What comes to mind when we think of Finland, Estonia, and Latvia? Is it Finland’s saunas and modern architecture? Estonia’s digital prowess and cultural richness? Latvia’s Art Nouveau architecture and Baltic beaches? Amanda is here to tell you the answer is all of the above—and so much more. Amanda just traveled across these three northern European countries. The experience? Unforgettable. Now she’s happy to share the places she visited and the things she did so you can replicate her journey.
Finland’s capital—exploring Helsinki
Helsinki might be Amanda’s favorite beyond-the-guidebooks city in Europe. She touched down during those magnificent warm months when the sun stays up late into the night and people seem to celebrate life. For a solo-female traveler, Helsinki is ideal: it’s peaceful, safe, and extremely easy to get around. Like a real Finn, Amanda basked in the heat of a traditional sauna Allas Sea Pool—yes, even during summer! Learning about sauna culture in Finland was memorable for her. She was shocked to discover that there are more saunas in Finland than cars! Also surprising was how integrated it is into people’s everyday lives. Between sessions in the heat, she hopped into a cold pool, which was a wonderful and refreshing contrast to the heat. Before leaving the city, she did a walking tour. This is a great way to learn the history of a place and discover the secrets only locals know. Three unmissable spots are: Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Helsinki Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko), and the waterfront market square, Kauppatori.
Midsummer at Seurasaari and island hopping
Nordic midsummer combines everything Amanda loves: incredible food, conviviality, dancing, live music, and games from midday till late at night. Seurasaari, a gorgeous island in Helsinki, is the perfect place for such an occasion. Amanda reached the island just after lunch time and joined the festivities later that afternoon. What did she do? She saw people of all ages dressed in traditional clothing, and eating, drinking, and dancing. She joined the dances, tasted the food (she particularly liked reindeer and salmon soup), and met all kinds of people. Not until nearly 2 in the morning—with the sky still bright—did she return home. Her legs ached a little from dancing. She was a touch tired. But it was a moment of pure joy and an evening she’ll not soon forget.
The next morning, Amanda got on the ferry headed toward Helsinki’s islands. She chose to visit Suomenlinna and Vallisaari because they are close by, beautiful, and have fascinating histories. Did you know that Suomenlinna (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was once a fortress? If you can believe it, today it’s a suburb of the capital. Vallisaari is home to a wonderful nature trail that passes by historical stops on the way. There are also cozy cafes (though no cars!), which means you can stop for a tea and a slice of delicious Runeberg Cake, which is named after the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Amanda was also impressed by the beautiful and sometimes unusual nature in Finland. For her, the European outdoors are rarely about swamps and bogs and Nordic islands. But these parts of the natural world are fascinating and gorgeous. And what’s more, they gave Amanda an experience that was truly different from what her friends were doing on their European vacations.
Tallinn: a city of singular architecture and food
As a person who lives in a city but doesn’t typically spend a ton of time in cities when traveling, Amanda absolutely fell in love with Tallinn. Between the feeling of time traveling into a fairytale in the Old Town to being able to take the tram to the Reidi Road park where you feel like you’re immersed in nature but just a step away from the city, it was truly an amazing city. She had a blast and has been raving about it to her friends since returning to the US. In Tallinn, a unique life force surges through the city. When Amanda walked its streets, visited its cafes, met its residents, she couldn’t help but feel that this is one of the great cities in Europe. It’s full of youthful spirit, ancient culture, and cuisine that will give Paris a run for its money. One thing that surprised her off the bat is this: The old town of Tallinn itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Why? Because it combines Tallinn’s ancient aesthetic with young exuberance. This is where the city’s creatives congregate, and you can join them too.
Parnu: the perfect seaside escape
After Tallinn, Amanda was craving a Baltic beach experience. She found the ideal locale: Pärnu. Located in a little bay in the Gulf of Riga, this often-overlooked city has everything for a perfect summer getaway: the sea, the sun, and wonderful coastal hiking routes. She spent much of her morning walking Pärnu’s beachside promenade and enjoying the cool breeze. The beach also gives you access to the boardwalk, which stretches six hundred meters and gives you what she likes to call “next level” views. The other remarkable thing in Pärnu is the Soomaa National Park, the capital of Estonian primeval nature. The park consists of five large wetlands and is home for many birds and animals. In Soomaa, Amanda experienced a sunset canoe ride through the rivers of the park. It was the most peaceful scenery ever. The landscape was gorgeous and calm.
Wandering through Riga and Sigulda
Just a little south of Pärnu stands Riga, another magnificent metropolis full of Baltic charm. The old town is gorgeous, but what really stuck out to Amanda was the food: modern, creative, but with enough Latvian heritage to make it special. At one local restaurant she savored a traditional beet soup called Aukstā zupa, which is colored in pink hues and garnished with fresh local produce. Though she could spend all day talking about the remarkable eating, her visit to the Latvian Academy of Sciences and its observation deck in particular was also exciting. From this perch (65 meters high) she got views of the entire city. It spanned out before her in vibrant color, a place where the energy of the present meets with the beauty of the past.
From Riga Amanda ventured to Kemeri National Park, which is only a short distance west. To her surprise, she discovered that the park is renowned for its biological diversity, mineral waters, and cleansing mud. It’s also home to hundreds of species of lichen, moss, and fungi. Amanda’s advice? Explore the park from a paddle board on the water. It gives you a unique view of the park and serves as the perfect summer activity. Finally, she tried her hand at bog-shoeing. Ever heard of it? It’s just like snowshoeing except instead of white powder beneath you, you have the mushy primordial bogs. Exploring the wetlands is a great way to encounter rare wildlife like birds. Want a tip on excellent lodging? These glass houses are singular. Staying in them feels like you’re sleeping in nature itself.
At the end of Amanda’s Latvian adventure, she visited Sigulda, a town a short distance east of Riga. What drew her here? A zipline experience! And not just any zipline, it’s unique the world over for its setup, height (55 meters up) and speed, which reaches 60km per hour. While speeding down the line, she could see the gorgeous Gauja River snaking through the valley below. It was an unforgettable feeling, like experiencing what a bird does when flying high above the forest.
Amanda’s travel tips from the region:
- Make use of public transport and connectivity. Finland, Estonia, and Latvia have highly efficient systems that connect parts of individual cities and various parts of the countries as a whole. It’s easy, safe, and sustainable!
- All three countries have cities with amazing old towns. Make sure to visit them when you’re traveling.
- They are also quickly becoming world renowned for their creative cuisine. A great way to explore these countries? Through the desires of your appetite.
- Be mindful of cultural differences and keep a good sense of humor. For instance, in Finland, personal space is essential, so make sure to keep a little extra room between you and your neighbor on the train!