Finland has a lot to offer adventurous tourists willing to ride some of the country’s trains, ferries, and busses in search of attractions outside Helsinki. As Europe’s third most sparsely populated country, getting off the beaten path in Finland isn’t difficult and options abound.
Between the Suomenlinna Islands off Helsinki’s shores, a lengthier trip to Santa’s Post Office, or to Finland’s other major cities and cultural centres – Oulu, Turku and Tampere: planning a trip to this northeastern corner of Europe will not leave visitors short on options. For those seeking a vacation with an international escape hatch, Sweden, Estonia and Russia are all a short sea voyage away from Helsinki as well.
My personal quest for excitement outside the country’s largest city first led me north, far into the Finnish Lapland and well above the Arctic Circle, to the ski village of Levi. My second search took me south, across the Gulf of Finland, to the medieval Estonian capital of Tallinn. Cheap, beautiful old town Tallinn offers an aesthetic step back in time without sacrificing any of the services one would expect from a small modern city.
The endless train ride that began my journey took 13 hours and transported me from Helsinki to Kolari, the end of the line. Passengers’ options on the overnight train were sleeping compartments, seated transport, and the bar car. This being a special train bound towards the Alpine Skiing World Cup, there was also a disco complete with DJ. Having befriended some Finns on the platform who were carrying skis, I spent the evening in the bar of the disco car partaking in a Finnish favourite, hard apple cider, before sleeping my way into some tremendous neck pain in my small assigned seat.
Skis in hand, I transferred to the second leg of my journey in the morning. The bathroomless bus that bore me from Kolari the rest of the way to Levi wove its way down snow-covered roads at a blistering pace. Being as the Lapland hosts a World Cup race, I have to say that the scenery getting there is shockingly flat. This is not to say that those who can won’t enjoy the passing view. Adorable wooden houses, reindeer, the occasional folks snowshoeing and Nordic skiing, and snow-covered evergreens compose more or less the entirety of the landscape.
According to the locals, competition for travel to destinations elsewhere in Scandinavia and mainland Europe, while none exists for domestic transport, has kept tickets to the Lapland comparatively high. Because of this, and somewhat to the chagrin of Finns – some of whom have explored relatively little of their native country’s wilderness – the Lapland has remained pristine through its relative costliness to reach. The region is also home to Finland’s indigenous people, the Sami or Lappish (though the latter term is not always considered favourable). The Sami people are spread to the west across Norway and Sweden and to the east all the way into Russia. In Finland there are spoken in small numbers three different native Sami languages, none of which are considered nationally official.
Levi was host to this year’s Alpine Skiing World Cup opener. The entire town was booked out for the event this November. Snow sport enthusiasts from all over the world make the trek to Levi for, well, snow. Its reliability is a perk, particularly early in the season when cold enough weather can be unreliable in the Alps. Levi’s reputation as the “best après ski in Finland” certainly can’t hurt its prospects as a winter getaway.
I found that booking lodging in advance can make it absurdly affordable for a ski town. Besides the hostel run by the Hulu Poro (a major hotel in Levi whose name translates from the Finnish as Crazy Reindeer), apartment-style accommodations that sleep four can be found next door and come with washer and kitchen, run around 80 Euros. I can only assume that my sans-heat experience in such accommodations is not the norm, and hope that the same goes for the hotel giving a copy of my room key to a confused young man who arrived in the middle of the night claiming he lived there. Both these rooms and many in the hotels come with the added bonus of (what else?) an in-room sauna.
As it turns out, and perhaps not all that surprisingly, there isn’t much to do in Levi, except for skiing, both alpine and Nordic, and engagin in the après ski life that goes into the wee hours. For the posh, the Spa Hotel offers a variety of ways to pamper oneself in the harsh climate if sauna alone fails to satisfy. Though I realise my bias as a ski fanatic may be a handicap in reviewing, I can’t see what else anyone could want from such a village.
I spent my two days there attempting to accomplish the two things there are to do. My first day on the slopes I explored those closest to my hotel. Ticket prices are under 20 Euros per day, a rock-bottom price when compared to those charged by major resorts in the Alps.
