Helsinki to Tallinn by Ferry: Beer and Sun on the Baltic Sea
Helsinki to Tallinn by Ferry on a Summer Morning
Traveling from Helsinki to Tallinn by ferry is something I'd recommend to anyone who wishes to see two of eastern Europe's finest cities. The short voyage encompasses the numerous islands of southern Finland, the calm blue waters of the Baltic Sea, and the northern shores of Estonia, where the steeples and turrets of medieval churches and castles rise above the horizon.
Within this article I'll relate my own experience sailing between Helsinki and Tallinn, and provide those contemplating embarking on the same journey with a trove of information and links to useful websites.
Helsinki is a small, relaxed city, making it a perfect destination for a weekend break. The passenger ports are within walking distance of the hotels and hostels in the city centre and a taxi ride takes less than ten minutes. There are several operators running ferries between Finland and Estonia with the three major ones charted later in the article. When I made the journey with my girlfriend in August 2010, we opted for Eckero Line which cost us 43 EUR (euros) each for a return trip. A one-way ticket was exactly half that price. Four weeks prior to our departure, I’d trawled the internet for the cheapest ticket available and the search lead to Eckero Line’s basic foot passenger fare. Seasoned web shoppers with a gift for scouting a bargain might be able to find something cheaper or by booking tickets well in advance.
Our departure was scheduled for 08:00 with an arrival time of 11:00. We checked out of our hotel at 6:15am and having navigated our way with ease, arrived at the port terminal by foot thirty minutes later. We joined a slick-moving queue, collected our tickets, then settled down in the port café with a beer and coffee. The immaculate Helsinki streets had been agreeably deserted, very much in contrast to the intense bustle of weekday mornings in the cities of Britain. But a steady flow of taxis and buses was now dispensing crowds of sea-goers and their luggage into the terminal. Some were bound for Rostock in Germany; others would be accompanying us on the MS Nordlandia, sailing for the capital of Tallinn 80km south of Helsinki.
Helsinki to Tallinn Across the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland
Beer on the Baltic
At 7:15am we boarded the Nordlandia, battled past the inevitable crowds in the foyer, up two flights of stairs, through a restaurant, a bar, passed a dance-floor and finally out and onto the empty deck. The sun was already piercing down from a cloudless blue sky. Below us, the crowds were still swelling through the boarding gates and into the ship; attempting to locate left luggage lockers, their pre-booked breakfast tables and sparkling wine, their private cabins, or simply mooching by the Eckero Market and waiting for the shutters to go up so they could shop for bargain perfume, chocolate, whiskey and cigarettes.
Up on deck we were joined by a waiter who’d been dispatched to wipe rainwater from the seats and tables. “Excuse me,” I enquired, “When does the bar open?” For fear of sounding like a desperate alcoholic, I quickly added: “or the café, or the restaurant maybe?" I’d been mildly concerned that questioning him about the onboard refreshments would somehow reinforce the stereotype that the British youth were degenerate drinkers bent on chaos and carnage. It’s true, of course, but I didn’t wish for this stranger to think such ugly thoughts of me.
“At 07:30 sir,” he replied without looking up and resumed mopping water with his dishcloth. I needn’t have worried. At 07:20 a drinks cart was wheeled out to the entrance of the bar by a duo of female attendants with bronzed skin and long blond hair. Three or four Finns were buzzing round the trolley, eyeing up the assortment of beverages before opting for a round of spirits. I bought a beer and wandered back out to the deck. At precisely 07:30 the windows to the outside bar swung open. Within ten minutes, every seat on the deck was taken and the area around the bar was engulfed by the satisfied, sunny faces of Scandinavian holiday makers.
Cheapest Fares (one-way)
2 hrs / 3.5 hrs
Helsinki to Tallinn by Ferry: How Much? How Long? Which One?
