THE PORT, so coveted by Peter the Great as an ice-free outlet to the West, appears frozen, boats floating spectrally on the brittle, glazed waters. The harbour area that now welcomes tourist-packed cruise ships was off-limits during the Soviet occupation, from 1940 to 1991. Limestone warehouses and colourful wooden dwellings stand in various stages of restoration by the city’s new class of entrepreneurs. Beyond rise the walls of the Old Town, studded with 27 protective turrets.
It’s a big year for Estonia. This summer the country celebrates the 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviets and its capital, Tallinn, takes centre stage as one of 2011’s two Cultural Capitals of Europe (the Finnish city of Turku is the other). Although the Soviet presence was hard on the city, with the Old Town falling into disrepair and gloomy high-rises exploding on the outskirts, Tallinn has been beautifully transformed in recent years and its Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visitors head for a city that survives, miraculously preserved, within her girdle of walls built in 1218 and reinforced by successive invaders: Danes, Teutonic Knights and Swedes before the Russians.
Narrow cobbled lanes radiate from the vast Town Hall Square, in summer teeming with outdoor cafes. As the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League merchants’ alliance, Tallinn boomed from the 13th to the 16th century. Many of its neoclassical buildings, former merchants’ mansions and steep-roofed medieval buildings still bear signs of their guilds.
Lutheran churches abound, their eccentric baroque belfries trumped by the Gothic spire of St Olaf’s, once the tallest in the world. Russian icons gaze from antique shop windows, nostalgic for Tsarist times. In a narrow passage, propped by buttresses against the remains of a Dominican monastery, craftsmen are making woodwork, leather and ceramics; at the Kalev Marzipan Museum nearby, Brezhnev’s favourite sweets are hand-painted still.
After a thick hot chocolate at landmark cafe Josephine’s, I hike to the top of Toompea Hill, dominated by the domes of the incense-laden Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Here embassies and parliament sit pretty in the medieval castle complex, fronted by the pink palace of Catherine the Great.
From terraces, I look out over the Old City’s tiled roofs and towers to a different world beyond. I see the concrete high-rise of the former Intourist Hotel, where the KGB kept vigil over foreigners, the ‘limestone functionalism’ of the fire station, the Patarei prison and the Museum of Occupation, which chronicles life under the Nazis and Soviets — it’s a fascinating dystopian cityscape that is uniquely Tallinn’s.
See & do
■ The Pharmacy: There has been a functioning pharmacy on Town Hall Square since 1422. In the adjoining museum of apothecary jars, learn how marzipan was once sold for medicinal purposes, along with less palatable cures like parched bees, stallion’s hooves, sun-dried dog faeces and infusion of wood louse.
■ Dome Church: Consecrated in 1240 by the Danish King Waldemar II, this church atop Toompea Hill has walls festooned with more than 100 colourful family crests carved by local guilds. There are also opera-style family boxes, complete with windows that could be closed against unwelcome sermons. www.eelk.ee/tallinna.toom
■ Kiek in de Kok: The largest defensive tower in Tallinn’s web of walls and turrets is now a military museum. It’s also the entrance to the tunnels that run beneath the Ingeri bastion, 12 metres below ground. These were built by the Swedes in the late 1600s, but never saw military action. Instead, the tunnels served successively as a prison, bomb shelter, punk rocker hideout and refuge for the homeless after independence. www.linnamuuseum.ee/kok/en
■ Kadriorg Palace: Peter the Great did not live long enough to see his palace completed in 1725. Situated in his favourite hunting grounds two miles from the city centre, it’s a miniature (by Tsarist standards) baroque jewel, housing Flemish and Baltic German art. Don’t miss the triumphalist ceiling in the main hall, commemorating Russia’s victory over the Swedes in the Northern War. www.ekm.ee
■ KUMU: Emerging like a knife edge from the limestone cliff and with a vast circular interior, Estonia’s National Gallery and contemporary art centre opened in 2006, boldly designed in stone, copper and glass by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori. The architecture outshines the contents, but it’s still well worth a visit. www.kumu.ee
■ Maritime Museum: The huge concrete dome that once housed seaplanes is due to reopen this summer as a hi-tech museum. In the meantime, visit the floating exhibits docked outside. Among them are a huge steam-powered ice-breaker and the British-built Lembit submarine from 1935. www.meremuuseum.ee
■ KGB Museum: On the 23rd floor of the former Intourist Hotel is the latest grisly look at Tallinn’s occupied past. The communist showcase of its time, where every foreigner stayed, it includes KGB offices, myriad listening devices and creepy archival files. It’s less museum than chilling relic and the guided tour is riveting, bringing an entire era to life. www.viru.ee
Like a local
■ Bargain travel: Save money on combined travel and entry fees with the Tallinn Card, available for six, 24, 48 or 72 hours. It gives free or discounted entry at more than 100 sights, plus free public transport. A 48-hour card costs €32 (£28). www.tallinncard.ee
■ Taxi tip: Book cabs by phone to ensure you get a reputable firm.
■ Icy threat: Avoid walking beneath the eaves of houses in winter – icicles have been known to break off and spear pedestrians!
