We started our trip to Estonia with a drive. Through highways we made the relatively short trip from Riga to Tallinn (3-4 hours).
“Are we there yet?” I asked, insanely bored. We had to make some sacrifices when it came to luggage, and as a result, I was only allowed to bring a few books for the trip. My choice was a gargantuan 800 page Almanac to feed my geographic curiosity. Yet, at many points, the book wasn’t enough to keep with my interests. In addition, it lacked any suspense or intrigue, and therefore, my choices were quite uninteresting at points. However, I was in luck. We had just entered the city, and I was getting a close look at our location for the next few days.
It looked like a ghost town.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Every city which we visited had at least a crowd, yet Tallinn stood out. Perhaps it wasn’t the ghost town I made it to be before, but many streets were simply empty; the most crowded one in sight had a measly five people. We drove on to our destination, but I wondered why it was so quiet on that June day. I thought back. Was there anything special today?
Then it hit me. June 23 is the summer solstice. It turns out my parents weren’t surprised, as it was in a magazine we read in Riga. St John’s Eve, or Jaanipäev, celebrates when John the Baptist was born. I still didn’t know what to expect. How serious would everything be? Would it be like a serious visit to a church? Would it be full-on partying?
It turns out, St. John’s Eve is an epic holiday. We walked around, using directions a local gave us (Thank you!), and eventually we neared the site. We found the first sign of how relaxed and informal it would be: Music from a live concert bellowing through the streets. We walked a little bit further, and I looked around. In front of me, there was a clearing, separated by a fence. Looking a little bit ahead, I saw where the musicians were performing, and I was immediately intrigued. Past the stage was a huge crowd. No wonder the city seemed a little empty. Everyone was here. Vendors sold food and ice cream, other kids played soccer, and they even set up a huge slide and bouncy castle. It was all spelled out to me: F-U-N.
I rushed my parents to the entrance, eager to get started. We got in (for free), and I raced to the slides, filled with little children. My 9-year-old self was bursting with joy, and my sister and I got started. After an hour of jumping, running, and sliding, we left, myself a little tired, but there was food to eat and fun to have.
First stop: ice cream. My dad asked if I wanted ice cream, and who was I to refuse? We rushed over to the stand, and I saw my choices. Of course, I choose the most sugary one: The marshmallow ice cream. It was an ice cream with a lovely, crisp cone topped with the sweet fragrance of sugary marshmallows. The smell of freezing cold ice cream relieved my senses. It tasted great.
After getting a brain freeze, we decided to eat something. Luckily, the festival had that too. After eating some fries (yummy), and pastries, we were full. Finally, music. A new band was playing, and we vibed with the crowd (It was quite loud though). We were energized and happy, but the sun was finally going down, and the party was almost over.
Behind all of the activities, however, was a HUGE bonfire. It looked as if someone couldn’t find sticks for their bonfire, so they used tree trunks instead. At least twice my size, it towered above me.
“Can we watch them burn it?” I asked.
“No,” replied my mom.
“Why??” I pleaded. “Can we please stay?”
“No,” said my dad firmly. “We have to travel tomorrow, and we can’t stay up until midnight. It’s already 10:00”
“What!” I said, aghast. “It can’t be that late”
My dad showed me his phone, and it was, in fact, the middle of the night, and despite my begging, we had to get rest for the next day.
Morning went like a breeze. We got prepared, ate, and walked. The plan was to find a tour bus, buy a ticket, and sight see, a very effective strategy for day trips. Since our time in Estonia would be quite short, we saw this as a fit use of our time. We walked for a few minutes on a gravel road, and I noted some things I hadn’t previously noticed about Tallinn. First was the low population density. Though we weren’t anywhere near the city center, Tallinn was still strikingly empty, and it was easy to forget we were in an urban area. Second was the amount of walkers. There was minimal congestion on the streets, and the city was amazingly quiet. All the hustle and bustle of an urban area vanished, and similarly to Riga, the atmosphere of the city was much more casual than at home. Ultimately, though, we couldn’t stick around. We had an objective, and we had to meet it. Walking a few blocks met us with the stop, and a bit of waiting later, we had paid for our tickets and were on the bus.
The two major advantages of bus tours are transportation, and guides. The benefit of having a guide is better knowledge of the area. I don’t always remember the signs about historical landmarks, but because of electronic tour guides, I learn a lot about the area. Unfortunately, my brain always gets overloaded with all of this information, and I rarely remember as much as I should. I recommend either taking notes of whatever information the tour guide gives, or paying attention solely to the site itself. Anything in the middle would be the worst of both worlds.
We went through tourist-filled streets, crossing fortifications of the old city, modern skyscrapers, finding churches both big and small, and through the ship littered port, all in the comfort of the bus. We even saw a naval station. We got off, ate lunch, and we were back on the road. Finally, at the center of the old town, we exited. It was all over in what felt like seconds. I felt as if I had both learned a million different facts and as if I hadn’t even stepped on the bus at the same time, but we were in the old town, and I had to concentrate and observe.
Ahead of me was the main attraction. The fortifications of the old city. We’d decided that it would be worth stopping by the wall, and it was an interesting sight, especially in a nation with much shallower history than some of its European counterparts. Sadly, the wall was quite small, so the real attraction was the old city. Looking at the old city felt like looking at a medieval village. The rustic feel was supported by the short buildings made of stone, and cobbled streets going through the areas. Clearly this area was designed for tourist appeal. We took in the view, taking photos along the way, but eventually, we circled back to the fort. We had more sights to see on the hop-in hop-out bus.
