In the diverse country of Estonia, StudentUniverse traveler and history buff, Matt, journeyed out to search for leftover Soviet Union influence and history of two cities in Estonia, Tallinn and Paldiski.

The city of Tallinn, previously just a small town inside the vast Soviet Empire, now a modernized beacon of Capitalism in the Baltics, hit me as a calm and peaceful city during my visit to two cities in Estonia, Tallinn and Paldiski.

This former Soviet city presented me with nothing that could remind me of its Socialist past. Buildings in the old town retained their 14th century architectural grandeur, while the numerous high-rises outside of the old town only pointed toward Capitalism. It was also uncommon to see Russian words around or being spoken – hard to imagine in a country where Russian was still an official language two decades ago.

The old town of Tallinn was, though, comparatively smaller to other old towns across Western Europe, the flavor was kept way better than many of its counterparts. Hawkers selling traditional Estonian handicrafts occupied the streets facing the town wall, while restaurants flourished around the town square. For a guy looking for some dark tourism about the sealed-off Soviet Union, I was surprised to be politely declined by the city.

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The tranquility found in this Estonian capital was unbeatable. Even on a weekday, when people were supposed to work, the streets were quiet, with occasional sounds of whisper from hummingbirds. Such level of tranquility was never expected of in a capital city. The pace was comfortable, or slow, comparing with Hong Kong’s. People were sipping coffee and reading newspaper under the sun as if everyday is a day off. Locals said the summer sun was precious, for the cold nights during winter times were long and relentless. People from the city should really learn how to relax.

Set out to explore the Eastern Orthodox Church, how could I miss the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This dome church had a unique style of its own: dome shape, beautifully painted colorful exterior, distinctly different from the grandiose façade of, say, the St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle or the Chartres Cathedral in France; it was livelier and less solemn. The interior, however, was humbler; there were few paintings and ornaments, windows were not tinted and decorated as Catholic churches did. The Cathedral was, nonetheless, gorgeous, judging by its architecture.

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Eat like a local –my motto when it comes to putting food in the stomach. Having found a local joint on the Internet, we navigated our way through the outer regions of Tallinn on our bikes to an industrial district. Exploring places outside ordinary tourist spots is the best way of experiencing the local culture, and possibly even bumping into some hidden gems.

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“F-Hoone”, both the name of the restaurant and the street where it set up shop, was quite a delight to the mouth. Located inside a former factory, together with its decorations and photos hanging on the walls, it resembled a workers’ cafeteria. With its affordable menu and absolutely satisfying culinary experience, it attracted large groups of locals to gather around and enjoy the evening. The food served was well seasoned, and most importantly for hungry tourists who were dying for food after a day full of actions, in large portion—grandma style.

The sun never slept in Northern Europe during the summer times; it naps. I ended the previous day in broad day light, waking up to the next morning to the same picture.

Seeing the Soviet past with my own eyes had been an objective for my journey in this former Soviet Socialist Republic. Such desire to hunt for relics of the Socialist utopia brought me to Paldiski, an industrial town by the sea 50 kilometers away from Tallinn. I got what I wanted so long; the town was a treasure trove, also the most eerie populated area I have ever seen. The main road leading to the town was littered with abandoned factory buildings and warehouses. It was quite unpleasant as we cycled our way into town. Blessed with some heavy Soviet presence in the previous century, the town was filled with Soviet style block housing, or Khrushchyovkas. For history nerds obsessed with the mysterious Soviet past, those dilapidated buildings were eye candy.

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Aside from the Khrushchyovkas that dominated the landscape, the backwardness of the town made me felt like having traveled in time back to the 1970s in Russia. Vehicles parked on the street were mostly models of the 70s or 80s. The people there dressed conservatively. Russian was spoken more widely than Estonian. Other than the supermarket at the town center, there were no shops – mind you, this was the town where nearly 4000 people called home. The people looked at us with a suspicious lens, as if we were intruders. Together with the cloudy sky and chilly weather, the town welcomed us with a sense of intense hostility, not suitable for average tourists obviously. If I were not so fond of the peculiar Soviet atmosphere, I would have tucked and ran.

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This Baltic country and cities in Estonia gave me the feeling that she was trying to rid herself of its Soviet past. Despite having had Russian as the official language for nearly a century, this freshly independent state insisted on using her own Estonian language. The country was unexpectedly modernized, where infrastructure needs were met and skyscrapers had their spots. Clearly, Capitalism won the race.

College is the best time to get out there and see the world, discover new cultures and people. With StudentUniverse discounts on flights and hotels, there’s no excuse!

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    About Matthew Chan