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Scandinavia and the Baltics

Filed in Blog, Denmark by on April 8, 2014

This past week, I returned from my trip to Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn (Estonia). While a lot of the American students I know here were going to places like Italy and Spain, I chose these cities because, even though they may have been cold, the more time I’ve spent in Denmark, the more fascinated I’ve became with Scandinavia and experiencing its culture. Here are some notable parts of my trip:

Stockholm

My expectations for Stockholm were completely wrong. I was expecting a very modern and urban city. After walking about five minutes from the central station, my travel partner and I found ourselves in Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm. Instead of the sleek skyscrapers I was expecting the city to be covered in (I later found this part of the city as well), we were taken to a beautiful, medieval European city. The small streets of Gamla Stan are littered with local restaurants, shops and bakeries, and the small alleys between streets were even more intriguing. We spent our first day in Stockholm enamored by this part of the city, exploring every crevice possible.

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Our second day in Stockholm was spent on the beautiful island of Djurgården, just a 10 minute ferry ride from the city center. The island was a great, green getaway from the city, and was filled with beautiful houses on the water. Some of the best museums of Stockholm were located in Djurgården, including the Nordiska Museet pictured below (Swedish cultural museum.) Overall, Stockholm set a very high standard for the rest of the trip.

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Helsinki

Similar to Stockholm, my expectations for Helsinki were completely wrong — and not in the best way. I had heard a lot about the architecture in Helsinki, I was imagining walking through the downtown area and being blown away by countless modern, sharp and interesting buildings I had grown used to seeing in Scandinavia. The first day my travel partner and I arrived, we decided to wing it. We took the metro to the city center and just wandered around, expecting a similar experience as that in Stockholm. However, after a few hours of wandering, we’d seen almost nothing that was particularly interesting. It was just exciting to see a new city, especially in Finland, but we felt like a joke was being played on us. Rather than the inventive design or charming old streets we’d seen in Stockholm and Copenhagen, Helsinki was lined with bland, pastel buildings. The best description we could come up with was that it felt like Russia in the 1980s. We were confused and spent the whole day walking around the city, unimpressed with the lack of anything, but trying to stay positive about choosing Helsinki as a destination.

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One of the few sights we saw — the Senate Bulding

The next day, we had a plan. We researched specific sights we wanted to see and how to get there, so as not to waste another day wandering aimlessly. Our first destination was Suomenlinna, an island fortress close to the center of Helsinki. We traveled by ferry to the island, and almost instantly began to like Helsinki more. The island had a great cliff lookout, and had cute medieval houses scattered throughout. Our impression of Helsinki got much better, and the rest of the day we spent walking through the design district — a beautiful street filled with interesting shops and restaurants that we had somehow managed to walk entirely around on the first day. Overall, we were much more fascinated in Helsinki upon leaving than we were that first day. We couldn’t help but wonder, did we just plan terribly what to do in the city, or is it a place that takes some getting used to in order to appreciate it? Either way, it’s one of the most unique places I’ve seen.

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Suomenlinna

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Sibelius Monument

Tallinn

The last of our journey was to Tallinn, Estonia, previous winner of the title “Cultural Capital of Europe.” I didn’t know much about the Baltics before coming to Copenhagen, but being so close to them here it’s hard not to be interested to go.

Estonia is one of the richest and most peaceful former Soviet Union countries, and it’s capital, Tallinn, has been a tourist spot for many Europeans over the past few years. Riga, Latvia, is beginning to compete with Tallinn in terms of tourism, but both seem to be accommodating to all types of tourists. Estonia is also the least populous country in the European Union, making it somewhat of a getaway from the big European cities. The big tourist attraction in Tallinn is the old town, similar to Stockholm. This part of Tallinn was incredible for so many reasons — specifically, I’ve noticed that as Americans it’s sometimes hard to feel when a city or neighborhood has history as old as many European cities do, because we’re not used to having that history in our own cities. However, we could feel the authenticity of the old town of Tallinn, and really got a sense of how old the streets were that we were walking through. The quaint buildings were also a nice refresher from the stark white ones in Helsinki, and the cobblestone streets were a charming reminder of Copenhagen. The old town is also still lined by the city wall (first constructed in 1265), and for only 1,3 euros, we were able to climb to the top of the wall and walk around the city. While there is certainly much to see in Tallinn beyond the old town, being there for only two days left us mainly within the old town walls, which we were perfectly happy with.

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The city wall

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Chapel in old town

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