“That’s the pleasure of traveling, that even the ordinary gains the spirit of an adventure through novelty and surprise.”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
I booked my ticket for a ferry crossing to Tallinn on June 13th in a travel agency in Helsinki. I could have bought it online as well, but as I was in town anyway I decided to book it then and there. Three different companies offer the crossing from Helsinki to Tallinn. I chose Tallink Silja Line and paid 37 euros for my crossing (the price depends heavily on the time of day). The other two providers are Viking Line and Eckeröeline. As there are numerous travel agencies for each of the companies in the centre of Helsinki, it was very easy to book a ferry.
By chance, I discovered the agency Russians Tours in the train station, which offered ferry crossings to St. Petersburg. I grabbed the opportunity and booked a ticket on the spot. You normally need a visa for the trip to St. Petersburg, but there is a type of 72-hour rule which allows you to stay in Russia for 3 days. At the very latest at the terminal in Helsinki, you need to provide the booking details for your accommodation and the ferry back from Russia to make use of this rule. The agency did all of this for me. From the 22nd to the 26th of June I was going to St Petersburg! All in all, I paid 288 euros. My plan was to travel from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and then back to Tallinn, as there was no connection, within the 72 hours regulation, from and to Helsinki. However, I did not mind at all. At the station I exchanged euros for the Russian currency rubles. Happy to have planned and booked everything, I took the ferry to Tallinn on June 16th.
The backpacking started and the crossing took about 2.5 hours. I arrived at the ferry terminal an hour before departure to leave enough time for check-in. Earlier, I had already learned that many Helsinki residents travel by ferry to Tallinn to go shopping, as especially alcohol is much cheaper. Several young people were walking around with so-called beer carts, which were basically transportable barrows. It is quite surprising, but there is a small shopping metropole right by the ferry terminal in Tallinn. Supermarkets, SuperAlco (liquor stores) and even shopping centres are in close proximity to the harbour.
I had booked a bed at the Stroomi Apartments for the first four nights and was greeted by a small room for a reasonable price (25 euros per night). I explored the western part of Tallinn and combined culture, shopping and walks by the sea in a perfect way. Among other things, I visited Glehns Castle.
The young family I had met in the far north and visited again in Helsinki, happened to be in Tallinn, too. They had booked a German-speaking tour through the old town of Tallinn and invited me to accompany them. I was very happy to meet these globetrotters again. The guide took us through the streets of Tallinn for three hours and showed us the city centre.
The former town walls of Tallinn are still largely preserved and separate the upper from the lower city among other things. The castle lies in the upper town and there is an amazing view of the city from here. The roads are more like little alleyways and are all paved with cobblestones. It was wonderful to walk the narrow streets and to marvel at the small craft and craftsmen shops on the way. You can find everything there, from confectioners, watchmakers and goldsmiths to paper making workshops. The actual centre is located in the lower town. Incredibly beautiful historic buildings, churches and small, pretty shops frame the city centre. You can find beautiful former merchant houses all around. One of the most famous ones is the three sisters house. Nowadays, there is a hotel in the former three buildings. Bit by bit merchant generations over the years bought houses directly next to theirs and connected the newly acquired neighbouring buildings by breaking down the walls between them.
I used the rest of the time in Tallinn to reorganise my luggage. I left my backpack in the hostel for a fee of eight euros and only took the bare necessities on the backpacking trip to St. Petersburg. The conditions for checking in / out on the ferry are similar to those when flying. This meant that camping gas, knives and too much liquid were forbidden and I therefore left them behind with my tent and the rest of the unneeded equipment.
On Friday the 22nd of June the time had finally come: I was off to St. Petersburg! I took the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki at noon and then had a 10 minute walk to Ferry Terminal 1. From there, a ferry departs once a day to St. Petersburg. It left at 6 pm and arrived at 8 am the following morning.
