Travel Notes: Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn


Helsinki, Finland was originally established as a Swedish outpost in 1550. Due to on-again, off-again wars between Sweden and Russia, Finland was annexed by Russia in 1809 after Sweden lost the 21-year war with Russia. It remained part of Russia until 1917 when during the Russian Revolution of that year Finland negotiated its autonomy from Russia with a financial buyout that the Fins were still paying for into the 1960s. 

While Finland is part of the EU they are not aligned with NATO as their need for Russian oil is a more pressing financial matter. Helsinki is also one of the few places where you will continue to see monuments to the former Czars of Russia.

Helsinki locals like to joke that they have two seasons: winter season and construction season. Indeed, everywhere we traveled in Helsinki construction was underway making streets difficult to navigate.

Churches and monuments

Our first stop is the John Sibelius monument. John Sibelius was a composer and violinist who is widely credited with helping Finland establish its national identity. Sibelius was so loved and admired that only 10 years after his death in 1967, a monument to him and his music was constructed. It took another 20 years before the monument really gained a foothold in Finland’s national conscience. It is believed that Sibelius saw musical notes as colors and that this ability influenced his compositions.

I’ve come to find out that the tour guides in the country are tired of visiting churches. So tired that they named the church stops “ABC” (Another Bloody Church). Our next two stops are at churches. The Uspenski Cathedral and the Church of the Rock (Temppeliaukio Church). The Uspenski is unique for its obvious Russian influence with onion-shaped cupolas and a beautiful weathered copper roof.

The Church of the Rock is one of the unique constructions being built into the side of a rock downtown. While the outside is not very impressive, the inside with its copper ceiling is very dramatic.

Many sites to see in Helsinki

There are many places that you should check out in Helsinki. My time was short so I moved on to the Central Station. It is almost in the center of the downtown area. The station is an imposing structure. If I had more time I would have easily spent an hour investigating it. The clock tower reminds me of some of the images from Depression-era movies meant to convey the state’s power over the common man.

Saint Petersburg

We steam out of Helsinki for the journey to Saint Petersburg, Russia. The Baltic Sea is much calmer this night and a bright sunny day awaits as we arrive in St. Petersburg the next morning.

Saint Petersburg is not named after Peter the Great as is widely thought but after St. Peter. The city has actually been renamed three times: Saint Petersburg (originally), Petrograd (1914), and Leningrad (1924). Then, back to Saint Petersburg in 1991. It must be noted that there is no going ashore in Saint Petersburg without a visa. The visa is either provided by the ship through their organized tours or applied for on your own separately.

Stops along the way

Soviet-era construction dots the landscape on the trip from the docks to the city center. It’s in awful shape and totally uninspired. Even the locals speak of it with a certain disdain. The facades are protected as “historical” and signage on these buildings is severely restricted (as are the repairs apparently). There’s no chance for pictures as our driver doesn’t slow down. He moves as quickly as possible to the better parts of the city where the traffic congestion also increases.

We finally make a stop along an older dock across the street from an early 20th-century naval vessel, the Aurora. The guns from this boat were fired as the signal for the Bolsheviks to storm the Winter Palace in the first event of the October Revolution. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the end of the Romanov family.

The Neva River divides much of the central part of the city. A boat on the river is a nice way to see a lot without walking the entire distance.

The Vasilyevsky Island Spit extends into the Neva and provides many nice views up and down the Neva and, the unique rostral columns commemorating naval victories provide an interesting point of interest.

The cathedrals

The Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral were constructed between 1706 and 1740. The structure was not only a defensive structure against Swedish attacks, it was also a prison for high-ranking political prisoners. Prisoners included Dostoevsky and Trotsky. Interesting that a fort/prison also contained a glorious cathedral with 27 icons mounted in gold. The cathedral also contains the remains of many of the latter Czars, including the reinterred Romanov family.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral and the fourth largest cathedral. It holds about 6,000 people and is standing only as there’s no seating.

During the Siege of Leningrad in 1941, German used St. Isaac’s as a targeting point. The result of some of the shelling can still be seen in the pockmarked red granite columns surrounding the church.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is the most ornate Russian Orthodox church I’ve ever seen. I am much more accustomed to the Russian churches in the U.S. which are far less adorned for the most part. The church on its small plot of land draws massive crowds daily. The street vendors on the back side of the church feed off these crowds.

No visit to Saint Petersburg is complete without a visit to the Hermitage Museum. The museum is so large there is no hope of completing it in the afternoon so. We concentrated on only a single section until the end of the day.


We leave St. Petersburg for the overnight sailing to Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn is situated on the northeast coast of the Gulf of Finland. To many people in the West, Tallinn would be a welcome surprise. A modern techno center surrounds an old medieval town that still contains much of the preserved architecture from the Middle Ages. Thankfully, when the Soviet Union bombed and then annexed Estonia after the end of World War II they didn’t destroy everything in their wake.

Old Town 

The two main areas of “Old Town” are the upper and lower sections. The walled “upper town” on Dome Hill /Cathedral Hill (Toompea) has amazing cathedrals and government buildings. This includes the oldest town hall dating from 1404. The “lower town” is a maze of squares, gabled houses, and churches. It was known as the Hanseatic section for the merchants and traders that belonged to the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages. Some of the city-states within the League also had their own governments and legal systems. There is an inner wall that divides the upper and lower sections that you can walk through to access either side through the centuries-old gate.

At the one end of the Town Hall Square, there is one of the oldest (open since 1422) still functioning pharmacies. It contains a museum inside while still dispensing basic remedies.

Past the Apothecary you’ll come across St. Catherine’s Passage. This passage is a must-see for the architecture and the shops associated with St. Catherine’s Guild.

Architecture and churches

Yes, it’s time for an ABC (another bloody church) but it’s a spectacular one. St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral occupies one of the four most prominent pieces of land in the Upper Town. The Russian influences are again evident in the onion-shaped cupolas of the church.

Freedom Square sits just outside the walled old city and is a massive open plaza. The Victory Column commemorates the Estonian War of Independence. It is set against the backdrop of Kiek in de Kok and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It is a visually stunning site.

Kiek in de Kok is a high cannon tower on the south end of the old walled city that defended the city from invaders coming over land. It’s an impressive Middle Ages structure that is now a museum. It also serves as the entrance to the hidden tunnels, the Bastion Passages. The tunnels were built in the 17th century but were used in the Second World War again.

Local flair

On my way out of the city, I come across some of the local colors. Tallinn has an abundance of street performers and this gentleman was certainly near the top of the list.

I end my discovery of Tallinn on the square where the towers of the old city gates on Viru Street stand. It’s a lively square with many shops, restaurants, and street vendors. It would be easy to spend a leisurely afternoon on the square.

Editor’s Note: This is a four-part article from our reader, Bob McCormac. It encompasses a 20-day trip to the Nordic countries that spawned the Vikings and where they left their mark on civilization. In most areas, those direct influences have long since been erased but the impact on the cultures is still apparent in each country.

Read Part 1: Stockholm, Sweden

You can find Bob’s work here: