The Tiny Jewel of Northern Europe: Estonia

I feel like I generally enjoy immensely the countries I visit on my travels. But rarely do I fall in love with a country. That, however, is what happened in the last stop of this vacation, Estonia.

It’s hard, even for a Eastern European history buff like myself, to say I knew much about Estonia before visiting. Sure, I could name the capital, talk a bit about the ethnic and linguistic groups in the country, and discuss its growing relevance as NATO’s frontline against Russia, but in terms of famous figures, key historical events, cultural traditions, cuisine – I would have only drawn a blank. And to be fair, Estonia is a country without much of an independent history – despite the best efforts of its national history museum (all of about three rooms). Estonia was essentially the site of battles, massacres, and other unsavory events as its territory was fought over and traded between Sweden, Germany, and Russia as each sought to control the Baltic, not existing as an independent country until briefly in 1918, and again after 1991. And its roster of celebrities is also thin (composer Arvo Pärt, anyone?). Yet despite the novelty of self-rule in Estonia, the country is truly a development success story.

Estonia is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Europe (it is the headquarters of Skype, and has free WiFi almost everywhere). Estonians we interacted with spoke better English than many more developed countries I had visited (perhaps because the Estonian language is one of the most difficult to learn in the world, English is much easier to pick up). The farms and small villages we saw are clean and prosperous – they look more like those in rural Wisconsin than in the other ex-Soviet countries I’d visited. Despite a significant Russian minority population, Estonia has had little ethnic unrest and has had a stable democratic government since independence. And public and private sector alike appear to have done much to establish a comfortable infrastructure for an emerging tourism sector, as EU membership has made the country very accessible.

Our trip had two parts, one focusing on the historic and one on the natural areas of the country. We started in the capital Tallinn, home to a strikingly well preserved medieval city center, still with its original fortifications and town square. While daytrippers from Finland, stag parties from the UK, and passengers on Baltic cruise ships have all discovered the city, leading to a profusion of tacky souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants, the old city is still very fun to explore, looking at the multitude of different faiths represented in its churches, learning about the relics of Tallinn’s status as Reval, one of the largest Hanseatic cities in the Eastern Baltic, which gave it a strong German influence and a Lutheran heritage (despite Tallinn’s numerous churches, Estonia is today one of the most irreligious countries in the world).

Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Mary’s Cathedral

Tallinn Town Hall and Main Square

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Olaf’s Church

Fat Margaret Tower, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City east gate

Tallinn Old City fortifications

Viru Gate, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City wall

Linnahall (Soviet Olympics venue turned public space) and Tallinn skyline

The second part was spent on Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. Saaremaa’s main city, Kuressaare, also features an impressive medieval castle, where we stopped briefly. Most of our time, however, was in the small hamlet of Kihelkonna, one of the gateways to Vilsandi National Park. Tiny as it may be, Estonia boasts a wealth of biodiversity and protected areas, and has more trees per capita than anywhere else in Europe. Vilsandi consists of dozens of small islands and a long stretch of Estonia’s westernmost coast, making it a key breeding area for various bird species, and in summer a destination for biking and water sports. But in a still cool May, the park was deserted except for the birds, some local farmers, and us. Even an orchid festival in Kihelkonna was not enough to draw in the tourists – we were the only guests in our church office turned bed and breakfast, one of only a couple accommodations in the area.

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle (including more recent outer walls)

Bay, Vilsandi National Park

Marshland, Vilsandi National Park

Lighthouse, Vilsandi National Park

Marit at Papissaare harbor, Vilsandi National Park

Abandoned building, Kihelkonna

Kihelkonna church

I left Estonia wishing I had had another day or more to explore the country. But all vacations must come to an end, leaving only ideas for the next trip. And when that next trip happens, I’ll write about it here.

P.S. Special thank-you to Marit for putting up with my trip planning, poor navigation skills, and general impatience for these two weeks.


