How to behave like a Canadian

This is a non exhaustive (and non serious) list about typical Canadian behaviors, applying mostly to Eastern Canadians.

  • You grab coffee at Tim Horton’s, and nowhere else. Several times a day.
  • You don’t like to be compared to Americans because you feel superior.
  • You have relatives in Europe.
  • If you were born in Quebec and your mothertongue is French, people from France will still not understand you when you talk.
  • You call the Canadian one dollar coin a Loonie.
  • You’re very tolerant and openminded, and in favor of LGBT rights, even if you’re not part of the scene.
  • If you’ve travelled once to Paris, London or Greece, you say you’ve been to «Europe».
  • Flying from Eastern Canada to Europe is actually cheaper than flying from Eastern Canada to Western Canada.
  • You’re used to see mooses on highways. And to eat them in a burger or in a soup.
  • You most likely own your own kayak.
  • You call people from Newfoundland «newfies».
  • You call winter days with minus 15 degrees mild.
  • You eat „Poutine“. Not the Russian president, but fries with a brown sauce on it. And you like it (see picture below).

 

Poutine Canadian dish

„Poutine“

 

Highlights of Eastern Canada

From Quebec to Newfoundland: These were my highlights from our road trip through Eastern Canada.

This was a trip I had on my bucket list for a while: A road trip through Canada. After having visited Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec with my brother, a friend from Toronto joined us and we rented a car from Quebec on. Final destination: Newfoundland. We visited many different places in three weeks, so here are my highlights of the trip.

Hiking on rocks

One of the most stunning places on our trip was the Fundy Bay National Park where we visited the Hopewell Rocks. This spot is famous because there are the highest tides in the world. At low tide, you can walk on the ocean floor and have a look at the fantastic stone formations from close. At high tide, everything is covered by water up to 15 meters. On the official website or at the entrance of the park, you can check out at which time is high tide, as it changes each day.

Hopewell Rocks

Hopewell Rocks – Photo: Jonas Hirschi

We went there at low tide which to me was more fascinating as we were able to walk around and even climbed over the rocks to the other side. A very funny – and muddy! – experience. After this small hike, we realised why there was brushes and water at the entrance of the park; our shoes really needed them. But for me, it was totally worth it!

Lobster rolls fresh from the Sea

On our way through New Brunswick, we stopped in Alma to eat delightful lobster at Alma’s lobster shop. This place is a family business and if you’re going to the bathrooms, you can even get a glimpse of the production. Here, you can either buy lobster to cook yourself – or do it the easy way as we did : get some lobster rolls – a kind of a sandwich with pieces of lobster, celery and mayonnaise – delicious !

Delicious lobster rolls at Alma's Lobster Shop.

Delicious lobster rolls at Alma’s Lobster Shop – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Generally, New Brunswick is a great place for seafood. Even in pubs, you get delicious food, for example, fish cakes or fish and chips at James Joyce Pub in Fredericton or fresh and local mussels at Saint John Ale House in Saint John. Then you should continue to Picaroon’s to have a couple of awesome craft beers.

Kayaking on the Sea

img_20160618_165902Enough about food, let’s get into the action: we found the perfect place for kayaking! On the southern coast of Nova Scotia, at Blue Rocks. In the middle of a hand full of islands you’re protected from the waves from the Sea and you get to discover the beautiful landscape and islands which accommodate a lot of birds – and if you’re lucky (as I was!) you even get to see a bald headed eagle!

We rented the kayaks at the company Pleasant Paddling. The guys are really nice and give good recommendations for the itinerary considering the current weather conditions. For 35 dollars you get two hours in a single kayak (50 dollars for a double) with a map, life suits and even a waterproofed pouch for your mobile phone included. I would definitely recommend this experience!

From Blue Rocks we passed by Peggy’s Cove while driving the coast northwards. Here stands the probably most photographed lighthouse in Canada, or even in the world.

Peggy's Cove

Peggy’s Cove – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Admittedly, the scenery is truly beautiful: The lighthouse is situated on some smooth rocks and if you get there by sunset, the sun dips everything in a beautiful warm light. It’s easy to take a perfect picture there.

