Over the Easter break, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel across the Baltic Sea to visit St Petersburg, with stops in Helsinki and Tallinn, all by ferry. It was a fantastic way of seeing this part of Europe. Normally, a trip to Russia will cost at least $135AUD for a visa and a lot of time dealing with consulates and other administration, however, travellers can enter St Petersburg by ferry or cruise for up to 72 hours visa-free (these ferries depart mainly from Stockholm and Helsinki). This chance to travel to Russia visa-free was a major draw-card and bucket list item for me for me, but getting to see Helsinki and Tallinn too as well as travelling via ferry was a major a bonus. I cannot recommend such a trip highly enough (I booked this trip with a small travel group set up by some local Russian students called ‘Open Your Russia’ but there are other uni student trips like this out there).
The boat ride itself was a great way to get to know other people and hang out with friends. Whilst small, the cabins were more comfortable than I thought they would be. Every time we got on a new boat, we’d drop our things in our rooms then go exploring on board, checking out what each ferry had to offer. On the first boat, I remember chilling on top of the deck, watching the sunset and the ripples of the cruise’s path brush against the calm seas, anticipating the wonderful journey ahead.
After a restful overnight stay on the ship, our first stop was Helsinki. We had 5 hours to explore the city, which was enough to see some of the main sites of the capital of Finland. We were able to see the beautiful Helsinki Cathedral and Uspenski Cathedral, wander through the outdoor harbor market and even squeeze in a visit by ferry to World Heritage fortress, Suomenlinna.
After another overnight ferry, we arrived in Russia on a Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday and were treated with massive lines to pass customs at the port terminal in St Petersburg. Dispute the 2-hour set-back waiting in line, we finally met up with our Russian guide for a fun filled three days in St Petersburg. Not many Russians we encountered in St Petersburg could speak English, so having a guide was very important. She was student studying in St Petersburg and in her spare time was passionate about meeting new people and giving tours to show foreigners around. In our jam-packed 72 hours, we packed in as many sites and experiences as we could – I think I averaged around 5 hours sleep each night. Highlights included visiting the Hermitage Museum, the Catherine Palace, the Church on Spilled Blood and taking a sunset ferry tour through the canals of St Petersburg (the city is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North).
We had a day stopover here for 7 hours and it was enough for me to completely fall in love with Tallinn. Estonia is not a country many think about when it comes to travelling but after visiting the capital, I truly think more people should consider travelling to Tallin and other Baltic countries.
The primary touristy area of Tallinn is the Old Town. Filled with cobblestone laneways, red roofed houses and several churches, the Old Town reminded me of many other historic towns in cities like Prague, Dubrovnik and Ljubljana. The Old Town is split into an upper part, which was home to the wealthy and is now the governmental and aristocratic sector, and the lower part. As such, there are many gorgeous viewpoints of the town dotted across the upper part, providing a great spot for a quiet moment to rest and take in the city.
Aside from seeing the historical part of Tallinn, my friends and I also wandered to Telliskivi, an area of Tallinn located in the former industrial area on the border of the Old Town. Here, we wandered through food markets and the Telliskivi Creative City, the creative centre of Tallinn. It is the largest creative centre in Estonia, consisting of studios, creative companies, and offices of NGOs. The area is dotted with small designer stores and studios, unique food places and a lot of street art. It gave me really major Melbourne vibes and was an interesting balance seeing this part of town in comparison to the Old Town.
Overall, a visit to any of these cities, and the Baltic region in general, is highly recommended. Next time you’re in Europe (or maybe on your semester abroad here), maybe think beyond Central and Eastern Europe and consider looking up north to find some hidden treasures.