you missed our first destination (Helsinki, Finland), you can read all about it here. First we flew to Finland, then took a ferry to Estonia, rented a car and drove down through Latvia and Lithuania – an incredible journey. From Finland, we arrived in Tallinn, Estonia via ferry, and checked into our hotel (where we stayed for free – thanks, Hilton Honors points!) and made a plan to get a bite to eat and explore the town. We got a kick out of the ferry ride, where we saw lots of Finland folks coming over for the day for only about $10 to shop and eat and drink for cheap compared to in Helsinki! (We had heard of this being a “thing,” and we giggled when we noticed people clearly on the ferry for this purpose.) To our pleasant surprise, Tallinn was also an explosion of fall colors in every direction – check out our view from the Hilton Tallinn Park hotel window – so we were excited to get out there and see what this charming city had to offer. One step out into the Politseiaia Park in front of the hotel and we were already totally in love! We ended up going almost everywhere in Tallinn on foot, but it is also possible to take local busses and trams, and Uber is also available in town.

Tallinn

Tallinn has almost a half million people, so is the largest city in Estonia. It is known for its historic architecture, tourism, and inventiveness. Some consider Tallinn the “Silicon Valley” of Europe! It is also distinctly female at a ratio of about 8.5 men for every 10 women. And for being a small country, they are mighty! Their Olympic medal ratio is in the top 10 in the world, they have a very high literacy rate, and they are credited with the invention of Skype, where 40% of the employees for the platform are from! Additionally, only 12% of the population is religious (in spite of several lovely churches), the entire population votes online, and they’re very famous for holiday Christmas markets!

We noticed right away how beautiful the shops are here! Every single place is tastefully decorated, and often has a sustainability theme. Gift shops were crafty and creative, with many natural materials such as wood, wool, wax, and Baltic sea amber.

Of course we had to get our fill of local foods! We didn’t have enough meals while we were in town to try everything we wanted (including Restauran Moon – sad!) but what we did end up eating brunch was such a treat! Røst Bakery was a sheer sensory delight! We ordered sandwiches, drinks and cinnamon/cardamom pastries and savored them while watching the young baker nearby work wonders with his sourdough bread mix. Such a treat! And we highly recommend it. There is limited seating inside, but plenty of outside seating. That part of town was so cute, too – a quaint little industrial complex – you just have to wander to appreciate!

Later, we picked up hand pies from Nikolay Bar-buffeé – which could be one of the best things we ate in all of the Baltics! What’s better than sweet and savory hand pies? I can still taste the potato and mushroom slice (we ordered a whole box of various pies to eat on our road trip!) and the cherry/cottage cheese pie was a surprising delight! Check out their full menu here.

As we wandered the streets trying to hit all of our “must see” points of interest, Ashlyn told me of a seagull on TickTock named Steven. Apparently this seagull has visited the window of a young man in Tallinn for nearly 10 months – the man feeds her to gain her trust (it’s a she, the man later found out, as she had babies!) and even taught her to do tricks. The videos are hilarious, with the man giving a voice to the seagull and gaining a huge following on video sharing platforms. Check it out!. As of this writing, Steven has reported to have migrated, but when we were there in the fall, we got a kick out of looking for “Steven,” and several areas had plenty of seagulls, so it didn’t disappoint! The best place to go Steven the Seagull spotting in Tallinn is the Kohtuotsa viewing platform that also has a beautiful view overlooking the city!

The streets of Tallinn are charming in every direction – statues (like the random one below of Sean Connery) and memorials dot the landscape, as do lovely fountains, monuments and historic ruins and architecture. I loved the Viru Gate and streets lined with colorful buildings.

On your walk through town, don’t miss the Masters’ Courtyard: a sweet little nook with shops and eateries nestled in an ivy-lined courtyard that is too picture perfect to miss. Katariina käik is a street with attractive archways that represent a bridge between the past and the present, and a wall lined with old remnants of old tombstones from the 14th and 15th centuries. Here, 14 craftswomen work in 8 studios that you are welcome to explore – or just wander down the medieval looking street! The Art Studio Ichthus is another point of interest in this area of town that reminded me of a movie set!

Continuing towards the center of town, you’ll find yourself in the midst of beautiful buildings wherever you look! The city is set up well for outdoor dining, and shops everywhere beckon. One of my favorite shops was the Lühikese Jala Gallery, where I fell in love with their painted silks and dream of having one someday! Their products can be viewed here. We found adorable gifts at Woolish Knitting OÜ as well – they have more than just wool items!

