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My European Favourites – Tallinn, Estonia

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Tallinn is one of those cities that you never hear people talk about visiting, but once you do, it becomes an instant favourite. Whenever we do an itinerary for a hockey, ringette or sightseeing group to Sweden and Finland, I always encourage the group to add a side trip to Estonia’s capital. It is only a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn, so it’s perfect for a day trip.

Tallinn has just under half a million inhabitants and is the largest city of Estonia. It is located directly south of Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland and on the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea. Once known by its German name, Raval, Tallinn has one of the best preserved old towns in Europe. Unlike many towns in Europe, Tallinn’s historic old town was never destroyed by war and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I like to think of it as a smaller Prague. The city started building protective walls in the 13th century, and over time, it enlarged to a defence system of over two kilometers with gates and towers. Much of these structures survive today including twenty of the pointy red roofed towers. In some areas, it is possible to walk along the walls.

Near the old town you will find traditional neighborhoods with colorful wooden houses, green spaces and the redeveloped bustling port area. Estonians are blessed with public beaches to enjoy in the summer months and nearby forests to explore on nature walks. Within view of the old town, there is a modern city, complete with skyscrapers and all the modern amenities you would expect. How modern is Tallinn? It has free public WIFI, and as a high-tech city, it has become a leader in the sector of cyber security. You may have used the services of a well-known Estonian startup company named Skype.

About Estonia

There is evidence that the area was settled as far back as 5,000 years ago, but the city became an important trading hub in the 14th to 16th centuries when it was a member of the Hanseatic League, which controlled trade in the Baltic and North Seas. Even at that time, the city only had about 8,000 inhabitants.

Over the years, Estonia has been ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The country gained short lived independence from Russia after WWI only to be reclaimed as part of the Soviet Union after WWII. Like most of the countries that became part of the USSR, they suffered through a fifty year period of communist policies and stagnation. In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Estonia regained its independence. Since then it has flourished into a western style city while maintaining its rich cultural and architectural history. It is a member of the European Union and NATO.

Tallinn’s distinctive mix of a modern and historic skyline as we arrive on the ferry from Helsinki.

Ferry to Tallinn

Tallinn is a two-hour ferry ride south from Helsinki, and it’s possible to go early in the morning across the Gulf of Finland and return late on the evening ferry. The Tallink ferry has sitting areas on different decks plus shopping and dining options onboard. If possible, I would recommend an overnight stay near the old town and return to Helsinki the following evening.

From Sweden, you can arrive on the overnight ferry that leaves Stockholm in the early evening and arrives in Tallinn in the morning. Your individual ticket includes a cabin that can sleep up to four people with two single beds and two pull down upper berths. Onboard, you can enjoy shopping, entertainment, bars and restaurants. Another option from Stockholm is to take the ferry to Riga and spend a couple of days in Latvia’s capital. The drive from Riga to Tallin is about four hours, and I usually like to stop along the way in the seaside resort city of Parnu to have lunch and walk in the city centre.

A Tale of Two Towns

Tallinn’s historic center is separated into two areas, Toompea, and Vanalinn. At one time, they were two feuding medieval towns. The upper town, Toompea, includes the aptly named Toompea Castle. The lower town, Vanalinn, has narrow alleyways, the town square, shops and restaurants. Vanalinn, was the Hanseatic League trading center filled with merchants from Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The two areas are connected by two passages called the short leg (Lühike Jalg) and the long leg (Pikk jalg).

Toompea, Tallinn’s Upper Town

As expected, the Toompea Castle sits high above the lower town on an ancient stronghold site that dates back to a wooden fortress in the 9th century. The castle, a symbol of political power through the ages, has been expanded and remodeled over the years by Estonia’s rulers to meet their needs.

Once a castle of ancient Estonians starting in the 11th century, it was later used by the Danish during most of the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 14th and 15th centuries, while in the hands of the Holy Roman Empire’s Teutonic Order, that it was built to resemble what we see today. The religious order changed the castle interior to include a chapel, chapel house, convent and dormitories for the knights. They added defence towers named Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann), Landskrone (Crown of the land), Pilsticker (Arrow Sharpener) and Stür den Kerl (Ward Off Enemy) to protect each of its four corners. During the 16th century when Estonia became a part of Sweden, they changed the castle from a crusader’s fortress to a symbol of political power, with an administrative and ceremonial purpose.

Tall Hermann, entrance to the Governors Garden and the Toompea Castle’s pink palace.

When the Russians took over in the 18th century, the Czar had the castle turned into a palace by adding a Baroque and Neoclassical wing to the eastern part of the castle and a public park on the south east. When Estonia declared its first independence from Russia after WWI, the former convent of the Teutonic Order was transferred into an assembly hall for the Parliament of Estonia, named the Riigikogu. After being disbanded during the Soviet era from 1940 to 1991, the assembly, the Riigikogu, was reinstated in 1992 as the Estonian Parliament with 101 members.

I like to start my tour of Tallinn in the upper town just outside of the Toompea Castle, so I can get a good look at the impressive Tall Herman and original castle wall from the Governors Garden. During the castle’s evolution, the Stür den Kerl castle tower has been demolished while the others have been integrated into building projects. The 48 meter high Tall Hermann still stands and has become an important symbol of Tallinn and the nation. The Estonian flag is raised atop the tower every day at sunrise as the national anthem plays and it is lowered at sunset.

Around the corner from the park is the Lossi Plats (Castle Square) where we can see the pink palace which was added to the front of Toompea Castle during the renovations by Russian Czars. Topped by the Estonian flag, the one-time medieval fortress is now clearly the modern centre of government for Estonia. On the opposite side of the square is a richly decorated Russian orthodox cathedral.

The Castle Square, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and an Russian Orthodox mosaic.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The striking Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in 1900 in Russian Revival style when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. It is Tallinn’s largest orthodox cupola cathedral and is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky, a Russian military hero, who in 1242, won a famous “Battle of the Ice” against the Teutonic Knights on Lake Peipus. The lake on Estonia’s eastern border is shared with Russia with the modern day border between the countries being about half way across.

