Located in Northern Europe, both Estonia and Finland border Russia to the east and the Baltic Sea to the west. They are two incredible countries that despite their proximity, feel worlds apart. In Estonia, you have medieval charm and well-preserved old cities, and in Finland, you have the luxurious capital of Helsinki, but when you venture beyond that you find a vast wonderland of nature and outdoor activities.
Both countries are worthy of being explored in-depth, but for purposes of this eight-day trip, Tallinn, Helsinki, and Finnish Lapland are the places that we will focus on.
Before reading on, please note that I recommend taking this particular trip in the winter. While Finland is beautiful all year round, I find it particularly charming during the cold months and most of my suggestions include wintertime activities. Plus if you time it right you’ll be able to see the Christmas markets in Tallinn, which got voted the best Christmas Market in Europe 2019.
This is part of my “8 Day Vacay” series! A travel series aimed at nurses who are looking to take 8 days off from the hospital (with no need to take PTO) and travel to destinations both near and far. For more information, read A Guide to the “8 Day Vacay” and How to Make the Most Out of Your “8 Day Vacay”
Tallinn, a city rising in popularity, as tourists tend to flock here for a day-trip from Helsinki. What people don’t know, however, is that Tallinn should be held as a destination of its own accord. A medieval city that can stand up to the likes of some of the more popular tourist destinations, and a city oozing with charm. The people who write Tallinn off or only come for a few hours are missing the true entity of what makes Tallinn, Tallinn. Tallinn deserves more than a day, and on this trip, you’ll be spending two nights in the capital of Estonia.
Where is that again? A question I would get asked over and over by friends and family when I told them “I want to chase the Northern Lights in Finland!” Finland lies above Estonia and is part of the Scandinavian countries, often ranking as one of the happiest places to live. While the capital, Helsinki, is big and beautiful, the true gem of this country lies north – in Finnish Lapland to be exact. On this trip, you’ll spend two nights in Helsinki, and two nights in Rovaniemi.
Visiting Tallinn + Finland (in 8 Days!)
WEDNESDAY – Depart from the USA, Fly to Tallinn, Estonia
Leave Wednesday for arrival in Tallinn (TLL) on Thursday. I recommend booking this as a one-way ticket; flying into Tallinn and out of Rovaniemi (RVN).
If you’re coming from a small state (like me – Nebraska), I tend to search for options from the nearest international airport to bring down prices. So for instance, I would search for flights out of Chicago instead of out of Omaha.
THURSDAY – Arrive in Tallinn
Highlights of Tallinn Day 1: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral + Catherine’s Passage + Tallinn Town Wall + St. Olaf’s Church
Once you arrive in Tallinn it’s easy and affordable to get transportation from the airport to the town center. You can opt for a traditional taxi outside of the airport or rely on Uber. If you do get an Uber the average cost is about $5, depending on where you’re going. If you choose to get a taxi, expect to pay around $10.
WHERE TO STAY IN TALLINN
I recommend staying in an Airbnb near the medieval part of the city. If you’re new to Airbnb, use my referral code for a discount.
As I mentioned earlier, Tallinn is an incredibly well-preserved medieval town. Start your trip by seeing what makes Tallinn so unique by exploring the medieval old town. Make your way straight to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Cathedral that was supposed to be torn down, but the people of Tallinn were too poor to do so. Now it is a symbol to Tallinn and stands tall and proud at the top of a hill. The Cathedral was built in 1894 and is of Russian Revival architecture; entrance is free so don’t miss the opportunity to go and check it out.
After visiting Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, weave your way throughout old town making sure to walk through St. Catherine’s Passage towards the Tallinn Town Wall. Walking through the passage is another free activity while walking the old town walls costs €2, cash only. Lastly, if you happen to be in Tallinn in the summertime, head to St. Olaf’s Church to visit the top platform for views over the city. Please note, the viewing platform is closed during the winter.
