A few weeks ago, Matt and I decided to spend the day in Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn is an old medieval city dating back to 1154 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — it basically makes me salivate. It’s only 50 miles south of Helsinki and a 2.5-hour ferry ride (we took the Eckerö line), which made it a perfect day trip for us.
Our ferry left relatively early (around 8.30am) on a Saturday, so I expected a quiet ride there. I was wrong! Now first, let me preface this by saying that if there is one thing I have learned since moving to Helsinki, it’s that Finns love to drink. Americans love to drink, too – Matt and I hit a bar every weekend on date night for a cocktail or glass of wine (and love ordering mimosas at brunch) – but there’s still a bit of a cultural difference surrounding it here. We see things like people stumbling home late on the weekends and open alcoholic drinks in the parks (ourselves included), but it’s usually not a big deal because drinking isn’t as much of an issue here as the US. In Finland, teenagers can start buying alcohol at 18 (only the “light” drinks; no more than 22% alcohol by volume) and can buy hard liquor at age 20, whereas the legal drinking age is 21 back home. I feel like because it’s not taboo here, there are a lot more adult conversations about it and a sort of unspoken etiquette to behave; I don’t see nearly as many obnoxious and loud drunks here as I did while living in downtown Orlando and in San Francisco (especially in the the Marina district). Basically, I am in favor of relaxed alcohol laws.
Which brings me to the actual ferry ride.
It’s 7am and you board the ferry — what do you want to drink? My choice is always caffeine. If I want a productive day, I need to drink a cup or two. It’s a leftover habit from my long and hectic work weeks in San Francisco, and while I’ve cut down on my caffeine consumption, it’s a habit I haven’t been able to shake completely (nor do I want to). I know that some people prefer light alcoholic drinks in the morning, especially for special occasions or a trip. In the US, this usually means some form of mimosa, bloody mary, or maybe a screwdriver. It’s not often that we have cultural shock in Finland, but that morning was one of them: liters of beer, hard liquor (martinis, straight whiskey/bourbon), and bottles of wine were poured freely at the many bars on board the ferry. If I didn’t know the time, I would have thought it was late on a weekend. There were drinking songs being shouted, bets being placed, and playful arguments over who would pay the tab. It seems like a small thing, but it was fascinating to me. I’ve been on a few cruises (including the infamous Carnival line to Mexico over spring break in college), but I have never seen people party so hard and so early. As I clutched my extra-large coffee cup, I could only watch the camaraderie, completely engrossed in the scene unfolding around me. A quick glance at a menu confirmed my suspicion: drinking at sea is cheap. Like a lot of things in Finland, alcohol is taxed pretty heavily and therefore very expensive (our weekly cocktails usually run 9-12€, or roughly $12-17 each) and these were at least half what we see in Helsinki.
More on booze prices later.
We moved out to the main area and explored the ship a bit more and were pretty impressed with the on-board entertainment. Since the trip is so short, I didn’t expect much, but was wrong: There was a large cafe with great views, the aforementioned bars, a duty-free shop, karaoke and show stages, slot machines, a child play area, and much more. Passengers even have the option to book cabins. We opted not to but would consider it with children. I walked by a few open doors and they looked to be fairly spacious, a rarity as space in Europe is at a premium. After exploring, we headed down to breakfast. That was the worst part of the trip — it was just not good. There were both cold and hot stations, but the food was clearly low-quality. Someone even had the bright idea of chopping up days-old and rock-hard bread and sprinkling the barest amount of cinnamon on it and trying to pass it off as dessert. And edible. The hot station in particular was really bad: floppy bacon(?), sad karelian pastries, potatoes, eggs… all tasteless and covered in grease. If you take Eckerö, save your money and pack a snack to last until you reach shore.
The rest of the trip was fairly low-key. We stayed on the top decks where it was quieter and enjoyed the foggy waters.
Our ferry, the Finlandia.
This is the bigger stage reserved for performances.
Isn’t Matt photogenic? I believe that’s Helsinki in the background.
I am also very photogenic. It was really windy and cold. I think I’m wearing three layers under my rain jacket.
Our first glimpse of Tallinn.
We didn’t have a map so we decided to follow this until we reached Old Town, figuring that’s probably a reliable landmark.
Our gamble paid off and we reached Old Town in 10 minutes.
We took this entrance into the old city.
Isn’t this charming?
Old Town’s largest period of activity dates back to the 13th-16th centuries. It doesn’t look like much has changed since then.
We didn’t make solid plans for this trip as we were only there for approximately 6 hours; we used this more of a “scouting” mission for future trips. It was a rainy day so we took the opportunity to duck into random cafes for hot beverages and light snacks whenever we saw an interesting place. Normally, I’d be dragging Matt into various museums and chatting his ear off, but this was a much more relaxed trip.
We saw this walking around….
…along with a lot of graffiti.
This is Kiek in de Kök — Matt insisted that we see this. Apparently its title is an ongoing Reddit joke.
It dates back to 1475 and is now a museum.
Lunch included a beer flight. I know, a British pub while in Tallinn? I couldn’t find “local” food with a tempting menu!
Old Town’s city square where you can eat, drink, and shop to your heart’s content.
I can’t remember all of the churches in Europe. Just most of them.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is in the background.
Seriously, how pretty is this?
Matt takes a picture of me taking a picture. How meta.
We spent most of our time in Old Town. We walked through the modern part of Tallinn after lunch for some shopping, but didn’t end up having much luck. We were hoping to visit the KGB museum, but didn’t think we’d have enough time to do that and run an errand most of our fellow passengers had also come to do: get booze. As I mentioned above, alcohol is heavily taxed and expensive in Finland. Matt and I used to buy our booze at Costco (those savings, yo) and are used to being able to shop around in general for better pricing. In Finland, grocery stores sell beer, cider, and some wine; hard liquor is only sold at Alko. That’s right, ONE store. This is apparently the norm for Nordic countries, and I think it’s ridiculous. Alko is government-owned and the selection is pretty much the same between all stores, including pricing. I saw Tallinn as a choose-your-own-boozeventure, and the Finns definitely take the opportunity to stock up on their alcohol at a much, much, cheaper rate. We brought Matt’s backpack to carry what we wanted and were definitely the odd ones out. People literally bring suitcases with them and load up as much as they can carry. The import laws are pretty lax, and it’s very hard to reach the maximum allowed before you have to start paying duty.
We wandered around four (four!) different stores to price shop before buying what we wanted, including my coveted Four Roses bourbon. There is a liquor store on Finlandia, but it was totally packed and neither one of us wanted to deal with the crowds. Clearly, we cannot hang with the local population and should never challenge anyone to a drinking contest.
This couple walked out of a liquor store near the port.
A lot of engaged couples will supply their wedding reception with alcohol from Tallinn.
Overall, it was a fun day. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a must-see destination, but it makes for a great trip if you have an extra day in Helsinki (or you’re passing through on a cruise). Chances are most visitors will stick to Old Town, so make sure you take a moment to fully enjoy the surroundings and stop to admire its breathtaking views. Tallinn has a rich history and most buildings will have placards detailing their importance or function throughout the years. I enjoyed reading them all, and would like to explore more of the city proper on my next trip.
Part of what’s really striking about a place like Tallinn is just the weight of time. There were tombstones in some of the churches that had dates over 1,000 years old. It’s astonishing to think about what lives were like back then, and to be able to look at a part of them in between pastries and drinks. It’s a great thing to experience anywhere, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to do it in just a few hours of travel. I’m looking forward to visiting again with friends (especially with better weather)!