Stylist’s Deputy Art Editor, Callum Lewis, visits the Estonian capital, where medieval architecture provides the backdrop to a tech and culture boom
Ask any Estonian under the age of fifty what their country is most proud of, and you might expect to hear about the perfectly-preserved medieval architecture, or cross-country skiing, or even Eurovision glory days. But in fact, the thing Estonians rave about the most is Skype. Estonia is a tech powerhouse, with online voting (not Eurovision; we’re talking proper politics), tech training for schoolchildren from first grade onwards, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the code for Skype was created back in 2003 right here in Tallinn. More than any other European city I’ve ever visited, Tallinn straddles the old and the new, effortlessly fusing the modern and the medieval.
Kissing the Baltic Sea, and sharing a latitude with St Petersburg and Stockholm, Tallinn’s Old Town is something straight out of a fairy-tale, a maze of cobbled streets and medieval churches making up a UNESCO world heritage site. In the summer, blue skies and sunshine illuminate the brightly-hued baroque buildings, and in winter, an atmospheric Christmas market (the tradition of having a Christmas tree in the square here dates back to 1441) takes over the Town Hall Square. The local nutsellers (yes, it’s a job: almonds roasted in a sweet orange glaze are a traditional Estonian snack) shamelessly play up to this fantasy by wearing costume as they flog their aromatic wares. Trust me, these almonds smell a lot better than hotdogs.
Tallinn’s recent history is far from a fairytale, of course - memories of the Soviet regime still linger, but the younger generation is determined to look forward, while accepting the turbulent recent past. And this past is written all over the city, visible in the architecture, the hedonistic spirit, the design trends. Visually, the entire city is a beguiling mix of medieval churches, soaring glass skyscrapers, baroque palaces, wooden taverns and the occasional Soviet relic. And the best way to get a flavour for the old town is the new way: by pulling on a pair of headphones for a BlueDrum virtual tour via a pre-programmed iPad. As someone who prefers to go at my own pace and explore a new city at leisure, this is my kind of tour.
With the help of my earpiece, I navigate a maze of side streets, completing a series of tasks to keep me interested, and by the end I feel like I’ve got seriously intimate with the Old Town, while learning a lot of useful trivia along the way. (Sample: Tallinn means ‘Danish City’, fact fans.)
After a day pounding cobblestoned streets, I was excited about taking the weight off my feet and having a bite to eat. Skip the touristy restaurants that line the Old Town Square, and duck into the sidestreets to find the local favourites. Tucked behind an unassuming courtyard door is restaurant Mull (it means Bubble in Estonian) a salon owned by a glamorous ex-model called Beatrice. Mull is emblematic of a ‘home restaurant,’ an Estonian take on a supper-club type affair, where it really does feel like you’ve been invited to a stylish dinner party in Beatrice’s own living room. You can tell that every single piece of artwork or ornament has a story attached, and dinner at Mull might be the swiftest way to feel like you’ve tapped into Tallinn’s famously hip core.
Mull is one of the coolest restaurants in town, but for the swishest, I need to head back to my own digs, the Swissotel, and up to the 26th floor restaurant, Horisont. With views that stretch out to the Baltic sea, this is the highest restaurant in Estonia, and naturally enough the current hot dinner date spot. The hotel itself is mindblowingly good value - just over £100 for a hotel that President Obama has stayed at. Rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows that put the dramatic sea views centre-stage, wooden flooring and a thoroughly Nordic, masculine aesthetic.
Did I mention that Estonia takes design really seriously? I head to the bohemian quarter, Kalamaja (the old fish market) northwest of the historical Old Town, on the coast of Tallinn Bay. Formerly the fishing harbour and industrial district, today it is a hipster enclave, notable for the city’s distinctive wooden “Tallinn houses”, many of which are undergoing major refurbs as the middle classes move in. Aside from these rustic wooden homes, you’ll also find a smattering of ex-Soviet industrial plants, an old prison, a 1930s submarine and a legendary Russian fleamarket. The streets are lined with cool coffeeshops and independent boutiques, selling everything from fixed-wheel bicycles to handmade leather tote bags. Pop into Renard Speed Shop (renardspeedshop.tumblr.com) a custom motorcycle workshop that doubles up as a cool cafe. Les Petites showcases work by Estonian designers, and nearby Raamaturing is an atmospheric second-hand bookshop.
After wandering the gritty, fascinating streets of Kalamaja, it feels right to finish on a high note, by venturing to Toompea, or Dome Hill, a former aristocratic neighbourhood that currently houses the Estonia Parliament. Every Saturday, teh Dome Church is filled with eerie organ music, a fitting soundtrack to the 13th century coats-of-arms and tombs that make this free attraction a must-visit. But I climbed this hill for the city views. With red-roofed medieval houses caressing soaring glass skyscrapers, Tallinn certainly is ageing gracefully.
Town and Country
Get out of town!
Just under an hour’s drive from Tallinn, and under the radar of most international visitors, is the 725 km² Lahemaa National Park. Estonians travel here en masse during the summer and autumn months, to swim in the peat bogs, pick berries and cycle along the trails that wind between the endless rows of pine trees. Lahemaa, which translates roughly as ‘Land of the Bays’, was the first area to be designated a national park of the former Soviet Union in 1971 - and remains one of the largest national parks in Europe - seeks to preserve North-Estonian landscapes, ecosystems, biodiversity and national heritage. Raised wooden walkways allow you to navigate your way across the bogs while avoiding getting stuck in the mud, and raised platforms offer fantastic views over the landscape and give you a better chance of seeing some the many animals that inhabit the park. But even in one of the oldest bogs of the park, the 7,000-year-old Laukasoo Reserve, you can’t quite escape Estonia’s technological bent. I turn on my phone, and yep, there’s wi-fi.