The must: Newfoundland

Most tourists end their East Canadian trip in Saint John in Nova Scotia, but you should continue to St John’s (don’t confuse them!) in Newfoundland. From Sydney, you can take the ferry to the island Newfoundland including decks for your car. Small tip: Bring some beers to drink in your cabin, at the boat’s bar they are ridiculously expensive. Also: go to the top deck in the morning to see the ferry approaching the coast. Sometimes you can even spot a whale from the ferry.

From Port aux Basques, we drove directly to Gros Morne national park. The drive through the park alone was incredibly beautiful. You can do many different hikes from there and we got some nice ideas from the information centre.

On a trip with the iceberg man

The Iceberg Man

The Iceberg Man

Arriving at the east coast, you should pass by Twilingate. The village itself is not necessarily worth a trip (even though they have a place where they sell moose burgers!) but there is another attraction: Icebergs! It’s not rare that parts of icebergs from Greenland find their way down to Newfoundland. Sometimes they even get stuck in the harbour but mostly they are outside in the ocean close to the shore. It’s definitely worth it to book a guided boat tour. The «Iceberg man» was the first person to offer those types of tours and I highly recommend his tour. I’ve never seen a person talk with so much passion and emotion about ice… You will definitely learn a lot about icebergs but also about the ocean, Twilingate, and Canada.

Secret tip for whale watching

How we learned about the whale watching tours of «Sea of Whales» is a long story, but it’s the best trip I’ve ever taken in my life. I’ve been on two whale watching tours before but this one was way different. Instead of taking a boat, we took a zodiac. And our guide, Chris Prince, truly knows how to find whales.

He drove the zodiac expertly with ease and with remarkable speed! Chris is said to be the best whale expert of all Canada. Already before we left he talked to some fisherman to know if they’ve spotted some whales. We went to one bay and saw a minkey whale just a few meters away from us. Amazing!

Whale watching tour on a zodiac

Whale watching tour on a zodiac – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Then, Chris turned to us and asked what we wanted to see – more minkey whales, icebergs, or big whales. We definitely wanted to see some big ones. Quickly we changed directions and on the way to the other side, Chris showed us a nice stone cave where we were able to pass with the zodiac (by the way, it’s just underneath the place they turned the movie The Grand Seduction) and he spotted two bald headed eagles. We even saw a caribou next to the trees on top of the shore.

Then Chris spotted the blow of a big whale. He shifted into max speed and we rushed in the direction of the whale. The regular blow (every seven minutes to be precise) became visible to us too and at one point, Chris stopped the boat and we waited. And a few minutes later there it was! Just a few meters away from our boat, a fin whale (second largest animal on earth!) turned up – it was simply breathtaking! This was my favourite highlight of the trip.

My (literally...) biggest highlight of this trip: a fin whale.

My (literally…) biggest highlight of this trip – Photo: Chris from „Sea of Whales“

Trip to Montreal

Heading from Toronto to the East coast, a stop in the beautiful city of Montreal is necessary – and the best introduction to the French Canadian culture.

By arriving in Montreal, we also arrived in the province of Quebec: the French-speaking part of Canada. But be aware: If you studied French in Europe or even if you were born in France, you’ll need to get used to the dialect spoken here.

Frenchiness

Even if in the whole of Canada, French is a small minority (20%), the francophones are concentrated in this area (and also in New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province of Canada).

French Canada

Festival de la francofolie – Photo: Eva Hirschi

The French culture is very important, and you can feel it. I got the impression that they try to avoid including English words in their language even more than in France. Québecois won’t say «weekend» but «fin de la semaine» for example.

Stop sign in bilingual Canada

Even stop signs are bilingual – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Also, I was told that there was protest when the coffee chain «Second cup» refused to change its brand’s name to «Deuxième tasse» – apparently the protesters even put a bomb inside one of the cafés – which ended up in being free publicity for the company, without them changing their name…

Student city

Even though Montreal is smaller than Toronto, it definitely has its own charm. In Canada, Montreal is known for its university: McGill University. A walk on the campus is definitely worth it, the old buildings are beautiful and there is even a small natural historic museum in one of them – with free entry. There you’ll find – among other things – very impressive dinosaur bones.