Once night falls, as long as you don’t mind a kitsch experience, I recommend eating dinner at Olde Hansa. Olde Hansa is found in the heart of town and plays homage to Tallinn’s medieval history. You’ll eat dinner by candlelight, from recipes that are 700+ years old, as servers walk around you dressed in old clothes that were worn back in the day.
FRIDAY – Tallinn
Highlights of Tallinn Day 2: Telliskivi + Free Walking Tour
There’s so much to Tallinn beyond its medieval walls, discover more of the city by starting your day in Telliskivi, only a 10-minute walk from Tallinn’s old town. Telliskivi is the hipster, artsy part of Tallinn where you can find boutiques and restaurants galore. If you’re visiting in the morning, and want to eat at a sit-down restaurant, make sure to stop at F Hoone for breakfast. If you prefer an “eat on the go” option, head straight to the food hall Balti Jaama Turg. It’s an incredibly unique market full of restaurants, produce, and souvenirs.
By noon make your way back to the old town to participate in the free walking tour, “Tallinn in a Nutshell” It’s a 2-hour tour put on by locals and it’s the easiest way to get to know Tallinn and get local recommendations. Unfortunately, the downside to this particular tour is that there is only one tour a day, which means that it can pretty crowded. The tour is free, but tips are expected.
Interested in more free walking tours around Europe? Don’t miss: Free Walking Tours in Europe Ranked
The free walking tour will land you in the main town square once it’s done. From here, head straight to Rukis, a cozy café serving coffee and cakes. And for dinner dine at one of Tallinn’s more upscale restaurants – Leib Restoran. Leib is a farm-to-table restaurant serving traditional Estonian food. I recommend making reservations beforehand.
For more information on Tallinn, don’t miss these posts:
SATURDAY – Depart Tallinn, Arrive in Helsinki
Highlights of Helsinki Day 1: Old Market Hall + Helsinki Cathedral + Upsenski Cathedral
With Tallinn and Helsinki being so close to each other, separated by the Gulf of Finland, the easiest way to travel between the two countries is by ferry. Three different ferry companies take you between the two countries, Tallink Silja Line, Viking Line 3, and Eckero Line; and you can find tickets and times here. Expect to pay around $30 for a one-way ticket.
WHERE TO STAY IN HELSINKI
I recommend staying in an Airbnb near the city center. If you’re new to Airbnb, use my referral code for a discount.
Upon arrival in Helsinki, set out to see the sights. Begin at Old Market Hall, a fresh food market, where you can find a bite to eat and a drink before walking the city. Old Market Hall opened in 1889 and is constantly evolving. Today you can find different vendors serving a variety of food for takeaway or to sit down and enjoy. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, make sure to try the local food – reindeer. If you’re not so adventurous, salmon is a popular dish in Finland, although not local; they typically source their salmon from Norway.
Once you’ve gotten a bite to eat, head out to see the two main cathedrals in Helsinki. First, stop at Helsinki Cathedral in the Kruununhaka neighborhood. The Helsinki Cathedral is a Lutheran church that began being built in 1830. After visiting, head to the next cathedral – Upsenski. Upsenski Cathedral is an Eastern Orthodox Church in the Katajanokka neighborhood that opened in 1868.
Once night falls, head to BasBas for dinner. BasBas is a cozy, French-inspired wine bar, best known for its extensive wine list and small plates for sharing.
SUNDAY – Helsinki
Highlights of Helsinki Day 2: Finnish Sauna Culture + Suomenlinna
One of the more unique things about Finland is its sauna culture. Saunas are such a big part of their life that there are enough saunas in Finland to fit their entire population with one person in the sauna at a time. Sauna culture is so well-known and celebrated because it’s said that back in the day women gave birth in saunas and once someone passed away their body was placed in a sauna, thus the motto, “You are born and die in a sauna”.
I recommend diving into the Finnish culture by visiting a sauna. There are enough saunas in Finland to fit one local. Sauna culture is so big here because “you are born and die in a sauna”. Legend has it that back in the day women gave birth in saunas and after someone passed away their body was placed in a sauna. Löyly Helsinki is an entire experience, referred to as a “sauna restaurant” and is rated on Time Magazine’s World’s 100 Greatest Places list. Spend the day here experiencing Finnish sauna culture, relaxing, and eating at the famed restaurant. Reservations aren’t required but are highly recommended.
