Our original goal for this Europe trip was to make it a true tour of the countries on the Baltic sea, and we wanted to go to St. Petersburg. However, I tried many ways to secure a Russian visa, and time ran out. You can visit St. Petersburg without a visa if you’re with a tour on a ship, but we wanted to stay on the ground. So we decided to switch gears. John read an article about 30 unique things to do in Kiev, and flights were readily available, so we decided to book three nights there.
We took the recommendation of UK’s Independent and booked a room at 11 Mirrors. We did this through Expedia, where we have Gold Status, and because of that we were upgraded to a stunning room with a gorgeous view. It turned out to be a great choice, and we were in walking distance to most major sights. We did take Uber frequently to other parts of the city. Kiev is one of the largest cities in Europe, with a population of about 2.9 million. This is about the size of Seoul, which interested me very much since the city limits felt very much more Asian than European–with blocks of high rises that look identical in every way.
Our first order of business was to get some Georgian food, since we had read so much about it. Our first choice was all booked up, so we wandered over to Shoti and oh my am I glad we did. This was one of my favorite meals (though not my most nutritious).
The next day was The Day of Sightseeing and boy did we pack in a lot. We went to a unique and fascinating monastery and toured the crypts, then we toured around the Motherland Museum. We saw exactly ten thousand cathedrals. We saw lots of interesting street art and many beautiful parks. We saw markets, brew pubs, and even a little Ukrainian Vizsla who was trotting though the city off-leash. All in all we had a great time in Kiev.
Day 3 of our trip to Tallinn Started with a stroll through Old Town and down to the water. We started down at the harbor where there was a fascinating collection of ships, including a Norwegian Ice Breaker. Of course they need an ice breaker, but who thinks of an ice breaker until you need one? We enjoyed the fresh air and ocean sea breeze. Next we stopped at the Tallin Cultural Hub called Kultuuri Katel, which is housed in an old factory. It included an exhibit that I found fascinating, but that John found too high concept. It studied the relationship between work and rest though visual imagery. We started to get hungry, so we wandered down to the Rotermann Quarter, which is between the Old Town and the city centre, in the historical Rotermanni Disctrict. I chose a restaurant called Kaks Kokka, and I really enjoyed my dish though John felt his to be a little one note. Perhaps everything this day before our big meal would be a disappointment to him?
We have tried many Michelin starred restaurants, so we were very thrilled to be able to try NOA CHef’s Hall. We had done a lot of research on the place, and truly enjoyed this YouTube video about chef Orm Oja. We sat at the Chef’s Table so we could see Orm and his team work their magic. We had such delicious courses and really enjoyed the service too. At sunset, all the restaurant patrons went out to the lawn to watch the sun set over the water.
The next day, I was able to buy a beautiful print by an Estonian artist that looks very much like that sunset! I even got to meet her. Our experience in Estonia was everything we hoped for and more. I kept trying to think of a way I could live there!
One reason I REALLY wanted to visit Tallinn was because I teach the essay Estonia, The Digital Republic, in my travel writing class. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the country and upon more research we found that many travel writers are calling the Baltic States the Next Scandinavia, for their focus on art, design, and cuisine. Say no more!
We arrived by ferry to a small port and decided to simply walk the short distance to our AirBnb. I normally prefer booking at hotels, but we chose an AirBnb in Tallinn because it was so much cheaper and there was so much more space. I found a gorgeous apartment in the middle of Old Town. Which would have been perfect, if the owner had been ready. We ended up lugging our luggage around for three hours during which we could not get in contact with the owner. I don’t ever want to do that again. He ended up feeling so bad about it he took us for coffee later and we had an interesting chat. We asked him about the rise of the right-wing populists in Eastern Europe and he confirmed our fears, that there are factions who are xenophobic, racist, and Islamophobic. But I’ll return to that topic later.
We spent our Day 1 exploring the new arts district, Telliskivi Loomelinnak, which is a former industrial area that is now full of colorful murals, shops, and restaurants. We would return here several times during our stay for shopping, sips, and bites. We also enjoyed the nearby market, Balti Jaam Market, that had gorgeous fresh produce and some interesting local items.
After a lot of walking, we made room for dinner at F-hoone. And am I ever glad we did. This place was so inexpensive, had a super hip vibe, and served me some of the best dumplings of my life. I consider it a must visit.
One difference in hotel vs AirBnb is that we usually get our breakfast included at a hotel. Since we had not shopped for groceries, and the coffee service at the property was a rickety and not nice French Press that I failed to master, we would need to procure some coffee and sustenance stat! Luckily John used his research skills to get us to Rost, which was an epic win. We could smell the shop well before we saw it. Tucked into an area that is being revived for young professionals, this bakery served me the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had.
Next, we had such a lovely visit to Kumu Art Museum. It confirmed the reports that contemporary artists are thriving in Estonia, since the exhibition on fashion was one of the most interesting I’ve seen in ages. But I also really enjoyed the organization of the design of the space. The exhibitions on 18th and 19th century art taught us as much about history of the region as they did about artistry. And there was a room full of only busts, with a soundtrack of voices piped in, that afforded an ethereal and magical experience.
We also loved the exhibit on Eastern Fashion. For her project, the artist Marit Ilison scoured the archives of the Narva Museum, digitized the art and made it into print fabric, which she sewed into identical versions of the well-known historic garment, the chintz smock. The display included 77 dresses all of the same shape but each with a different print (based on the museum archives). It was one of the most fun, whimsical, yet historically impactful exhibits I saw on our trip.
Now let’s talk about lunch at Restoran Mon Repos. We literally grabbed this off TripAdvisor after leaving the art museum so hungry. It is walkable and beautiful and the meal was one of the best of our trip.
Helsinki is always a treat–though I have only been there in summer. This trip we arrived on May 4 and it was snowing and chilly. So I can only imagine what it must be like in really bad weather. Helsinki proper has a population of about 650,000 people, which is about the size of Portland, OR, and I would argue that there are some similarities. There is a nice laid back vibe. People eat well. People make art. People speak very good English.
We only had two nights in town this time so we made the best of it! Our dinner at Juuri was delicious and so much fun! What a great way to start the trip of a million calories. Europe called–there’s no more food left!
How is your 2019 going? Ours got away from us a little, mostly due to so much working, but also so many good times with friends, dogs, (and doctors!). John and I are thrilled to have an upcoming trip to “The Baltics, Plus Ukraine.”
We started planning in January when we got flights round trip for $550 per person. Our intention was to go to Finland, then take the train to St. Petersburg, but we had trouble getting Russian Visas so we decided to sub out Kiev after reading some really wonderful articles about travel to Ukraine.
So now our trip covers five countries: Finland, Estonia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia. We identified activities in each city, lots of great restaurants, and three hotels and two AirBNB’s that will be lovely and super comfortable. We’re almost all packed and can’t wait to share our adventures!