During the USSR period, the church came into decline due to communist non-religious policies. Since 1991, the church has been meticulously restored even though it is a constant reminder of Russia’s influence, power and oppression over Estonia through the ages. There were actually plans to demolish the structure in 1924, but it was spared due to a lack of funds to raze such a large building. Today, the church is one of Tallinn’s most visited attractions and is unique due to its contrasting architectural style.

The church exterior has five onion domes, each topped with a gilded Orthodox cross.  The church has eleven bells that were cast in St. Petersburg, including one massive 16 ton bell.

Like other traditional Orthodox churches, there are no pews as worshippers were required to stand during services. The ornate interior has three alters, stained glass windows and three gilded wooden iconostases (wall of icons and religious paintings) which separate the nave from the alters. Entrance to the cathedral is free. The intricate detail and colors of the mosaics and icons are amazing and well worth seeing.

St. Mary’s Church, the top of the baroque tower spire with the year 1772.

Leaving the Castle Square, we venture further into the upper town, and about 100 meters in, we reach the Kiriku Plats (Church Square) and a white medieval church with a baroque bell tower. The Toomkrik built by the Danes in the 13th century, also known as the Dome Chrurch or St. Mary’s Cathedral, is Estonia’s oldest church. Originally a Roman Catholic cathedral, it became Lutheran in the mid 16th century and is the seat of Tallinn’s Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Although the church endured severe damage in the great fire of 1684, it was the only building on Toompea left standing. It was restored to its previous state shortly after the fire and a new baroque spire was added in the 18th century.

From the Church Square, we can see the light green colored Estonian Knighthood House. This is the 4th Knighthood house that was built for noble Knights to meet and enjoy festivities. The Knighthood was formed in 1584 by the Baltic German nobles, but it was disbanded in 1920. Currently, the building is used by the Estonian Academy of Arts. On the right of the building we take the Kohtu street until we reach the end and turn right onto a small open area between two buildings.

Kohtuotsa views: Towards the harbour and of the old town with skyscrapers in the distance.

A Panoramic View and Sweet Almonds

As we enter the Kohtuotsa viewing platform, which is a courtyard between two buildings, the smell of candied almonds overwhelms the senses. A wooden kiosk with a couple of girls dressed in traditional costume are making batches of sweet almonds in a copper pot. They have a sample for you to try, and when you do, the sale is complete. They have two options, Magus Mandel (Candied) or Soolane Mandel (Salty). I have the candied ones every time.

There is a stone wall at the end of the platform with amazing panoramic views of Tallinn. Looking to the left, you can see the white tower of St. Olaf’s Church amongst medieval towers with the harbour and the sea in the distance. Directly ahead are the roof tops and spires of the lower town with the skycrapers of the city in the distance. It’s quite a contrast of architecture from medieval structures to modern steel and glass.

Another nearby viewing platform is the Patkuli, which is reached by climbing 157 steps from the old town up to Toompea. This platform offers a great view of the harbour area.

Leaving the Kohtuotsa, we go back towards the Nevsky Cathedral and take the Long Leg Street down into the lower town. We walk along the fortification walls until we reach the Long Leg Tower and enter the lower town.

Walking down the Long Leg passage to the Long Leg Tower and into the lower town.

Vanalinn – Tallinn’s Lower Town

Emerging from the Long Leg Tower, we continue on Pikk street until we reach the Grand Guild Square (Suurgildi Plats). The square is named after the medieval gold colored Great Guild Hall that is now the Estonian History Museum. The Great Guild was a medieval association of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen in Tallinn from the 14th century until 1920.  On the square, we also find the Lutheran Holy Spirit Church (Pühavaimu kirik). The white washed medieval church has stained glass gothic windows, an octagonal bell tower and an interesting 17th century carved clock on the façade. If you enter the church, you will see elaborate wood working, especially on the alter.

The Maiasmokk Café, the Holy Spirit Church, the church clock and the pharmacy sign.

Established in 1864, the Maiasmokk Café on the square, is the oldest in Tallinn. The café interior hasn’t changed for over a century. It is famous for its marzipan, which is said to have been originated in Tallinn. Marzipan is made from almond meal and either sugar or honey. The café’s Marzipan Room details the city’s history of making marzipan including traditional marzipan figures made from special molds.

If we take a small passage along the church, we will reach the Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats). As we enter the square, two doors down on our left is the Town Hall Pharmacy (Revali Raeapteek). This pharmacy dates back to 1422, and it may be the world’s oldest pharmacy in continuous use.The pharmacy has a museum where you can see some of the old time medicines and potions. You can test various herbal tea blends picked from local fields in the basement of the Town Hall Pharmacy (or Raeapteek) or explore the exposition of the 17th to the 20th-century medicine in the back room. You can purchase some of the products from the middle ages including teas, spices, chocolate, marzipan and claret, a potent libation made from wine and spices that dates back to 1467.

The Old Town Square’s colorful buildings, the Town Hall and a Town Hall dragon water spout.

The lively Town Hall Square, one of the best preserved medieval town squares in the world, was a market place in the Middle ages. Many of the colorful buildings on the square were once medieval merchants’ homes, offices and warehouses from the Hanseatic Golden Age. During the summer months, the restaurants around the square set up their umbrellaed patios where you can enjoy lunch and a cool beverage as you watch locals and tourists mill about. Restaurants like “III Draakon” and ‘Olde Hansa” offer a unique medieval experience with menu items made with elk, bear and boar meat.

The square is the centre of the Old Town Days medieval festival, concerts, fairs and the centuries old Christmas market. It is said that in 1441, the Brotherhood of the Blackbeards, a professional association of merchants, ship owners and foreigners, erected the very first Christmas tree here on the square. Today, in addition to the tree, the Christmas market fills the square with kiosks selling everything from gingerbread to knitted mittens and handicrafts. Other kiosks sell snacks, oysters and mulled wine to keep you warm. Kids can drop off letters at the Santa Claus cabin and ride the carousels in a magical setting. On a stage, hundreds of performers take turns entertaining the crowds during the markets month long stay from the 27th of November to the 27th of December.

