There are few city centres in Europe that can match the quaintness of Tallinn’s medieval core. In the years after independence, when low-cost airlines brought stag parties to the Estonian capital, many people feared its undeniable beauty would be overshadowed by its growing reputation for sleaze. I certainly saw this on my first visit in 2009, but returning in 2014 I found a pleasing change.
You still don’t have to walk far from Raekoja plats, the main square in the Old Town, to find strip clubs and massage parlours with menus that leave little to the imagination, displayed brazenly in their windows. But Tallinn’s charms outdate its tackiness by several centuries, and as many of the stag crowds have moved on to cheaper places, so Tallinn has embraced the realisation that it’s the city’s cultural charms that are likely to keep a steady flow of visitors filling its narrow streets.
The walled area of the Old Town is easily walkable, with the only challenge being the steep alleys rising from Raekoja plats to the rarefied quiet of the upper town around Toomkirik (St Mary’s cathedral). It’s worth the climb for views over the city rooftops, but for a real bird’s-eye view, head up the tower of St Olaf’s Church. And if you wish to explore nearby Kadriorg Park and the waterfront trail towards Pirita, do it on two wheels — bike hire here is on the cheap side.
Tallinn’s many layers of history are not hard to unpick and the years of Soviet occupation are also commemorated. There’s the fascinating Museum of Occupations, which describes in graphic detail the hardships and injustices suffered by the Estonians at the hands of first Germany and then the Soviet Union, between 1940 and 1991. Original Sokos Hotel Viru Tallinn houses the small KGB Museum, and examples of Soviet architects’ unfortunate obsession with concrete can easily be found in Tallinn, although thankfully not in the Old Town.
Tallinn is less than two hours by ferry from Helsinki and around seven by bus from St Petersburg. Day-trippers and weekend visitors come to Estonia for sightseeing and to snap up bargains, so the city’s historic centre is buzzing with activity all year. That said, the city has a more laid-back and peaceful vibe midweek, with the crowds and noise levels rising rapidly when the weekend revellers arrive.
What to see & do
St Olaf’s Church: Once the world’s tallest building (from 1549 to 1625), the interior is quite spartan, but its main attraction is the view over the city. The panoramic deck at the top of the 407ft-high spire is accessed by a narrow 258-step staircase.
Kumu: The imposing Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine, dominates Kadriorg Park to the east of the Old Town. A relatively new addition to the park is Kumu, a museum set in a striking copper, limestone and glass building. It offers a changing programme of modern, and often controversial, exhibits
Kiek in de Kök: Translated as ‘peek into the kitchen’, this simple museum is housed in a 125ft-high tower — one of 46 dotted along the city walls. It’s a celebration of all things medieval, with hidden tunnels, centuries-old cannons, torture implements and, of course, a panoramic cafe. linnamuuseum.ee/kok
Tallinn Song Festival Grounds: Estonians will proudly tell you that it was here the revolution against Soviet rule began.
Kalev Chocolate Shop: Visitors flock to this Old Town favourite to eat at the cafe and stock up on gifts of posh chocolates, biscuits and sweets, as well as to pop into a small museum dedicated to the history of marzipan making. kalev.eu
Flower market: Spruce up a hotel room or apartment, or surprise your partner with a bargain bunch of flowers from the colourful market outside the imposing Viru Gate at the eastern entrance to the Old Town.
Viru Keskus: This sprawling shopping centre offers a mix of well-known European brands and Estonian shops. There’s a rooftop cinema in the summer months and, bizarrely, the small KGB Museum, at Original Sokos Hotel Viru Tallinn.
Where to eat
£ Vanaema Juures: The place for Estonian comfort food. It’s a cosy space in the basement of an old townhouse and the menu includes classics such as braised pork belly in plum sauce and Grandma’s Sunday Roast.
££ Olde Hansa: This charmingly kitsch, medieval-themed restaurant is located just off the main square. Expect costumed musicians wandering around serenading diners on period instruments, and tables heaving with generous meat and spice-rich dishes, ready to be washed down with tankards of honey ale.
£££ Chedi: This upmarket pan-Asian restaurant serves mouth-watering dim sum alongside the signature roast silver cod with Champagne and Chinese honey.
Pierre Chocolaterie: This chilled-out cafe, heavy with velvet and antiques, serves uber-rich chocolate cake, along with individual chocolate fondants and bars, all washed down with extra-thick hot chocolate. It’s a happy nightmare for weak-willed chocoholics.
Brewery: A minute from Raekoja plats, this brewery in a restored townhouse offers 47 different beers, some of which are brewed in-house. There’s a decent food menu too, but it’s the beers that keep the place busy well beyond midnight seven nights a week.
Lounge Deja Vu: Walking into this lounge bar is like stepping into a sea of red. While the decor could perhaps do with toning down a tad, the vibe is unmistakably chilled, with fancy cocktails, a surprisingly exhaustive tea menu, and sushi at weekends. There’s usually live music, too.
Where to stay
£ Pirita Convent: For something totally different, the Bridgettine Convent Guest House near Pirita Beach offers modest but clean rooms with free wi-fi. Best of all, the money goes towards the convent’s social projects.
££ Merchant’s House Hotel: This 37-room boutique hotel in Old Town is set in a medieval house with hidden passageways and staircases, restored fireplaces and original frescoes. There’s even a free sauna.
£££ Schlössle Hotel: Good enough for our own Prince Charles, this luxury hotel, in a 17th-century building, features wooden beams and two fine-dining restaurants.
Like a local
Wi-fi: Tallinn is leading the way in wireless connectivity. There are around 200 wi-fi hotspots in and around the city and the vast majority are free and easy to access.
Tipping: Most people follow common European practice, although in Tallinn, tipping isn’t considered obligatory. It’s normal to leave around 10% (or a few euros, if you’re paying with a card) in restaurants, while taxi fares are typically rounded up.
Tallinn’s Old Town is compact, with its many attractions only a few minutes’ walk from each other. For trips out to Pirita and other districts, buses, trolleybuses and trams are cheap and easy to navigate. Tickets are cheaper from a kiosk than from the drive.
When to go
Summer temperatures are broadly similar to those in the UK, around 20C, but winters are often harsh. Tallinn Music Week is held every spring, while the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in November attracts tens of thousands of international movie buffs. The Town Square is at its prettiest during the annual Christmas market.
Need to know
Visas: Not required by UK citizens.
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.27.
International dial code: 00 372.
Time difference: GMT +2.
How to do it
Most visitors book their flights to Tallinn directly with an airline and arrange their city hotel online. Check out Laterooms.com or Booking.com to find Tallinn hotels.
Baltic Holidays offers three nights’ B&B at Merchants House Hotel with airport transfers and a city walking tour from £425 per person, excluding flights.
Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)