When planning my trip to Tallinn, I quickly realized that I could easily pair it with Helsinki. Since I had neither visited Estonia nor Finland before, this had me pretty excited.

Two European capitals for the price of one – whammo!

Well, it was only a figurative bargain, because Helsinki is an incredibly expensive destination. Nevertheless, it was great to combine these highly contrasting cities into one trip.

Tallinn

The Finnish capital is just 70 kilometres from Tallinn, the two separated only by the Baltic Sea. Numerous ferries covering this distance throughout the day, so it’s easy to zip between them, even if it’s for a day trip.

What made me look at Helsinki in the first place was my difficulty in finding good flights to Estonia. There are often better flights to Helsinki simply because it has a larger airport. Helsinki Airport serves over 20 million passengers a year, while the much smaller Tallinn Airport serves about 2.5 million.

In my case, I couldn’t find a cheap and direct flight from Lisbon to Tallinn, but there were plenty going to Helsinki.

Visiting Helsinki

Helsinki is a great place to visit — if you come with the right expectations.

Its history goes back only about 200 years, so there is little in the way of old castles or much of a historical core. What Helsinki does have is plenty of museums, modern architecture, and good food.

The city is relatively small, walkable, and modern. Since I’m from the Netherlands, it faintly reminded me of newer Dutch cities like Rotterdam or The Hague. But what’s quite different about Helsinki is that some of the architecture has an almost Russian feel to it (or at least, that’s how it seemed to me).

I most enjoyed going to Helsinki’s south harbour. There you can find a market square with food and handicrafts and some nice bars along the waterfront. You can also get an island hopping ticket (8 EUR) that is valid the whole day and lets you visit the islands of Suomenlinna, Vallisaari and Lonna.

I loved strolling through nature on Vallisaari islands. It was filled with bird chatter and life and many geese flying overhead in V-formation. You’ll see some lush forests and wonderful views of the bays.

On Suomenlinna island, you’ll also find an 18th-century sea fortress, as well as many charming cafes, a craft beer brewery, and a submarine museum. Spending at least an afternoon on the islands is well worth it.

Helsinki travel costs: Budget travellers beware, Helsinki is very pricey! To give you an idea, I spent 16 EUR on a pizza in a casual restaurant,  beers cost around 7 EUR, and coffees about 4 EUR. I shared an Airbnb with a friend for 65 EUR a night and it seems it was an awesome deal for Helsinki (when I came back to Helsinki later, most rooms seemed to be 100 EUR or above).

If costs are still a concern, get yourself to Tallinn quickly.

Helsinki to Tallinn by Ferry

Helsinki – Tallinn ferry operators

There are multiple ferry operators between Helsinki and Tallinn. I took the Tallink Silja Line, first the Tallink Megastar and the Tallink Star on the way back. I don’t normally go on cruises, so I was hugely impressed by the facilities aboard, especially considering the short travel time. The ferries felt more like airport terminals, complete with shops, fast food restaurants, live entertainment, and so on.

The main operators are:

You can compare all the ferry options at DirectFerries.

Helsinki – Tallinn travel time

On average, it takes around 2 hours from Helsinki to Tallinn. Some ships are a bit slower.

The overnight options still take just around 2 hours, but let you sleep on board the whole night.

Helsinki – Tallinn ferry cost

The ferries are not as expensive as you might think.Even though these are super modern cruise liners with a ton of amenities on board, tickets are typically between €20 and €30 (with variations based on the day and the operator). But the lowest I’ve seen was €12 one-way with Eckero Lines, departing at 21:40 in Helsinki.

Budget travel hack: there is an overnight ferry that cruises to Tallinn. It’s a bit of an odd night cruise as it goes for 2,5 hours, then docks and lets you sleep aboard until morning. You can get a 2 berth shared cabin for about 50 EUR. If you split this between two persons, it can save you on the cost of your accommodation. One traveller I spoke to used this to visit Helsinki for a whole day, then sleep relatively cheaply on the boat, and then continue in the less expensive Estonia.

Visiting Tallinn

It’s easy to fall in love with Tallinn. It has a medieval historical centre with intact city walls, many trendy restaurants and cafes, and oodles of atmosphere.

It’s no wonder that many tourists love to come there — in fact, some Estonians complain it’s the only place any of them get to see in Estonia.

Tallinn’s old town is easily explored on foot. You’ll no doubt find its town hall square with merchant houses and many small museums. I loved walking the city walls and getting inside some of its defensive towers.

It did strike me how many tour groups there were walking around Tallinn and there were also people dressed in Medieval costumes promoting tours or pubs. Tallinn’s small city centre is a bit of a tourist bubble. I liked it a lot in May, but maybe I’d have liked it a bot less during high season when the crowds are said to be a bit much sometimes for such a small area. Personally, I thought the atmosphere was very pleasant in spring.

When you’ve seen the old town, you need to walk just 10 minutes to the Kalamaja neighbourhood for a more local vibe. The typical wooden Tallinn houses constructed in the 1920s give this area a wonderful atmosphere. It’s the area I stayed in and I loved it!

Adjacent to this neighbourhood is also the Telliskivi Creative City, which forms the heart of what you might call Tallinn’s hipster area. There’s a lot of excellent food here and the prices are lower than in the touristy centre.

I enjoyed eating at Peatus, a restaurant built inside a converted train carriage. One Sixty meanwhile does some incredible BBQ. At St. Vitus, you can find over 50 local craft beers and brush shoulders with the locals. If you’re looking for a bar that’s open late (and that might have some great music to dance to), be sure to visit the nearby Sveta Baar.

My favourite activity in Tallinn was the KGB Museum at the Viru Hotel. During Soviet times, Hotel Viru was one of the few hotels in the USSR to receive international tourists, who were then thoroughly spied on by the Russians. The mini-museum shows you the hotel’s hidden top floor from where conversations were recorded and guests were closely monitored. You can visit the museum only on a pre-booked tour, which I thought was very entertaining and informative.

I also rented a car with my friend for a little one-day road trip around Estonia. Unfortunately, some sights we were hoping to visit were closed and Estonia’s landscapes can be a bit repetitive, but there were two things I saw when exploring the country that especially bear mentioning.

The Kakerdaja Raba Matkarada national park is about an hour outside of Tallinn and here you can hike through bogs and forests. The peatlands are typical to Estonia and many kilometres of boardwalks have been constructed allowing you to cross them.

Not far from here is also a Museum of Soviet Vehicles, which was another favourite on my trip. Someone collected a ton of old rusty vehicles and put them in a huge yard for display, including various Cold War era military vehicles and some brightly coloured caterpillar machines that seemed like rescue vehicles from a Thunderbirds episode.

I’ll end this post with one last recommendation for Tallinn, just to reward only those who scrolled all the way to the end.

The pub Kompressor in Tallinn’s old town makes the best damn pancakes I’ve ever tasted in my life. They’re seriously so good I had to go back the next day for more. I know that’s quite a specific tip, but this pancake pub is seriously a must-visit in Tallinn. I’ll be very upset with you if you don’t. Just trust me on this one.

Tallinn travel costs: as far as travel costs go, there are basically two realities in Estonia. If you’re anywhere within the old walled Medieval town of Tallinn, the prices will be quite high — close to countries in Western Europe. But anywhere outside this small area, it’s much cheaper — even as little as half the cost. In the town of Parnu, I had an amazing plate with fresh herring and many sides for just 5 EUR, for example.