St Peterburg: Chasing my USSR dreams

29 01 2017

Though not a fan of cruises for fear of getting seasick, I mustered my courage to go on an overnight cruise from Helsinki to St Petersburg when I found out that this is the only way to travel to Russia without a Visa. As a kid, I used to stare for a long while at the Soviet Union covering a large part on the world map. Stories of Stalin, the Cold War and the KGB always never fail to fascinate me. Hollywood added my curiousity of USSR (and submarines) with movies like The Hunt for the Red October and Crimson Tide. So no words can describe my excitement when I boarded Viking Cruise to sail across the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg. 

The cruise was a little choppy but manageable. Thankfully I was not seasick. But I did get a scare of my life late at night when I was woken up by loud crashing sound as if the ship hit some hard objects. When I drew open the curtains and saw that the sea was frozen and sea ice was floating all around, the first silly thought that came to my mind was Titanic lol. I almost freaked out and thought that the ship was going down. Then I recalled that this ship has ice breaking ability and managed to composed myself to remain calm. Hilarious haha 🙂

The last leg of the journey as the ship cruise into St Petersburg was nothing short of spectacular as the ship broke its way through the wholly frozen sea to the port with snow falling. Of all the cities that I visited, I would say that St Petersburg is one of my favourite. I love the Hermitage Palace and its collections, the colourful churches including the famous Cathedral of the Holy Saviour on blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Issac’s Cathedral and many more. Even the metro stations with elaborated decorations which double up as bomb shelters during wartime are landmarks themselves. 

Given that the Visa free entry is only valid for 72 hours, it is a pity that I can’t spend more time in Hermitage Palace as well as visit Moscow. For my next trip, I will get the visa and spend a good amount of time there.

Tips:

– Cruise from Helsinki or Estonia to St Petersburg will get you to Russia Visa free for 72 hours.  See my blog on Finland and Estonia.

– Do try the local Russian pancake. There is a local fast food chain Teremok which serves cheap and yummy Russian pancakes. 


– Take a ride on the metro. Each stations are decorated differently and to me they are an open art museum.


– Walk around the city. You will be amazed that even non-touristy sites have also interesting architecture.


– Don’t shun away from Russian winter. There are not many places in the world where you can see frozen sea and rivers. 

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Tallinn ~ Capital of Estonia

31 07 2016

For a girl from the “Little Red Dot” in a land far far away, I would never imagine that I will one day step foot in Estonia. To be honest, my only knowledge of this country before planning this trip was that it was part of Soviet Union. I chanced upon this country when I was planning on what I can do in Helsinki and realized that this mysterious ex-USSR state is just a short cruise away. 


So off I went across the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. There are a number of cruise operator but I decided to choose Viking Line Cruise as it has the timing that I like. The cruise is good (though not the luxurious cruise) with clean toilets and many restaurants serving decent food. 

After 2.5 hours, I arrived in Tallinn, the capital and largest city in Estonia. This city was founded in early 13th century and is well known for its mediaval Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


I could not help but fell in love with this quaint and charming Old Town the moment I stepped foot into it. The well preserved fortresses and turrets, the old mediaval churches with spires constrasting with the orthodox churches showing influence from Russia and the small little shops and cafes lining along those maze of narrow cobblestone alleys made me feel as if I was transported back in time to the mediaval period.

Well, people say pictures day more than a thousand words so here they are.

Tips:

– Unless you are a big eater, it may be much better not to go with the buffet but rather eat at the food court where you get to choose and pay for what you like to eat. It is rather decent and price is not expensive at all. If you join the Captain’s Club, you get discounts on the food too.

– The different cruise operators operate from different ports from Helsinki and Tallinn. Do take note of that so that you don’t get to the wrong port. The two most used operators are Viking Line and Tallink Silja Line. Viking Line operates from Katajanokka Terminal in Helsinki which can be accessible via Tram 4 from Helsinki city center. Tallink Silja Line operates from the West Terminal. Both cruises arrived at different ports in Tallinn too with Viking Line’s one nearer to the city center.

