Trendy, wifi-enabled bars, a sturdy economy and the world’s first ever paperless government, Tallinn is by far the fastest moving and most exciting of the Baltic capitals. Duncan Rhodes enjoys a sneak preview of Eastern Europe 2.0.
If I were to wax lyrical about a cosmopolitan city, with fairytale architecture, nightclubs that shake ’til dawn with beautiful people, several kilometres of sandy city beaches and over 1500 islands on your doorstep, you’d probably think I’d just got back from somewhere in Croatia. It may come as a surprise but Tallinn is all of the above, and much more. This forward-thinking city is the capital of a country that refused to let the Soviet bullies steal its national identity, and has been riding on the high of renewed independence every since it joined hands (literally) with Latvia and Lithuania to sing its way to freedom in the late 80s/early 1990s.
It’s a city whose natural and historic attractions are added to by the exuberance and energy of its countrymen, who amongst other things invented Skype and formed the world’s first ever paperless cabinet. (Yes they don’t call it e-stonia for nothing). The fact that it lies a little bit out of reach, up on the 59th parallel north, and still remains a little bit unknown just adds to the charm… and your personal chance to bond with the place and its residents. Which is usually pretty easy after a vodka or two.
Best of the Beaten Track
Tallinn’s Old Town is a medieval fantasy land of cobbled streets, pointy spires and red-tiled turrets, which could easily pass as a film set for The Game of Thrones (…or at least if you only stripped away the neon bar signs and restaurant terraces with their beer-sponsored umbrellas). You don’t really need a map or itinerary to explore as wondering around aimlessly is arguably the best way to soak up the atmosphere, although some highlights for the more diligent tourist might include: climbing the tower of the venerable St. Olav’s Church; heading to the famous Kiek in de Kok tower where you can buy a joint ticket for the Museum of Fortifications and the Bastion Tunnels; and stomping up to Toompea (Upper Town) to admire the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox cathedral and to take the most typical tourist photo in all of Tallinn from the Kohtu street viewing platform.
A day meandering around the Old Town is enough to take it in, and those with more than 24 hours to explore should plan to get out to the Kadriorg district and check out both the palace that Peter the Great built as a summer retreat for his Empress (also called Kadriorg), and the KUMU art museum. The former is a rather swish, Italian-designed Baroque bolt hole with lush landscaped gardens, perfect for Imperial holiday makers (in fact it’s since been transformed into a public museum of Estonia’s foreign art); the latter is a Tate Modern-style monolith exhibiting homegrown art from the 18th century to the present day. Worth it if only to see the triple expressions on Cerberus’ faces as the beast is dragged out of hell by Heracles in Johann Koler’s 1855 oil painting.
Also, just about in Kadriorg, is the Lauluvaljik Song Festival Grounds. If you haven’t heard of the Estonian Singing Revolution (which in fact was a Baltic-wide movement) then head to Wikipedia right now!
If you want to be 100% sure of avoiding the greater-spotted British stag party (and indeed pretty much any foreigners) then sidle off quietly to Kalamaja. Here you’ll find a completely different aesthetic to the stonemasonry of the Old Town and concrete-meets-steel city centre. The district is a network of quiet streets characterised by beautiful early-20th-century wooden homes, originally built to house factory workers. Spruced up with a lick of paint, the area now looks like a rosy slice of rural Americana (minus the front lawns and picket fences) and currently forms some of the city’s most expensive real estate.
As for sightseeing the newly built Seaplane Harbour Museum is a wonder to behold (once you get over the disappointment of it only housing one seaplane). The hangars which house it are an architectural masterpiece and the exhibits include a submarine which you can climb inside, ice breakers, traditional fishing boats and eskimo-style canoes. There’s also a sense of humour about the place, from the remote controlled boat racing (perfect for asserting one’s superiority over toddlers and teenagers alike) and the toilet doors that bear the name “Torpedo Room”. Afterwards, if you like your tourism rough and raw, call in on the Paterei Sea Fortress Prison which you’ll find next door. Allegedly you can tour the facility, but I didn’t get much further than the superb beach bar I discovered incongruously perched on the premises.
Finally, find out why Tallinn is called “the Barcelona of the Baltics” (yes, I did just make that up), by visiting one of its city beaches, the most famous of which is Pirita. Two kms of golden sands, backed by pine-scented forests – life doesn’t get much better than this. Enjoy the views of the Old Town over the bay with the other 0-29,999 people, depending on the weather.
