Exploring Helsinki and the Baltic Countries // Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania


After a year of being apart from each other, my best friend from uni and I decided to hit the road together as the ultimate kind of reunion. Last year in January we've conquered Oslo, so for 2017 we've chosen Finland and all three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Other than tradition, another reason for our trip was that Hailey will soon move back to the US for an internship as part of her degree. So we pretty much had no other option than going in January.
I had just gotten back to Sweden for not even a day, after traveling through Asia over Christmas, Germany for New Year's and The Netherlands to catch up with some old friends, before it was already time to leave again. Arriving back in the land of cinnamon buns and fair-trade-everything pretty late at night, I spent the next morning with carrying stuff up and down my very scary and dark basement, as well as packing, or rather repacking, my bags to catch a plane to Helsinki the same night that day. I like it when I am so busy that I literally don't have time to be bored, so having such a tight schedule was absolutely fine with me.

After the quickest check-in at Copenhagen Airport I've ever experienced in my entire life, we still have time to kill so I suggest to get drunk because "there's literally nothing to do here and the Danes have cheaper alcohol than we do in Sweden!!!" Not even a minute after these words have left my mouth we find ourselves drinking in front of a 7/11. Very Korean of us, I must say. I've spent at least 80% of my Korea exchange drinking Soju and beers in front of convenience stores because that's a totally normal and accepted thing to do at any time of the day. Because I didn't want to buy lots of food before leaving Sweden again for a week, I hardly had anything to eat all day and after two cans of cider I can feel the giggles increasing and the ability to see 100% clear decreasing. God, I am weak. What have I become?

The fastest check-in of all times is quickly forgotten after the security takes twice as long than usually. The super unfriendly security guy doesn't like the fact that my bag full of liquids is quite large (but still within the regulations) and while I'd usually never start an argument with anyone (nice to meet you, my name is Leah and I hate confrontation) tipsy me just looks at him and lists the airport's liquid regulations as if I worked at the airport myself. We're both not very impressed by this whole situation but then he says "fine, but we have to check the bag." I follow him to the side of the X-ray machine, where he checks every single little bottle, then confirms that the liquids make up less than a liter and we can finally continue our journey. I've encountered this situation so many times, where, especially men, try to exercise their power because they think that people at airports usually don't dare to disagree. It's not because they want to perform their job as accurate as possible but because they try to compensate a lack of power in their private lives. I'm tipsy enough to not be super annoyed by all this and we soon board our flight to Helsinki. We've checked in too late meaning that Hailey ends up at the end of the plane while I am stuck in a middle seat between a bunch of drunk, old Finish people. Almost more annoying than my encounter with the security douchebag earlier. Basically everyone on this extraordinary narrow plane is 40+. Half of them are not sitting in their assigned seats or carry too much hand luggage which doesn't improve the situation of us already being behind schedule.

Eventually we take off and as we land we're confused for a second about how late it is already, then realize that Finland is one hour ahead of Sweden. WHO KNEW? We're shook. And late to meet our AirBnB host - whoops. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to be mad at us (not sure if Scandinavians can get mad at all except for maybe when they watch ice hockey... I'll have you know, a Swedish ice hockey match is nothing for people who don't like swear words but amazing if you want to upgrade your vocabulary being a foreigner!!!) even though it's way after midnight already. The apartment is a mixture of a Moomin fan shop, your classic IKEA show room and way overpriced Etsy pieces. It's pretty but it still feels a bit funny to just live in someone else's home. Especially when you don't know that someone. Anyways, our days in Finland are spent with second-hand shopping, cozy nights in, meeting and hanging out with some of Hailey's friends, exploring the city in freezing cold temperatures and dancing at Helsinki's hottest gay club (Don'tTellMama).