Of course, I lost one of my poles on my first ride up, though luckily, it was the only time. Something about the weather conditions in Levi had made the recently fallen snow harden in picturesque clumps on all of the trees. The extension of white from the ground up into the surreal shapes of foliage lining the ski hills and lifts was nothing short of incredible. Now, if only it weren’t for those damn billboards lining the sides of the first lift (admittedly, many of which had also been whited-out), the view would have been spectacular.
My second day I made my way to the steeper side of Levi’s ski slopes. A gondola services the top of the mountain here and the run used for the World Cup, the Levi Black. On an icy day, like the one I had, the steep terrain warrants some finely tuned edges. For anyone toting a pair of sharp race skis Levi might offer near-perfect training conditions. For the rest of the ski community, there is certainly terrain in one place or another suitable for most levels of skiers, though those with a penchant for dropping off anything that could be qualified as a cliff might find it wanting.
Après Ski Extravaganza
Dedicated to the idea of finding the infamous nightlife, I started my last evening in Levi late and rested, after a long nap.. I had seen a dozen or so revellers stumbling up the the Hulu Poro Arena driveway on my way to the Cantina. To say that it was much larger inside than it appeared from the parking lot would be a major understatement. Two levels, multiple bars, and dance floor the size of a roller skating rink, were filled by a live DJ and a couple hundred enthusiastic dancers and debauchees, in the aptly named Arena. I spent a few hours enjoying the karaoke-free sound system, reasonably priced Finnish beer, and company of the incredibly friendly ski-enthusiastic Finns, before the bar closed around 2 and I had to go “home” to pack.
There were no trains leaving Kolari during the three-day window I had given the attendant when I bought my tickets in Helsinki. I had to settle for a longer bus ride to Rovaniemi, where I laid over and ate a reindeer pizza, before beginning the rail portion of my return to the capital. Many Finns will tell the inquisitive visitor that going over to Estonia is one of the best things to do while in Finland. So, after a night’s layover in Helsinki, I was off to Tallinn by “ferry”.
Aboard the ferry, estaurants catering to several price ranges, smoky onboard bars, dance floors, airport-size duty-free shops, a pool and sauna complex, grocery store, and mini casino, among other attractions, filled the space that wasn’t taken up by reserved rooms. Why a boat ride that lasts only three and a half hours would require so many private compartments is beyond me, but they proved quite popular. Through every open door music, conversation, and the clinking of glasses could be heard and many swaggered out of the compact suites, carrying their parties into the narrow hallways.
When we came into port in Tallinn I reclaimed my luggage early from the baggage check and waited for the doors to open, afraid of missing whatever transport lay ahead in the mob of eager weekend tourists. While I waited, an elderly gentleman came and placed his suitcase on the floor next to me, looking haggard. After unzipping the front pocket he took out a flask, drank deeply, and came up looking much refreshed. On the gangplank off the ship I saw a woman lying on the ground with two security officers standing over her, apparently unable to make it from ship to shore. Clearly, my compatriots were here to party: hard, inexpensively and, so far, sloppily.
The cheery mob was nowhere to be found when I stepped into the brisk air outside the ferry terminal and I had no trouble finding a cab into the old town where I was staying. Following the lead of one of my hostel-mates in Helsinki, I elected to book a bed at the OldHouse hostel in Tallinn. Enough good things cannot possibly be said about this hostel.
Hungry and thirsty, I headed to an establishment named the Hell’s Hunt with a small group of other like-minded hostel patrons. Reportedly the first bar in independent Estonia (meaning since 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union), the Hell’s Hunt serves local as well as house brews and delicious food. The meatballs drew us back for another round two days later.
The Kiek in de Kok
I woke late on my first full day in Tallinn. My room was empty save for a sleeping Russian tourist. It took the girl working the front desk about half an hour of poking and exclaiming in Russian to rouse him. Given the history, it may not be surprising that though Russian is widely spoken and understood at a basic level in Estonia, it is not always welcome. The man woke loudly, quickly began yelling about the unavailability of beds for the coming night (Tallinn often books out on weekends) and, after banging around for several minutes, took his one piece of luggage – a beer – and departed.
