Sandwiched between east and west, Estonia has had a turbulent past, its prime location on the Baltic making it an attractive target for invaders. It has been under Danish, Swedish, German and most recently Soviet rule, and all these overlords have left their mark – from German houses to Scandinavian food to a Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Since independence was declared in 1991, Tallinn has gained a reputation as one of most optimistic cities in Europe, as the sundial on the usually sunless St Mary’s Cathedral indicates. Independence gave Estonians back their national identity and liberated their expressive arts scene. Previously a mass of grey, Tallinn has been transformed into a pastel-painted Unesco World Heritage city ready-made for a clichéd fairytale. Courtyards are hidden off cobbled alleyways that wind past turret-topped battlements, all tidied away inside medieval city walls. ‘Every building has a story to tell,’ my guide, Anna, said. ‘And if we do not know it, we will make one up.’
Not many cities are at their best in winter but as Christmas descends on Tallinn the town gets even more magical, with church spires piercing snow-laden skies. The Christmas markets are already in full swing, with locals in traditional dress selling handmade gifts and seasonal delicacies such as blood sausage and mulled wine.
Many people will be happy enough strolling around the beautiful old town taking in the pastel-painted merchant’s houses and churches with the aroma of hot spiced almonds in the frosty air. However, it’s mad to go to a city with such a tempestuous past and not find out about it.
Some of the most fascinating sights lie underground. You can wander through eerie so-called bastion tunnels, which date from the late seventeenth century. Originally built as cannon transport routes, later used as bomb shelters and most recently as a haven for the homeless, the tunnels are apparently full of ghosts. Above them sits Kiek in de Kök (Komandandi 2, +372 6446686), a medieval defensive tower now housing war memorabilia; the cosy café on the top floor provides a panoramic lookout over the city.
Carry on up Toompea Hill for an unrivalled view of the lower old town right across to the Baltic Sea, and on the way back down stop off for coffee at Bogapott (Pikk jalg 9, +372 6313181). This quaint family-run establishment is in a small courtyard and is home to a pottery workshop, a cafe and a shop selling beautiful handmade crockery.
Art is visible across the city but until five years ago Tallinn had no main, permanent gallery in which to display the country’s collection. Then came Kumu (Weizenbergi 34, +372 602 6000), a striking gallery worth a visit for its building alone. The product of an international architectural competition, it’s built into a limestone hill a short tram ride away from the old town. As well as regular exhibitions of work from the country's finest twentieth century artists, the gallery also houses permanent collections covering Estonian art through the ages, plus a great little café where you can get a hot lunch for under a fiver.
If formal galleries are not your thing, head to the recently completed Rotermanni Quarter (Loovala, Rotermanni 5). As well as the aforementioned markets, this area of restored warehouses is home to Loovala, an open studio where you can watch artists at work, buy their creations or even make your own in one of the workshops.
Food & Drink
During the Soviet era, many restaurants were shut down and few imported ingredients made it through the Iron Curtain. With independence came spices, fancier produce and a surge of international restaurants.
To experience authentic Estonian hospitality with a modern twist, head to nAnO (Sulevimagi 5, +372 5552 2522) restaurant, which is located in the bohemian home of Estonian fashion icon Beatrice Mass and her DJ husband Priit. It serves home cooking in a relaxed setting that mixes up the many cuisines the couple have enjoyed on their travels. The house is a splash of colour, with hand-painted, mismatched chairs, graffiti-emblazoned tables and hundreds of framed paintings and modelling photos hanging on beautiful mural-covered walls.
For a more old-fashioned dining experience, check out the upmarket Stenhus (Stenhus, Puhavaimu 13/15, +372 699 7700), which – like many of Tallinn’s best eateries – can be found under a cobbled street. An ominous-looking, dimly lit staircase descending undeground often paves the way to great food in this city. It’s located in the Schlössle Hotel’s vaulted cellar, and its rich red velvet drapes, candlelit medieval walls and roaring log fire set the scene for a romantic wintry dinner.
