Monday, September 16, 2019

Longer Travels {Baltic + Scandinavian Adventure Part 2}

We took an amazing almost two week trip in August -- six countries in twelve days.  You can read about the first part of our trip here and also see our full itinerary. We spent the first week in the three Baltic countries and then moved on to the Scandinavian countries.

Quick refresh in case you didn't read the whole first post -- we flew in and out of Copenhagen and made a really big circle.  Again, this trip took a lot of planning and everything was booked in advance.  I left off the last post as we were heading to Helsinki...

We took a large ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki on the Tallink/Silja Line and it was nothing like any ferry you have been on before (and living in Seattle, I have taken plenty of ferries).  The ferry was HUGE and had multiple restaurants and stores (and lockers to store luggage so you don't have to carry it around with you, but you do need euro coins).  We happened to eat breakfast at the buffet which worked for us as it had options for everyone.  It was a pretty classic Scandinavian breakfast spread -- eggs, bacon, cold cuts, cheeses, yogurt + all the toppings, fruit, veggies and more!  The ferry is two hours so we had time to go to the amazing kids zone with tons of things for Serafina to do and even a worker who made balloon animals and face painting (all for free)!  Our girl was in heaven and SO sad when it was time to get off the boat!
When we got to Helsinki, we stayed here and it was great -- good breakfast included, great location (close to a tram stop if you didn't want to walk) and while it was a little warm they provided a fan that helped a lot.  Getting off the boat we took the tram straight into the city -- Helsinki has two main ports and each are pretty well connected by trams.  We also got a 24 hour tram ticket which worked out perfectly since we were only in Helsinki for one night.

Once in Helsinki, we made the most of our time.  We started by walking down to the main market square Kauppatori to grab some amazing fruit and a light lunch nearby at Vanha Kauppahalli market hall (seriously had some amazing places to eat -- you should try the soup at Soppakeittiö or basically any vendor in the market).  Also grab coffee and a pastry in any coffee shop, Finnish coffee is amazing -- actually all Scandinavian coffee is good, they take it very seriously.  We then made our way to Senaatintori (senate square) to view the gorgeous Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Church) but it is not worth climbing all the stairs to go inside...  But it is worth the tram ride + walk out to Temppeliaukion Kirkko -- the famous church built into the stone.  We took a boat (covered by our tram ticket) out to Suomenlinna, a small cluster of islands that are a UNESCO site and was built as a fortress in the 18th century.  We mostly just wandered around and took in the views but there is actually a lot to do on the island, you can easily spend the whole day here. We also took Tram 2 and Tram 3 on a big loop around the city -- you can grab a free Sightseeing by Tram guide at the tourist office. 

And because the weather was gorgeous and Trevor and I love amusement parks.... we ventured out to Linnanmäki, Finland's oldest amusement park (easy tram ride from the main city center).  And it was SO MUCH FUN.  You don't have to pay to enter, just have to pay for the rides (buy tickets or wristband).  The park also has nine free rides which we took advantage of since they were perfect for Serafina!  But Trevor and I got to take turns and ride their newest roller coaster and it was one of the best we have ever gone on in our entire lives.  We ate dinner out here and the food was actually pretty decent for park food!

Then it was time to move on to Stockholm, again taking a large ferry on the Tallink/Silja Line, this time an overnight one -- basically a luxury cruise for 16 hours.  Check in was a little chaotic so I was happy we showed up early.  The boat was AMAZING.  We did pay for the dinner buffet (and again breakfast the next morning) and I highly recommend it.  Do the earlier dinner so you can enjoy the entertainment happening later in the evening.  The buffet was SO good!  The kids buffet was perfect and had everything that a kid would enjoy (Serafina ate her weight in noodles).  And take advantage of the included beer and wine (on tap) for the adults, but save room for dessert -- the chocolate mousse was amazing and Serafina loved the self-serve ice cream bar!
Once again our little lady LOVED the boat -- the play area was HUGE and amazing and they had a few kid activities, including a kid's disco and a surprise visit from Moomin, a very popular kid's TV character in Scandinavia.  Our normally afraid of characters Serafina actually hugged him not once but twice.  It was so fun to watch her just live her best life.  And Trevor and I got to try some of the world's best spirits -- two gins from Finland this one and this one.  Seriously, this boat was so much fun and easily a highlight of our trip.
We docked in Stockholm in the morning and took the metro to the train station -- I highly recommend just taking a taxi.  The walk to the metro stop was a lot further from the pier than we expected (and it happened to be warm in Stockholm).  Trevor and I have been to Stockholm (read that post here) previously so we opted to not stay overnight (or even a full day).  Stockholm has so many fun activities for kids so I do recommend going if you haven't been.  We had about three hours before our train to Copenhagen so we again made the most of it -- dropped our bags in lockers at the train station and hustled to Gamla Stan to show Serafina the palace (Kungliga Slottet).  I cannot recommend eating at La Neta enough, it is some of the best Mexican food we have ever eaten and so worth it (we may or may not have purposefully stopped in Stockholm for a few extra hours just so we could go here).