Sweet Almond vendor and Old Town buildings. The Christmas market stage and a kiosk.

The town hall, built in 1404, sits prominently on the square and is the oldest in the Baltic and Scandinavian regions. It is no longer in the seat of the municipal government but is used for special events and ceremonies, and is the home of the Tallinn City Musuem. The town hall tower can be climbed in the summer months to get another great view of Tallinn. Since 1530, a weather vane of Vana Toomas, or Old Thomas, has been keeping lookout atop the spire. Old Thomas, who is holding a sword and an arrow, is said to be a protector of Tallinn.

The square is spectacular, but it can be touristy. I like to wander through the cobblestone streets and alleyways surrounding the centre to find restaurants and cafes where the locals frequent. Walking these side streets is like taking a time machine back to the medieval ages, but you will find interesting little museums, galleries and shops selling local products like amber.

St. Catherine’s Passage kiosks and alley. The Viru Gate tower and the white Viru Hotel.

St. Catherine’s Passage, the Viru Gate and the KGB

From the Old Town square if we go to the right of the old town and down the busy pedestrian Viru Street we will reach the St. Catherine’s passage on Müürivahe Street. The passage leads to the St. Catherine’s Monastery which was founded in 1246 by the Monks of the Dominican Order. The monastery is the oldest building in Tallinn. At the monastery, you can visit the chapel, gallery, or book a private tour. The medieval passage itself, formerly known as Monk’s alley, has the tall fortification wall on one side with little kiosks below selling handicrafts and 15th to 17th century residences on the other side, with some now being used as artists workshops.

Only steps away from the St. Catherine’s passage is the 14th century Viru Gate that was part of Tallinn’s wall defences. When the entrances to the Old Town were widened in the late 1800’s, many of the gates were destroyed. The Viru Gate’s corner towers survived and are a great divide from the medieval town on one side and the modern city on the other.

During the 50 year Soviet occupation of Estonia, the KGB had its headquarters in the old town at Pagari 1. In its basement, suspected enemies of the state were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. If convicted of crimes, they were either shot or sent to labour camps in Siberia. The tall white Viru Hotel that can be seen clearly in the distance from the Viru Gate has a KGB Museum. Like any hotel where foreigners stayed, the hotel had to have spying facilities for the KGB. The museum tells the story of their activities and the Soviet mindset.

St. Olaf’s Church, the Fat Margaret Tower, and the Kadriorg Palace.

St. Olaf’s Church 

On the northern edge of the old town is Tallinn’s biggest medieval building, the iconic St Olaf’s Church. Named after the sainted Norwegian king Olav II Haraldsson, the church was the tallest building in the world from between 1549 and 1625 due to its 124 meter tower. The church had three great fires in 1625, 1820 and in 1931 caused by lightning striking its tall spire. In fact, lightning has struck the church at least 10 times. During the Soviet occupation, the spire was used as a radio tower and KGB surveillance point. Today, if you climb 232 steps on a winding staircase you will have a great view of the city and the harbour area. I’m not sure I would go on an overcast day tough.

Near the church is the Fat Margaret tower which houses a part of the Maritime Museum. The main part of the museum is the Seaplane Harbour (Lennusadam) which is located a couple of kilometers away. It is one of Europe’s biggest maritime museums with a submarine, icebreaker, seaplane, an aquarium, simulators and other activities.

Other Things to do in Tallinn

If you go to the wall connecting the Nunna, Sauna and Kuldjala towers, you can walk the city walls, like the medieval guards that protected the town.

Near the old town, the Rotermann quarter has been transformed from old warehouses and factory buildings into a trendy and lively neighborhood with modern architecture.

Kumu Art Museum, with a modern architectural design, depicts various periods of Estonian art from the Academic Style to Modernism, from Soviet Pop Art to contemporary art.

Near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn’s Museum of Occupations tells the history of the country’s occupation by the Nazis during WWII and then the Soviets.

Patarei Prison is a huge complex in the Kalamaja district that can be visited in the summer months. Once an artillery battery in the 19th century, it became a prison from 1919 to 2002.

The 314 meter high Tallinn TV Tower has a glass-floored viewing platform on the 21st floor with a 360 degree view of the city. Thrill seekers can take a safety harnessed walk on the open deck.

Foodies may want to visit the Kalev Chocolate factory or the Baltic Station Market.

Just Outside of Tallinn

Just outside Tallinn is Kadriorg Park. Established by Peter the Great in 1718, it has the Kadriorg Palace as well as beautiful gardens and woods. The park includes a concert area, children’s park, a people’s park and a Japanese garden.

The 72 hectare Estonian Open-Air Museum has around 80 reconstructed buildings from the 18th to 20th centuries. The traditional structures were brought here from throughout Estonia.

Tallinn is not overly priced, or especially crowded with tourists. You can easily spend a few days in Tallinn, and it is well worth adding to any itinerary of Sweden or Finland. You will thank me for it.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

Click here to read more stories from the series My European Favourites.

My European Favourites – Day Trip From Amsterdam

 

I have been in sports management and the sports tour business since 1994 when I created my company, Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing tours. Please visit our website at azorcan.net for more information on our company, our tours and our destinations. We are European group tour experts specializing in custom sightseeing tours, sport tours (hockey, soccer, ringette, school academies) and fan tours (World Juniors). Check out our newsletters, and listen to our podcasts at azorcan.net/media.

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My European Favourites – Helsinki, Finland

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Founded only in the 16th century, Helsinki is the geographic, political, financial and cultural capital of Finland. In addition to the area Helsinki encompasses on the mainland, it includes over 300 islands on the inlets and bays of the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland. Combined with Stockholm and Tallinn, Helsinki is one of our top tour destinations for youth hockey and ringette teams for over twenty years. Finns are avid sports people and great hosts for our Canadian groups.

