The northern sights
March 26, 2013
HELSINKI -- Though only 80 kilometers apart, Helsinki, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia, feel like an exercise in contrasts.
Finland, through clever diplomacy, managed to remain outside of crushing influence of the USSR and today is distinctly Scandinavian. Estonia, meanwhile, bears the stamp of its Soviet influence, even through the resurgence of Estonian national pride.
But, like so many other post-Soviet nations, Estonia is letting its hair down after decades of Russian rule, and its capital, Tallinn, is leading the way. Named as a European Capital of Culture in 2011, Tallinn has turned an eye toward the tourist market, transforming its medieval Old Town into a maze of restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Helsinki, much like its Scandinavian brethren, embodies restraint. The city isn't short on alcohol-infused hangouts, but Helsinki's passion is art, design and fine taste, not fast living.
What happens in Tallinn, stays in Tallinn
Most tourists in Tallinn will spend their time in the Old Town and the walled section is a joy to explore. The cobblestone streets lead tourists past the intricate Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church and museums like the Museum of Occupations (Toompea St. 8) and the fascinating but quirky Estonian History Museum at the Great Guild Hall (Pikk 17.)
But, at its core, Tallinn, with its devil-may-care attitude, is a hedonist's paradise. During the day, vacationers can shoot AK-47s in one of the many shooting ranges or learn the art of archery, Estonia's national sport.
Motor paintball is an option and, if you prefer crashing cars to shooting paintballs out of them, you can participate in the Tallinn Demolition Derby.
For more a more low-key thrill, tourists can bounce at the Trampoline Centre, swim and soak at the Aqua Spa and rent ATVs for exploring the Estonian countryside.
As it gets dark and the cruise and ferry crowds head back to their boats, revelers of all ages take to the streets. The Karu Baar has live music and leans toward an older crowd, while wine caves lure a more sedate crowd intent on conversation.
If that's not your scene, the Irish pubs overflow with committed partiers and packs of men on a stag weekend, knowing that what happens in Tallinn, stays in Tallinn.
Shop your way through Helsinki
If Tallinn is a playground, Helsinki is a museum.
Named the Design Capital of the World in 2012, Helsinki oozes style and Art Deco elegance. This isn't immediately evident. In places the city can seem plain and uninspired. But, structures like the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, the Central Train Station and Finlandia Hall give credence to the aesthetic honor.
But more so, it's what's inside the buildings that count. Decades before winning the design title in 2012, Helsinki had been churning out ceramics, glassware, textiles and clothing defined by bright colors and clean lines.
The Design District (complete with a Design Museum) pays homage to the city's aesthetic heritage. Boutiques filled with beautiful ceramics and high- and low-tech kitchenware, linens, blankets, dazzling jewelry and architectural furniture line the district's streets, offering drool-worthy wares for those who love the finer things.
The Finnish love of style is evident outside the Design District. Six art and architecture museums cater to a city of 600,000 and boutiques nearly outnumber restaurants and cafes.
Even the fortress island on Suomenlinna, a popular destination for tourists, has rebranded itself as an artist's mecca. Historically Suomenlinna served as a base for the Finnish, Swedish and Russian militaries. Today, this World Heritage Site houses both the Finnish Naval Academy and dozens of artisans, boutiques and studios.