I was at the terminal at 4pm already and lined up at an incredibly long queue to check in. At check-in I received an “entry and exit card”, my boarding pass and a discount card for the duty free shop on board. It took me a full two hours to get into my cabin. Due to a storm warning, we left with a delay of 1.5 hours. All passengers were asked to take extra care and it was terribly rough all night. I was grateful that I had previously taken a travel pill and put on my Seaband. I survived the night fairly well and arrived feeling slightly weary on Saturday morning in St. Petersburg. The check-out took another two hours.
A bus transfer was included in the ticket, so I was driven to St. Isaac’s square in the city. I met absolute madness on arrival, as the Football World Cup was currently taking place in Russia. That meant people/ tourist groups en masse.
I took a look at the map and made my way through the crowds towards my accommodation. I was already completely taken by what I saw during the two kilometre walk. The city has its very own special charm. After I briefly dropped my bags off in the hostel, I began exploring: Golden steeples, colourful roofs and beautiful facades accompanied me on the way through the crowds of football fans and the seemingly normal weekend hustle and bustle. I admired the Panteleymonovsky Bridge from 1823 with its splendid golden decorations. It is only one of over 300 bridges in town. It was fun to walk around the little “Venice of Russia” – which St. Petersburg is sometimes called due to all the bridges.
During the day I met a German couple. We strolled through the streets together for a while and shared our experiences. The encounter with the two made me realize that St. Petersburg is not a very wheelchair friendly city. The woman is handicapped and therefore fully dependent on accessibility. Nearly every café or restaurant had at least two steps leading up to the entrance and no ramp. Even the pavements were partly impassable because of cobblestones. The more I began to appreciate that a helping hand was never far away and willingly assisted even without a request. I experienced something similar in the supermarket. The inhabitants of St. Petersburg were, despite some communication problems, always helpful and friendly.
A disadvantage of backpacking: I arrived back at the hostel at 9 pm. I had the pleasure of sharing a room with eleven other people, in this case only men from numerous different countries. The door beeped every time someone went in or out. At midnight someone from the front desk came into our room and counted, very loudly, if we were all there. I have slept in many hostels. In Spain I once stayed in a room with 140 people and I can tell you: it was quieter there. The walls in this hostel really were wafer thin. I just kept telling myself that it was only for two nights.
During the last two days in the second largest city of Russia I visited the Isaacs Cathedral, Hermitage, Admiralty building and the beautiful Resurrection Church. But that was not all: A million other buildings were on my “to see” list. The flood of information within those few hours was enormous and one building was more beautiful than the next.
My tip: It is useful to know in advance that the tap water in St. Petersburg is not suitable for drinking. However, within the city there are enough options (supermarket or kiosk) to buy water.
St. Petersburg is definitely worth a visit. I left on June 25th again, feeling very happy to have made this trip. The check-in took a full three hours. My luggage and I were scanned and my passport checked. I handed over the “exit-card” during the second passport control, which I had received in Helsinki at check-in and thus my 72 hour permit was over. The return trip was much calmer than expected and I arrived punctually at 9 am in Tallinn.
Since I had already visited Tallinn, Estonia’s second largest city was on my plan: Tartu. The day after my arrival in Tallinn, I took the train south. The trip took about 2.5 hours and cost 10.20 euros online. At the train station I was greeted by a lovely green sight of pretty plants which wound themselves all way into the town centre.
Tartu is a bit like a small Tallinn. Half-timbered houses, a cosy old town and cute cafés make up the city centre here as well. There is a beautiful park called cathedral hill behind the town hall. Here you can find an observatory and a cathedral ruin among other things.
From Tartu I took the train via Valga to Riga. In Valga, a border town between Estonia and Latvia, I had a good two hour stopover. I walked in the direction of the centre and a cosy town welcomed me in the sunshine.
I arrived in Riga at around 5:30 pm. My accommodation (Baltic City Hostel) was only a few metres from the train station and I was looking forward to a shower and a bed. The next day I moved to a new hostel for the remaining nights. Everything was incredibly clean and there was a nice scent in the air at the Riga Park Hostel.