I found my companions from the previous evening in the lounge downstairs and we took to the street in an effort to capitalise on the few daylight hours we had left for tourism. We found signs to a place called the Kiek in de Kok Museum which, based on the name, sounded more interesting to us than anything else. A branch of the Tallinn city museum displaying cannons and other artefacts from Estonia’s medieval past, Kiek in de Kok proved worth the walk and small entry fee. A highly informative video on the tower that houses the museum and its displays is available on request and has English subtitles. Its amusingly costumed narrator says “Kiek in de Kok” a gratifying number of times. In the museum’s basement we found photos taken by an Estonian journalist of Moscow’s final days of communism that were definitely worth a look.
Next we wandered up the narrow cobbled streets to get a view of whole city from higher ground. The stark contrast of Tallinn’s medieval old city, and the high rise skyline of the Radisson and other new edifices being constructed not two kilometres away from where I stood was a confusing sight. Tallinn’s old town has been a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site since 1997, meaning that the shining example of preserved medieval architecture will not meet the same glass and steel fate of the city’s newer developments.
In the quickly dwindling daylight we made for Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a large Russian Orthodox church that was completed at the turn of the 20th century when the country was a part of the Russian Empire. Though controversial as a reminder of Russian influence, the cathedral has been restored to all its shining, gilded glory since Estonian independence from the USSR. A rather gruesome painting of John the Baptist’s head on a platter, hung obscurely above eye level and off to one side, held my attention for a couple of minutes. Otherwise I was generally, as always, overwhelmed by the glittering gold surfaces and the smell of incense and candles found in Russian and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Party Like a Local,
Party ‘til You Drop
Tallinn by night, keeping in mind this was a weekend, was as raucous as the day was quiet. Not yet sick of karaoke after Finland, our group found a table at one of several bars catering to the favourite evening activity. Shortly before one of our company, a student from Toronto, gave a rendition of Country Roads to much local applause, my beer was stolen from its spot on the table in front of me. Baffled but not deterred, I bought another just in time to clap along to She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain. The frenzied enthusiasm for this song, I need hardly mention, I found a bit mysterious.
Our group ended the evening at the impressive club Hollywood, housed in a pillared marble edifice. I found that Estonians are, perhaps reasonably, indifferent or even annoyed by the presence of tourists, as Tallinn is flooded each weekend with a new batch of European vacationers eager to enjoy a weekend away without the expense of many other destinations. If this is the reason that Hollywood has a second VIP level that you can’t talk or buy your way into, I don’t know but, after running up the stairs to check it out when security walked briefly in another direction, I didn’t find any difference there from the first floor except the vantage point and lack of dance floor. And, speaking of dance floors, Hollywood had one of those mythical spreads with beautiful girls dancing all night long on platforms for all to behold. If you ever make it to this club be sure to check out the ladies room (if applicable). The sinks in there were actually set on a large fish tank.
We spent much of the following afternoon loitering in the village square admiring the gigantic, unlit Christmas tree and watching the children crawling around behind the branches at the base. Petite, portable sheds selling everything from honey to handicrafts to Julglogg were already, in mid November, filling the square for the Christmas season. Among these charming huts was what may be the world’s tiniest Indian food restaurant. Having no idea what Julglogg tasted like, and feeling it was my duty to try it, I bought a cup and almost choked on the raisins and almond slivers I swallowed on my first gulp of the warm, spiced wine.
The following morning was my last in Estonia, despite a strong reluctance to leave. I spent my day doing reruns of my favourites in the town: grabbing another plate of those irresistible meatballs from the Hell’s Hunt, wandering the streets of the old city until I was satisfied that they were indeed all beautiful. Bidding goodbye to my new friends, I made for the bus terminal.
The best way to get to Tallinn:
Icelandair flies directly to Stockholm, where connecting flights and ferries to Tallinn are abundant.
Iceland air website