Skip to content

Latvia, Estonia, Finland

I recently took a week-long trip with a friend to Riga (Latvia), Tallinn (Estonia) and Helsinki (Finland).


In Riga, you’ll find both Latvian and Ukrainian flags on most streets.

Tallinn is similar. The Estonian flag is widely flown, as is the Ukrainian flag.

In Helsinki, the most common flag was the Pride flag – it was the month of June when we visited. It was uncommon to see the Finnish flag flying. A tour guide explained the national flag only goes up on certain occasions. That led to some confusion down by the docks – where there is a Swedish embassy with a flag. Tourists would arrive at the port and think they were in Sweden. That posed enough of an issue to warrant an exception for the Finnish flag you see in the photo below. It flies just higher than the Swedish flag, and flies all year long.

Helsinki Harbour – spot the Finnish flag!

There were few – if any – Pride flags in Tallinn or Riga. And I didn’t see any Palestinian flags in Tallinn, Riga or Helsinki. This is despite there being public support for the Palestinian cause in Finland – apparently more among women than among men. As for sentiments in Tallinn and Riga, I didn’t ask.


The Finnish-Russian border is closed for crossings, but Finns can enter Russia via Estonia (although it’s an evolving situation). Finland joined NATO only about a year ago. The tour guide in Helsinki quoted support for entering NATO as being at 20% until the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war, but then shot up to 80% prior to joining. Finland, Estonia and Latvia (recently reintroduced) have compulsory military service for men.

We arrived in Tallinn late on the first night. It was 11 pm and still bright outside. The streets were eerily quiet – likely because Estonians were in the country for the midsummer festival. I could feel some kind of foreboding. The Russian embassy was just around the corner. I could see it out of the window from where I was staying. There was a police car at the end of the street surveying things. You can’t see clearly but there was red ribbon draped over the barrier, along with photos of Navalny and Ukrainians who had died or are missing in the conflict.

The Russian Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia (photo taken on the second day)

Riga v Tallinn

The photo above gives some sense of Tallinn’s old city – especially the cobbled pavement. What you can’t appreciate is the hilliness of Tallinn and its undulating narrow streets. It feels a tiny bit like streets in some of the older parts of Dublin – although the building ornamentation is different.

Tallinn – with Hanseatic (~German) influence – is radically different from Riga, which is flat, with streets at right angles, “Art Nouveau” buildings, and a beautiful green park – from the Russian Imperial times – and river flowing through the city.

Nouveau ou Non?

Art Nouveau is a decorative style often incorporating nature and human faces into the ornamentation. Here’s an example from Riga:


Hindi, English, German, French, Italian and many more all fall into the broader “Indo European” language group. Latvian (and Lithuanian) is Indo European too. Estonian and Finnish do not! They are part of the Finno-Ugric family and are quite radically different. Notably:

– Estonian has no future tense (you instead use words like “tomorrow”)!

– Estonian has 14 different cases. In English, we primarily use the nominative case (subject) and the possessive case. For example:

  • Nominative (subject): “The cat is on the mat.”
  • Possessive: “The cat’s mat is dirty.”

In contrast, Estonian uses a variety of cases to express different grammatical relationships. Here are a few examples of Estonian cases – via gpt:

  • Nominative: “raamat” (book)
  • Genitive: “raamatu” (of the book)
  • Partitive: “raamatut” (some of the book)

What all of these cases give you is the ability to drop out all of the short words we have in English, like “the”, “at”, “an”, etc. The same is roughly true of Finnish.

Here is an English translation of some Finnish – notice how Finnish is economical on words:

Finnish and English sign in a cafeteria on an island off of Helsinki

The tour guide in Estonia noted how easy it is to write a 5,000 words essay in English when you’re used to writing 5,000-word essays in Estonian!

Linguistic Survival

The Finns were under the rule of the Swedes for centuries and were a Duchy under Russian rule up until the end of the first world war. It’s impressive that Finnish survived as a language with so much Swedish and Russian about. Finnish survived because it was the language of the lower classes, and there was little mixing with upper classes who spoke Swedish. In later years – maybe the 1800s – it seems that some in the aristocracy took an interest in documenting Finnish. That also helped with survival of the language. Similar patterns seem to have allowed Estonian and Latvian to survive too. Estonia and Latvia had centuries-long rule by the Baltic-Germans, Polo-Lithuanians (Latvia only), Swedes and the Russians. Yet, Estonian and Latvian survived.

