The final day of our holiday was one of the most exciting as we set off on a spontaneous trip to Helsinki. I was slightly apprehensive about how we might fare without a map, a guidebook or a single word of Finnish, but it was definitely going to be an adventure if nothing else!
Our ferry was due to leave Tallinn at 10.30 and arrive in the Finnish capital at 12.30. The instructions on our ticket implied that it was advisable to be at the ferry terminal an hour before the boat departed, to make sure that there was enough time for check-in and boarding, and we weren't completely sure how long it would take us to walk to the terminal from our hotel, so our intention was to have breakfast in the hotel as soon as it opened at 8am. We arrived at the breakfast room at 07.59 only to find it completely full of what appeared to be a tour party. Every single table was taken (in what wasn't a very large room to start with) and it was clear that we didn't stand much chance of getting a seat within the next 20 minutes. How annoying! We ended up adding Estonia to the list of Eastern European countries in which our lives have been saved by McDonalds and having breakfast there en route to the ferry.
The journey to Helsinki was extremely pleasant. It was a big ferry and although there was a large crowd of people waiting to board it, we managed to get find seats by a window with a great view. As the boat pulled out of Tallinn, we were able to see some of the landmarks along the coast which we had visited during our trip to Kadriorg the previous day. We passed some small islands off the coast of Estonia and then there was nothing but miles and miles of blue sea. The Baltic was beautifully calm and so we really enjoyed our trip.
We arrived at Helsinki's western ferry terminal, which is a bit outside of the city centre. There was a helpful display of local leaflets in the terminal building, and we picked up a brochure for an open-top bus tour, thinking that this would be the ideal way to get an introduction to new city which we knew very little about... until we saw that the tickets were priced at €25!!! Wow, what we've heard about Scandinavia being an expensive place must really be true then. We were fortunate, however, that the leaflet for the bus tour featured a useful map of all the main sites and the route the bus would take between them. We decided to save some money by travelling along the route by foot and seeing what we could see.
There was some sort of tram between the ferry terminal and the main part of the town but there was such a horde of people waiting at the stop that we decided to give it a miss and walk in instead. The route was well-signposted and we were rewarded with some nice sea views as we made our way around the coast and into the town. Soon we were on what appeared to be Helsinki's main street and were able to get a proper town plan from Tourist Information. So far, so good.
Our main aim at this point was to find some lunch, but the main street didn't seem the best place to do so because we assumed the prices would be a lot higher than elsewhere. We struck off down some side streets and somehow managed to walk for an hour along a route which missed every single eating establishment in Helsinki. We did find some beautiful cathedrals though
The impressive white church above is the Lutheran cathedral, the main symbol of Helsinki. It was built in the nineteenth century as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and known as St Nicholas' Church until Finland became independent of Russia in 1917. The equally striking red church below is the Finnish Orthodox cathedral, built on top of a rock on the eastern side of Helsinki. The largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, it was originally a Russian Orthodox church and a symbol of Russia's domination over Finland.
Just around the corner from the Orthodox cathedral we finally chanced upon a restaurant - yay! Even better, there was an English version of the menu and amongst all the slightly unusual fish dishes which I guess are normal in this part of the world, we found a regular burger and chips meal. Excellent... except for the price! Tim's face was a picture when he realised that beefburger and chips was going to set us back €17 - each. Wow. Luckily there was a jug of free tap water on the table, so we were able to save some money by not buying anything to drink. The meal was nice when it came, but it felt like incredibly poor value compared to Vilnius, where we had had two main courses, half a litre of wine and two beers for the grand sum of €14 earlier in the week. Finland is definitely the most expensive place I have ever been.
Lunch over, we had four hours left until our return ferry so we set off to see as much of the city as possible. Dodging occasional showers, we strolled around the main sights in the city centre which included an imposing railway station, a pretty blue town hall and numerous tree-lined squares. This rather grim-looking building turned out to be the Finnish parliament.
Not far from the parliament building was the start of a beautiful park, where we were able to walk alongside the shore of a lake with great views back towards the town centre and the cathedrals. We found Helsinki's Olympic stadium, as well as the Botanical Gardens, and then proceeded to get rather lost looking for the Sibelius monument, a sculpture dedicated to the famous Finnish composer. Despite being one of the key sights in Helsinki, it didn't appear to be signposted at all and we are indebted to two separate locals who saw us looking confusedly at a map and gave us directions.
The monument is hidden away in another beautiful park and our route back towards the ferry terminal took us past some gorgeous stretches of coastline. At times it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a capital city.
Having somehow walked another 15 miles, the ferry back to Tallinn was a welcome excuse to sit down for two hours. It was slightly rowdier than on the way out, filled with Finns evidently looking forward to a cheap night out in Estonia. I don't blame them; if I lived in Helsinki I think I'd sail to Tallinn every time I felt like burger and chips! If you're ever looking to do a similar trip, it's worth noting that although there are multiple ferry companies which sail between Tallinn and Helsinki, several of them have timetables which are only geared to doing a daytrip from Helsinki to Tallinn (rather than the other way round). Our brief research indicated that Tallink was the best company to use in the less popular direction, and it certainly worked out cheaply for us.
It was after 10pm by the time we got back to our hotel - a late night considering that we had to be up at 04.30 to catch our bus to Riga airport - but it had been worth it. We were rewarded by this wonderful view of the sun setting over Tallinn; a perfect end to a perfect holiday.