Riga surprised me with a beautiful old town, winding streets and a lot of green in and around the city. Among other things, I visited the narrowest street of the city, the St. Petri Church, the Freedom Monument, and the central market, during a leisurely stroll through the city. Again and again I came across many tourist groups, especially Germans.
On July 1st, a parade took place with participants of the Latvian Song and Dance Festival. Hundreds of men and women in beautiful costumes stayed in town and had gathered for the big procession. There was music in the streets and occasionally a choir would sing. It was a great spectacle, even though the rainy weather clouded the atmosphere in the evening a little bit.
Due to the festival and the rainy day that followed, there was not much more to my visit in Riga. Nevertheless, I tried to explore the city in a reasonably pleasant way. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to Latvia or Estonia, I do highly recommend it. The towns I went to are definitely worth a visit. I’m glad I ended up cycling too fast through Scandinavia, as it gave me the possibility to experience even more cultures.
From Riga I travelled by train up to Helsinki for my last station of my backpacking. As all major attractions of the city can be explored in three days, a short trip to the Finnish capital is also definitely worth it.
I got a travel card for the public transport system (HSL) for sightseeing. I bought it at the HSL Shop in Helsinki Central Station. I topped it up on the spot and therefore started saving money with every trip. I hopped on board without a ticket, as I could add a digital ticket for the according zones to my travel card at the checkpoint on the train. In my opinion, the card is only worth it if you’re staying for several days. The 5 euros for the card are not a deposit and it is very inconvenient and costs money to get a refund on the remaining credit. I passed my card with the remaining balance on to an arriving holiday maker at the airport in Helsinki. Instead of the HSL card, there is the option to download an HSL app on your phone that makes traveling on public transport similarly comfortable.
Among other things, I visited Suomenlinna. This is an island off Helsinki, which can be reached by boat within 15 minutes. The ferry crossing can be purchased with the above mentioned travel card. An old fortress wall encloses the island, as it used to protect the port of Helsinki. An interesting journey through history!
I also explored Helsinki through a sightseeing tour by boat. I got to see the small island groups off the coast of Helsinki that way. In addition, we drove past the unique huge “icebreakers”.
The cathedral on the Senate Square is, in my eyes, one of the most beautiful buildings. The cathedral appears very pompous even from afar. The Uspenski church, almost in the neighbourhood of the cathedral, is just as impressive with its onion turrets. Many homes have beautiful facades and it’s glorious to see them when passing by.
Did you know that one and two cent coins are not used in Finland and are not accepted everywhere? For example, if you have a price of 10.87 euros, it will be rounded down to 10.85 euros. In turn 10.88 euros are then rounded up to 10.90 euros. At least for cash payments this procedure is used. When paying by card, you pay the price displayed in store without rounding up or down.
I went on a short trip to Mariehamn, as I felt the need to explore some more. I booked all necessary tickets (ferry and train) online. When the ferry arrived in the harbour, the sunrise let the archipelago islands, by the way the largest archipelago in the world, glow beautifully in the sunshine. What a breath-taking moment! I leisurely strolled around Mariehamn, the only city of Åhland. Cafés and such only opened from eight o’clock onwards, so this left me enough time to explore the Fridlyst Nature Park. Squirrels, deer and gulls accompanied me along the way. Mariehamn really is a cute and beautiful town and I was very thrilled about these wonderful new impressions.
By the way, Swedish is spoken in Mariehamn although the islands are assigned to Finland. Maybe that’s why there are so many Swedish products in the supermarkets.
I took the train back to Helsinki via Turku. Here, my adventure came to an end. During my bike tour through Scandinavia, I never imagined that I’d get to visit so many more places. All the more, I appreciated how many impressions I had collected on the way and in a relatively short period of time.
Thank you for accompanying me on my bike tour and my backpacking journey!
Your Luisa Schenke