Double Independence

Finland has one independence day while Latvia and Estonia celebrate two. Both have a first independence – from the Russian Empire – around 1919. But – as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Hitler and Stalin – the Baltics were passed over to Soviet rule in 1940. Communism was brought in overnight. Residents were dispossessed of their bank deposits and assets. Anyone of high ranking in the Estonian and Latvian societies (mayors, doctors, businessmen etc.) were put into carriages to Siberia where anywhere between 10% and 50% would die – depending on the exact destination. This was the most jarring part of the tour for me.

At one point in 1989 about 2 million people joined hands in a human chain all the way from Vilnius (Lithuania) through Riga and Tallinn – in protest against Soviet rule. As the Soviet union was collapsing around 1991, Estonia and Latvia got their second independence, and went on to join the EU in 2004.

During their first independence of 1919 to 1940, Estonia and Latvia had a democracy until 1934. Each then had a coup and a dictator taking charge during the independent years of 1934-1940. Superficially, this seems like a very similar pattern – the coup and dictator – and I wonder whether it was coincidental.

Back to the Future?

The Finnish Central Bank has a concise museum. Here’s a map of the world, showing two snapshots – 1868 and 1908. Notice how the world goes from having mostly fiat/unbacked currency in 1868 (like what we have in 2024) to having mostly gold backed currency in 1908:

A short history of Helsinki

Apparently Helsinki only had about 20,000 inhabitants in 1880 and about 120,000 by about 1920.

Today – in 2024 – Helsinki has a population of about 600,000 and underground bunkers (for attacks or nuclear strikes) with a capacity for 900,000 people.

Here’s the Helsinki cathedral built in the early 1800s:

It was built by a German (Carl Ludwig Engel) during the rule of a Russian Tsar. The design includes Roman and Greek type columns, but you can see the dome at the top – which I associate with mosques and more eastern orthodox churches. I suppose that was the Russian influence.

Tragically, the Finnish history museum in Helsinki is under renovation until 2027! I had dinner with a Finnish friend in the evening and suggested the Finns use the third floor of the Helsinki City museum, which is designated for temporary exhibits. Unfortunately, this friend has no relationship with museums whatsoever.


There were some beautiful orthodox-style churches in Latvia and Estonia too. Here’s one from Estonia, not far from their parliament:

And here’s a church below from just outside of Riga, in a town called Jurmala – that was once a key Soviet holiday resort. Who in communism goes to a holiday resort? I suppose the officers/government? #speculation

A church with domes in Jurmala

Mego, Lego, Lido, Ligo

Mego is a supermarket in Riga.

Lego is a toy – Danish – and has nothing to do with this trip.

Lido is a restaurant chain in Latvia, great value and has lots of the Latvian classics (photos below)

Ligo is a pagan festival celebrated in Latvia just after the longest day of the year. Variants are celebrated throughout the Nordics and broadly called “midsummer”. Days indeed are very long and it was bright until 11.45 pm when walking the streets.

One of the Lido chain restaurants

Make your own sandwiches

The ferry from Tallinn to Estonia is modern, smooth and calming (at least in summertime). It offers three classes of travel:

  • Economy
  • Business Class – where you have access to a lounge with food and drinks
  • Premium Economy – access a lounge where they provide materials to make your own ham sandwiches (photo below, it was turkey)
Given the opportunity, of course we had to go Premium Economy. Recommended.

Importing Tips

Payments, in Euro, are easy in all three countries. Estonia allows contactless payment almost everywhere, including trams. Finland relies on foreign cash for tips:

Inside of a menu inside an Italian restaurant in Helsinki


The Latvians were the most chatty and Estonians the most reserved. Most signs in Estonia and Latvia include Russian and English. Most signs in Finland include Finnish and Swedish – although the Finns speak the best English of the three countries visited. Yes, about 6% of Finns have Swedish as their first language.


I’ll leave you with a photo of the Hungarian embassy in Tallinn. Budapest could be good for a next trip:

Hungarian Embassy: The Rubik’s Cube, the pride of Hungary for 50 years

Leave a Reply