View of Helsinki harbour’s busy Market Square and the prominent Lutheran Cathedral.

Before gaining independence in 1917, Finland was ruled by the Swedes and Russians. The city was founded by Sweden’s King Gustav in 1550 to rival the Hanseatic League member city once known as Reval. Today, Reval is known as Tallinn, Estonia, and it can be reached by a two hour ferry ride.

In 1809, Russia gained control of Helsinki, and in 1812, moved Finland’s capital city from Turku to Helsinki. The decision was made because Helsinki was closer to St. Petersburg and easier to defend because of the Sveaborg sea fortress which guards the sea entrance into the city. Today the sea fortress is named Suomenlinna, and is one of the city’s most popular attractions.

The population of Helsinki proper is about 650,000, and it has a metro population of around 1.5 million including its neighboring municipalities like Vantaa and Espoo. This makes it the 3rd largest city of the Nordic countries, after only Stockholm and Copenhagen. While having all the conveniences of a modern city, Helsinki is a great destination for nature lovers. There are parks and vast areas of unspoilt nature to explore year round. In the summer months, when days are long, there are beaches, boating and watersport opportunities on the sea or at nearby lakes.

Helsinki has an interesting mix of various architectural styles including modern structures that are on the cutting edge of design. The city has a vibrant nightlife with many clubs, bars and late night eateries. The culinary scene is varied from the popular local hamburger chain, Hesburger, to Michelin-star restaurants. There is even a restaurant in the city centre decorated with rustic tables and old tractors serving traditional reindeer dishes. If you want to enjoy a beer while passing Helsinki’s main sights, you may be interested in the Sparakoff Pub Tram. The red colored tram with the destination board reading “PUB” takes about 45 minutes to make a round trip. Plenty of time to enjoy a beverage or two.

The Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, the Allas Sea Pools and the Sky Wheel Helsinki.

Katajanokka Island

Inaugurated in 1868, the Uspenski Cathedral is the center of the Eastern Orthodox faith in Finland. The cathedral was built using 700,000 red bricks that were brought in by barge from a demolished fortress in the Baltic. Entrance to the cathedral is free, and about half a million tourists visit it annually to see the elaborately decorated interior and several valuable icons.    The cathedral was built upon a hillside of the Katajanokka island, which forms the eastern side of the city center and the Helsinki harbour. Overlooking the city, the cathedral is a great place to start our journey through Helsinki.

Walking down from the cathedral to the waterfront, we immediately see the 40 meter tall Sky Wheel Helsinki. The wheel offers great views of the city, the sea and the surrounding islands. The wheel has two unique gondolas. One’s interior has leather seats with a glass floor and includes a bottle of champagne for a 30 minute ride. The other is the SkySauna. Yes, we all know Finns love their saunas, so why not combine a ferris wheel ride with a sauna.

Next to the wheel, we find the Allas Sea Pool which has three pools right in the Heslinki harbour. One pool is for lap swimming, one is for families and one is a salt water pool. The fresh water pools are heated, the salt water pool is not. In addition to the pools, there are saunas and a restaurant with terraces to enjoy the views. For those looking to experience a Finnish sauna, it’s a convenient location. If you have time, I would recommend the Löyly sauna which is located near the Tallin ferry terminal. There are many places in Helsinki offering a sauna, so finding one is easy.

The Presidential Palace, Market Square and a food vendor selling a fish and vegetable lunch.

Kauppatori Market Square

Taking one of the little bridges from Katajanokka island to the market square we will pass the yellow Presidential Palace. The former Russian imperial palace, contains the Office of the President of the Republic and is used for official functions and receptions. Continuing past the palace, we arrive at the Kauppatori Market Square. The square has been a marketplace for hundreds of years and is a popular tourist attraction. The year round market’s kiosks sell fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, handcrafts, clothing and souvenirs. There are also stands that sell prepared food and beverages. A warm bowl of salmon soup with rye bread or a plate of grilled fish with vegetables make a quick, inexpensive and tasty lunch. The square faces the busy Port of Helsinki (Helsingen Satama) and from here you can take boat tours of the archipelago or to the Suomenlinna Island fortress. You can also see the huge Viking and Silja Line ferries arriving in the morning and departing in the evening for Stockholm.

 

Senate Square with the Helsinki Cathedral. Group photo of our 2016 World Juniors fan tour.

Senate Square

The light blue Helsinki City Hall is located right in front of the Market Square. Taking a side street along the City Hall we will arrive at the expansive Senate Square with a statue of Russian Czar Alexander II at its centre. The white neo-classical Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral, built in 1852, dominates the north side of the square and towers over the city center. The west and east sides of the square have two similarly looking yellow buildings. The eastern building houses the offices of the prime Minister of Finland and the cabinet. The one on the west side is the main building of the University. North of the University building is the National Library of Finland. The ‘Sederholm house” on the southeast corner of the square is the oldest, built in 1757. The square is used for many events including art displays, food festivals, concerts, New Year’s celebrations and the Christmas market.

Helsinki’s Old Market Hall, the Havis Amanda fountain and the Esplanadi’s pedestrian walkway.

The Old Market Hall and the Esplanadi

Walking back towards the harbour, we will go past the market square on the west side of the harbour to Helsinki’s Old Market Hall. Open in 1889, it is Finland’s oldest indoor market. In the lively market you will find merchants selling meat, fish, shellfish, cheese, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, spices, coffee, tea and even a small wine and spirits shop. The cafés and restaurants in the Old Market Hall are a great place to have a break from sightseeing or have a nice lunch.

After grabbing a coffee at the Market, we head back towards the market square and to an interesting fountain that was built in 1908. The Havis Amanda fountain has a nude female statue, often referred to as Manta, at the centre. It was created by Finnish artist Ville Vallgren at his studio in Paris, France. The fountain has four seals looking up to the sea nymph as she rises out of the water. The first of May is the start of the summer for students and in celebration they would don a white cap. Since the early days of the fountain, students have celebrated “May Day” by placing a cap on the head of Manta.

