Tallinn is high up on the list of places I could see living after traveling gets old. Each place we’ve gone this month just makes the list of reasons why longer. (Full disclosure: it has gotten noticeably colder since we arrived and I’m not yet sure I could last through a winter. I’m pretty glad we’ve had a sauna as the weather has changed.) My favorite spots in the city are Kadriorg Park and the paths along the waterfront.

Kadriorg Palace: all business and with its hair down.

Kadriorg Park has a prettily colored summer palace with the same name. It was built for Catherine I of Russia, but is now an art museum. We were lucky enough to be here for the end-of-the-season Light Walks. For a single night, thousands of candles line the park paths, spotlights and stages go up on the buildings and gazebos, and a large portion of the city comes to hang out, listen to music, and see the night-ending fireworks.

Favorites from KUMU

The Estonian Art Museum, KUMU, is in a far corner of the Park. We went on an almost free day and spent a few hours. I was happy to find a temporary exhibition of 19th century dresses – and a War and Peace miniseries has been airing on TV – so I’ve gotten my fill of period clothes/drama. Intimidatingly cinched waistlines aside, it would be fun to have one in my wardrobe just because. There were some really interesting artworks trying to deal with the decades of Communism and pretty landscapes that explain why hiking is a popular activity. Perhaps the oddest thing was a room full of dozens of sculpture heads and busts – a little creepy for sure, especially the random one on the wall that was a seagull.  (There was also a similar set of baby head sculptures outside – I might have nightmares from it.)

Main square, ghost monks, Baltic Way memorial

The Old Town leans heavily towards touristy and governmenty, and is full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and embassies. Its town walls and towers are mostly preserved so it feels cozy. Many buildings are pastel colors and there are churches every few blocks. I’m sure we’ve seen each Old Town street multiple times. It is fun to visit, but I’m glad we stayed outside of it where meals are cheaper and there are fewer crowds. Tourist groups can be nice if you are in them, but less so if you are trying to get down a narrow, cobbled street through a hundred people going the other direction.

St. John’s and the Memorial to the War of Independence

Churches in Tallinn run the full spectrum of Christian decor. Several are Russian Orthodox, full of beautiful artwork covering every surface, and what feels like acres of gold. Others, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, tend more toward Nordic austerity.

Museum of the Occupations: prison doors, Soviet statues by the toilets, spy equipment

Just outside the Old Town is the Museum of Occupations. Estonia spent an unfortunate amount of the 20th century under Russian and German control without self-determination. Especially thought-provoking were video interviews on the end of World War II. Some Estonians had been forced into the Red Army (Russia overran and occupied Estonia from 1940-1), but were OK with fighting against the Nazi invasion. But as the war turned and it became clear that Russia wanted to re-occupy Estonia, others joined German army units or otherwise fought to try to keep Estonia free of outside rule. Sadly, numbers were not on their side. It struck me what a Catch-22 deciding which side to fight for must have been. There was no way to know which side would win, or support your claims to independence, or how you might suffer if you chose wrong.

2016 Marathon, getting ready for winter, Old Town towers.

We were also in town for the Tallinn Marathon. Thousands of runners show up for a weekend of races, making us feel bad for our pointed lack of exercise. The race route is definitely scenic – immediately to the left of the picture is the Baltic. Companies and individuals set up cheer squads along the route playing upbeat music – one we walked by had a live band that was really good. Other people had already stopped (not runners, just walkers like us) for an impromptu concert.

Tallinn is really a city that feels like a small town. We can walk everywhere and feel safe doing so, even late at night. On nice days, the parks are full of families enjoying the sun. But like any other city, there is a huge selection of choices for food, art events, shopping malls (Rahva Raamat bookstore has a good selection of English-language titles!). At the very least, I can’t wait to come back to Estonia. Maybe even during winter just to experience the short days and potential for northern lights…


One of Tallinn’s big attractions is the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor, an interactive museum right on the waterfront. Our ticket got us into the Seaplane Harbor and a related museum downtown. The smaller Maritime Museum was first, in a city wall tower named, of all things, Fat Margaret.

Sea-inspired art, ye old diving suit, ye olde mappe

Much of the Maritime’s permanent exhibit is rather dry, in part because much isn’t in English and we speak approximately no Estonian (we’ve gotten progressively worse about language learning, though we are trying to correct that for the next five+ months in the Americas). Still, I enjoyed the old (errory) maps and navigation equipment.  Thankfully, we were rescued by the temporary exhibit on Viking life with English-language notes. Interestingly, there were dozens of coins from Arabic countries and jewelry that looked like it might have come from H&M (some styles don’t change). The focus on coins emphasized that Vikings were mainly traders rather than plunders… unless perhaps they plundered an ancient currency exchange. Many weapons, discovered in graves, were bent or intentionally wrecked as a sacrifice or offering and to prevent grave robbers from using them. My favorite part of the museum was a tower-top cafe serving cheap wine with a pretty view of the port and the Old Town’s church towers.

On target for the Harbor, Suur Toll icebreaker

It takes a short walk to get to the Seaplane Harbor from Old Town, and convenient yellow and black targets show the way. Lennusadam is definitely the more vibrant – and newer – museum. The immense three-domed building was originally meant as a construction hangar for seaplanes. Now it is full of interactive exhibits like mini boats to pilot, seaplanes to fly, navy outfits to dress up in.

WWII era gun, Estonia’s first armored car, inside the Lembit sub

There are also ice boats, World War II guns, a replica seaplane, and an entire submarine. The Lembit sub was launched in 1936 and is now restored to a near-original interior; it was my favorite part. It only took me a couple of minutes after climbing through the hatch to become nearly seasick, even on solid ground.

