My sister and I booked to go on this tour she found online for Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga a few months back and next thing you know the end of April rolled around and it was time to go (I mean seriously, I don’t know where the time went!). Before my sister told me about the tour I had no idea where Tallinn and Riga were but I think sometimes that’s the best way of doing a trip. Picking a random place, going to somewhere you wouldn’t have thought to go before and seeing what you find. So that’s what we did and let me tell you, I had a really great time.
First time coach-tripping
Ok, so the tour we booked was definitely aimed at an older crowd and we did spend quite a bit of time on a coach but this was my first time on a tour holiday and I can definitely see the appeal. Having everything organised and booked for you did make everything pretty much hassle-free and in each city we had a coach/walking tour with a local guide which was a great opportunity to learn the culture, history and what the key sites were before deciding how to spend the rest of our time in each place. However, being in a tour group does slightly limit choice and I couldn’t help feeling if we’d planned it ourselves we could have saved a fair bit of money. Swings and roundabouts though and I liked trying something new.
Helsinki was on some level what I was expecting, a nautical city slightly on the pricey side. Having visited Stockholm just six months before I was curious to see how it would compare. I think, overall, if you’re looking for a city that has a busy slightly more London-y feel to it then Stockholm is maybe more your thing whereas Helsinki feels more calm and a bit less cosmopolitan. But, honestly it’s hard to say for sure since we visited Helsinki over May Day which is a really bit deal in Finland and there people were mostly off-work and celebrating the holiday.
For May Day, they wore their white graduation caps (which are like sailor hats) and lead a celebration in the city, placing caps on statues and having a good time. It was really lovely to be in Helsinki to see this tradition and definitely made me wish our graduation caps in the UK were a bit cooler. Also, whilst in Finland we did an excursion to Porvoo which was a cute town with colourful buildings and nice souvenir shops just out of the city.
Although I went into Helsinki with some expectations in mind, I had no idea what to expect in Tallinn and honestly I fell a little bit in love with the Estonian capital. Tallinn has a beautiful old town with cobbled streets, lively squares, old buildings, various churches and a great variety of viewpoints to show you the city from above.
Through the rain, wind and even snow(!), we had a great time exploring this city. I bought a Baltic amber ring from a market stall and we had dinner in a Medieval-themed restaurant (lol). Tallinn and Riga both feel as though they have quite a bit more historical places of interest than Helsinki but both also have a life outside of their old towns as well. In Tallinn we ventured to a pub outside the Old Town called The Scotland Yard, which is, just as it sounds, themed around the British police force. As a British tourist, this was a pretty strange experience but was great none-the-less. My favourite part of exploring this city though was definitely the viewpoints and seeing the sights from Mary’s Cathedral tower – even if I did nearly have a panic attack on the spiral staircase. I have a fear of spiral staircases, it’s a thing, I know it sounds really daft!
Similarly to Tallinn, Riga has a stunning old town. There’s a gorgeous street filled with amazingly intricate art nouveau houses that is worth seeing and plenty of buildings much older still including the Three Brothers. These are three houses next to each other with one built in the 15th century, the next in the first part of the 17th century and the last the second half of the 17th century, supposedly all by members of the same family. Then there is the beautiful House of the Blackheads, a museum that used to serve as the meeting place for the Brotherhood of Blackheads guild of unmarried merchants. So, if you are like impressive architecture, Riga is definitely the city for you. Plus, you can get a great view over the city from the Skyline Bar, 26 floors above the ground.
Riga’s history also goes way back so we went to our second Medieval-themed restaurant of the trip where I had a Hot Balsam cocktail which was a mix of spices, blackcurrant juice and the national drink of Latvia, Black Balsam. Apparently Black Balsam can be used for medicinal purposes like curing colds so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it but actually it’s worth trying a Black Balsam cocktail if you’re ever in Latvia, it’s way nicer than you’re expecting it to be! We also went to a very aesthetic café/bar called Black Magic (twice!) which sold amazing truffles and, of course, lots of drinks, chocolates and cakes featuring Black Balsam. I say you should try it if you go to Latvia but it might be more the case that you will try it whether you like it or not!
Both Latvia and Estonia have also had periods of occupation in their histories with both of them only achieving independence from the Soviet Union less than thirty years ago. Seeing the Freedom Monument in Riga, which was created to after their fight for independence between 1918-1920 served as a reminder of both Latvia’s difficult past and bright future for me.
We had an extra day in Latvia and our guides took us to the Gauja National Park to see some Latvian castles and the beautiful Sigulda landscape. I really enjoyed my time in Riga and would definitely recommend this fascinating city to everyone!
I had a great time on this trip and learnt a lot about the Baltics. From not really knowing anything about Finland, Estonia and Latvia, I feel like I could tell you quite a bit about their beautiful capital cities, which I definitely recommend you visit. They probably all have some great Christmas markets, I know Riga definitely does, so if you’re looking for a place to visit in December so are just curious about visiting this part of the world, do it! You won’t regret it. Anyway, thanks for reading and I’ll be in Athens in August so expect a blog post on that coming up as well. Bye for now!