The Havis Amanda fountain sits at the foot of the National urban park called the Esplanadi. This elongated park, opened in 1818, has a wide pedestrian center with numerous benches and green space on either side. The historic Kappeli restaurant, open since 1867, and the Espa Stage, used for concerts, are at the eastern entrance to the Esplanadi. There are pieces of art throughout the Esplanadi including a statue of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, at the very centre of the park. At the western end of the park, we find the Swedish language theatre aptly named, the Swedish Theatre. Originally built in 1860, it burned down just three years later. In 1866, it was rebuilt in neo-classical style, but in 1935 it was renovated and the richly decorated exterior was changed by the architects to a simpler “functionalist” style.

The Esplanadi has a street on either side of the park and the surrounding buildings, especially on the north side, have upscale shopping and restaurants. On the north west end of the park just across the street from the Swedish Theatre is the Stockmann Department Store. The iconic Stockmann building, the largest department store in the Nordic countries, was built in 1930 and the brand’s history dates back to 1858.

The entrance façade and clock tower of the Helsinki Train Station. The unique Kamppi Chapel.

The Central Station, Art and A Chapel of Silence

Turning right at the Mannerheimintie street, we walk about 200 meters to Kaivokatu street where we can see the train station on the right. The Helsinki Central Station is the main hub for commuter and long-distance trains for approximately 200,000 people per day. The impressive Finnish granite building was inaugurated in 1919 and has a pair of statues standing guard while holding spherical lamps on each side of the grand entrance. Along with the “stone men,” the station is known for the clock tower on its east side. The Helsinki Central Station has a city metro station, restaurants and an underground shopping centre.

Beyond the train station is a huge open space called the Rautatientori, or Railway Square. On the south side of the square is the Ateneum, the museum of Finnish and international art. The museum, in a beautiful 1887 building, has Finnish works of art from the 18th century to the 20th century and is one of the three museums that form the Finnish National Gallery. In addition to the extensive art from Finland, it has over 600 international pieces.

Going back on Kaivokatu street we cross Mannerheimintie street to Simonkatu street and walk about a block. We will see a curious looking oval cylindrical building with a wood exterior. This is the very unique Kamppi Chapel or the “Chapel of Silence.” The chapel holds up to 60 people and is intended to be a place of calm and silence in a busy urban centre. The chapel is free to visit during opening hours.

The Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church’s alter, pipe organ and the upper balcony.

Parliament and Museum District & Rock Church

After enjoying a moment of silence, we make our way back to Mannerheimintie street and continue along it until we reach Mannerheim Square and the equestrian statue of Marshall Gustaf Mannerheim. The bronze statue of the Finnish military leader and statesman was erected in 1960. The statue sits in front of the Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art, which was built in 1990. Like the Ateneum, the Kiasma is part of the Finnish National Gallery. Near the Kiasma, you will find the architecturally striking Helsinki Central Library Oodi, the Helsinki Music Centre, the National Museum of Finland and the event and congress center, Finlandia Hall. Across the street from the Mannerheim statue, we also find the Finnish Parliament building. The red granite parliament building with fourteen Corinthian columns was built in 1931.

Only a couple of minutes walk from the Mannerheim Square is the Temppeliaukion Kirkko, which is better known as the Rock Church. Designed by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969, the Lutheran church was built into solid rock, and is filled with natural light from the large skylight that leads up to the copper dome. The acoustics in the church are exceptional and it is frequently used for concerts. The exposed rock walls of the church create an interesting backdrop for the altar and an interesting contrast with the church organ with 3001 pipes. The church welcomes over half a million visitors a year.

The Sibelius monument, our Oilers group with Jari Kurri at Hartwall Arena and the pub tram. 

The Sibelius Monument and the Olympic Stadium

West of Helsinki’s city center is Seurasaarenselkä Bay. On the eastern side of the bay, you will find Sibelius Park and the Sibelius Monument. The monument, made from more than 600 hollow steel pipes, is dedicated to Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. He is noted for having encouraged, through his works, the rise of a Finnish national identity and independence from Russia. In the center of the bay is the densely forested Seurasaari island which is home to the Seurasaari Open-Air Musuem. The museum has transplanted wooden buildings from throughout Finland.

In 1952, Helsinki was the host city for the 15th Olympiad and is the northernmost city to host the summer Olympics. The flame was lit by Finland’s greatest Olympian, runner Paavo Nurmi, who won 9 gold and 3 silver medals at the 1920, 1924 and 1928 games. The Olympic Stadium is located only two kilometers north of the city centre and was originally built for the 1940 Olympics that were cancelled due to the second World War. The stadium has undergone renovations in the early 1990s, in 2005 for the World Championships in Athletics, and another renovation phase was scheduled to be completed in 2020. Over time, the stadium has gone from being able to host 70,000 spectators to just over 40,000. The stadium today hosts mainly soccer games, athletics competitions and concerts. The stadium’s 72 meter tower is a Helsinki landmark and its height is equal to the length of Matti Järvinen’s gold medal javelin throw in the 1932 Summer Olympics. The stadium visitor center is located at the foot of the tower. While in Finland, you may want to try the alcoholic “Long Drink” that was developed to serve visitors to the 1952 Olympics. Locally the Long Drink is called a “Lonkero” and the original, a mix of gin and grapefruit soda, is made by Hartwall.

Not far from the Olympic Stadium is the Linnanmäki amusement park, which opened in 1950. The park is owned by a non-profit agency that operates the park to raise funds for Finnish child welfare programs. South of the park is Töölö Bay with a surrounding green space, walking paths and two important cultural centres, the Helsinki City Theatre and the Finnish National Opera and Ballet.

A couple of kilometers north of Linnanmäki is the 14,000 seat Hartwall Arena, which is the home of the KHL’s Jokerit hockey team. The arena was built in 1997 and is used mostly for basketball, hockey and concerts. In 2016, we had a large group of Canadian hockey fans in Helsinki for the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, and the Hartwall Arena was the main venue for the tournament. Finland won gold with a team loaded with future NHLers Sebastian Aho, Patrick Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Kasperi Kapanen, Olli Juolevi and tournament MVP Jesse Puljujarvi. The atmosphere in the arena was electric with thousands of patriotic Finns erupting in joy at the final whistle. If Canada can’t win, the next best thing is to get caught up in the passion of the local fans.