Bouncing around the Baltic: Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg

This was my second time traveling to Stockholm, the first time I’ve already written about here. As a result, I will not go into detail about it in this post, other than to say it was just as pleasant the second time around, and the city looks and feels much different in May compared to December. With the amount of people out in cafes or parks, it seemed like the city (and the others we visited) was finally experiencing its first breath of summer, perfect timing for our arrival.

My next Scandinavian capital, Helsinki, was a new experience – but not totally. Helsinki certainly bears more than a passing similarity to Stockholm due to its own network of islands and bays and the many centuries of Swedish rule that shaped it (of course, the language is completely different, and completely incomprehensible without study). However, it is almost all on a smaller scale, as Finland did not exist as a country until after WWI, and Helsinki was only a minor military and administrative center before that time. There are certainly some impressive monuments such as the Helsinki Cathedral (Lutheran) and Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox), if not the wealth of historic grandeur found in central Stockholm or other European capitals.

Uspenski Cathedral and Helsinki shoreline

Helsinki Harbor panorama

Helsinki Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Church in the Rock

However, Helsinki’s most impressive collection of history is found a short ferry ride from downtown on the island fortifications of Suomenlinna. Founded in the 18th century as a Swedish naval base, and passing into Russian and Finnish hands, this “Gibraltar of the North” had an undistinguished military career but was at one time the second largest population center in Finland, and there are numerous relics from both its military and civilian uses, making a popular day trip and where Marit and I spent most of our limited time in Helsinki.

Suomenlinna panorama


Suomenlinna Fortifications

Main Gate, Suomenlinna

Residential building, Suomenlinna

King’s Gate, Suomenlinna

Marit and I at Suomenlinna

Island outside Helsinki

After Helsinki came St. Petersburg, a fitting choice since this city and Stockholm played so much of a role in determining the history of Helsinki, caught in the middle. Russia is certainly a very different culture than Scandinavia, though this came as no surprise given my travels in Russia last year –despite St. Petersburg’s historic connection with the West and developments befitting a modern metropolis, is not too different than Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude (though pricier and much more crowded with foreign visitors). Either way, St. Petersburg is a stunning city, and the wealth of spectacular churches and palaces make it easy to forget that this city was founded from nothing in 1703, making it one of the youngest European cities. Despite the current media focus on Russo-American interactions, being American did not elicit any particular interest (though depictions of Trump were to be found among the usual tourist kitsch). However, there did seem to be an unusually high military presence – perhaps the result of the tragic terror attacks on the St. Petersburg subway earlier this year.

Neva River, Sunset

While in the city, we visited the artistically splendid Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, the imposing Kazan and St. Isaac’s Cathedrals, the Hermitage (which was far more impressive for its palace design than its art collection), among other sites; went to the opera at the famed Mariinsky Theatre (true, it was the Magic Flute at the modern Concert Hall, not Boris Godunov at the historic hall, but last-minute spendthrifts can’t be picky) and spent plenty of time strolling past the canals and gardens of the central city. We also took advantage of the cultural diversity of the city, home to many migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union, in dining on Georgian, Uzbek, and Ukrainian cuisine in addition to standard Russian fare.

Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Interior, Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Interior, Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Kazan Cathedral

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Church

Gravesite of the Romanov family, Peter and Paul Church

Cruiser Aurora

St. Petersburg canals, daytime

St. Petersburg Canals at night

Inside, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall

Faberge Egg, Faberge Museum

Peter the Great statue

Admiralty Building

Spires of St. Isaac’s and Admiralty Building

Hermitage Museum and Palace Square

Palace Square

Interior, Hermitage

Interior, Hermitage

Corridor, Hermitage

Palace Interior, Hermitage

However, my favorite part of St. Petersburg was taking a trip out to the suburbs to visit Peter the Great’s seaside retreat at Peterhof. As befits an old imperial capital, St. Petersburg is surrounded with multiple tsars’ summer retreats, and while Peterhof was the only one we had the time to visit, it was the perfect choice for a beautiful spring day. Peterhof is famed for its gardens, which provide a striking view but also have plenty of space to get lost from the crowds in a quiet natural spot or to discover a hidden pond or fountain. The top draw at Peterhof is its fountains, which are undeniably gorgeous and likely unparalleled in Russia.