Lembit’s bathroom and missile tubes, mildly creepy murals

Entry into the Lembit is via a narrow porthole on the top of the ship, trying not to hit my head while going down a stepladder. The interior doors are tiny, with high thresholds in case of flooding. The first room was the missile tube room, which doubled as a bedroom for sailors (maybe preferable to sleeping in the engine room?). Piping, valves, controls are everywhere, and are attached at random to my untrained eye. The walls curve with the shape of the vessel and below our feet were storage lockers. It was hard to decide what was up because there were no surfaces that followed conventional 90 degree angles. I am pretty short and I was almost too tall to move comfortably. Another inch or so and I would have gotten a few head bumps. It was dizzying. I imagine it must be what being on the International Space Station feels like, though without such a good view. I definitely confirmed that I didn’t miss my calling to work on a sub.

The Lembit’s entire kitchen, on board the boats outside, bent Viking swords

Outside, larger boats are also open to the public. Smaller border patrol boats are dry-docked, but two vessels are afloat. The Suur Tõll icebreaker, built in 1914, is much more comfortable than the Lembit sub. Quarters were cramped, but at least no one had to sleep in the engine room. Though they did have to shovel tons of coal each day to keep six boilers going… so maybe not a fair trade. The best part of its history was a takeover by a group of Finns during World War I. To steal the ship, they pretended to be a construction crew and simply walked on board, past Russian guards. After the Suur Toll was out at sea, they broke into the weapons store and quietly took over.

And now to completely change the subject:

Brilliant pink kasukas salat, fruit wine, Lay’s local flavors

Estonia has much happier food than I expected. We knew we’d been in for a lot of fish. We have salmon and trout a lot, though I don’t have any photos because by the time I think to take one the meal is over. Herring is another mainstay, and shows up in many places. I’d had kasukas years ago when a coworker brought some into work, but the local version comes with surprise herring (in addition to beets, potatoes, pickles, onions, sour cream, and hardboiled eggs). It sounds like it shouldn’t be good, but I really like it; to me it tastes like candy, and the vibrant color certainly helps that illusion. Estonian grape wine doesn’t really exist, but local berry wines hold their own. Lingonberry wine is better in a reduction sauce than in a wine glass, but blackcurrant wine is as sweet and desserty as any riesling.

Helsinki & Suomenlinna

We are spending this month in Tallinn, Estonia, but one of the first things we planned was a day-trip to Helsinki. There was a cheap ferry ticket on Eckero Line coinciding with warm weather, which isn’t guaranteed on the Baltic in September. The ferry was like a mini-cruise, but with more personal importing going on. Unlike the tightly-controlled world of bringing alcohol onto cruise ships, Tallinn-Helsinki ferries are basically designed for legal smuggling. Finns head over in large numbers to circumvent expensive liquor in their home country. (Its serious business, they literally buy a third of all the alcohol in Estonia, mostly in Finn-packs of 10 bottles of the hard stuff designed for easy transport home.)  We arrived in Finland – sans alcohol – at 2:30pm and left just eight hours later.

Leaving Helsinki behind, clouds over Estonia, on deck.

Continuing our tradition of fortress-exploring, we spent our afternoon on Suomenlinna, a former stronghold on four connected islands just offshore. And it involved more ferrying! The largest island is where most of the defensive ramparts are located, and where we spent most of our time. Thick stone walls have protected the passages leading into Helsinki’s harbor since 1748. Tunnels connect some firing positions, and are open to clamber around. It basically feels like adults were asked to build their ultimate playhouse. Larger rooms were for sea-facing cannon, narrow ones facing inward or towards gates had slits for small arms. We needed our phone flashlights to navigate some tunnels, though that became less fun after we saw the island also is home to snakes.

On Suomenlinna
Looking into and out of Suomenlinna’s defense tunnels.

Suomenlinna houses museums and cafes and is the home of several hundred residents who live there year-round. (They even have a mini-supermarket and a tiny library!). As pretty as the islands are, I don’t think I could last a winter there. Fireplaces and saunas only go so far against the icy chill and sparse daylight.

Almost fall!, houses & defenses.

We were only left with a couple hours on mainland Helsinki, and mostly wandered around the downtown between the harbors. The Central Market Square had a craft and lunch market going when we arrived to wait for our island ferry. So much salmon was being prepared – as filets, on burgers, in soups – that the entire market smelled like it, which only made us hungrier. However, we have salmon at home a lot (especially in Estonia), so we opted for the reindeer with potatoes and lingonberry sauce. There were all sorts of summer berries, some, like bilberry, that I’d never even heard of… too bad Finland has much higher prices compared to Estonia.

The Chapel of Silence and the Lutheran Cathedral.

Most touristy stops were closed by the time our ferry returned, so we walked admired the city from the sidewalk. Unlike most places we’ve been in Europe (aside from Tallinn), the main Cathedral isn’t Catholic. Instead it is a decidedly plainer Lutheran building.  A little ways further from the square, past some delicious food-truck bahn mi, we found the Chapel of Silence. Far from the pillared/Neoclassic look, it is modern Nordic design. I thought it looked somewhere between a peaceful retreat and an Ikea-assembly church. I do really like the idea of putting a place to have a break in the middle of downtown, though.

Helsinki pretty much covers the full spectrum of public art.

Of course, Helsinki also has some fun pubic art. The giant peeing statue called Bad Bad Boy was right across from the West Harbor Ferry Terminal – impossible to miss on the way to the city center.  It is either really awkward or really creepy. Other less obtrusive murals and yarnbombing were more common.

Our ferry returned – with fewer passengers and a lot less booze-laden luggage – about 1 in the morning. Hopefully we will be able to manage a second day trip to more throughly see the city. Next time though, we will bring something to read on the ferry: a 2.5 hour trip each way gets a little long.