In the fall of 2018, we had a group of Edmonton Oilers fans in Gothenburg, Sweden for the NHL season’s opening game against the New Jersey Devils. At the end of the tour, we took the overnight ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. During our city tour, we stopped at the Hartwall arena and we surprised the group with a meeting with Oilers legend Jari Kurri. After many photos and autographs, Kurri, who was the General Manager of local team Jokerit, graciously talked hockey and watched practice with us.

The Suomenlinna ferry leaving from Market Square, the fortress walls and the dry dock.

Suomenlinna

The Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg, is an inhabited sea fortress built on eight islands south east of the city centre at the entrance to Helsinki harbour. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it was originally founded by the Swedes in 1748, but in 1808, the fortress was overtaken by Russia. It remained in Russian control until Finnish independence in 1918. The fortress welcomes over half a million tourists and locals annually. The summer months are especially busy and Suomenlinna can be easily reached by a short ferry ride from Market Square.

There are just under 1000 permanent residents on Suomenlinna and just under 400 people who work on the island year-round. Some of the reconstruction of the fortifications and general maintenance is done by volunteer inmates, who are part of an on-site minimum-security penal labour colony. A guided visit to the fortress includes Great Castle Courtyard, Piper’s Park and the large Dry Dock. There are various museums at Suomenlinna including one detailing the life of Swedish officers in the 18th century, a toy museum, a military museum, a submarine museum and a customs museum. The main Suomenlinna Museum, located in the Suomenlinna Centre, details the history of the fortress and its restoration.

The Silja Line ferry, leaving the Helsinki harbour, and the ship’s entertainment lounge. 

Ferry to Stockholm, Tallinn, Riga and St. Petersburg

Getting around the Baltic Sea is easy with the numerous daily sailings by large ferry boats that include onboard shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and cabin quarters for overnight trips.

From the Helsinki Harbour in the city center, there are two sailings per day to Stockholm, Sweden. The Tallink Silja line uses the Olympia Terminal on the west side of the harbour, while the Viking Line has their terminal on the east side of the harbour on Katajanokka island. The overnight ferries leave in the early evening, and arrive in Stockholm the next morning, about 17 hours later. Prices for a return trip are very affordable.

The newer West Harbour outside of the city center is where you can catch the numerous daily two hour ferries to Tallinn, Estonia. A day trip to Tallinn departing Helsinki in the morning and returning in the evening is common although I would recommend a stay in Tallinn if you have time. The West Harbour is also where you can take the St. Peters Ferry to St. Petersburg, Russia, and with a stay of less that 72 hours you can do it without a visa. These are the main ferry routes, but there may be ferry services to Latvia, Germany and other destinations available.

Lets Go To Helsinki

Even though Helsinki is young city by European standards, it is a great place to visit. In addition to the activities and sights I have outlined here, other parts of Finland, including Lapland, are worth exploring. I have found people in Finland to be friendly, warm, open and sincere. Finland is very safe, and the country regularly ranks high on the list of the best places to live in the world. With convenient and low cost travel by ferry to neighboring countries, it is an easy add to any itinerary of the Baltic region. I look forward to returning to Helsinki with a hockey or ringette group very soon, and in 2027, Finland is scheduled to host the World Juniors again.

 

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Read more stories from Paul Almeida.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

My European Favourites: Český Krumlov

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My European Favourites – Segovia, Spain

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Spain is one of our favourite countries to visit in Europe. The warm sunshine, the history, the architecture, the gastronomy, and above all, the passionate and friendly people make it a desirable location. We have been to Spain with sightseeing groups, school groups and soccer groups. Madrid, the Spanish capital is always included in our itineraries. In addition to exploring the city, there are numerous worthwhile day trips to surrounding towns. Segovia is one of those towns.

Segovia is located about an hour northwest from Madrid and the day trip is sometimes combined with a stop in the nearby medieval walled city of Ávila. Segovia is just inside the large northwestern Castile and León region of Spain. The region consists of an expansive high plateau surrounded by a ring of mountains.

Segovia’s old town is perched high on a rocky hill surrounded by the Eresma and Clamores rivers. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, the old town features an impressive cathedral, numerous Roman churches, a Jewish quarter, and the striking Alcazar or castle. The town is full of Roman and medieval structures including the massive Roman aqueduct.

A Brief History Of Segovia

There was already a settlement by the Aravaci, a Celtic people, for over 600 years in Segovia prior to the Romans arriving in 96 BC. The Romans installed a military installation here to control access to the Douro River region in the north, and they built the aqueduct to bring in fresh water from the surrounding mountains. After the Romans left, Segovia was inhabited by people from northern Europe until the Spanish invasion by the Moors in the early 8th century.

 

Panoramic view of Segovia with the Cathedral at the centre.

After the reconquest by Christian Kin Alphonso VI in 1079, Segovia was resettled by Christians. Numerous parishes and monasteries were established in area. Due to its location on main trading routes, Segovia reached its golden age during the middle ages due to the foundation of a cloth industry. The town experienced a rise in the Jewish population and became an important centre for wool and textiles.

In the 13th century, Alfonso X, King of Castile, León and Galicia, made Segovia his residence.

Later in the 15th century Henry IV, King of Castile, also made Segovia his residence, built important buildings, renovated the Alcazar, and made Segovia the site of the Royal Mint.

Segovia is also known as the place where Isabella the Catholic pronounced herself Queen of Castile in the church of San Miguel in 1474. Afterwards, she married king Ferdinand II, King of Aragon, to create a unified Spain. They are probably best known for financing the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

In the mid 16th century there was a revolt by the citizens of Castile against King Charles I and his administration. The “War of the Communities of Castile” lasted 18 months from April 1520 to October 1521. One of the rebel leaders, Juan Bravo, was from Segovia and has a statue in the main square. He was captured in the Battle of Villalar along with two other prominent rebel leaders. They were beheaded the following day. Despite the rebellion Segovia remained prosperous and the population grew to approximately 27,000.

