While the Estonian countryside, particularly Saaremaa and its other islands, carry their own seductive qualities, where the Baltic Sea laps onto sandy beaches to the rustle of the juniper bushes in the wind, Estonia’s capital never fails to seduce. Set high up on what is perhaps one of the country’s rare high grounds with views across the sea, this medieval fantasy come to life on the cobbled streets and tight alleyways, Tallinn is one of Europe’s most underrated capitals.
Whether you hop on a boat over from Helsinki, making the Baltic trio or simply embark on a city break, here are 9 reasons to visit Tallinn.
Tallinn Old Town
Surrounded by turreted walls enclosing narrow, winding streets that take you down secret passages and grand squares, Tallinn’s Old Town captures the medieval spirit of Northern Europe’s oldest capital. The city itself is a museum, and while it maybe a sanitized version of the city’s medieval soul, it’s easy to lose your imagination in a romantic fantasy as your heels click down St. Catherine’s Passage past stained-glass workshops and arts and crafts stalls. Each building, even when renovated, retains unique features harkening back to its former heritage, whether it was an old church or a tavern. Let your imagination run wild on the streets of Tallinn Old Town.
The biggest surprise I had in Estonia was its excellent cuisine. Whether it was the gourmet delights in a farmhouse or a manor house on the isle of Muhu, or in a restaurant in Tallinn, the cuisine never failed to excite my taste buds with local and unusual flavours. Off season, when Pädaste Manor and its in-house restaurant Alexander closes up, its Tallinn-based restaurant Neh opens its doors to serve up its Balto-Nordic concoctions. Whereas local and seasonal delights at Lieb Resto on the edge of the Old Town, mixes up the iconic black bread with local and seasonal ingredients offering a modern interpretation of Estonian and Baltic dishes.
Kalamaja & Telliskivi
Set away from the Old Town towards the harbour and in the old industrial estate, Kalamaja and the converted industrial block of Telliskivi house an alternative side of Tallinn. While the graffitied brick walls might be a whole world away from the romantic and pristine streets of Tallinn’s old town, the bohemian essence of Kalamaja is felt in its numerous design shops, creative street art and hidden bars. Speakeasy by Põhjala on Kopli might seem gritty and abandoned on initial impression, where its interior feels virtually empty and almost sad, however, the dozens of locally brewed craft beers behind the bar inspire hope for any hops fan. But, hidden behind a door which you’d be mistaken for the storage room, a large garden with fairy lights, a DJ, and Tallinn’s hip young crowd congregate in the courtyard overlooking an industrial site. In Tallinn, learn to expect the unexpected since many places are not what they seem.
The Seaplane Harbour Museum
Voted one of the best museums in Europe, and it’s easy to see why the Seaplane Harbour Museum earned that title. This interactive museum juxtaposing learning with play is set an old hangar mixing up old historic ships, boats and buoys, along with other items from the sea, with touch screen panels and a visual screening of flying planes above. The museum is curated in three levels – one marking the world under the sea, one on sea level with the roof representing the sky. The highlight of the exhibition is the Lembit submarine, built in 1936, which is open for visitors to explore, along with the museum’s headlining piece, a short 184 ship plane, among others.
Art & Culture
Estonia might be a small country, but it’s one with a rich cultural heritage. Tallinn might not be home to any of the great museums that people tick off on their bucket list like the Louvre or the Prado, but you’ll find interesting galleries and museums dotted around the city, from those showcasing classic art to contemporary works. One of the newest additions to the city’s gallery scene is the Museum of Icon Art offers an interesting journey through the art of the “Old Believers” and Orthodox art from the 15th century to the 19th.
The City Wall & Towers
Tallinn wouldn’t be Tallinn without its terracotta turrets. The city walls were built around the 14th Century as part of the city’s defense, made up of 8 gates with several towers and curtain walls which connect them. While many of the entrances were widened and several gates destroyed, a substantial part of the walls and turrets still stand, and it’s still possible to go up some of the city walls for striking views across Tallinn.
Design & Innovation
Scandinavia might be one of the ruling centres of design and innovation, but the Baltic States, most notably Estonia, are catching up. While innovation often comes in digital form, you just need to take a look at Tallinn’s tech scene, home of Skype, to see Estonia is a hub of creativity. But when it comes to something you can get your hands on, take a walk around Kalamaja to see shops featuring the best in Estonian design showcased in the boutiques and design markets around Telliskivi. Check out the Estonian Design House, home to a showroom, designer studios, and its own café. A great place to connect with modern Estonian designers. Or explore the streets around St. Catherine’s Passage for old-school arts and crafts for something more traditional.
On a city tour of Tallinn, the few craft beers we had to kill time with before kind of hit unexpectedly and I asked my guide to point me towards the nearest bathroom. She pointed me towards some stone steps that lead up inside the city wall to a cafe. Hiking up the narrow, tight stone stairs felt like an epic climb, only to find that the cafe at the top charged non-customers a euro for using the loo. Instead, I decided to try the city’s flagship drink – Vana Tallinn, a spiced rum whose recipe is a carefully guarded secret. However, select aromas can be discerned in a few sips, with hints of vanilla, cinnamon and even citrus. A must try on any visit to Tallinn!
Close to the Old Town and the Port, the gentrified Rotermann Quarter was once another part of the city’s once industrial scene. Unlike Kalamaja though, which still retains gritty echoes of its past, the Rotermann Quarter has become a polished gem, mixing up 19th-century factories, plants, and mills with modern architectural elements. Today, it’s home to businesses and entertainment complexes, as well as excellent restaurants, such as Platz.