We caught a train from Stockholm to Copenhagen airport -- we booked directly through the Swedish train website which I highly recommend doing.  We had quite the adventure on our train.  There was a signal error on the tracks mid-way through our trip and we basically got kicked off the train in the middle of Sweden, not anywhere near Copenhagen airport.  Typically in events like this, the train company will provide buses to take you around the issue or to your final destination, however, there were so many people/trains affected, there were no more buses available.... so the workers on the train told us to take any means necessary to get to our destination -- rent a car, take a taxi....  We met some lovely Swedish ladies who took pity on us and we all split a SIX HUNDRED dollar taxi to Copenhagen.  And no worries, we are being reimbursed by the train company, just save your receipts. 

In Copenhagen, we stayed here which was near the airport because we were only in Copenhagen for one night.  I do NOT recommend the hotel, it was clean and nice and the beds were comfortable but the room was so freaking hot it was like a sauna and so beyond uncomfortable.  This was not our first time in Copenhagen (well, it was for Serafina) but it is one of our favorite cities ever so we never pass up a chance to visit -- go here for more information about Copenhagen.

We went to Tivoli Gardens the night we arrived.  This is my most favorite place in the whole world so I was SO excited to show Serafina and she LOVED it!  Tivoli is more than just an amusement park, but of course it does have rides.  It is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world and it is right in the middle of the city -- it is magical.  Do not go expecting Disneyland, it is not anything like Disney but it has its own charm and should not be missed.

We spent a morning in Copenhagen hanging out with my good friend Hanne who is Danish -- she and I met in 2003 when we were studying in Paris.  She took us to a yummy breakfast spot called Far's Dreng (if needed, nearby Torvehallerne Market is amazing, it is where we went on our layover when we first started the trip).  Then we walked past Rosenborg Slot (castle) -- you can go inside and should, it is pretty cool.  We wandered to the Copenhagen Botanical Gardens -- including the amazing Butterfly House which was very cool although it freaked our little lady out just a tad!  And then made our way to Nyhavn, Copenhagen's famous colorful harbor.  And of course grabbed lunch at one of the hot dog stands down near the water -- I learned from Hanne that you have to order all the fixings and a chocolate milk, that is the proper way to eat a Danish hot dog!

Then we were off for the grande finale of our trip -- Legoland Billund!!  In case you didn't know, Lego bricks are a Danish toy, founded and made in Billund, Denmark.  Lego is actually from the Danish phrase leg godt which means "play well."  So, Legoland Billund is the original Legoland and located about a three and a half hour drive from Copenhagen....
I highly recommend driving to Billund as there is not a direct train.  We chose to stay here in Odense which is about half way between Copenhagen and Billund.  Odense is actually a very cool town -- the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and our AirBnB was amazing.  But sadly, we did not have time to explore the town, we had one goal in mind...

Legoland Billund -- Trevor and I came here as part of our honeymoon in 2012 and we were so excited to take Serafina!  It was everything we dreamed it would be and more.  She saw the Legoland sign as we drove up and just FREAKED from happiness!  I recommend buying your tickets online in advance to save a little money.  This is the only Legoland we have been to but it really is insanely family friendly, especially for those with kiddos under ten.  There were very few rides that Serafina could not ride on and they had plenty of younger kid friendly rides and family friendly rides.  We bribed Serafina to go on two (very very small) roller coasters and at the time she was SO mad but now it is all she talks about!  It is not a large park so it can easily be done in a day if you go in the off season, like we did (we never waited more than 20 minutes in line for a ride).  It was a perfect day and an even better way to end our trip!

And that is a wrap on our big summer trip -- it was a lot of planning, a lot of moving from place to place but so much fun.  I highly recommend doing your own Baltic Cruise!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Longer Travels {Baltic + Scandinavian Adventure Part 1}

We took an almost two week epic adventure in August -- we hit six countries in twelve days and it was amazing.  We saw a lot, we ate a lot and we had a lot of fun!

So where did we go?!  We went to the Baltic countries and also some Scandinavian countries -- specifically Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.  We flew in and out of Copenhagen because it was cheapest and then we made a really big circle... Taking planes, trains, buses, boats, cars (even a taxi) to travel to each place.  Flying in/out of Copenhagen had its advantages for us because we love Copenhagen and have friends there, but it does have its drawbacks -- getting to the Batlics from Denmark required a plane.  And while it was fairly cheap and easy, you can easily do this trip even cheaper if you skip Denmark (but in my option, Denmark is amazing and should not be skipped)!

