Total local immersion. It’s the very best way to see a country – led by a local, on foot and in through the backdoor. No-one uncovers the secret nooks and hot spots quite like somebody who knows a city like the back of their hand and can take you on an unforgettable journey through their home town. It’s exactly like that when Jaanika Neemoja shows you the way around Tallinn, her home town in the Northern reaches of Estonia.
Meet Jaanika Neemoja, our local guide in Tallinn
If there ever was a person who was born to be a tour guide, it would be Jaanika. “I was born and raised in Tallinn, Estonia,” she tells me over a cup of coffee. “At school I loved geography, literature and history and my family was pretty adventurous – even if we did not travel much outside of Estonia, my parents always found a way to take us around the country as much as possible. My grandmother, who was a great traveller herself, also took me on numerous trips throughout my childhood. Growing up in an ex-soviet country also played a role – I was born in 1990, pretty much in the middle of the independence movement, and it has always been very important for my generation to know and understand our history to prevent these mistakes in future.”
Once Jaanika finished school, she took the plunge and followed the road less travelled. “Straight after high school I moved to Prague in the Czech Republic where I started my ‘adult’ life, living on my own and supporting myself for the first time. As such, I always consider myself Estonian with a little ‘foreign’ touch.” Little did she know that this adventure would ultimately launch her flourishing career as one of Tallinn’s foremost local guides. As a twenty-year-old with very little work experience, living in a foreign city where she didn’t speak the language, Jaanika had to devise a clever way to make a living when her funds started to run low. She’d always had a knack with people and started work as a pub crawl leader, which later led to a job at a tourist hostel and a position as tour guide.
“Looking back, running out of money was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she smiles. “Thanks to the great professional team who took me into their fold and taught me everything there was to know about the guide industry, I was able to discover my passion. I’d always struggled to explain to people where I am from – believe me, there are still many people who don’t known that a tiny country like Estonia exists, and not just travellers either, I’ve had to justify my passport at airports more than once!”
Putting Estonia on the map, one local tour at a time
And so it became Jaanika’s mission to put Estonia on the map, one local tour at a time. When she moved back home to Tallinn, she decided to combine her love for guide work and excitement about Estonia and was lucky enough to encounter the right people who helped her to launch her own small tour operation company. Seven years down the line, she’s as passionate as ever. “It may sound a little cheesy, but I genuinely love people,” she says. “I love spending time with travellers, teaching them, helping them and, most of all, making their holiday something special. I believe that travelling is the best way to make memories and helping visitors to Tallinn to enjoy the best experience possible is something I value above all else. In fact, many of my former guests are now friends that I visit on my own travels, and what’s cooler than having friends all over the world?”
These days, Jaanika spends the warmer months leading up to twelve tours a week, running from one walking tour to the next, and squeezing in a few pub tours in between. “One of my favourite Expat Explore encounters actually happened on a pub tour. We had invited the group to join in on one of our pub crawls, only to find that the bar we chose to start from was not open! Luckily, I managed to hustle the keys from a colleague and was able to continue the tour anyway. That evening, the Expat Explore travellers each had the opportunity to play bartender at a proper Tallinn pub. It’s this kind of thing that makes a holiday really special.”
Jaanika believes Tallinn’s compact size makes it the perfect destination. “It’s safe and everything is walking distance. Plus compared to many big European cities, it is not too ‘touristy’, i.e. Estonians go to the same places tourists go, which makes it easy to meet up with the friendly locals. As a visitor, you’ll easily find yourself spending time with a bunch of locals who will show you their favourite places or where to grab a bite to eat. Furthermore, apart from enjoying the beauty of the place, there are always numerous cultural events, festivals and concerts to enjoy, as well as museums and galleries to visit. Also, almost everybody speaks English, so it is really easy to get by.”
She also says that Estonia’s relative obscurity actually counts in its favour. “Most visitors agree that Estonia is a positive surprise on their travels. In fact that used to be one of the country’s main slogans – Positively Surprising! As Estonia and Tallinn aren’t very well known, people don’t arrive with a bunch of preconceived notions and it’s that much easier to live in the moment and enjoy the experience for the first time.”
Meet Jaanika on our 18-day Northern Explorer tour and travel to all of Northern Europe including Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Russia!