■ Stay connected: Free wi-fi is widely available in Estonia – the country invented Skype, after all.
Estonia’s varied fare ranges from rustic cabbage and pea soup to modern takes on meaty stews and fresh Baltic fish.
£ Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (Golden Piglet Inn)
For a hearty Estonian meal, look no further than this simple, popular restaurant and don’t be surprised to find half a pig arriving at your table — a speciality best enjoyed with a bottle of the local A Le Coq beer. T: 00 372 628 6567.
££ Nunne 7
One for those in the know — this charming Italian restaurant is so discreet that it doesn’t even have a name (Nunne 7 is its location). Daniele, the patrone, lives to mingle with his guests. Don’t expect a menu, though. He will inquire after your mood and then cook up a delicious meal with the freshest ingredients. T: 00 372 644 5021.
£££ Restoran O
The face of sleek new Tallinn, this award-winning restaurant, set in a former warehouse, serves traditional cuisine with a twist. Try butter-fried halibut with Jerusalem artichokes in a chantarelle sauce. T: 00 372 661 6150.
Unless you’re desperate to indulge in Estonian fashion in the various malls and shopping complexes springing up beyond, it’s more fun to wander the streets and tiny shops of the Old Town.
■ Artisan crafts: A collection of artisan studios line Catherine’s Passage and Masters’ Courtyard, two tiny medieval alleys selling candles, woodwork, ceramics, leather goods and handicrafts.
■ Sweet thrills: Marzipan, said to have been invented in The Pharmacy in 1422, is still hand-made and painted in the Kalev Marzipan Room at Pikk 16 in the Old Town.
■ Antiques: The streets around Town Hall Square are crammed with antique and bric-a-brac shops, selling everything from Soviet medals to oak sideboards. Russian icons are a good buy, with the best selection at the Russian Icon Gallery.www.russian-icon.com
In the two decades since independence, Tallinn’s hotels have come a long way. Out has gone the bugged (and buggy) Intourist Hotel and in come characterful Old Town boutique hotels, the most atmospheric places to stay.
£ Meriton Old Town
Behind its elegant yellow exterior, small and simple but pleasant rooms are available on the site of one of Tallinn’s historic towers. www.meriton.ee
££ Merchant’s House Hotel
A crisp, contemporary interior with whitewashed walls and stylish furniture can be found in this 600-year-old building that once belonged to a wealthy merchant. Some of the suites have fireplaces. www.merchantshousehotel.com
£££ Schloessle Hotel
This 42-room baronial house, the first and arguably the best of Tallinn’s boutique hotels, was a 16th-century city councillor’s mansion. It offers exposed beams, stone walls, fireplaces and one of the best restaurants in town. www.schloesslehotel.com
Bars have opened thick and fast since 1991, from cocktail venues to drinking dens. Tallinn’s nightlife, notorious for stag parties, offers far more than drinks specials and Finnish booze cruises.
■ Kaheksa: The place to see and be seen by Tallinn’s media types. Aimed at a determinedly sophisticated clientele, it buzzes on Fridays and Saturdays, when it stays open until 4am serving very decent cocktails. T: 00 372 627 4770
■ Kolme Näoga Mees: A cosy cellar wine bar with comfortable sofas and fireplace. Hidden among the more touristy pubs, it serves good coffee, too. T: 00 372 648 4261
■ Club Privé: The focus at Club Privé is on music, with live events and international DJs. The fashion-forward dress code is scrutinised on the door. www.clubprive.ee
■ Katuse Kino: Sit back in a deckchair and watch a rooftop movie. There are more outdoor screenings across the city as part of the Capital of Culture year. www.katusekino.ee
Estonian Air flies between Gatwick and Tallinn twice weekly. EasyJet flies to Tallinn from Stansted and Liverpool. Ryanair flies to Tallinn from Luton, East Midlands and Edinburgh. www.estonian-air.com www.easyjet.com www.ryanair.com
Average flight time: 2h45m.
Medieval Tallinn is so small it’s best navigated on foot — even the Port area is within walking distance. To go further afield, there is an excellent bus, trolley and tram service from 6am to 11pm. A 10-ticket book, available from news stands, costs €6.39 (£5.60).
When to go
Winters are crisp, snowy and very cold, with 18 hours of darkness in January and February. Outdoor facilities are open between May and September, with 18 hours of daylight by the end of June. March and October have pleasant weather and smaller crowds. The packed Capital of Culture programme reaches a peak in the summer months.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€).
£1 = €1.13.
International dial code: 00 372.
Time difference: GMT +2.
How to do it
Three nights’ B&B at the Schloessle Hotel costs from £640 per person, including return flights with Estonian Air and private transfers. www.coxandkings.co.uk
Did you know?
Peter the Great loved Tallinn. “If Tallinn had been mine in 1702,” he said, surveying the Town Hall Square nine years later, “I would not have established my residence and the capital city of European Russia on the low-lying land of the Neva River, but would have done so here.”
Published in Jul/Aug 2011 © National Geographic Traveller UK