Estonia’s capital is like a medieval fantasy, surrounded by sandy isles and bear-infested forest. Visit in spring, advises Daisy Cropper, to make the most of the city and its surrounds
Tallinn is more than a little bit fairytale. Turreted towers and slender spires pierce the Old Town’s skyline, scattered amid a cluster of red-tiled roofs. Cafés squeeze down cobbled alleys and overflow into hidden courtyards while traditional artisans rub shoulders with chic boutiques. The whole comely lot is wrapped within sturdy ancient walls, not to mention listed by UNESCO. Simply, it is one of the best-preserved medieval cities on the continent.
Most people come to visit it around Christmas, when its festive markets are in full swing. But it’s so much more than a winter destination. From April-June, the Estonian temperature is on the rise, the tourists are thin on the ground and the surrounding countryside – from thick forest to sandy islands – can be easily explored.
The city’s first substantial building – a wooden fort on its highest point, Toompea Hill – was built around the 11th century, with the main medieval hub flourishing from the 13th century. Ever since, things have been rocky – invasions by Danes, Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Germans and Russians have all left their marks, resulting in a mix of architectural styles, from Hanseatic to Baroque to Russian Orthodox. More recently, Tallinn was bomb-battered during the Second World War – though thanks to exhaustive restoration work, the Old Town still offers an authentic glimpse into the northern Europe of the past.
After centuries of foreign rule, Estonia finally gained independence – from the USSR – in 1991. And it’s been on the up ever since. There’s a mood of optimism – evident in the welcoming and friendly locals on the streets. Plus Estonia is bucking the current financial trend, its economy actually growing while the rest of the EU shrinks.
Soaking up the positive atmosphere and the rich culture of the city can easily fill several days. There’s an impressive collection of museums and galleries showcasing the city’s history, as well as glorious old churches and fortifications. The food scene is exciting and forward-thinking, and with a profusion of restaurants, bars and cafés tucked into the maze of lanes, you’ll unearth something new every time you step out.
There’s plenty more to see just outside the city, too. As the weather warms, you can take easy trips out to surrounding islands and forests. For instance, Lahemaa National Park is only an hour outside of Tallinn, and home to hiking and cycling trails, plus a range of wildlife, from elk to bears. Tallinn can tick boxes for all types of travellers.
Come for strong coffee, old city walls, fascinating galleries and medieval at its most marvellous. Come for island excursions, bog-walks and bears. Come to see a country on the up.
Medieval beginnings, an eventful history and wild countryside – Tallinn has it all...
When to go: Mar-May and Sept-Oct offer long days and warmer temps, with lower hotel prices and fewer people. Visit at Christmas for festive markets – but beware of the cold!
Getting there: From late March, Ryanair will fly to Tallinn from London Stansted and Manchester, from £63 return. Flight time is around 2.5hrs.
Getting around: Public transport is cheap and easy to use. To explore further afield, hire a car (avis.ee).
Where to stay: The Meriton Old Town Garden Hotel (Pikk 29/Lai 24; meritonhotels.com; doubles from around €44) is central and cosy, with friendly staff and a warm atmosphere.
Where to eat: For fresh, no-fuss Estonian food try Clayhills (Pikk 13; clayhills.ee), the Estonian version of a gastropub. Sample freshly caught fish at French restaurant, Bonaparte (Pikk 45; bonaparte.ee). Try café-cum-pottery-workshop Bogapott (Pikk
jalg 9) for creamy coffees, hot chocolates and pastries.
Further info: Check out www.tourism.tallinn.ee/eng and www.visitestonia.com for more advice.
To learn about Estonia’s medieval and Hanseatic beginnings, start in Tallinn’s Old Town. Circumnavigate the city walls, with their 26 watchtowers. At Müürivahe Street (near Viru Gates), you can see the wall in its original form; also, climb Hellemann Tower (€3) for fine city views and a bit of background – there’s a small exhibition inside.
Tallinn’s centrepiece is the Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square). From here, take a self-guided walking tour of the main sites – pick up a map from the tourist information centre, near the square (Niguliste 2; www.tourism.tallinn.ee).
Next, visit the 13th-century Dominican Monastery (kloostri.ee; €8) for an insight into medieval monastical life. You can still see the dormitory, library and chapel, and touch the ‘Energy Pillar’, allegedly a source of physical and spiritual health.
Take a break in the Meistrite Hoov (Masters’ Courtyard; Vene 9). Tucked down a narrow cobbled street, this small square is surrounded by tiny shops, cafés and galleries selling traditional crafts. Another pretty – and easy to miss – retreat is Katariina Käik (St Catherine’s Passage). Lined with galleries and cafés, it’s great in warmer weather, when diners flow out into the streets.
Begin by climbing the gentle slopes of Toompea Hill, where Tallinn’s first building is thought to have been constructed. On the hilltop you’ll find the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral and Estonia’s Parliament. One is domineering and elaborate, the other plain yet purposeful.
From up here, the modern city is juxtaposed against the swirling spires of the Old Town, with the Baltic Sea behind. Look down over Freedom Square and the Monument to the Estonian War of Independence, a 28m pillar of glass, topped by a cross; it’s best seen at night, when illuminated.
For an unusual glimpse into 19th-century Estonian life, visit the Museum of Photography (€2). Located in a former prison, crinkled bygone images and antique cameras are displayed amid the building’s original dungeons and barred-windows.
Grimmer is the Museum of Occupations (€4), which displays chilling reminders from 1940-1991, when Estonia was alternately occupied by the Soviet Union and Germany; exhibits include spying devices and graffitied prison doors.
Almost half of Estonia is covered in rich woodland. Just 70km east of Tallinn is Lahemaa National Park (the country’s oldest and largest), a varied landscape of lakes, rivers and waterfalls that is home to 200 species of bird, plus elk, beaver, wild boar and brown bear.
To get there, hire a car; it’s a one-hour drive. Once there, choose from a range of trails: there are options from 1km to 18km, taking in rugged coast, craggy limestone cliffs and fragrant pine forests. The beaches are particularly interesting: boulders, carried over the Baltic from Finland by ice sheets, are scattered on the shore, many with legends attached to them. You can also explore the scattered fishing villages, little-changed for centuries.
Bikes are available to hire. Or try bog-shoeing through the sloppy coastal mud (see www.360.ee). Guided tours of the area are available and there’s a visitor’s centre in Palmse, in the middle of the park (www.lahemaa.ee). Alternatively, take a day-trip to Helsinki by ferry (2hrs one-way; www.portoftallinn.com) or soak up Estonian island culture on Prangli, 30km from Tallinn (trips are run by www.pranglireisid.ee).
Buy a Tallinn Card (€24/24hrs; €32/48hrs; €42/72hrs) for free public transport and discounts on 100 attractions. Buy in advance: www.tourism.tallinn.ee
Many locals speak English, but you’ll get a warm welcome if you attempt to speak Estonian. Try a simple hello (tere), please (palun) and thank you (tänan).