Segovia’s decline started with an outbreak of the plague in the late 16th century and then mostly by the subsequent 17th century collapse of the textile industry. By 1694, the population dropped to just 8,000. Later attempts to revive the textile industry by King Charles III failed. In 1764 a military academy, the Royal School of Artillery, was established and is still in operation. In 1808, during the Napoleonic wars, Segovia was sacked by French troops.

19th century Spain had three Carlist Wars related to claims to the throne of Spain. During the first Carlist War, Segovia was unsuccessfully attacked. Since then, it has escaped military destruction, including during the Spanish Civil war from 1936 to 1939 that pitted the Republicans against the Nationalists led by Francisco Franco. In fact, since 1920 the population of Segovia has grown from 16,000 to over 50,000 in the early 80s. The population has stabilized in the last 40 years and the economy along with it.

The Roman Aqueduct, the Candido restaurant, and the aqueduct from the Plaza del Azoguejo.

The Roman Aqueduct

Our walking tour begins at the Plaza del Azoguejo and you can find a google map of our walk at www.azorcan.net/media to follow along. Once a market place, the plaza is located at the foot of the colossal Aqueduct of Segovia. The 28.5 meters tall aqueduct bridge, known locally as El Puente (the bridge), is one of the best preserved in the world. Built by the Romans at the end of the 1st century from stacked granite, the aqueduct transported water over 15 kilometers over rolling hills from the Sierra mountains to the town. The pillars and arches are solid rock with very little mortar in between. The aqueduct continued to supply water for many centuries after being built by the Romans and is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Spain.

The Artillery Academy of Segovia, which recently celebrated a 250 year anniversary in Segovia, is located a few blocks from the plaza in a former 15th century Franciscan convent with an interesting Gothic cloister.

Located in a half-timbered house on the south side of the Plaza del Azoguejo, you will find the famous Cándido restaurant. Since 1905, three generations of the Cándido family have been serving their famous suckling pig, stews and wines. The official Tourist Office of Segovia is located across the square from the Cándido. From the plaza, we will walk up the Calle Cervantes. Calle means street, and this one is named after the most famous Spanish literary figure, Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes is best known for being the author of the literary classic, Don Quixote.

The Miradouro de la Canaleja, the panoramic view, and an interesting building at the viewpoint.

The Medina de la Campo and the Jewish Quarter

About 200 meters from the Plaza del Azoguejo, we arrive at an observation terrace named the Mirador de la Canaleja. Here we can admire a fantastic panoramic view of the lower town’s pastel colored buildings with red roof tops.

There is an interesting light blue building on the north side of the Mirador with three stacked sunrooms. We walk along the side of this building on the Calle Juan Bravo, the street named after Segovia’s rebel leader. A few steps away on the right is the eye-catching Casa de los Picos. The 15th century historic Gothic-Renaissance building is decorated with numerous pyramids or diamond tips made from granite and now houses the School of Art and Superior Design.

The Palacio de Cascales façade, the narrow Calle de Juan Bravo, and the Casa de los Picos.

A bit further on the Calle Juan Bravo we will come upon a little plaza on the left that leads to the Palacio de Cascales. The palace is known by a few names from its past including the Aspiroz or the del Conde Alpuente. Nowadays, it is used for the offices of the Ministry of Development of the Junta de Castilla y León. The palace was built in the 15th century by a prominent knight from Segovia named, Alonso Cascales. Its façade features Gothic windows, a unique pattern on the walls, and a Moorish or Mudejar arch kept from the original Arab building that was once there.

The Church of San Martin, statue of Juan Bravo in front of the Tower of Lozoya, and one of our school soccer academy groups.

A short distance away along the Calle Juan Bravo is the square of Medina del Campo. The square contains three notable buildings, the house of Juan Bravo, the Tower of Lozoya and the Church of San Martin. The 14th century rectangular shaped Tower of Lozoya, was once used as an armoury. The tower is now used to exhibit contemporary art. The 12th century catholic Church of San Martin, at the centre of the square, is an interesting mix of Arabic and Romanesque elements.

Moving forward on the Calle Juan Bravo, we will reach the small square Plaza Corpus. The square is named after the Corpus Christi Church which is located on the left side of the square. The church was once the largest Jewish Synagogue in Segovia starting in the 13th century. You can visit the interesting church that was converted from a synagogue in 1410 as it is open to the public.

At the Plaza Corpus you will reach a fork in the rod. The Calle la Juderia Vieja (Old Jewish Quarter Street) is on the left, and as the name implies, it leads to the Jewish Quarter. We will take the Calle Isabella la Catolica (Isabella the Catholic) on the right to the Plaza Mayor (Main Square).

Entrance to the Corpus Christi Church. The town hall and cathedral on the Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is the central hub of the town of Segovia. The large rectangular cobblestone square has a performance gazebo at its centre surrounded by trees. The square was once a market place in medieval times, and Segovia’s citizens still meet here to celebrate festivals and to enjoy the numerous bars and restaurants spilling onto the square from the arcades. The square still hosts a market every Thursday. The La Concepción on the north side of the square is a bit pricy, but its terrace is a great place from which to people watch. Next to the restaurant is the 17th century Segovia town hall.

On the east side of the Plaza Mayor is the Juan Bravo Theatre. Built in 1917 and refurbished in the 1980s, it is the principal theatre of Segovia. A few steps away on the south east of the square behind the luxury priced Villena restaurant is the 16th century gothic San Miguel Church.

The church is famous for being the place where, in 1474, Isabella the Catholic was crowned Queen of Castile. Exploring the maze of alleys and squares behind the San Miguel Church, you will find various interesting and moderately priced bars and restaurants. The El Sitio and the El Figon de los Comuneros are two great choices for lunch.