Very animated city

A walk along the harbour and the streets next to it is really nice too. Even if the streets parallel to the harbour are somewhat touristic, it’s still very charming with many people sitting on the patios of the restaurants and bars and enjoying life.

Harbour in Montreal

Harbour in Montreal

What surprised me most about Montreal are the numerous events that happen here. I first thought we just arrived on a special weekend : The formula 1 race on Notre-Dame Island (one of the few urban races), the beer festival, the science festival, and the festival de la francofolie with free concerts in the city centre took place at the same time…

But people from Montreal confirmed that this is a normal weekend, there are events going on all the time in summer. Since the summer is not that long in this part of the world, the inhabitants try to enjoy their time the most possible apparently.

The small mountain (or big hill)

To get a nice view over the city, you should get on top of Mont Royal. People from here say you should hike on this mountain, but since I’m Swiss I’d rather say you should walk on this hill, but anyhow: the view is beautiful and the park slash forest is very pretty.

It was actually designed by the same landscape architects as the Central Park in New York. You’ll find many runners and people walking their dogs and kids. On top, there is a very artificial looking small lake, which is a pity.

Mont Royal in Montreal, Canada

Mont Royal

Bagels you shouldn’t miss

When you walk down the mountain (Swiss: read hill) you should make sure to end up on the east side of the hill, in the area called Mile End. It’s a beautiful area with pretty buildings (pay attention to buildings with stairs at the outside, a really nice architecture you won’t find in Europe) and many green spots with trees and flowers.

Also, make sure to get a bagel at Fairmount Bagels Bakery – the best place for bagels in Montreal (for me even in the world, as far as my bagel experience goes…). From the counter, you can actually see how they bake the bagels, including the old stone oven. Just get the classic: a regular sesame bagel with cream cheese and cold smoked salmon – delicious! Unsurprisingly, sometimes the waiting line even starts on the street.

Fairmount bagels bakery

Fairmount bagels bakery

Another very nice place is the café of Pâtisserie au kouign amann. It’s very small, there are only three tables with a couple of chairs in it, but if you’re able to get one of these, you feel like in a cozy old living room, with the permanent smell of fresh croissants! Even some French people say their croissants are the best in the world…

If you’re not so much into croissants, you should try their maple tarte – a small cake with maple syrup in it, really tasty! And from my whole Canada trip it was here that I had the best coffee. Enough reasons not to skip this city, right?

Pâtisserie au kouign amann

Pâtisserie au kouign amann – Photo: Eva Hirschi

 

 

Trip to Toronto

Toronto is probably the most laid back city I’ve ever been to – not in the sense of boredom, banality, and passiveness – on the contrary – but in a sense of tolerance, multiculturalism, and peacefulness.

Toronto looks a little bit like New York – but clean and organized. My Canadian friend confirmed that people say Toronto is how New York would look like if it was run by the Swiss. So you can imagine that I liked the biggest city in Canada right away.

Toronto skyline

Skyline of Toronto – Photo: Eva Hirschi

On (not so) thin ice

The most known attraction in Toronto is – even if it wasn’t built for this purpose – the CN Tower. Now a symbol of the city and open for tourists to go up, the CN Tower was first constructed as a communications tower for the transport company CN Rail. For 35 Canadian Dollars, a lift with windows takes you up to the main floor. For a few extra dollars, you can go even higher, but apparently, it’s not a huge gain in view.

CN Tower

Anyhow, the main attraction is not even the view of the city – even though it’s really nice, too! – but the window floor. And take it literally : There is one part of the floor which is covered by glass. You’re even allowed to step on it. It can hold four killer whales, they say.

Still, you will see adults walking carefully and fearfully over the glass, while children are jumping on it and laughing. If it doesn’t scare you too much to walk on this floor, try to sit down – it’s a totally different feeling.