Peterhof (south side)

Peterhof Fountains

Peterhof Main Canal

Peterhof (north side)

Peterhof (north side)

Fountain, Peterhof

Fountain, Peterhof

Neptune Fountain, Peterhof

Peterhof Shoreline

Peterhof Church

After 3½ days in St. Petersburg, we headed out on an overnight bus to the last country on this vacation, Estonia. Why does that tiny state deserve a separate post when some of the most spectacular cities of Northern Europe are lumped together here? You’ll have to read the next post to find out.

Living on the Edge (of the Continent): Iceland

I am currently traveling with my sister Marit, and as I have tended to do when traveling, reopened this blog to share pictures and memories. This vacation is two weeks in Iceland, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Estonia – admittedly as not as off the beaten path (or as cheap) as some of my last trips, but no less spectacular as destinations. The first stop was only a five-hour flight away from DC: Iceland.


Iceland was originally just a stopover on the way to continental Europe, now a popular occurrence due to the special layover options offered by Icelandair and WOW Air for no extra cost, but even in the two short days I was there I was taken aback by the country’s natural beauty and it may easily end up being the favorite destination of my trip. Due to its geologically active location, Iceland has always had an extraordinary landscape of glaciers, fjords, and geysers, but its remoteness made it off-the-beaten path as a tourist destination until recent years, when tourism has exploded (we were told by a guide that 2 million tourists are expected to visit Iceland this year, six times the total native population). Still, we arrived before the busy season, and while the top destinations had some crowds, much of Reykjavik and the countryside were still unspoiled (admittedly, the timing also meant windy, cold, and intermittently rainy weather for most of the trip).


Our home base was Reykjavik, the capital and center of Icelandic life (2/3 of the population lives within the Reykjavik region, even though this is only 200,000 people). Reykjavik is a quite pleasant city, with little traffic and pollution and great vistas across the bay, though despite the growing role of tourism in Iceland’s economy it is still a working city with a large fishing port. However, as a city that only came into being around a century ago and one traditionally removed from the cultural and economic flows of Western Europe and the Americas, it has few monuments or historical sites, and its unadorned architecture is unexciting (though there are certainly exceptions, such as the unique modern Hallgrimskyrka Cathedral).

Hallgrimskyrka, Reykjavik

Leif Erikson statue, Reykjavik

Reykjavik Cityscape

But Iceland’s attractions lie primarily outside of the city. In two days, we did not have time to do the Ring Road or other excursions to the wilder parts of the country, however many fantastic features are found within an hour of Reykjavik. Most of our first day was spent on the Golden Circle tour, a classic, if crowded, day trip to the best of Southwest Iceland. This route includes the Geysir thermal basin (though the eponymous geyser – where the word “geyser” comes from – is dead, and the actual eruptions were by its sister geyser Strokkur), the Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park, site of the geological boundary between North America and Eurasia (an obvious system of crevasses and raised plateaus) and the Althing assembly, the first democratic system in Northern Europe.

Icelandic countryside

Church and Glacier

Geysers and Glaciers

Geysir thermal basin

Strokkur Geyser

Hot spring, Geysir

Gullfoss lower falls and canyon


Mountains near Gullfoss

Thingvellir background

Fault line, Thingvellir

Althing site, Thingvellir

Fault line, Thingvellir


The second day brought us first to the islet of Videy, just a 15-minute ferry ride from Reykjavik. Though quite small, Videy includes an abandoned village, seabird nesting colonies, and modern art installations, all framed by phenomenal views of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains. That evening’s trip was to the Blue Lagoon, a world-famous hot spring said (like most other hot springs) to have healing properties and another representation of Iceland’s continuing geothermal activity (luckily, we did not experience a volcanic eruption, which is a danger in Iceland).

Rainbow over Reykjavik harbor


Viðeyjarstofa House and Church

Videy terrain

Modern art, Videy

Videy terrain and backdrop

Reykjanes landscape

Blue Lagoon

Sunset over Snæfellsjökull