Tallinn also has a kitsch café culture. The city’s oldest courtyard houses Chocolats de Pierre (Vene 6, +372 641 8061), a perfect shelter from the snow. This enchanting cafe specialises in handmade chocolates. Stacked to the rafters with antiques and full of secret snugs, it’s the cosiest hot chocolate spot in town.
Beer is the most popular drink in Tallinn, but wine is gaining ground, with many restaurants proudly displaying their vinous credentials by filling their windows with used corks. Booze is not as cheap as it used to be and now that the British stag parties have moved on to Riga, drinking in the town has become a more civilised affair – apart from the Saturday night vodka tourists that sail over from Finland, to the chagrin of locals.
Estonians have always had an intimate relationship with music; it is a country where song brings change. In the summer of 1988 the Singing Revolution took place, with thousands of Estonians coming together to sing forbidden national songs and waving flags in a peaceful protest against the Soviet occupation. To this day folk music has remained at the heart of Estonian culture and festivals attract enormous crowds year after year – the big one is the Viljandi Folk Festival, which usually happens in late July.
Opera is also popular and Tallinn’s national opera house (Estonia Avenue 4, +372 683 1201) – damaged in a 1944 Soviet ariel bombardment – has now been fully restored. There’s an active programme of operas, operettas and ballets, and you can bag the best seat in the house for just £25 in the run-up to Christmas.
Forget the high street – it’s not quite Soviet, but it might as well be Bury or Bangor. Shopping in Tallinn is all about handicrafts and markets and this year the ‘home of the Christmas tree’ (an Estonian claim disputed by Latvians and some Germans) is shifting its spectacular Christmas market to a new home in the Rotermanni quarter. Expect to find a range of beautiful gifts such as handmade soaps, Christmas decorations, knitted clothes and artworks. Test your liver against the infamous local liquor Vana Tallinn, bottles of which worryingly list none of its ingredients; rumour has it the secret recipe includes orange rind and spices, perfect for Christmas.
Beyond the market, ignore the tourist trap souvenir shops and head for the artist’s workshops, where you'll find unique, individual gifts. The Katariina Guild is a collection of workshops lining a beautiful alleyway, and Katariina Käik (ie street), is where you can watch artists at work blowing colourful glass vases and creating statement jewellery. Local antiques shops – which are dotted around the city – make interesting rummaging, and you may stumble on some Soviet retro artefacts buried among the Estonian treasures.
Estonian Air, EasyJet and Ryanair operate direct and indirect flights between Tallinn and major UK airports. Return flights from around £140 return (incl taxes and fees).
Schlössle Hotel (Puhavaimu 13/15, +372 699 7700) is the oldest five-star hotel in Tallinn. This boutique residence is a converted medieval merchant’s house and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group. With a bounty of original features, a sauna and the award-winning French-Estonian fusion restaurant Stenhus, it’s the poshest pad in town. Doubles from approx £150 per night B&B.
The four-star St Petersbourg Hotel (Rataskaevu 7, +372 6286500) has Russian-style interiors – dark carpets, dark furniture, a vaguely imperial feel – and offers high-end service at an affordable price. Its restaurant Nevskij serves Russian delicacies such as lamb pelmeni and even has its very own resident parrot, which performs a daily lap of honour. Doubles from approx £80 per night B&B.
nAnO House (Sulevimagi 5, +372 5552 2522) is the hippy home to the warm and welcoming Beatrice and Priit. This trendy but homely flat sleeps up to three people (one double, one single) and is just a few minutes’ walk from the main square. They are also happy to arrange breakfast and dinner in their home restaurant. From £25 pp per night with family discounts available.
If you are planning on some serious sightseeing, it could be worth investing in a Tallinn Card. They come in 6-, 12-, 24- or 48-hour options, cost from €12 and provide you with free entry or discounts at nearly 100 attractions as well as free public transport. But beware: in December the sun sets at around 3.30pm, so plan your day’s sightseeing with military precision.
Time Out guidebooks
Packed with 1000 thrilling, quirky and relaxing experiences in more than 85 towns and cities in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, The Netherlands, Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, Belgium and Poland. From dogsledding under the northern lights in Lapland to rocking out at a summer music festival in Sweden this guide is packed full of ideas. And why not enjoy a stay at a Scandic hotel at the same time!