 

The Segovia Cathedral on the Plaza Mayor and a panoramic view of the cathedral and its tall tower.

Located on the west side of the square, the main building on the Plaza Mayor is the Cathedral of the Assumption. As the highest point of Segovia, the cathedral, built in late gothic style between 1525-1577, can be seen for miles around. Construction began after the original cathedral, located near the Alczar, burned in 1520. The cathedral can be toured and the view from the cathedral tower is memorable.

The Tower of John II at the entrance to the Alcazar, the Weapons Patio and the Clock Yard.

Segovia Alcazar

From the cathedral, we will walk about 600 meters on the Calle Marques del Arco which becomes the Calle Daoiz to the Plaza la Reina Victoria Eugenia (Square of Queen Victoria Eugenia). The Queen’s square is a nice garden located at the forefront of the entrance to the Alcazar. In addition to the imposing castle façade, there are great views of the Spanish countryside from the garden. On the left, there is a building called the Casa de la Química. There is a cafeteria there with a nice terrace with an amazing view of the town. There are better places for a meal, but it’s a good place to enjoy a drink under the shade of a patio umbrella on a hot day.

Like most fortresses, the Alcazar is built on an elevated area that offers a natural defensive advantage. The Alcazar’s site, on a large rock promontory at the spur of the Eresma and Clamores rivers, was a fort during the Roman occupation in the 1st century. Since Roman times, the castle has been rebuilt and expanded many times over hundreds of years by different people including the Romans, the Muslim Umayyad Dynasty in the 8th century and eventually the Spanish in the 12th century. Over time, the Alcazar has been used as a fortress, a royal palace, a prison, and a military school. The picturesque Alcazar is now a museum, a major tourist attraction, and one of the most recognizable castles in Europe. The original building from the 13th century was painstakingly restored after a devastating fire in 1862.

Statue of Ferdinand VI, the Armoury, the Throne Room, the Chapel and a panoramic view.

Approaching the Alcazar from the Queen’s square, we are faced with the imposing Tower of John II and the draw bridge. Once inside there are two staircases with 156 steps leading to the top of the tower where you can enjoy a great view of Segovia. Entering further, we arrive at the first major open area of the fortress, the Parade or Weapons Patio with a colonnade and upper walk way. This is the largest open space in the Alcazar, and along with the next outdoor area, the Clock Yard, has a great deal of Moorish influence.

At the back of the fortress, there is the Armoury with medieval flags, lances, swords, knights armour and even armour for horses. The “V” shaped well terrace at the very back looks like the bow of a boat gives the castle the appearance of being a large rock ship. The Alcazar’s garden, with shrubs in geometric shapes, is also located at the back of the castle.

The Alabaster Hall, stained glass with the Spanish coat of arms and the Armoury.

Other interesting rooms include the Chapel, Throne Room, Royal Bedrooms, a Pineapple Room, the Alabaster Hall and the Kings Hall with 52 sculptures of kings that ruled the area for hundreds of years. The Museum of the Royal Artillery School in the Alcazar contains documents, scale models, weapons and uniforms from the 18th and 19th centuries. At the base of the castle and along exterior of the city walls there is a network of connected gardens and wooded areas.

The Monastery of Santa Maria del Parral and the Church of Vera Cruz.

View from the Alcazar

From the Alcazar’s Tower of John II, you will have a great view of the surrounding area’s rolling hills, churches and monasteries. You can’t miss the impressive 15th century Monastery of Santa Maria del Parral that was founded by Henry IV of Spain. The monastery’s church was built in gothic style, while the later built bell tower has a Romanesque top. The monastery, currently owned by the Order of St. Jerome, has four interesting cloisters in built in various architectural styles.

Looking to the left from the monastery, we see the tower of the Romaesque Church of San Marcos at the bottom of a winding road. As we look up along the road, we will see the larger Convent of San Juan de la Cruz on the left and the unique Church of Vera Cruz on the right. The Church of the Vera Cruz was founded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 1208. The Romanesque style church was built in the shape of a twelve-sided polygon with three semi-circular chapels. The design of the church was inspired by the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that the order was named after.

El Sitio restaurant, sucking pig, patatas bravas, tapas and sangria.

Dinner

Segovia is a great place to enjoy traditional Spanish cuisine and in restaurants with matching architecture and atmosphere. The local specialities include roasted suckling pig (cochinillo), suckling lamb (lechazo), Cantimpalos chorizos, wild mushrooms and a traditional layer cake named Ponche Segoviano.

One of the best places to enjoy a meal in Segovia is near the aqueduct. We have already mentioned the famous Candido restaurant and dinner upstairs with a view of the illuminated aqueduct as a backdrop is a memorable experience.

On the Calle De Cevantes, not far from the aqueduct, there are two more great restaurants serving traditional dishes. The Conde Duque, one of the oldest restaurants in Segovia, has a unique interior while the Asador El Bernardino has a terrace with a great view.

On the Plaza Mayor, we wrote about enjoying a drink and people watching at La Concepción. Near the square we have three recommendations. El Figon de los Comuneros is a great place for sampling local tapas. At El Sitio you can have a nice traditional meal or try their pinchos in the bar area. The Restaurante Jose Maria has excellent wines, a tasting menu and a nice selection of tapas at the bar.

After dinner at any of these restaurants, you may want to take a walk of the historic centre with all the town’s monuments lit up.

Let’s Go To Segovia

Segovia is a great place to visit at any time of year, and you can easily spend a couple of days exploring the town’s historic buildings, walls, churches, monuments, narrow streets, shops, museums, bars, cafes and restaurants. The town is also known for two special religious events, the Holy Easter Week (Semana Santa) and the Three Kings parade (los Reyes Magos) held on January 5th.

Segovia is well worth the journey from the hustle and bustle of Madrid and is one of my favourite destinations in Spain. If you get a chance to visit the town, I think you will agree.

 

 

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors.

At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters, listen to our podcasts and view maps related tour all of our “My European Favourites” stories.

 Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

Read more of Paul’s stories on Todayville.

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