There are three major ferry operators running between Helsinki and Tallinn: Tallink Silja, Eckero Line, and Viking Line. Journey times vary between 2 and 3.5 hours with foot passenger fares starting at 19 EUR for a single ticket (38 EUR return). For motorists, car charges fall into the 20 to 35 EUR bracket, depending on the operator. Travelers desiring privacy or rest can rent cabins (prices between 20 and 80 EUR) and those with flexible budgets and a taste for comfort can treat themselves to Tallink's business lounge with fares in the 90 EUR range. Pre-booking your meals doesn't come cheap with breakfast setting you back around 10-15 EUR and lunch about 15-20 EUR. Overnight trips lasting 10-14 hours are also available from 71 EUR. Fares for under 18s differ depending on the child's age - please consult the company website.
Note: These prices are subject to change, so be sure to consult each line's site for accurate fares.
Left Luggage and Cheap Goods at the Eckero Market
As the Nordlandia breezed out into the Baltic Sea leaving Helsinki West Harbour behind, my girlfriend and I took a gamble and left our seats in the sunshine to find the left luggage lockers. The likelihood of reclaiming the same seats was impossibly low but we figured we could always perch on the steps leading up to the second level deck if necessary. We found the lockers on the floor below. With our bags banged up in a metal container, we were free to roam without the threat of knocking any children off their feet with our rucksacks. Sea travel is dizzying at the best of times, especially under the influence of beer and sun, and carting fifteen kilo rucksacks around on our shoulders seemed liked senseless folly, even if liberation cost us 4 euros.
Market was now open and I ventured inside for a 24-can case of Saku beer which
cost about 12 euros. In Finland,
the price for the same 24 beers would be more than double what I paid on the
ship. In much the same vein that Brits travel to Calais
in France for cheap drinks,
the Finns flock to Estonia.
To beat the excess cost of shipping their car over in the cargo hold, the
enterprising Finn takes a specially adapted trolley that he can laden with five
or six cases of beer, or gin-based fruit drinks. Four days later, when we
returned to Helsinki, the site of breathless Finns staggering onto the ferry
with their trolleys in tow, and bottles of spirits strapped to their bodies,
made me wince at the absurdity of imbalance between European economies. A pizza
in Helsinki would cost you more than a three
course meal and glass of wine in Tallinn.
In the Eckero Market, I almost bought a wristwatch but thankfully regained my senses before reaching the checkout. With the case of beer under my arm, we walked back up to the deck which was now thriving with even more people. Some younger passengers were seated cross-legged on the floor; others rested against the railings and gazed out into the resplendent and brilliantly white sea. An elderly Asian woman, with the endurance and agility of a eight year old child, sat on the metal deck floor with her legs outstretched and a laptop perched on her thighs.
Like a cheetah poised to leap on an unsuspecting gazelle, I stationed myself behind a couple who were clearly preparing to vacate their seats. With the new seats secured, I tucked the beer case under the table and opened a can. It looked cheap, having our own supply of drink in such close proximity to a public bar, yet the beer we were consuming was around a fifth of the cost – the only difference being that it was warm. If I’d held any reservations about drinking my own beer on deck, they soon evaporated on the return journey where at least half of the passengers were dipping into their discount loot.
Baltic Clearwater Revival
My lingering memory of our departure from Helsinki is of the hundreds of islands scattered around the southern shores of Finland. The entire south coast of the country is comprised of thousands of islands, many lush and inhabited; others simply scant rock formations pointing from the water. On the south west tip of Finland near the city of Turku is the archipelago sea, a densely packed myriad of islands that stretch out into the Baltic Sea towards Sweden. Sadly, this stunning and beautiful enclave of northern Europe is tinged by tragedy. In 1994, the MS Estonia en route from Tallinn to Stockholm sank in the early hours of the morning on 28th September and 852 lives were lost.
In winter, much of the Baltic sea freezes over and it is possible to drive a car across the ice. But at the height of summer, donned in shorts, sandals and an unbuttoned shirt, I found this impossible to envisage. It struck me as rather unfair that during all of 2010, the best weather I experienced was 1000km north of my home. Only from Britain can you approach the Arctic Circle and find yourself getting warmer.