Statue with its own hashtag

Another typical photogenic place is Nathan Philipps Square in front of the City Hall. TORONTO is spelt with two-meter-high capital letters – and it even has it’s own hashtag (#xoTO). At night, those letters are illuminated with different colours.

Toronto

Photogenic Toronto 😉 – Photo: Eva Hirschi

This place isn’t just nice for photos, there is also a small water fountain with some benches and a nice view of the new and the old City Hall. The new one is a deception from behind, looking like nothing. But in return, from the front side it’s incredibly beautiful!

Hipster place to be

One area that is quite in right now is the Distillery District – a former industrial area focused on alcohol production that turned into a hip urban place to be. It’s a few kilometres outside the main centre of the city, but still worth the trip. Small (really nice but expensive!) boutiques, cafés, and bars are situated in the old brick buildings.

Mill Street Brewery

Tasting craft beer at Mill Street Brewery – Photo: Eva Hirschi

You should definitely go to the Mill Street Brew Pub, one of the largest craft beer producers in Canada. On the lovely patio you can enjoy a beer sampler with eight different craft beers. There is some hype about the Original Organic Lager but I would instead recommend their IPAs…

A small different world

A place you should definitely not miss while in Toronto is Kensington Market. Actually, it’s not a market at all but an alternative area with some colourful houses, which host small shops, bars, cafés, and restaurants. Do you know the «independent» town of Christiana in Copenhagen? Well, it’s like Christiana, just cooler and nicer!

Kensington Market

Colourful Kensington Market – Photo: Eva Hirschi

So here too it’s not unusual to smell some weed in the streets, but it is part of the special atmosphere of Kensington Market. You’ll also find an organic coffee shop or a guy selling sugar cane juice. Interesting anecdote: I was told that Starbucks had planned to open one of their cafés in Kensington Market, but their inhabitants fought against it – with success. The alternative spirit is still alive!

Inuit art

For a more traditional cultural experience, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is one of the most well-known museums in Eastern Canada. The building itself is already worth a visit, and next door there is also the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) which is worth a trip to photograph the pencils and paintbrushes which form the structural pillars of the building.

College of Art

The College of Art – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Inside the AGO, you will find art from all over the world. The most fascinating works though are the Inuit art – sculptures and paintings from the aboriginal population of Northern Canada. We enjoyed it as a nice introduction to our Canada trip!

Art Gallery of Ontario

Inuit art in the Art Gallery of Ontario – Photo: Eva Hirschi

 

 

A little drinking guide: Best bars in New York

One of the best ways to experience the local life in a new city? Check out the bars – probably the place where locals will be the most honest.

Sure, the most impressive bars in New York – at least for me as a Swiss person – are the rooftop bars. Located on floors 10+, you can get a truly impressive view of the city. The best view I experienced was at the Standard; New Yorkers know this place too, so it’s usually very crowded for after-work drinks. Another great bar close by is the Gansevoort: come around sunset and you won’t be able to stop taking pictures…

The Standard Rooftop Bar

The Standard Rooftop Bar – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Speak easy

There is another trendy type of bar in New York: the so-called «speak easy bars». Dating back to the 1920s during prohibition – when the US government had the silly idea of trying to ban alcohol from the city – a new type of bar emerged: Secret bars, often in the back of a café or a restaurant, or simply in a cellar, where people could still get their booze. The barkeepers told their unlawful clientele to «speak easy» so nobody would notice their clandestine joy.

When the US government realised that one could not simply ban the liquid luck, those bars disappeared. But for a few years now, they are experiencing a renaissance. Usually, you don’t see the bars from the outside and you need to know where they are in order to find them; even more mysterious: usually you even need to know how to enter.

Gansevoort Rooftop Bar

Gansevoort Rooftop Bar – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Telephone cabins and bathtubes

At Crif Dog’s, there is a phone booth in the corner of the bar. You need to get inside and make a call in order to get the code which will let you get into the secret place. Another speak easy is placed behind Café Select. Ask the barkeeper whether you can get «to the very back» and if he’s okay, you walk through the door in the back of the room, which happens to be the door to the kitchen. No worries, just continue, and you will find yourself in the bar.

Cocktails in a bar in New York

Cheers

My favorite speak easy bar is called Bathtub Gin: It’s located in Chelsea, in the back of something that looks like a café. You’ll have to ask the doorman whether you can get some gin, and he will open a door which is hidden in the wall. The decoration and ambience in this place are incredible: it’s dark, without windows, but still very stylish. And there is a real bathtub in the middle of the bar (without Gin, though…). Because of this mysterious atmosphere, you can somehow imagine drinking your cocktail back in the days of prohibition.

Also, I had my favourite cocktail of my life so far: It’s called Midwood Garden, a fusion of Brooklyn Small batch Gin with basil, rosemary, cucumber, and prosecco. And the name doesn’t lie: you feel like drinking a – high percentage – garden! One more plus: In the restrooms, a servant will open the water-tap for you and hand you a towel to dry your hands. What a luxury for a globetrotter…!

Time for some jazz

Sure, a jazz bar should be a must on your visit to New York. Instead of going to some big, fancy clubs where you usually pay a cover of 20 to 30 dollars, I’d rather recommend The Fat Cat. It’s neither beautiful nor stylish, but the atmosphere is cool. And the good thing: you only pay three dollars entrance fee.

Up to three bands play live music each night and you can also play billiards or shuffleboard, or simply ask for board games such as Backgammon or Scrabble at the bar. A really good place to hang out. The only thing that is missing: Good drinks ! Since the bar doesn’t have a licence to sell hard liquor, you should order a beer over the watery wanna-be cocktails.

The Fat Cat Jazz Bar

The Fat Cat Jazz Bar – Photo: Eva Hirschi

If you happen to be in Williamsburg, you don’t even need to look for a specific bar to get some jazz. Just walk around and you will hear which bar you should go into – some have live bands and the entrance is for free. One nice place is the Honky Tonk.

Drinking with Lincoln

Due to the massive immigration of people from Ireland in the 1950s, you will find many Irish pubs in New York. The most impressive (but also most touristic one I must admit) is McSorley’s Pub. It is the oldest pub (even dating from the time before prohibition) in the whole New York.

McSorley's Pub in New York

McSorley’s Pub – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Also, it is said that Lincoln drank some beers here – his very own chair is still in the pub, you’ll find it tucked away behind the counter on a shelf hidden amongst many trinkets that have been placed on and around it. I think it’s actually a really nice way to commemorate him as a pub «regular».

On the wall, there are old photographs of other celebrity patrons. The bar does have another peculiarity: it serves just two types of beer, blond or dark, and you always get them in pairs (but don’t worry, you can also order a couple of blonds or a couple of darks, it doesn’t need to be both at once!).

Pure happiness

Finally, there is my absolute favourite bar in New York: Marie’s Crisis. While at first glance it seems to be a very ordinary bar, is truly a temple of happiness. There is a piano on the right side, and each night someone is playing songs from Broadway.

But that’s not all: the whole bar starts singing along with the songs and the atmosphere makes you shiver because of its incredible beauty. The clientele is very mixed: young and old, fashioned or not, gay or straight. It’s certainly the most amazing, peaceful place I’ve ever been to.

Welcome to New York – first impressions of the city

We all think we somehow know New York because of the seemingly infinite movies, tv series, songs, and books that talk about the city that never sleeps. Still, a trip to New York is necessary to get a real, unadorned impression – and certainly, includes some surprises.

The first thing that struck me while walking through the streets was the odors. New York always smells like food. Mostly bacon, but also pizza, fries, waffles, or coffee. No surprise: at almost every street corner you can get some food.

If you have the choice between small, medium, and large  take the small, you’ll have European sized food. Otherwise, you might get a meal for two. The same applies to coffee: You can easily find yourself with a one-litre-cup of coffee in your hand if you pick the wrong size.

Big-sized coffee cup in New York

Big-sized coffee cup in New York – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Speaking of coffee: The cliché of the New Yorker who walks down the street – nicely dressed with big sunglasses and a take-away coffee in hand – is especially true when it comes to the brown drug.

It seems as though New Yorkers drink even more coffee than Swedes – and I lived in Stockholm for half a year, so I know what I’m talking about! What is wrong about this cliché though is the look. Not all New Yorkers look like flawless actors of Hollywood – fortunately!

Whatever-ness

I’ve never actually seen a place with so many different styles. I could spend hours just sitting in a café with a view to a busy street or a bench in Central Park and just watch the different people walk by.

 

The good thing about New York: there is no dress code! You can dress as crazy or as boring as you want – and nobody cares! If you see a person singing along while walking in Switzerland, everyone would turn the head, maybe even roll the eyes, but in New York nobody even bothers looking. In general people here don’t bother themselves with the rest of the world, even though I’m not yet sure whether this is because of tolerance or because of ignorance…

Chillaxed people

Therefore, the ambiance is very relaxed – except for Times Square (but this is because of the tourists, New Yorkers try hard to avoid Times Square) and the subway station at rush hour. I was afraid New York would be too oppressing, too busy. But there is much more space and air than I thought. This peacefulness actually surprised me. Sure, from time to time – especially at Grand Central, the train station – you will find cops or army guys (and girls!), but I never felt insecure so far.

People just seem to enjoy their life. The image that New Yorkers are friendly is true – from a Swiss point of view at least. Because for Americans, New Yorkers are the most arrogant fellow citizens in the whole US. Still, compared to Switzerland, everyone here seems very nice and it’s very easy to start talking with a complete stranger.

Yellow dots

One cliché which seems to be even crazier than it was in my imagination are the yellow cabs. They are literally EVERYWHERE. On each main road, you won’t be able to wait for more than two minutes without seeing a yellow cab rush by. This is even more surprisingly since there are apps for alternative taxi services such as Uber and Lyft (and Via in Manhattan). So here’s the clue to take the perfect NYC picture: Make sure there is a yellow cab somewhere on your picture, and it looks like a real New York pic. (I tested it by taking a picture without a yellow cab on it, and it really looks different!

Brooklyn Bridge with a yellow cab

Brooklyn Bridge with a yellow cab – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Brooklyn Bridge without yellow cab

Brooklyn Bridge without yellow cab – Photo: Eva Hirschi

How to date a Swede

Swedes are a shy, distant, and wary species. If Italians are dogs that start salivate when they see a nice girl, then Swedes are deer who run away.  It’s not as easy to get in touch with these Nordic people, but if you follow four easy rules, you can make it into the social sphere of a Swede.

First rule: get addicted to coffee and cinnamon
First rule: get addicted to coffee

All you need is… coffee!

Swedish relationships need time to develop. Start slowly and date in a public place – so the Swedes feel safe and secure. In Germany you would invite someone for a beer; in Morocco you would serve a pepper mint tea; and in Sweden it’s all about coffee and cinnamon. Don’t ask a Swede to join you for a coffee break – he might get seriously offended – rather ask him to join you for fika. Fika is the magical word to each Swedish relationship. So if you don’t like coffee either you pretend you do or you die old and lonely…

Second rule: don’t kiss
No kisses

No kissing!

“Normal” Europeans like to kiss. While in France it’s two, and even three kisses in Switzerland on the cheek when you meet someone, not so in Sweden! Here every attempt at greeting by kissing would end up in the air – there’s just no cheek to kiss. Swedes don’t kiss, they hug. Whether the physical body contact of a hug is really more distant then a short kiss on the cheek is questionable, but maybe it’s because it’s so cold in the North, that Nordic people seize each chance to get some warmth.

Third rule: pay because you can
Pay

Paying seperately as a sign of equality

In Sweden, the equality between men and women isn’t only important when it comes to law and order, but also when you’re dating. Ladies, you shouldn’t wait for a Swede to pay for your coffee – he would never do it. But hey, you should be happy about this – it’s not because he doesn’t like you, but because he respects you. It’s not that Swedes are no gentlemen – they actually will hold the door open for you! The small difference is that they don’t only hold it open for dames, but also for other gentlemen.

