We took a winter holiday trip from Moscow to Helsinki and built in a short side tour to Stockholm.
We took the overnight train from Moscow to Helsinki, where we planned to spend a few days before joining a Russian tour group and travelling to Stockholm on a ferry. This was our first rail and sail combination travel experience, and it really came off just as we planned.
The ferry, like the train, ran overnight and we spent the day, Dec 31, touring the city of Stockholm. Then we boarded the ferry again at the end of the day to return to Helsinki and celebrate New Years Eve onboard.
Trains are kind of a way of life in Russia and they are one of the few things that seem to work more or less as advertised in that society, but this was the first time that we ever actually crossed a border and left Russia by rail.
The train runs daily (or nightly) leaving Leningradskiy Rail Station in Moscow some time in the late afternoon or early evening, and arriving around mid-day in Helsinki. Currently the trip is a 15 hour 30 minute journey, which is about what I remember from our trip. The only real delay was at the border, where the train stopped for about 45 minutes (estimating here) to allow the border guard officials to come through and check passports, etc.
You can book your tickets online if you want, just visit the official Russian Railways website, but unless you just won’t have much time to spend in Russia on arrival, I would wait and buy the tickets when you get there.
Russian train travel hint – you want the Kupe class ticket (‘coupee’) which is a two person sleeper cabin. You can do Luxe if you want, but no need really.
We stayed at the Sokos Hotel Presidentti, located just about 500 meters from the train station, just a couple blocks away.
Nice enough hotel, sauna and pool, all the amenities, but the main consideration was location. All we did was roll our suitcases out of the station, across the square and checked in without fighting traffic or snow.
In fact, I remember it being strangely quiet there, not a lot of people in the center of town out and about, no doubt because it was during the holidays following Christmas. For those arriving by train, this hotel selection was a great choice and I’d book it again, no question.
Here are 7 great hotel choices in Helsinki for those arriving or departing by rail.
The one local attraction that we really wanted to visit was Serena aqua park, which at the time was the largest waterpark in Europe. For us, living in a famously cold country with long winters, this was a pretty big deal, so it was worth a day away from sightseeing.
The place is actually a local ski resort, packed with amenities, and the waterpark just makes it all that much better. We just spent a full day going out there, literally soaking it all in, relaxing in our indoor lounges watching the snowboarders fly through the air in the background.
So we spent a good three days in Helsinki, mostly exploring on foot, or taking the occasional street tram, and getting in as much sightseeing as we could. Helsinki is a capital city, with plenty of history, to there are things to see, but it is small enough that it is still pretty walkable. We didn’t really spend time visit museums, or do any shopping – mostly we just got out there and took in the sights, as many as we could find.
We did take a short half day tour out to to the coastal island fortress of Suomenlinna, historically a strategic fortress built for the defense of Helsinki, now a world heritage site. As I recall this was short visit, part of a fun little cruise around the coastal islands around Helsinki… very scenic but definately cold. If you do visit Helsinki, then be sure to block off a day for exploring these coastal islands, and Suomenlinna in particular.
Then, on December 30th, we checked of our hotel and headed for the ferry port (not far) to join our little cruise tour group from Moscow on our 2 night trip over to Stockholm and back. This was when we discovered what these European ferries really look like – they are cruise ships, essentially, with car loading capacity!
The one mistake we made was we booked an inside cabin – no windows – sailing across the Baltic Sea in late December at night… not super smooth, and consequently, Sveta was not a happy sailor. Fortunately we located some Dramamine onboard and we powered through.
There are two main ferry operators that that run between Stockholm and Helsinki – Viking and Tallink/Silja Line. We took Silja Line and had a good experience, so we would not hesitate doing this again. You can book Helsinki-Stockholm ferry tickets online here.
We arrived mid-morning in Stockholm, got our breakfast on the ship, and headed for the gangways to board our tour bus. Remember we joined our Moscow-originated tour in Helsinki, prior to departure, so we got to take a nice half-day sightseeing tour of Stockholm.
I don’t love these tour bus excursions, as I am more of an independent traveler, but I do sometimes enjoy a short 3-4 hour tour. This one did stop at various locations, allowing us to get out and explore a bit on foot, which was nice. And when you only have one day to see a whole city like Stockholm, it is an effective use of time, and even though we were herded a bit like sheep, it did allow us to get around and feel like we got to see the sights. So all in all, it was a fair tradeoff.
And more importantly this short tour program left us some time to get around on foot and see some of the city on our own, our way, on foot, up close and personal.
With that being said, I would like to get back over to spend a bit more time in Stockholm and in Sweden in general, in order to explore a bit more on our own. Maybe by then I’ll learn how to actually take a photo.
That was how we spent December 31st, and by the end of the day we were back onboard our ferry for the return sail back to Helsinki – that leg of the trip was packed with swedes ready to party in celebration of the new year, and to say it was a festive atmosphere would be a gross understatement. I do remember that the tour group organized a later dinner for all the Russians onboard, something around 10 pm, so that we could ring in the New Year ‘on Moscow time’, which we thought was a bit silly, but whatever. We sat at a table paired up with some other fellow travelers from Moscow and we made the best of it.
We arrived back in Helsinki on the first of January in 2002, and shortly after discovered that all the Finnish markka currency was removed from bank ATMs and we got our first Euro in cash. We were somewhat surprised by this, but the stores would continue to accept the old currency for several months yet, so we made sure we spent all our Finnish marks before leaving town – it wasn’t like we had a lot of cash to spend anyway, in any currency!
That was basically the trip for us – I think we didn’t stay long in Helsinki on the return leg, and if memory serves, we were on our way back to the train station that night for our overnight train trip back to Moscow.