An intriguing blend of Slavic, Nordic, Finnish, Teutonic, Germanic and post-Soviet cultures, Tallinn (“Danish fort”, or Reval, its old German name) is one of Europe’s more compact capital cities and one of the liveliest in the Baltic states. Though you could happily spend a week sipping coffee or swigging locally-brewed beers in its many cosy cafes, lively candlelit bars and contemporary nightclubs, most of its cultural attractions are handily located within the walled Old Town (Vanalinn) in the shadow of the hill fort, Toompea, and you can see a lot in 24 hours if your time is more limited.
Pack stout walking shoes to tackle the uneven cobblestones and steep slopes of Tallinn’s Old Town (a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site which is often referred to as the “medieval pearl of Europe”). Here you could easily spend a day on a romantic ramble, viewing the medieval merchants’ houses, high-spired churches and grand gabled former warehouses, the legacy of Tallinn’s position as an important trading post bridging Eastern and Western Europe – it’s only 200 miles from St Petersburg and 50 miles south across the Baltic from Helsinki. Most of the cobblestone streets and architecture date back as far as to the 11th century and are immaculately preserved in their original form.
Take time to people-watch from a restaurant table in Raikoja platz, the main square, or on one of the many winding cobbled streets which twist around the Old Town – blankets and outdoor heaters will take the chill off in the colder months. Should you need to duck indoors, look for one of the many snug cafes serving opulent pastries, succulent cakes and sumptuous sweet things – especially confectionary from local chocolatier Pierre.
Try the intriguing and surprisingly authentic medieval-themed restaurant Olde Hansa or for something from this century head for the art deco Café Josephine. It serves a particularly rich hot chocolate, and follow your nose to other little eating-houses down alleyways, in basements and hidden in concealed courtyards. You’ll catch a whiff of something exotic for dinner if traditional Baltic fare’s not your thing; Tallinn boasts a broad range of world and modern fusion restaurants, such as the delightfully incongruous Elevant curry house.
You certainly won’t get around all of Tallinn’s museums and galleries in a day, so choose carefully. The Estonian History Museum in the Great Guild Hall will give a good interactive overview of the country’s past, but World War II and modern history buffs will find the chillingly evocative Museum of the Occupation more enthralling, especially the testimonies of life under the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
The Theatre and Music Museum has an eclectic display including early harpsichords, organs, crude fiddles, horns and strange instruments from the folk tradition; the Maritime Museum and Seaplane Harbour are must-sees for shipping and aeroplane enthusiasts; the Museums of Architecture and Applied Art & Design tell the story of Estonia’s design style to the present day; and NUKU, the Puppet Museum, gives a glimpse into a uniquely Estonian medium of entertainment. If you’re passing, the Museum of Photography and the Adamson-Eric Museum (celebrating the work of a locally-based artist) are also well worth a quick look.
Other stand-out buildings which are worth a visit include the medieval Town Hall (pictured above). Located in Raekoja square, it’s the only intact Gothic town hall in Northern Europe and now operates as a museum and concert hall.
Head into the heart of Toompea to Kiek in de Kok, the kitchens within the battlements, or explore the shadowy world of the KGB on a tour of the Hotel Viru (booking necessary). Modern art is well-represented at the Kumu Art Museum in the splendid Kadriorg Park (take a taxi to save time – it’s a long walk out there) and though it’s currently closed for refurbishment, Kadriorg Palace, the Baroque home of Peter the Great, hosts a collection of more classical art, including treasures from the days of the Russian empire. The Kadriorg district is also home to a number of elegant villas and smaller museums, such as Peter the Great’s Cottage, the Miia-Milla-Manda children’s museum and the homes of Estonian writers Anton Hansen Tammsaare and Eduard Vilde.
St Nicholas Church (Niguliste kirik) is home to a macabre array of Gothic friezes, sculptures and altarpieces – and keep an eye on the time using the painted 17th-century clock, Estonia’s oldest public timepiece, on the exterior of the Holy Spirit Church. The Mosque of Tallinn (pictured above) is also a photogenic building especially if you visit just before sunset. Thankfully, if you visit during the ‘White Nights’ of the summer months, your day in Tallinn will be a long one.
How to get there
Flights from the UK – easyJet flies direct to Tallinn daily from London Gatwick. Ryanair files direct from London Luton. If you’re flying from London Gatwick visit the airport website for the best Gatwick airport parking prices.