Where else in the world can you travel across a sea from one major capital city to another, and return on the same day? Answers on a postcard, please!
Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is enjoying a rapid rise in popularity amongst travellers to Europe, who are drawn in their thousands by the city’s rich history, medieval streets and stunning sunsets. For many tourists, Tallinn is merely a stop on a longer journey – often by cruise ship – through the Baltics or Scandinavia. For those with a bit more time on their hands, however, Tallinn can also be used as a base to explore Finland’s capital Helsinki (and vice versa).
We did exactly this during our recent trip to Estonia, where we spent the best part of a week exploring Tallinn and beyond. Not ones to miss the opportunity to add another city or country into our itinerary, a trip to Helsinki was always on the cards – here’s how we did it, and why we think it’s well worth the journey!
The Logistics – how to take the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki
There are three companies operating ferries between Tallinn and Helsinki: Tallink Silja Line, Viking Line and Eckerö Line, with at least 12 ferries per day. The journey time is similar across all three companies at 2 – 2.5 hours. In Tallinn, all three lines depart from neighbouring terminals, located a 15 minute walk from the old town.
However, the terminals in Helsinki are far more spread out – and where price and timings are similar across the providers, we think this is the deciding factor. We’d recommend choosing a ferry sailing which arrives/departs Helsinki from Katajanokka terminal, as it is close to the main sights and offers the best views from the water as you arrive or depart. For short term visits, this (we feel) is the best option – Viking Line operates three services a day to and from Katajanokka.
We found DirectFerries to be a really useful site to compare the different options and bag your tickets (one leg of the journey worked out cheaper than booking direct with the ferry company!).
Top 5 reasons to visit Helsinki from Tallinn
1: The views from the ferry are stunning
One of the absolute best things about the whole trip between Tallinn and Helsinki has got to be the stunning views from the ferry. The terminals in both cities are perfectly located to get amazing vistas of the main sights as they fade in and out of view. It’s a unique perspective on both cities, lending new appreciation to just how small Tallinn’s famous old town is compared to the rest of the place, and how Helsinki really is surrounded by an incredible number of islands.
We’d recommend heading up onto deck at the start and end of ferry crossing to make sure you don’t miss anything – but make sure you wrap up warm, those baltic winds can be freezing!
2: It’s an authentically ‘local’ experience
We were quite surprised by how few tourists there were on our ferry – in fact, we’re not sure whether we heard any other English speakers on either crossing. The ferry between Tallinn and Helsinki is very much the realm of locals – whether on holiday with family and friends, or simply stocking up on cheap alcohol to take back home. The latter is clearly serious business on these ferries – we lost count of the number of industrial sized trolleys being wheeled along, laden with bargain booze. There were clearly some major parties being thrown!
Once on the ferry, a huge number of folk seemed to have favourite spots – at times, it was literally a sprint to see who could grab the coveted corner sofa next to the window, or the front row seat at the confusingly popular bingo.
3: You can easily explore the main sights in one day
Although Helsinki is certainly a city which is worth spending a good chunk of time in in its own right, if you’re super short on holiday hours and need to make a rapid return back to Tallinn then it’s definitely possible to get a good feel for the city center in a few busy hours.
Ideally, you’ll have a chosen a ferry which will take you in and out of Katajanokka terminal, where a short walk will take you down to the hustle and bustle of the waterfront at Kauppatori. Here, you can grab a birds eye view of Helsinki on the sky wheel, or take a quick boat tour to the magnificent Suomenlinna island fortress, which you’ll have probably seen on your journey in.
Once back on dry land, you’ll barely work up a sweat us you hop over to the grand Helsinki Cathedral, before joining the locals for a picnic lunch in Esplanadi park. When you’re ready to explore more of Helsinki – from its waterfront, to its unique cathedrals and exquisite library (seriously, this building is mind-blowingly good!) then a reliable network of trams will speed you around. If, however, you fancy the wind in your hair then you can always grab yourself a Lime or Bolt e-scooter and whizz around the streets.
4: The Salmon Soup
Eating out in Helsinki – and, indeed, the rest of Scandinavia – is notoriously expensive. There’s just no getting away from it – this is not a destination which lends itself to effortless ‘budget friendly’ travel.
However, that’s not to say that there aren’t some good options if you do want to sample classic Finnish dishes. Thankfully, you don’t have to look too far to find an option which is reasonably cheap, delicious, and quick (very important, if you are doing a day trip!).
Kauppatori will typically have a range of market stalls open during the day, including a great selection of street food – anything from burgers, to vegan dishes and beyond. Our choice and recommendation would be the absolute classic – Salmon Soup. A classic Finnish dish, this will satisfy a lunchtime craving and only set you back somewhere between 6 and 8 euros. Typically, you will order the soup from the counter, pay with cash or card, and then wait for it to be handed to you before finding a spot at a table inside the tent.
5: The contrast between Helsinki and Tallinn makes for a great change of scene
Both these capitals are fantastic cities in their own right, and it’s well worth experiencing them in the same trip. A typical visitor to Tallinn will probably stay largely in and around the confines of the medieval city walls, enjoying the undoubted beauty of the cobbled streets and quirky buildings. Tallinn is not without its share of modern architecture – indeed, you don’t need to venture far from the old town at all to see flash new quarters springing up – but the process of journeying to an entirely different city will deliver some brilliant contrasts.
Helsinki feels as though it’s on a different scale to Tallinn – as a visitor to Helsinki, you can easily blend in to the streets as you explore and be granted a relative feeling of anonymity, forgetting for a second that you are a tourist in the city. No such luxury is granted in Tallinn, whose old town tends to hold a monopolistic grip on tourist footfall relative to the rest of the city – not without good reason! Ultimately, both are brilliant capitals well worth exploring in their own right, and should certainly be considered as a ‘day trip’ option if you’re spending an extended period of time in either.