If sauna culture doesn’t interest you, instead look into visiting Suomenlinna, an island off Helsinki.
MONDAY & TUESDAY – Depart Helsinki, Arrive in Rovaniemi
Highlights of Rovaniemi: Northern Lights + Santa Claus Village
An hour and a half flight north will bring you to Finnish Lapland, particularly the capital, Rovaniemi. Two airlines operate from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Norwegian and Finnair.
As a nurse, I don’t typically recommend luxury stays or splurge-worthy hotels; however, I will make an exception when you’re visiting a place as beautiful and romantic as Finland. I stayed at the 4-star, Arctic TreeHouse Hotel and would stay there again and recommend it. Each room is an individual, glass cabin with views of snow-dusted pine trees and if you’re lucky an opportunity to see the northern lights from your room. The hotel has incredible amenities too with a swanky restaurant, an opportunity to hire a private chauffeur, and even a wake-up call in the middle of the night if the Northern Lights come out to play.
Finnish Lapland is a sparsely populated area in Northern Finland in the Arctic Circle. It’s home to the indigenous Sami people and is known for its vast wilderness, and the opportunity to see both the Northern Lights and midnight sun. The biggest draw to visiting the capital, Rovaniemi, is that it’s well known as the home of Santa Claus. That’s right! Santa Claus resides in the Arctic Circle at the Santa Claus Village. A kitsch attraction that is well worth the visit if you’re in the area with souvenir shops, restaurants (don’t miss Santa’s Salmon Place if you like salmon), and bars.
If you’re planning this trip in the winter months, the biggest draw to Finland is your chance at seeing the ever-elusive Northern Lights. However, please be mindful that there is no guarantee that the Northern Lights will be present! They are best seen from October-March but are weather-dependent. Because they are so unpredictable, I highly recommend booking a Northern Lights tour on Monday and if you’re unable to see them Monday, booking a tour Tuesday as well. Many tours operate in the region, but I highly recommend booking Alex from All About Lapland. He cares about your experience, teaching you about the Northern Lights, goes the extra mile providing food and warmth, and takes pictures for you.
For more information on seeing the Northern Lights, don’t miss What NOT to Do When Chasing the Northern Lights
To fill your days in Finnish Lapland, I recommend booking any number of unique outdoor activities. You can go sledding with huskies, ride snowmobiles, see reindeer, ice float, show shoe, and more. If you happen to be visiting in the summer instead of the winter you can take a boat cruise or see the midnight sun. For up-to-date information about activities happening in the area, check out Visit Rovaniemi.
WEDNESDAY – Depart Rovaniemi Fly Back to the USA
Remember, because Finland is ahead of the US time-wise, you should be able to leave on Wednesday and arrive back in the USA on Wednesday. Refreshed, (maybe a bit depressed), and ready for your shift to start on Thursday!
Things to Know About Estonia & Finland
- The first language in Tallinn is Estonian, but most people speak English well and most restaurants have menus in English
- The main language in Finland is Finnish (sister languages with Hungary), but most people speak English and most restaurants will have menus in English
- Both countries operate on the Euro; at time of writing 1 USD = 0.82 Euro
- In case of an emergency, dial 112
- Both countries experience all four seasons, however, summers are mild and winters are cold, especially as you move to Northern Finland
- While you’ll need a passport to get in and out of Europe, you don’t need to show your passport when traveling between Estonia and Finland
- Your dollar will go much further in Estonia than Finland; Finland is very expensive, especially the further north you get
- Uber operates in Tallinn and Helsinki, but not in Lapland
- Lapland refers to an area in two separate countries – Finland and Sweden; it’s differentiated by saying “Swedish Lapland” or “Finnish Lapland”
If you’re looking for more “8 Day Vacay” inspiration, you can find all other vacation ideas here