– Helsinki is just 2.5 hours from Tallinn so if you are visiting and staying in Tallinn, you may want to consider popping by Helsinki https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/helsinki-and-its-many-islands/





Helsinki and its many islands

31 07 2016

Finland is known as the land of thousand islands and it is not hard to understand why when you step foot in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. The beautiful city sits on the peninsula in the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki is a coastal city consisting of many islands.  

It is rather sad to see that the typical package tours to “Scandinavia” or Nordic tours mostly cover Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and other cities in Norway but somehow Finland and its beautiful capital seems to be off the radar. All thanks to my fascination over “Santa Claus land” (Rovaniemi), I got a chance to stopover in Helsinki and was glad that I did. 

In the city center at Senate Square, you will not missed this magnificent white colour building with green dome towering over the surrounding square. This is Helsinki’s giant cathedral. There may be many cathedrals in Europe but I would say this neoclassical one is one of the nicest one in Nordic and a contrast to the Uspenski Cathedral nearby.


My favourite site in Helsinki is Sommerland, an island accessible via a short and scenic ferry ride from the harbour in the city center. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this tranquil island is pretty cool and beautiful to walk around. It was first constructed by the Swedes in 1748 as a defense against the Russians. For history lovers, you will enjoy being immersed in the history of how this little island changes hands and purposes from being a defense fort to a garrison when the Russians took over in 1808 to a park in 1918 when it became part of Finland.



For music and art lovers, do visit the Sibelius park and monument. The park is really beautiful even in Winter! The statute of Sibelius and the pipes was very unique. Apparently when it is windy, the monument will play a beautiful sound. Too bad I wasn’t lucky enough to hear it 😦

Right down by the harbor is the Central market where you can do lots of souvenir shopping and eat some local food.


There are also a lot of other museums in Helsinki which I didn’t have the time to visit.
Helsinki tips:

– You can get to/from Helsinki airport to the city centre (stops at train station) via the airport bus (Bus 65). It takes around an hour and you can get tickets either from the bus driver (in cash) or from the ticket machine at the bus stop (which takes cash or card). Cost is €5 which is much cheaper than train (and train is not much faster).

– Sign boards & tourist information booths are not that easily found. It will be better if you do some research on your own beforehand.

– Finland uses euros and most places accept credit cards.

– You can take a day trip to exotic Tallin in Estonia. A charming old town, Tallin seems to be a movie set transporting one back into time which I covered in a separate blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/tallinn-capital-of-estonia/

– If you are interested to visit “Santa Claus land” in the Finnish Lapland or just want to catch the Northern Lights, it is just a short flight from Helsinki. You can refer to my earlier blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/merry-christmas-all-year-round-rovaniemi/

– Ever want to visit Russia but was put off by Visa requirements? There is a way to get to Russia Visa free fro Helsinki on an overnight cruise to St Petersburg. Check out my blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/st-peterburg-chasing-my-ussr-dreams/



Food:

We know food in Nordic countries is not cheap but I would say compared to the other countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the pricing on average in Finland is slightly cheaper. Here are some of the decent price restaurants:

– If you want to try some Finnish cuisine, I will highly recommend Zetor where you can get some special Finnish fish (not sure the name but you can refer to the picture below), reindeer meat sausages and other Finnish delights. This is quite a hip restaurant somewhat like Hard Rock Cafe.

– Morrison’s which is located in the city center offers lovely set lunches and affordable dinner. Below is a simple set lunch of cheap and yummy grilled salmon.


– If you are tired of Finnish food, pop by Rosso an Italian restaurant which is highly popular with the locals. You can see that this is one of my favourite too 🙂


– For those on a tighter budget, Vapiano is also a good choice. It serves pizzas, pastas and other grills with a meal costing less than $15! I love the pastas there particularly when you have a good looking cute chef cooking that lol 😝