On the deck of the Nordlandia we were joined by a Hungarian backpacker and his girlfriend. Attempts at conversation, although greatly aided by beer and wild animated gestures from myself, were largely futile. While the girl didn’t speak English, her boyfriend was capable of a basic fluency very much suited to exchanging polite remarks with strangers but ill-equipped for my onslaught of questioning about Hungarian culture and politics. On the table next to us, a Scandinavian woman began breaking out into sporadic bursts of song. Leaving my girlfriend in the company of the Hungarian couple, I decided to go for a walk.
On the port-side of the ship, semi-naked bodies were sprawled in the sun. The view of the sea, now without the faintest trace of land, was broken up by the lifeboats which were held to the ship in the grasp of giant metal arms. I stopped between two lifeboats and enjoyed a moment’s solitude – just myself and a vast twinkling expanse of placid water – before darting inside the ship. In the bar, I was intrigued by a small enclosure for smokers where a man sat with his legs crossed, puffing on a cigarette. Surely a trip outside, into the balmy sea air, would be a better place to enjoy a cigarette rather than cooped up inside a shelter thick with grey stale smoke. As a smoker myself, I know how foul these little nicotine dens can be. Perhaps the sea air made him ill, or the sea itself made him sad. Or maybe he was enjoying the music too much to venture out. On a stool in the corner of the bar was a musician drawling his way through Have You Ever Seen The Rain by Creedence Clearwater Revival. He was doing a pretty good job and John Fogerty would have been proud. On the dance-floor a few couples stepped lazily to and fro, recharging themselves for an Elvis number. Out on deck, amidst the sound of the waves, clattering of glasses and merry chatter, the indoor entertainment had been indiscernible. I resisted the lure of the dance-floor and decamped to the seats outside.
The Buzz of Anticipation: Arrival in Estonia
This was my
first trip to Tallinn
and as we approached the harbour, I grew restless with the thrill of impending
discovery. Yet at the same time, I was reluctant to leave my steel deckchair on
the stern of the MS Nordlandia. Although it had been a fairly uneventful
morning (the drama would follow later when I left my girlfriend sitting under a tree for five minutes to find a Bureau de Change - alas, I got lost and didn't return for two hours...but that's another story), the three hour journey had been undertaken with towering spirits by
all onboard. The buoyant atmosphere permeated the entire vessel. Maybe it's
because the Finns, Estonians and Scandinavians endure long periods of Arctic darkness
in the winter that they become so radiant in the nucleus of a summer heatwave. Or perhaps my own simmering excitement had duped me into believing that my fellow passengers were as euphoric as I.
Tallinn and Helsinki
Tallinn lived up to expectations. The Old Town is a gorgeous medieval maze of meandering cobbled streets passing churches, glass shops, cinnamon stalls and chanting monks. In 2011 the city holds the status of European Capital of Culture alongside Turku in Finland. Extolling the qualities, heritage and cultural wealth of Tallinn is beyond the boundaries of this article but for more information, start with the official Tallinn website.
A trip from Helsinki to Tallinn by ferry begins in the Finnish capital, which is equally as absorbing as its Estonian counterpart. Be sure to visit the harbour market where you can buy fresh peas, fish, berries and fruit to eat in the street while you browse the stalls displaying art, jewelry and traditional Finnish craft-work. The 1952 Olympic Stadium is also worth seeing. The thirty minute stroll to the stadium from Helsinki train station takes you through Kaisaniemi.Park and around Toolonlahti lake. When my girlfriend and I visited the stadium in 2007, we were able to walk in through the gates and sit in the stands. On that afternoon we were the only people in the entire 50,000 seat arena.
The weather in southern Scandinavian and the Baltic regions varies wildly between winter and summer. From November to March, the temperatures drop below freezing and the region is covered in a blanket of snow and ice. The summer months - June, July and August - are far more hospitable with temperatures averaging between 15°C (59°F) and 25°C (77°F). I have been to the region twice in summer and the weather was superb on both occasions.
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