Forth rule: shoes off!
Must-have socks

Socks – the stairway to the Swedish heaven

If you have followed these rules so far, you are on the good way to getting accepted into the circle of friends of a Swede. How you will know this? When you get invited to someone’s home. A Swede’s house is a holy place and only close friends will ever get the chance to see it. First thing you should think about when you arrive at a Swede’s place: take your shoes off! While it would be offensive for French people to see you taking your shoes off, it’s a nice and respectful sign to Swedes.

Even if it looks like it is a real challenge to create relationships to Swedes – once you’re their friend, you know it’s a lifelong friendship. And given these four rules, it doesn’t seem impossible to date a Swede: everything you need is fika, hugs, a sense for equality, and nice socks.

Trip to Helsinki

From St. Petersburg we took the ferry back to Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. The country of Vikings, Saunas, Nokia and Angry Birds provides an interesting insight into the Nordic mentality.

Helsinki Strictly speaking, Finland is not part of Scandinavia, which encompasses only the Swedish peninsula with Sweden and Norway, and including Denmark because of its cultural, linguistic and geographical closeness. From a historic point of view though, Finland has close ties to Sweden (Finland was part of the Swedish empire and Helsinki was founded in 1550 by the Swedish King Gustav Vasa himself) but both countries don’t like to be compared and want to be considered as different nations.

The Uspenskin katedraali

The Uspenskin katedraali

Finnish vs. Swedish

When you hear Finnish people talking, you will quickly understand that this is indeed a very different folk. The language Suomi is part of the Uralic family of languages and can only be compared to Estonian. Even though Swedish is the second official language of this country, Finns like to distinguish themselves from their ancient occupier. Therefore, rivalry and stereotypes about the neighbor exist here are well: Swedes consider Finns more primitive, less open and more rigid, while Finns think that Swedes are arrogant, noisy and over-self-confident.

Churches and Cathedrals
Suomenlinna

Suomenlinna

Howsoever, it is interesting to visit the capital city Helsinki. One of the most historic places to visit is probably the naval fortress Suomenlinna. A small ship (like the Djurgården ferry in Stockholm) takes you in 15 minutes to the small island with the old army base. No wonder the Finns built this military zone, as the Russians and the Swedes were fighting over Finland and the general power in Northern Europe for years. Today, the fortress is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site and can be visited by public, if it for a picturesque picnic in summer or a hot coffee after climbing on the old canons in winter.

Temppeliaukion kirkko

Temppeliaukion kirkko

Back on the mainland, you can find a nice souvenir on the market at the seaside and get some cozy woolen socks or rustic elk horns. Whether you prefer to see a traditional and big church such as the Tuomiokirkko, or a cozy and small church built into rocks such as the Temppeliaukion kirkko, or even a pompous Russian Orthodox Cathedral such as the Uspenskin katedraali, you can find all of them in a short distance. The city center itself offers a nice promenade, and doing so you should have a particular look at the walls of the old buildings – every now and then you will find weird figures glimpsing and smiling at you.

Group picture in front of Tuomiokirkko

Group picture in front of the Cathedral Tuomiokirkko

 

Trip to St. Petersburg

From Switzerland, Russia seems so far and unreachable. From Helsinki, it is only a ferry trip away which allows you to stay for 72 hours without a visa in the “Venice of the North”. There was no doubt I was going to take this chance!

Venice of the North

Venice of the North

St. Petersburg is impressive – from many points of view. The buildings, the culture, the history, the water, the people; the life. The city kept its majesty from days past combined with elements of a modern, more westernized metropolis. Tsar Peter the Great founded the city at the Baltic Sea in the beginning of the 18th century as a “window to Europe”, introducing several reforms to old Russia.

Indeed, St. Petersburg is different than other European cities. Maybe it is the fact that everything is written in Cyrillic, that the orthodox churches are covered in gold, that the people’s visages look sharper or that we only had a grey and foggy sky for three days – but it all made the city somehow mystic.

Travelling through history
Church of the Spilled Blood

Church of the Spilled Blood

History can be found in many places in St. Petersburg. There is the Peter and Paul Fortress where Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 – used as a prison and later as the center of the February Revolution. There is the Church of the Spilled Blood which was built on the place where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. And there is the State Hermitage which was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and which is today one of the largest art museums in the world with more than 350 rooms.