The Town Hall Square is a grand place situated next to the gothic Town Hall that dates back to the 13th century! Here you can grab a bite or take a horse and carriage tour through the old streets of Tallinn. I loved this square so much! I wish we had more time to explore it. There was music playing and children running around, and it felt like I had stepped through a time portal. I can’t say it enough – I LOVE this city!

How ridiculously charming is this?!

While wandering, we took a little detour into St. Nicholas’ Church and Museum. They were having a lecture, so we took our audioguides and made our way through the historic art displays on our own, trying not to get shushed by the attendees! (Ok, we were shushed once when there was a funny part in the audioguide…) The most interesting thing I saw in this 13th century church was the infamous “Dance of Death” work of art, dating back to the late 1400’s, which invites onlookers to contemplate the futility of life. There was also a temporary exhibit of several sequential paintings depicting a saint I had never heard of: Dymphna! The display depicted the life of Saint Dymphna, who had quite an extraordinary story in her youth that you can learn more about here, and the panels are visible in the photo below, bottom right.

The “Dance of Death,” a macabre religious painting by Bernt Notke (photo: wikipedia)

Not far from St. Nicholas’ church is the Halloween-appropriate Danish King’s Garden. It was here, apparently, that the Danish flag was born. The ramparts and tunnels can be toured (and we would have if we had more time…never enough time!) and cost about €12 per adult. These bastion towers and walls were built in the 15th century! The tour takes you through life in Old Tallinn including the warfare and medieval punishments and chronicles the devastation of plagues and famines throughout history. You don’t have to do the tour to get a feel for the place. We walked through the courtyard and visited the famous Three Faceless Monks! The “Waiting” Monk, the “Praying” Monk, and the “Observant” Monk. They are quite large at 2.5m high (you can see from the scale of my 6′ frame next to one below) and also decidedly spooky!

Around the corner from the Danish King’s Garden is the iconic Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral, built in the 1800’s. As mentioned before, Tallinn (and all of Estonia) is not an especially religious place, but the cathedral is a landmark that is not to be missed. I love the Russian-inspired hershey-kiss rooftop design and colorful exterior! The interior is even more colorful – but, like all Orthodox cathedrals, no photography is allowed inside.

Estonian Design House

A fascinating little piece of Tallinn culture we learned about was their admiration of doors. There is no question Tallinn boasts some beautiful doors, but they’re so special they’ve been made into iconic works of art! In total, I believe, there are around 200 doors that have been captured by photographers and made into every kind of poster, mug, and souvenir imaginable. Keep an eye out for for these eye popping entryways on your journey through Tallinn!

We could see Toompea Castle in the distance as we made our way to Freedom Square by way of beautiful Harjumägi park. Here, a foliage was lively, as the backdrop to the classic Tallinn sign and fountain! I give the city credit for gorgeous floral displays, pop up photo ops and this incredible trellis walk (below) that was like a rainbow of lovely leaves for autumn.

From the park we walked down to Freedom Square that also was alive with what appeared to be a pop-up art instillation! Thousands of stumps littered the square – a display aptly named “A Thought Break.” It was created to be entertainment, play, be pondered, be admired, and to make people think about the importance of logs and the well-being of Estonia’s trees.

In the all-too-brief time we were in Estonia, we made sure to drive to the glorious Kadriorg park and art museum – because when else do you see a pink palace? Also, the canal, park, and trellis walks were breathtaking with autumn colors! My travel buddy Ashlyn of Middle World Adventures especially loved the palace…as she’s a former Soviet/Russian history buff!

This amazing Kadriorg Art museum was once a palace for Catherine the I of Russia, built by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great in the late 1700’s. Her grand-daughter in law, Catherine the Great, was Russia’s longest reigning female ruler – with an illustrious and scandalous history. Voltaire has said that the life of Catherine I was as impressive as the life of her husband Peter the Great. I find it fascinating that she delivered twelve children, but only two survived to adulthood – let alone that she grew up a maid, married the Tsar (who elevated the position to Emperor), and after his death was crowned Empress of Russia! Now that’s a story!

We rented a little peppy car in Tallinn and made our way (slowly, on pretty terrible roads) south to Riga, Latvia – a 5 hour drive because I insisted on stopping in Cēsis, Latvia at the castle park (otherwise it would have been a four hour drive). This turned out to be a bit of a flop as it was too dark to see, and everything was closed after sundown. We would have also liked to stop at the Russian Secret Bunker just south of Cēsis, but it was just too late. Read on to learn all about our experience in Riga, Latvia!

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