In Tallinn, the medieval capital of Estonia, you can practically smell the gunpowder. It's the oldest capital city in Northern Europe, and the city's old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to 1154.
With both Sweden and Finland just a short ferry journey away and Russia and Latvia on its borders, Estonia has a fascinating history. The Danes conquered it in 1219 and later, the city became part of the Hanseatic League, a mercantile and military alliance of German-dominated cities in Northern Europe. The Russians, Swedes, Danes, Poles and Lithuanians fought over the region in the 16th century. The Russians won, and Tallinn became a chief port of the Russian Empire. Soviet occupation ended in 1991, and the city became a magnet for creative industries. Improved flight links, a newly-renovated airport and close links with Sweden and Finland have erased any gloomy vestiges of Tallinn's Soviet past and the city's old town, with its limestone arches and converted warehouses, has been lovingly restored.
Where to stay
The 44-room Savoy Boutique Hotel is located in the heart of the old town, just a short walk from the town square and the bastion walls. It’s also the location of MEKK, one of Tallinn’s top restaurants. If possible, opt for one of the rooms which overlook Müürivahe Street –this is where you’ll get the best views of the city’s famous red roofs. Room cost from £108 per night.
Tallinn's top museums
- The Estonian Film museum at Pirita tee 56 is actually a temporary exhibition, but it will remain open until 29 December 2014. It’s a great place to learn about the small-but-fascinating Estonian film industry, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2014
- It’s easy to forget that Tallinn was first and foremost a port, and the Estonian Maritime Museum, housed in the “Fat Margaret” cannon tower, delves into the city’s rich maritime history
- Tallinn only emerged from the shadow of Soviet occupation relatively recently. It’s rumoured that the KGB operated out of the Viru hotel, which is now home to the Hotel Viru and KGB museum
Food and drink
Estonian cuisine is heavily influenced by the surrounding countries - it shares a border with Latvia and Russia but Sweden and Finland are equally close. Dried fish and pork feature prominently and bear and boar are also popular. However a growing number of Estonian chefs are on a mission to put local food on the map. MEKK, on Suur-Karja, is just one example. Executive chef Rene Uusmees is passionate about local produce, and highlights of his menu include braised wild boar with sauerkraut and lingonberry mousse and roasted Baltic herring.
However, visitors should make the most of the diverse range of cuisine on offer. Tchaikovsky, which is part of the Hotel Telegraaf, is a restaurant which specialises in Russian food and has one of the city's largest wine lists, along with a tasting menu which includes caviar, Estonian beef fillet with wild mushroom sauce, and Grand Marnier Baba with rhubarb ice cream.
If you like your dinner with drama, there are several restaurants in the streets surrounding the main town square which make the most of Tallinn’s medieval past. In Peppersack, for example, you can feast on enormous ham hocks while a sword fight takes place just metres from your table, while over at Olde Hansa, just a few metres away, the menus are written on scrolls and the culinary offerings include tongue and boar, both of which can be washed down with a glass of traditional honey beer. Chocoholics will be pleased to hear that, when it comes to sweet treats, Tallinn puts other cities to shame. Almost every street boasts either a café or a chocolatier. Chocolaterie de Pierre, on Vene street, is one of the most famous and is renowned for its delicious truffles.
Tallinn: know before you go
- Tallinn is home to 400,000 people
- The city covers 61 square metres
- The majority of residents are Estonian (52.3%). Other main nationalities include Russian (38.5%) and Ukrainian (3.9%)
- The national language is Estonian, although the majority of Tallinn residents speak three languages, one of which is usually English
- The official currency is the Euro
- Visas are not required
- Tallinn has harsh winters, with temperatures regularly reaching -20°C, and summers are mild, with the mercury peaking at around 23°C
- Estonia is two hours ahead of the UK
Things to see and do
Tallinn is famous for its old town, and when a city's old town is spectacular as this one, there's little reason to venture beyond the historic walls which still divide the city's two halves. A visit to the Kiek in de Kök is a great starting point for those wishing to learn about the city's history. This fascinating museum is located in one of the towers which form part of the fortifications.
Interactive exhibits illustrate the construction of the walls, which were built in 1265, and it's also possible to walk along one of the underground tunnels which connect the towers. To appreciate the wall from above, head to Nunnatorn (the Nun's Tower). This is the access point for the only section of the wall which can walked along, and the view from the top is breathtaking - although the slightly rickety walkway might well prove too much for those with a fear of heights.
The onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral dominates Tallinn’s skyline. This colourful, orthodox cathedral was built in 1894, when Estonia was part of the Russian empire. It's possible to go inside and look around - although cameras are forbidden - and the mosaics, gold leaf decorations and paintings are breathtaking. It's also located just a few metres away from two of the best look-out points. Equally spectacular is the Lutheran Holy Spirit church, recognisable by its octagonal white tower, which has Estonia's oldest pulpit and a beautiful altar built in the 15th century.
The Estonian Maritime Museum, in Tallinn harbour, has a number of fascinating exhibits, including several seaplanes, submarines and ice-breaking ships, all displayed in a series of strangely beautiful hangars.
If shopping's your thing, head to the narrow streets which surround the main town square. They’re filled with shops selling beautiful, handcrafted goods at great prices. Pikk (meaning "long") street, which connects the harbour with the old town, has some of the best handicraft shops. Keep an eye out for the gorgeous wooden children's toys, colourful glassware and amber jewellery. In winter, the Christmas market is a must-see, with stalls piled high with smokers (ceramic houses containing scented incense cones), hundreds of types of sausage and colourful knitted clothing.
Tallinn: key dates
- 1265: Town wall constructed
- 1284: Reval (medieval name for Tallinn) becomes part of the Hanseatic League
- 1372: Population reaches 3,250
- 1561: Reval becomes a dominion of Sweden
- 1577: Reval besieged by Russians
- 1816: Population reaches 12,000
- 1900: Nevsky Cathedral built
- 1989: Population reaches 478,000
- 1991: Soviet rule of Estonia comes to an end
Getting there and away
Tallinn is well-connected to the rest of Europe, with an airport which is just a ten-minute drive from the heart of the city. Easyjet operates four flights a week to Tallinn from London Gatwick, with prices starting from £34.49 one way.
Words: Tamara Hinson, Photos: Tamara Hinson and Rex Features