All it takes is a visit to the sauna in Tallinn to discover the city’s Communist-era heritage — caviar-laden blinis, pickled mushrooms and endless vodka toasts are still the order of the day in these steamy institutions. Yet those who think ‘former Soviet’ means monolithic architecture and an absence of joie de vivre should think again — the Estonian capital is vibrant, upbeat and unabashedly romantic.
Tallinn, first and foremost, is a medieval masterpiece. With its well-preserved melange of Hanseatic buildings, sublime Russian churches, conical red roofs and crenellated battlements, the Old Town bewitches and bewilders in equal measure. Wander the streets here and marvel at the strange and wonderful architecture, the magnificently archaic clocks and the array of beautiful stained glass windows. Tallinn has one of Europe’s most complete historic centres, and there’s very little ugly modernity here to break the spell, while after dark the flickering candlelight that still illuminates merchant houses only heightens the magic.
But for all its dramatic past — its has been ruled by the Danes, Swedes and Germans — this is also a place with an eye on the future. The city’s creative Kalamaja district is knee-deep in fashionable hangouts, fancy hotels and restaurants boast minimalist, Scandinavian decor, and its tech-savvy citizens were among the first to use their phones as debit cards. Home to the headquarters of Skype, the Estonian capital is a surfer’s paradise, and we aren’t talking about waves in the nearby Gulf of Finland.
Of course, this interaction between the antiquated and the modern is being played out in cities the world over. But it’s hard to think of many places where old and new sit together so gracefully. Throw in several leafy parks and the Pirita Promenade, where the Baltic Sea breeze slaps waves at your feet, and you’ve got a very strong first impression.
And those who venture into Karjavarava Square can rub the buttons of the bronze chimney sweep statue here for good fortune. Whether it works or not, you can still count yourself lucky to be in one of Europe’s finest small cities.
See & Do
Seaplane Harbour: A great venue for kids, this interactive maritime museum is housed in a converted seaplane hangar. Inside, view the British-built Lembit submarine, a Short Type 184 seaplane, the wreck of the Maasilinn (the oldest sunken ship discovered in Estonian waters), and a cornucopia of other naval artefacts and equipment.
Raeapteek: The fascinating Raeapteek (Town Hall Pharmacy) was founded in the 15th century and is one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe. While it sells modern drugs, time-honoured panaceas on display (not for sale) include dried frogs’ legs, pikes’ eyes, burned bees and rabbit hearts, plus a marzipan remedy for heartbreak.
Kalev Chocolate Shop & Maiasmokk Cafe: The perfect venue for a mid-morning coffee and second breakfast, the Maiasmokk (‘Sweet Tooth’) cafe is housed inside the Kalev Chocolate Shop. The oldest operational cafe in Estonia, it’s been an Old Town institution since 1864. Be sure to check out the Kalev Marzipan Museum Room, where visitors can learn about the history of marzipan (Estonia claims to have invented it) and watch it being made.
Kalamaja District: Situated close to the Balti Jaam train station, Kalamaja (‘fish house’) was once home to fishermen, fishmongers and shipwrights. The district’s wooden houses have a faded charm, while the area also has something of a bohemian vibe to it, thanks to the numerous cafes and restaurants that have recently sprung up.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: This ornate Orthodox cathedral was built in 1900, when Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian empire. Its onion domes dominate Toompea, a hill in the city centre, while its mosaic- and icon-filled interior is spectacular.
Old Town: With its narrow, cobblestoned passageways, soaring spires and gorgeous Hanseatic architecture, Old Town (Vanalin, in Estonian) is the capital’s top attraction. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also home to many bars and cafes. Climb St Olaf’s Church tower for a great view of the surrounding medieval roofs cape.
Nomme Market: When the weather is good, the outdoor stalls groan under the weight of pickled vegetables, forest berries, mushrooms, sausages, pastries and sides of smoked meat. Dating back to 1908, it’s a vivid insight into Tallinn’s culinary culture.
Vana Tallinn: This sweet, dark brown, rum-based liqueur, created in the 1960s by the Estonian company Liviko, is flavoured with citrus oil and various spices, including cinnamon and vanilla.
Balti Jaam Market: Visitors looking for a souvenir with a difference should head to the train station flea market. Stallholders at the Balti Jaam Market peddle a wide range of items — everything from clothes and shoes to old Soviet memorabilia. The market opens at around 10am. Get there early for the choicest picks.
Moon: Run by renowned Estonian chef Roman Zastserinski, the award-winning Moon (‘Poppy’ in Estonian) is one of Tallinn’s best and most reasonably priced restaurants. It offers a fusion of Russian flavours and Estonian produce, with classics like blinis and Siberian pelmeni (dumplings).
Mon Repos: The villa housing Mon Repos was an elegant restaurant and casino back in the 1920s. It recently reopened as an intimate, upscale restaurant. Head chef Vladislav Djatšuk offers a menu of historic recipes recreated with a modern twist. The pate with green-apple jelly, bouillabaisse and sturgeon comes highly recommended.
Savoy Boutique Hotel: A short walk from the Niguliste Museum, Estonian Theatre and Music Museum and Old Town, the five-star Savoy Boutique Hotel is a good option for those looking to explore local culture. With only 44 rooms and exquisite art deco interiors, an intimate vibe is guaranteed.
Hotel Telegraaf: Just a few metres from Tallinn’s main square, the opulent Hotel Telegraaf is the best base for those wishing to enjoy the romance and historical charm of the city’s medieval heart. Older rooms have wooden floors and king-sized beds, while all guest rooms offer stunning views over the Old Town.
Like a local
Central Market: If you’re in the mood for a hearty snack, visit the Keskturg (Central Market), where local bakers offer traditional East European lavash bread — a cheap and tasty lunch with local cheese.
Soviet insights: For an off-the-wall and eye-opening look at life in Estonia under the Soviet occupation, visit the quirky KGB Museum in Sokos Hotel Viru.
Valli Baar: If there’s one Tallinn watering hole that everyone should check out, it’s Valli Baar. This legendary throwback boasts a 1970s-style drinking environment, with an interior that’s actually under cultural heritage protection. The (in)famous house shot is the potent, spicy millimallikas (‘jellyfish’), a lethal concoction of sambuca, tequila and tabasco sauce. A great way to start the evening.
Club Hollywood: Housed in a former Russian cinema, this trendy Tallinn institution on the edge of the Old Town can accommodate up to 1,500 people over two floors. Some of Estonia’s best DJs play here regularly, although things don’t really get going till after midnight.
Getting there & around
Ryanair (four weekly flights from Stansted), EasyJet (14 weekly flights from Gatwick) and British Airways (two weekly flights from Heathrow) all fly direct to Tallinn from London.
Average flight time: 2h 50m.
Tallinn city centre, including the Old Town, is compact and best negotiated on foot, while destinations beyond are served by a good bus, trolley and tram network. Tallinn Airport is under three miles from the centre — bus routes 2 and 65 stop here. Taxis are reasonable.
When to go
The best time to visit Tallinn and Estonia is late spring or summer, when average temperatures of around 18C allow for pleasant walking (Tallinn can get busy in July and August). Winters are long, dark and can be bitterly cold, with minus temperatures common, although Christmas markets and a blanket of snow make the Old Town undeniably romantic. Always pack for changeable weather.
Berlitz: Tallinn Pocket Guide. RRP: £5.99.
How to do it
EasyJet has seven days in Tallinn from £540 per person, including two-star hotel accommodation and return flights from Gatwick. Excludes baggage and transfers.
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)