On the bus, we looked at our next destinations: there were palaces and cathedrals, but what interested me the most was the KGB center. I hadn’t really known much about Estonian culture, and I wasn’t wholeheartedly interested in it, but I did know some Soviet history, and I was intrigued by that. In addition, I believed that we had seen too many cathedrals for a lifetime (traveling around Western Europe will do the same thing to you). However, there weren’t any directions, so we asked the driver of the bus for directions when we reached the stop. I don’t exactly remember what happened, but it went like this:
“Do you know the way to the KGB center,” I asked nervously.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the driver said dismissively. My 9-year old self wasn’t too surprised. There was the occasional 1 out of 10 scenario where we wouldn’t get directions, but my dad was more suspicious. Once we left, he turned back to me.
“You shouldn’t have asked him,” my dad said.
“Why?” I asked. I just asked for directions to a place, and he denied me. What I didn’t notice was the age of the driver.
“Some Estonians don’t like talking about Soviets,” my dad explained. “Since the Soviet Union invaded them, they have some bad blood”
I was quite shocked. Just because of something that happened years ago, this man wouldn’t tell me directions? I wish I knew how young I truly was.
With one option cut, we decided to go to Kadriorg Park (I found the name on the map). We hopped on the bus and followed the signs, and sure enough, we were at the gardens. The gardens in Estonia were almost identical to the ones in Latvia. The same out-of-city vibe emanated through the building, and we couldn’t resist being relaxed. Taking photos around the flowers, we practiced our photography, and looked around. We saw a few signs, and decided to visit one of the museums. What we found was a huge surprise. Instead of a normal museum, we had just stumbled upon a converted palace. We immediately changed our plans, and moved our focus to the attraction.
It was small, there was no denying that, but the converted museum had an unconventional charm most places we didn’t have. Unlike the one-dimensional Schonbrunn Palace, or the Palace of Versailles, this castle had more color, more passion. In addition, it was almost empty. We didn’t have to worry about the crowds, and we could have our own time photographing the area. We truly enjoyed the palace, but the cherry on the top was the gardens. All castles have gardens, and this one was no exception. With the cutest little mini-garden I’ve ever seen, complete with a miniature maze and miniature flowers, the museum really was a miniature palace. As one of the most underrated sights in Tallinn, the Kadriorg park has some sights you really cannot miss. However, at the time, I wasn’t able to reflect on this. Instead, I was running as fast as my legs allowed. Why? Because of the bus.
We had stayed in this castle for so long, we had forgotten service ended at 5:00 for that station. It was 4:50, we were nowhere near the gardens. At full speed, we rushed to the stop when disaster struck: my sister’s diaper. It would have been a small mistake, but when coupled with being late, it became a tragedy. We waited tensely, hoping, and my mom’s skills were put to test. She did it in a minute. We had no time to applaud her. I rushed at the top of my lungs, looked back, only to see they were going at a much slower pace. However, this was all part of the plan: I would speed to the bus, wait at the stop, and when the driver arrived, I would ask him to wait for my parents. It was a surprisingly effective plan: the threat of being stranded in a random street in Tallinn greatly helped my communication skills, and the initial shock of adrenaline I felt when I learnt about our situation carried me at supersonic speeds. Fortunately, that day, the nuclear plan wasn’t needed. I rushed through the streets, and waited: the bus hadn’t arrived yet, and my parents arrived. We entered the bus, looking at the stops which were open.
“Well, that shipyard seems interesting,” I pointed out. I was hoping to find ships which had fought in wars, which might have been a reasonable assumption, considering the violent history of Estonia. However, I clearly hadn’t paid any attention to the map, which showcased a port for leisure. However, at further examination, many other choices seemed like a better option, and we opted for … the shipyard. Turns out, most of the interesting places were closed (not necessarily by 5:00, as my memory is quite flawed). In addition, the shipyard was near the Airbnb, and therefore we didn’t need the bus. We exited a few minutes later, and my first impression was confusion.
“Well, that isn’t the shipyard,” I noticed. We were in some amphitheatre? It was a dumb question, because we could already see the shipyard from the sidewalk aside it. However, we did like the cool steps that were there, and my mom thought it would be a good chance to practice “Motion photography”. I thought it was a good excuse to run around and have some fun. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much since the day before (I was loving Estonia if you couldn’t tell).
“We should probably be getting to the port,” my mom reminded me. My mom stowed her camera in her orange bag along with my sunglasses. Sadly, what we saw was uninspiring. A port. A clear sky, a few boats, but neither the views or the action we hoped to see. Instead the brick floors were empty and lifeless, and we decided to go. However, the trip back was much more eventful. First, we found the real views. A few hundred feet away, the bay was in full view, and we took some photos, and decided that we had been productive enough for the day. We left, and I thought we were done. My sister thought otherwise. See, on the way to the shipyard from the amphitheatre, we had come across a really cool playground, (I secretly hoped to play there too) but we couldn’t visit because we had to visit the shipyard. However, my mom had promised to take her back. I assumed that meant tomorrow, but my sister misunderstood and cried until we had to give in.
Of course, it was the average playground experience: play on everything until you’re too tired to stop. Hanging on the monkey bars, doing an interesting climbing course, and sliding on the metal slides (I love it when they’re metal: less friction makes me zoom down). It was a blast. We played for at least an hour, and then we left (right after we took a photo with one of those mini-trains that take children around malls).
But after that, we were finally free to rest, and we needed rest for the next day, because we were doing one of our super-stressful jam-packed hyper-hectic day trips. Our destination? Finland.
- Make sure to visit the summer solstice festival: it’s heaps of fun throughout the Baltics, as this festival is also celebrated in Latvia and Lithuania.
- Estonia has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world, which makes it the best place to download or upload things in the Baltics.
- From Tallinn, you can visit Helsinki on a ferry, which is an alternative to visiting Finland with St. Petersburg.