This trip required an insane amount of planning and booking things ahead of time.  There is no way to do this trip on the fly because it was a lot of moving and making the most of our time.  Most of the time people who visit the same countries/cities we did take a Baltic Cruise -- taking a cruise ship within the Baltic Sea and seeing all the major port cities.  We did the same thing but on our own and for much cheaper and allowing us more time in the port cities.

Our itinerary was -- fly into Copenhagen and on the same day we flew to Rīga, Latvia; spent a few days in Latvia and took a day trip to Lithuania; took a bus to Tallinn, Estonia; then a boat to Helsinki, Finland; an overnight boat to Stockholm, Sweden and finally a train to Denmark.  I think the easiest way to write these posts is to break them up by area -- so this first post is about our time in the Baltics.
enjoying Danish pastries during our layover
We started our trip in Rīga, Latvia -- purposefully chosen because we had friends in Latvia at the same time (and the mom happens to be Latvian so we had our own personal tour guide and it was awesome).  It also helped that our friends have a daughter the same age as Serafina so the two girls had a blast while the parents were able to have fun too!  We took a taxi from the airport as it was cheap and seemed easiest -- download the Bolt Taxi app (it'll work in Estonia too).  We stayed here (an AirBnB) which was fine, but also quite loud because it was on a main road in Old Town -- but I do highly recommend staying in Old Town as everything is within walking distance.
Rīga is a wonderful city to just wander on foot, especially through the Old Town.  Other than following our friends around -- we followed the Lonely Planet Rīga City Walk to hit all of the highlights, especially all of the gorgeous squares/plazas (called laukums in Latvian).  In the summer, many of the squares are filled with outdoor restaurants, some even pop-up type so tourists and locals alike can enjoy the gorgeous and long summer days.  Sadly our first day in Rīga was quite rainy so we wandered through Black Heads House -- which is actually an exact replica due to it being destroyed by the Germans and then the Russians.  The house was originally built in 1344 as a house for the Blackheads workers guild.  The house is famous for being known as having the first decorated Christmas tree!  We then went to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which was very well laid out and interesting (also helped that they had a coloring area for the kids)!  Sadly we kept missing opening times for Rīga Cathedral but it is still gorgeous from the outside.  You will for sure wander past the Freedom Monument, a large monument that towers above the city representing Latvia's road to freedom and independence.  And you must go to the Rīga Central Market -- a huge market selling all sorts of food (just be mindful if you walk through the Russified Maskavas neighborhood (Little Moscow)).  I also highly recommend wandering down Alberta Iela a street famous for its art nouveau buildings (specifically the style is called Jugendstil) -- each building is very unique and worth seeing.

We also took a short half day trip to Jūrmala -- a small beach town a quick and easy train ride away from Rīga (the train will take you right to the beginning of the gorgeous walking street, get off at Majori stop).  Very much Latvia's version of the French Riviera, the beach and town are awesome and worth a day trip.  There is a small  waterpark nearby, but might require a taxi depending on where you get off the train.  However, there was an amazing playground/park in Jūrmala --  Dzintari Forest Park.  The two little ladies had a blast (and so did the parents)!

As for eating in Rīga -- you must try the fried garlic bread.  No idea what it is called but it is served with a garlic dipping sauce and it is amazing.  Most restaurants have it as an appetizer as it is a very popular Latvian snack.  We also ate at LIDO (many many locations) which is a buffet type restaurant, but it is great place to try all sorts of Latvian foods.  Street Fries Kitchen had amazing burgers.  Latvia (and Rīga in particular) is known for Black Balsam which is an herbal bitter alcoholic drink and it is awful, but should be tried.  Just warning you -- have a good chaser right nearby.

We then took a day trip to Lithuania -- we rented a large van for us and our friends and off we went!  Our destination was Kryžių Kalnas (or Hill of Crosses) which is a fairly easy two hour drive from Rīga.  The hill itself is quite small, but walking up and seeing all the crosses -- it was amazing.  No one really knows how the hill started, but rumor is that a farmer placed a cross on the hill to help his sick daughter in the 14th century and then after that, people just kept adding crosses.  The area became a symbol of hope and resistance against German occupation during WWII and Russian occupation until 1991.  There are various trails to walk and wander through the area -- not the most stroller friendly place since there area lots of stairs but the actual area isn't large so easy for your kiddos to walk (or to be carried/worn).  The hill is located about a 10 minute drive from the town of Šiaulai -- which is not a large town but looked very modern.  It had a huge pedestrian only street with lots of restaurants and shops and a park at one end.  We ate at Arkos and it was really good -- we all loved our potato pancakes!  And while they didn't have a children's menu, there were plenty of items the girls would eat and they were very accommodating.