In hindsight it was probably not the best idea to stay out until 3am when having to get up three hours later to make our way to Helsinki's ferry terminal. I don't know how but we somehow manage to be there well in time. Still very intoxicated but at least punctual. I am German after all. Hailey feels like crap while I am more or less fine besides being very hangry and tired. The ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn takes about two hours which we use to take a quick nap. Arriving in Tallinn around 11am we now have until 5pm in this city before catching a bus to Riga, Latvia. Tallinn's old town is incredibly beautiful and while both of us were considering to just "screw it and stay in Helsinki" when trying to get up in the morning we would have missed so much history and beautiful architecture. Our trip to the baltic countries was pretty much my idea and also more of an accident than a life dream coming true. I always try to get as much as possible out of trips so when organizing a trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg seemed a little too complicated, especially when two people with two different nationalities have to go through different visa processes, I looked for alternatives and Estonia just seemed cheap and close. But then I found busses for less than 10 Euros going from Tallinn to Latvia and so the story continues. Anyways, what was I saying? Oh right, spending time in Tallinn.

Wandering through the old town we cannot not buy any souvenirs, therefore we stop by one of the many, many little shops around town. Matryoshka dolls, decorated plates, lots of things made of wood, glasses, magnets AND the best selection of Putin and Donald Trump merch I've ever seen. I am delighted and can't resist buying a Putin magnet and coffee mug:

We're entering the famous and very pretty Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. A couple of people dressed in black are standing in front of it as we climb up the stairs and Hailey jokingly goes "looks like a funeral..." but the door is open and it even has a sign on it that says that visitors are welcome today. I don't think I've ever been inside a Catholic church before and I find all that gold, bling bling but especially the merch shop at the entrance of the church a bit irritating. A priest with a very deep voice is mumbling (or singing) stuff in Russian in the corner of the church but I can't really see from where I am standing so I am slowly making my way closer to whatever is happening over there. Hailey is standing next to me and we're both staring in the same direction but I guess she still can't see what I am seeing, cos when I go "Oh look, it really is a funeral!" she just goes "WAIT, THERE'S A DEAD BODY IN THERE?!?!" I nod my head and can only laugh about Hailey's shocked face. Is this a normal thing in the Catholic church? That your funeral just happens to be an open-house event? We leave this place as soon as possible and can't really believe what has just happened.

Just in time we reach the bus terminal just outside the city centre to make our way down to Riga. After Tallinn turned out to be surprisingly beautiful we are a bit sad to leave and kind of expect the trip to go downhill from here since it can't really get better than this. We get on the bus and are in shock how comfortable it is. Seriously, leg room so large you could easily fit a tiny Swedish by (a very small village) in there, power sockets, USB outlets, TV screens, free hot drinks, friendly bus drivers and even English instructions - and all this for less than 5 Euros for a four-hour bus ride. WHAT? Not sure if we have busses like that in Germany to be honest... Who would have thought that Eastern Europe had so much to offer? This corner of the world is totally underrated.

It's around 9.30pm and 2km before our stop at Riga Central Station the bus driver starts stopping at smaller, random stops. We get ready and he starts mumbling stuff into the microphone in Russian. While all I can say in Russian is "vodka", "cheers" and "good bye" (but let's be honest, what else do you need?) I somehow manage to get the word "Radisson Blu" from something that sounded  like "krkszrzcge njo keuazdzrzazscza " to me while I simultaneously stare at the map on my phone (God bless maps.me, such a life saver) and we actually manage to save us a lot of walking by getting off at the Radison Blu rather than at Central Station. Thanks to my shockingly and totally unexpected perfect Russian language skills. Go me!

Arriving in Riga we have 30min to kill until we can meet our AirBnb host, so we take a walk through the Esplanade which looks absolutely stunning being covered in snow and with all its light installations. We can't believe how pretty and old everything is and make our way down to our accommodation for the night. We don't have to wait long for our host. He walks us through a dark alley leading to a stair case that could have easily been used in a movie about gangs in New York City. I can tell by the way Hailey talks and walks that she hates this place but she keeps lying to me about how "nice" it is. I, on the other hand, am literally at the stage in my life where I don't even give a damn anymore. The guy explains to us that they had some kind of damage in the apartment we wanted to rent and that there's no wifi but we can use the apartment one floor down, it's just that this one hardly has any working lights. He gives us the keys to both apartments and leaves. We carry our stuff downstairs when we see that most of the lights in fact do work except for the bedroom lights but that doesn't really bother us. Hailey still isn't too excited to be here especially when she turns around to me and tells me that she cannot find her backpack. She runs downstairs to check if she had left it in the creepy alley. I would have come with her but turns out the main door's lock is broken as well and can only be locked from the inside. Hailey is checking the street while I am raiding every corner of the apartment: nothing. She checks the apartment we've originally rented: nothing. "I am getting us the fuck out of here! I do not like this place!!!" she says in here Hailey-is-really-upset-but-trying-to-sound-calm voice. I am sure the backpack is somewhere so I go back upstairs and find it first try checking next to the couch. "FOUND IT!", I yell downstairs and I can only hear a shy "oh..." coming back from my churned up travel companion. "Yeah oh... it was next to the couch." Hailey eventually stops looking at booking.com and we order enough Sushi to also feed the little Swedish by that easily would have fitted into all the legroom in the bus earlier. Sushi and Russian music television it is for us to end this eventful day and night - I am not even mad.