Eternal flame

Eternal flame

Also many monuments honour and sometimes glorify the past. An eternal flame on the Field of Mars praises the Fallen Fighters of the Revolution. The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad at the Victory Square commemorates the defense against the Nazis during World War II. The Alexander Column in front of the Hermitage museum pays tribute to the Russian military victory in the war with Napoleon’s France.

Must do’s
Russian pancakes at Teremok

Russian pancakes at Teremok

But even if you’re not that into history there are many things you can – and you should – do in St. Petersburg. Climb on the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral to have a stunning view over St. Petersburg; have a typical Russian pancake called a blini from Teremok and eat it in one of the parks; get lost in some side streets while searching the aforementioned Teremok stand; walk at the canals at night and find some statues of lions and sphinxes; get a beer with some Russians at a bar (yes, not all Russians drink just vodka…) and learn to write a few words in Cyrillic as well as some Russian insults and poems.

Make sure to stay at the “Soul Kitchen” hostel, to have breakfast at “Café Zoom” close by and to take the subway even if just to have a look at the beautiful stations. Also a visit of the Mariinsky Theatre is absolutely worth it – there is a reason why the Russian ballet is known worldwide. The music and the dancing may transfer you to another world – even though St. Petersburg could be considered as a different world as well.

Russian breakfast at Café Zoom

Russian breakfast at Café Zoom

Trip to Tallinn

One week, three cities, three countries I’ve never been to before. The organization Scanbalt offers a trip for students that takes me from Stockholm to Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia) and Helsinki (Finnland). Here are my first impressions of our trip to Tallinn.

Victory column

Victory column

To be honest, not a lot of people in Switzerland know exactly where Tallinn is and what the city looks like. There aren’t even any clichés or known places of interest. Then again isn’t it the perfect way to discover a new city – without any prejudices or expectations?

Medieval surprise

My first impression of Tallinn was surprise. The medieval old town is incredibly beautiful – which makes me wonder why this city is not famous throughout the rest of Europe. Maybe its fame is suppressed due to Estonia’s history of suffering. Many emperors occupied this Baltic country because of its geopolitical situation with its important port for trade; from Denmark to Germany over to Sweden and Russia.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

In 1918 Estonia was declared an independent state – but just for a couple of years, as with World War II the Soviets took over the country. It is only in 1991 that Estonia got its final independence.

Even though Tallinn was extensively bombed by Soviet air forces during the World War, much of the medieval Old Town remains and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

International influences
Kiek in de kök

Kiek in de kök

Also today, you can find signs of the different influences in the city. A Russian orthodox church (Alexander Nevsky Cathedral), an old German artillery tower (Kiek in de Kök), and a Danish cathedral, (St. Mary’s, which happens to be the oldest church in town) all of which give the city its interesting shape. When you walk to the part of Lower Town with the old city wall, you will have a view over Tallinn’s skyline – a mixture of old and new, medieval and modern.

Hot wine and boar meat
City Wall Café

City Wall Café

There is another reason to visit this part of the city. In the tower of the old city wall, you can find the café «Kohvik Dannebrog Café» with an incredibly cozy room in the top of the tower, with couches next to an open fire. Having a glass of hot wine with some very nice people – and you can feel the heat of the fire even in your soul. There is no doubt why it was rated best café of Tallinn in 2013.

Vanaema juures Restaurant

Estonian Restaurant

If you look for a place to have lunch or dinner, I recommend the Estonian restaurant called «Vanaema juures» which means Grandmother’s place. Typical for the north is the elk roast with tomato and leek sauce or the wild boar roast with red wine sauce – both are very delicious. If you want a classical Estonian dessert, you should go for Kama. It is a dish made of rye-, oat-, barley- and pea meal by mixing it with sour milk – what sounds really weird is in fact really good! Add some drinks at the alternative and urban bar «Red Emperor» and your day in Tallinn got a perfect end.

Kohvik Dannebrog Café

Kohvik Dannebrog Café