Next up was Tallinn, Estonia which was absolutely wonderful -- seriously one of the coolest and gorgeous cities we have ever been to.  Be warned, it is FULL of tourists (like really bad) but the key is to actually stay in Tallinn so you can enjoy the city after all the cruise ship tourists go back to their ships in the later afternoon and the city is much quieter.
We took the bus from Rīga to Tallinn as it was the easiest route (there is a train but it requires a change at the border and takes a good three hours longer than the bus).  There are two main bus companies -- we took Ecolines and it was great.  Nice bathroom on board, coffee available and each seat had a screen to watch movies and such, just buy in advance because the buses fill up.  The trip took about four and a half hours with no stops (so pack snacks)!  Also, when at the bus station in Rīga make sure you check your bus numbers because many buses continue on to other places (our bus was going on to Russia), so find the spot with your bus number, not your destination.

We stayed here (an AirBnB) and while the location was amazing, the apartment was a tad small for us -- it was a little outside the city so very quiet but a super easy short tram ride into the city whenever we wanted.  We were in Tallinn for two nights but one full day, so we bought a 24 hour metro/bus card that was very easy to purchase and use (buy at a kiosk store and just swipe the card when you get on the trams/buses).

The Old Town of Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is easy to see why, it is gorgeous and impressive.  Wander the streets, take your time.  We once again followed the Lonely Planet Tallinn Old Town Walk and it was perfect.  We went into Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church which is a gorgeous and very impressive Russian Orthodox church -- no pictures and be modestly dressed (I was very happy to have my shoulders covered and be in a long skirt that day).  We were in Tallinn on a Sunday so we were not able to go inside St. Mary's Lutheran Church which greatly upset our church loving little lady.  We wandered through the Old Town and past the old city walls, past the old KGB Headquarters (you can go in, but we didn't) and into the gorgeous Town Hall Square with so many shops, markets and restaurants.  We took a trip out past the Old Town to Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour -- a very cool (and interactive) museum, was built originally to house seaplanes for Peter the Great (of Russia).  Now it houses various planes and ships and a submarine that you can go inside to explore!  We also took the Tourist City Train (because you know, traveling with kids) but it was actually really fun and we got to see a part of the town that we missed on our walk.

Eating in Tallinn -- out sort of by Seaplane Harbour is Telliskivi Creative City which was once abandoned factory buildings and is now a hip and fun shopping and entertainment center -- including some awesome places to eat (restaurants and food trucks).  Basically pick what you want to eat that night and go from there!  Also you MUST eat at Väike Rataskaevu 16 there are two locations right next to each other and we got super lucky with no reservations but man was it some amazing food.  And they did have a children's menu but it was the fanciest menu we had ever seen (but also so good and Serafina ate it all).  Please order the chocolate cake.  It is the best.  Seriously though, I would fly back to Tallinn just for this restaurant!

Obviously both Rīga and Tallinn have plenty of other things to do and see, especially museums -- but it wasn't what we wanted to do on this particular trip and also both cities are known for wandering to see the architecture.  But if the weather isn't great, there are plenty of activities to do inside!

So - since we were travelling with a kiddo, I have to at least mention if the places were kid friendly... Most places did not have kid menus (never really saw any highchairs either) BUT everyone was so nice and friendly and more than willing to accommodate us if needed.  Many restaurants had coloring and paper for kids which was amazing -- and even more amazing was that they had sharpeners with the colored pencils!  And be warned that both Rīga and Tallinn had some of the largest and insane cobblestones we had ever seen -- it was a big job for our City Mini stroller.  A small flimsy umbrella stroller would not survive.  But if your kids are walking, make them wear sturdy shoes, poor Serafina had sore feet after each day from walking (so we were happy to have the stroller too).
And everywhere we went someone spoke English (we were in fairly large cities) and most signs/menus had English translations (also everything was in Russian too).  We learned how to say hello and thank you in the native language because it is polite but otherwise we spoke English. 

Next up... our time in the Scandinavian countries.

Just a history note about the Baltics -- most were ruled/controlled (occupied) by various other countries until very recently, all three countries were heavily damaged both in lives lost and building/structural during WWII and then again when they were taken over by the former USSR until the early 1990s.  History is very rich in all three countries but they are all newly independent countries.  Surprisingly, from our standpoint as tourists, it could not be seen that all three became independent within the last 30 years.  And it was very impressive to see the amount of rebuilding (not just with actual buildings) these countries have done and are currently doing.  And one of the cooler (in my opinion) events in history was in 1989 more than two million people formed a human chain (the Baltic Way) connecting all three Baltic capitals in a peaceful protest again Soviet rule/control.

Blog Design by Get Polished