Experience & Events
Tallinn Music Week, takes place every April and sees 300 Estonian artists, along with 300 international ones, strum their stuff over the course of just three days. Together with the Black Nights Film Festival, which brings world cinema to Tallinn in the long dark nights of November, these two make up the city’s most credible cultural festivals. Arguably more fun than either though is Ollesummer, a beer fest which also brings in the bands every July.
For a slightly different experience you could venture off the coast to explore one of Estonia’s 1521 islands… read up on my day trip to Prangli (or head directly to Prangli Travel for more info), an idyllic isle which boasts fantastic beaches, ancient fishing traditions, magic rocks and mosquitoes the size of pterodactyls.
Charm alone won’t get you into any of the bedrooms of The Three Sister’s Hotel – you’ll need a thick wad of cash too. But you’re assured a five-star stay in these historic townhouses that also have a vodka bar in the cellar. Another great high end option is the Hotel Telegraaf, which was once part of the Estonian Telegraph company and is now famous for its Russian restaurant. More modest wallets might want to book a room at the comfortable Bern Hotel, parked just outside the Old Town walls and still within easy stumbling distance of the main bars. Handy if exploring the local nightlife is on the agenda. And right next door to Bern is the even more affordable, and highly-rated, Red Emperor Hostel, which is Aussie-owned, “beard-friendly” and has its own bar (ie. you know what to expect!).
Estonian cuisine is a hearty combo of Eastern European and Scandinavian style soups, fish, meat and potato dishes, with a Germanic influence manifesting itself in a love of beer and sausages. And don’t get a local started on the joys of black bread! The Old Town is chock-a-block with restaurants serving up tasty portions of pseudo-medieval Estonian grub to foreigners and it’s worth playing the tourist for a night at the likes of Olde Hansa. You can claim back your street credibility the following night by dining at trendy modern Estonian restaurants like Mekk (fancy) and Leib Resto ja Aed (unpretentious). Hipsters should head back to the Kalamaja district (see Hipster’s Guide!) to dine at F-Hoone, an ubercool bar/restaurant within the Telliskivi warehouse complex, or stop off at another of my favourites Boheem for light bites.
First timers to Tallinn invariably end up in “the Black Hole” of tacky tourist joints like Nimeta Bar and Shooters… before somebody suggests Hollywood. All good clean(ish) fun and arguably your best chance of getting jiggy with the locals, given anyone who goes there knows what they’re in for. However for something more authentic try Must Puudel (The Black Poodle) where retro Soviet chic décor, funky music and a summer beer garden create a Bohemian party vibe, or Hell Hunt (The Gentle Wolf… not sure what’s going on with the canine theme here!) a classic Estonian pub with great beers and a friendly student atmosphere. Serious squarepushers should aim to end the night at Club Studio, the current in-place for making shapes.
Easyjet fly from London (Gatwick) to Tallinn, whilst Ryanair prove fairly handy here, flying to the capital from ten destinations, including London (Stansted), Manchester and Dublin. Estonia Air and Air Baltic meanwhile will fly you to Tallinn from pretty much anywhere in Europe, from Amsterdam to Zagreb. Many travellers visit the city as part of a tour of the Baltic capitals and there are several buses that link Tallinn to Riga and Vilnius, including the Simple Express and Ecolines. They will also take you across the border to St. Petersburg, or you can enter Russia via train. In either case make sure your Russian visa is in order. Those boys don’t mess around. Finally you can also enter Scandinavia by taking the ferry, or even helicopter, to Helsinki in Finland.
In Your Pocket are pretty great on all the Baltic cities and have a printed guide you can pick up around town, whilst Local Life travel guides also specialise in Central and East European destinations. Naturally the official site has got some handy info too, as does Visit Estonia.
Communism must seem like a bizarre dream to those old enough to remember it, there’s certainly plenty of the absurd to enjoy (in the safety of a vaguely democratic 21st century) in these pseudo-memoirs of a Russian journalist operating out of Tallinn in the 1970s: The Compromise by Sergei Dovlatov. And whilst it’s set in Paris, seeing as its the most translated Estonian work of literature in the world, Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Border State could be good reading material when you’re lying on the beaches of Pirita.
One of the world’s most famous films (or at least amongst hardcore movie buffs), Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, was actually filmed in Tallinn, largely in an abandoned power plant. Whether you want to waste spend 163 minutes of your life viewing it may depend on whether you find watching a balding Russian hobo throwing nuts and bolts tied in a hankie around a piece of parkland entertaining or not… (!). And whilst there are not many more flicks set in Tallinn you can at least time your visit for the Black Night Film Fest (see Experiences and Events).
Soundtrack to the City
We’ve selected Tallinn as one of our favourite budget breaks in Europe.
Featured slider image by Mariusz Kluzniak.