The next day we're checking out Riga during the day. Our bus to Lithuania leaves around 5pm again, which gives us enough time to explore the old town, take pictures of the Lithuanian version of the Bremen Town Musicians, drink coffee, visit a couple of churches, see the famous black cat on the roof and stop by a couple of cozy shops. It's a gray and very cold day but we're having the best time. Riga, you were stunning.

As we get to Vilnius that night all we do is walk to our hotel and pass out - we're tired and excited for the hotel's breakfast the next morning. Lithuania's seem to prefer a more savory than sweet breakfast which I am totally fine with. Why they're serving jell-o for breakfast will forever be a mystery to me though.
At the tourist information we find out about a free walking tour and because we don't have anything prepared (as always) or else to do we just decide to tag along. Martina is young and hilarious and the 2 1/2 hours pass by super fast. She shows us the charming and "autonomous" district of Uzupis which is a little bit like Christiania in Denmark - but less about the weed and more about the arts.  She explains and shows us history, hidden statues in public backyards, advices where to eat the best authentic Lithuanian food and I admire her for loving her volunteer work so much that she even shows up when it's way below 0°C outside.

Below is a picture of (half) of the constitution of Uzupis, which is available to the public in many, many languages. Quite bohemian but relevant, if you ask me... especially #10.

It's so cold in Lithuania, we can't really seem to warm up again even after hot soups and drinks. We treat ourselves to a traditional Lithuanian dinner at this restaurant that really just reminds me of my grandma - the solid oak furniture gives me shivers but the food is good (and oily as hell #yolo) and we slowly make our way back to our hotel to pick up our luggage in order to go back to Tallinn and from there to Helsinki Airport.

We're sitting in the hotel lobby wasting time. It's 9pm and our bus doesn't leave until 11pm. "Can you pass me the tickets?" I ask Hailey and she hands them over to me. I check time and dates. Everything seems fine but then my eyes wander back to the date. Why does this say Wednesday and not Monday... it should say Monday. I look again. And then I see the mistake I've made two months ago when booking all our bus, plane and ferry tickets. This ticket doesn't say 16.01. but 16.11... my hands start shaking. "Fuck! Shit! Fuck! No." I mumble and Hailey looks at me still not knowing what's going on. "Idiot!" I keep mumbling, grabbing my phone to check if there are any tickets left for the bus leaving in 2 hours. We have to get back to Tallinn by noon tomorrow otherwise we will not only miss our ferry to Helsinki but also our flight back home. Luckily, 6 more tickets are available but I am so annoyed about my stupidity that my hands won't stop shaking. I let Hailey check the new tickets at least fifteen times before I hit the "Buy Now" button. My mood is incredibly bad. I am really not in the financial situation right now where I can easily afford spending 50 bucks on something I thought I had already paid for months ago. DAMN IT, LEAH!

Anyways, some things are just the way they are and since no one has invented a time machine, yet, we can only move on. At least the man who originally had booked the seat next to Hailey is kind enough to surrender it to me and sit to a weird Russian lady a few rows behind us. What a babe!
After an actually very pleasant 8-hour bus ride from Vilnius to Tallinn, except for a screaming baby on board, we manage to get back to Tallinn with lots of time to walk through town back to the ferry terminal. Once again, we're on our way to Helsinki but our schedule is so tight that once we touch down in Finland we immediately have to take the train back to the airport.

So yeah. That was it, guys. "Go East" is all I can say - I am sure it will positively surprise you as well. We would definitely go back and do it all over again if we could! 

Have you been to any of these countries?

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