As an animal lover, I often make a point to stop by the zoo in any major city I visit. Yes, I know the idea of zoos can be controversial to some, but I think generally the positives outweigh the negatives.
I had the opportunity to visit both the Helsinki Zoo and the Tallinn Zoo within just a few days of each other in early September. As I strolled through the latter, I couldn’t help but make comparisons in my mind. Given the close proximity of Helsinki to Tallinn (less than two hours away by ferry) and the possibility of visiting either as a day trip from the other, I thought a side-by-side rundown was in order.
Let the Helsinki- Tallinn Zoo showdown begin!
The Helsinki Zoo encompasses the small island of Korkesaari, while the Tallinn Zoo sits just off a main roadway not far from the center of the city. Strolling through the Helsinki Zoo, it didn’t feel like any other zoo I can recall visiting. Trees surround you from the minute you set foot on the island and as you stroll around the perimeter, you can sneak a peek at the surrounding bay and nearby islands. Visiting just two hours before the zoo closed, I felt like I was on my own private island – I didn’t see another visitor for nearly twenty minutes after arriving. My favorite part, though, may have been the observation tower, which afforded great views of the city and surrounding islands.
By comparison, the Tallinn Zoo seemed crowded and noisy. I waited in line at the entrance among throngs of parents and children and often had to wait my turn to catch a glimpse of some of the animals. Being in a relatively urban setting, it didn’t have the same escape-from-the-world feeling that Helsinki did. The overall scenery was nothing special.
Winner: Helsinki Zoo
When I go to a zoo, I want to see animals. Who doesn’t? As I walked through the Helsinki Zoo, I was struck by the lack of this very important element. I kept thinking – where are the animals? The first few habitats I reached were empty and, after a while, I started looking for signs that might provide some explanation as to where they all were hiding. Even the habitats that did feature animals seemed a bit lonely. One bear. One Siberian Tiger. One leopard. One camel. It made me kind of sad for the animals and I felt a little jipped.
On the other hand, I was somewhat in awe of the quantity of animals they squeezed into the Tallinn Zoo – at least with respect to some species. The zoo boasts on its website of having the best collection of mountain goats and sheep in the world and that was certainly the case. While I thought some of the animals at the Helsinki Zoo were too lonely, I felt that some at the Tallinn Zoo were much too crowded. The Tallinn Zoo also lacked some of my favorites –there were no lions or tigers or gorillas anywhere to be found. However, I did enjoy watching the zoo’s big draw – its two elephants – frolic around for a while (as much as elephants can frolic, that is).
Winner: Helsinki. Here I am going with quality over quantity. Tallinn had more animals, but Helsinki had more animals that I actually wanted to see. I could watch lions and tigers all day.
>Nothing makes me sadder than visiting a zoo and seeing animals kept in poor conditions. I wanted to cry when I saw an enormous rhinoceros kept in a comparatively miniscule pen at the Berlin Zoo a few years ago. So this category is quite important to me when evaluating zoos.
Both zoos get mixed reviews here. The size of the habitats for the animals at the Helsinki Zoo impressed me. I think part of the reason it felt like there were no animals on display was because one animal often had an enormous habitat to itself. This is great in that they enjoyed room to roam around and the habitats seemed designed to mirror the animal’s natural habitat. On the other hand, as mentioned above, I was afraid some animals might be lonely without a partner to keep them company. I would like the give the zoo the benefit of the doubt and hope that I just visited at a time when a lot of animals were out of the viewing areas being cared for in some way.
The conditions for animals at the Tallinn Zoo were incredibly varied. The area for the elephants was impressive – probably one of the largest I have seen at any zoo. The horses also enjoyed a huge amount of land; it almost looked like a separate horse farm. On the contrary, many of the smaller animals, particularly the goats and other mountain animals, were crammed into small holding pens, sometimes as many as a dozen animals in one cell. The Tallinn Zoo also used electrical wire fencing for many of the animal habitats. While I guess that is designed to keep the humans out, it bothered me that the animals might run into it and possibly be shocked.
Winner: Again, Helsinki.
The Helsinki Zoo had wonderfully detailed signs in multiple languages explaining the animals featured in each of the habitats. I would’ve liked to see more informational signs, though, showing the plan of the whole island.
Tallinn did not provide much in the way of signage, nor were there convenient maps of the whole zoo on display. However, they do get bonus points for having the best sign I have seen at a zoo:
Winner: It’s a tie. Helsinki had better signage but Tallinn made me laugh.
The Helsinki Zoo is on an island and is accessible by ferry from Market Square in Helsinki or by bus from the main train station. Both options run fairly frequently and are similar in cost (2.50 to 3.50 Euros). I took the bus there and the ferry back, which was a nice way to get another view of the city and the islands from the water.
The Tallinn Zoo is easily accessible by bus and tram from central Tallinn, costing 1.60 Euros each way. There is also a free bus that runs from the Sokos Hotel Viru (just outside the Old Town) to and from the shopping mall across the street from the Zoo. It leaves the hotel at 10:10 a.m. and returns about once an hour until about 5:00 p.m.
Winner: Tallinn Zoo. Not as scenic, but quicker and more economical.
The adult entrance fee for the Helsinki Zoo was 10 Euros, while the Tallinn Zoo cost 5.80. If you are talking a per-animal basis, the Tallinn Zoo is hands down the better value. However, for me in terms of pure enjoyment, I give the nod to Helsinki.
Overall winner: The Helsinki Zoo.
Helsinki wins by a landslide. Not only was it more scenic overall, but the animals seemed more comfortable and it provided a more enjoyable experience, with many of the animals that provide the biggest draws for visitors.