The capital of Estonia is equal parts fairy tale town, tech-savvy start-up central, and design-forward destination. Make the most of your time in this beautiful place in the Baltic.
For some reason, the Baltic nations are not on the radar when Indians plan a European vacation. It’s assumed that they will be too bland, inaccessible, or that language and food will be an issue. On a visit to Tallinn, the elegant capital of Estonia, we found that that all these assumptions were far from reality. Close to Helsinki, Stockholm and St Petersburg, this city is rich in experience and spectacle at every step. And the friendly locals are eager to show travellers the best of their town too.
While any city takes several days to truly explore and understand, here’s our take on how you can extract the most from a day in this delightful destination…
1. Feel the medieval magic
Meet an enthusiastic guide from EstAdventures (we had Marko Zanev, an archaeologist who loves his city enough to spend his mornings showing it off to tourists) for a free walking tour in front of the Tallinn Tourist Information Centre. Before the pandemic hit, Tallinn got more than three million foreign tourists a year thanks to its accessibility by cruise ships. While the harbour and cruise terminal are very modern, the real soul of the city lies in its 13th-century old town that seems straight out of a children’s fairy tale.
Picture winding cobblestone streets, Gothic stone towers, ornate baroque guildhalls, churches dripping with opulence, picturesque arches and gorgeous residential buildings in bright colours with carved windows and hipped roofs. Visit the atmospheric Danish King’s Garden, explore Toompea Castle, the town hall, and a lot more. Once you’re acquainted with the main parts of the Lower and Upper Town, the gory execution stories, and the politics of the region, you’ll be all set to go discovering on your own.
We loved going up through the medieval old tower to walk along the ramparts of the fort. The ornate Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is Tallinn’s largest and grandest orthodox cupola cathedral and a throwback to when this young country was still a part of the Soviet Union (until 1991). Sample some rich medieval goodness from the colourful carts selling honey-roasted almonds in various flavours as you explore the castle and cathedral here.
2. Meet in the middle
The tour ends at the most opportune place – Raekoja Plats – or the main town square. Take a slow stroll around to appreciate the fun focal point of Tallinn’s old quarter. It’s a heady blend of the medieval with the modern here throughout summer, with live music from a state-of-the-art concert stage that’s usually set up right next to the majestic Town Hall, the oldest and best-preserved in northern Europe! This is the picturesque focal point of Tallinn’s old quarter and where all the action is.
Visit Raepteek, Europe’s oldest pharmacy, which is still functioning from the same premises that date back beyond 1422 AD! It has a museum feel to it, but you can still buy everything from garlic-flavoured to marijuana-infused chocolate, and over-the-counter drugs. They don’t formulate their own medicine now, which may be a good thing, as the ingredients displayed in their backroom – dog poo, deer dongs, woodworms, a petrified human hand – seem to befit a witch’s cauldron instead of an apothecary. It’s still a fascinating must-do.
Take a walk along the top of the original city wall or climb to the top of St Olaf’s Church, once Europe’s tallest, to soak in the old-world charm in the Lower Town, which used to be the main mercantile centre where goods from Northern Europe and Russia were exchanged, and craftsmen bought and sold their wares.
3. Eat like an Estonian
For lunch, do you want to go Indian with an unconventional moose curry at the elegant Elevant, the traditional fare at Maharaja or experiment with modern Estonian fare (which uses wild boar, bear and elk meat, fresh salads, berries, mushrooms and fish) at the swish Farm that has assorted Estonian animals posing in the window? Since we had already had our fill of herring (an Estonian delicacy that’s marinated or pickled, fermented) on the cruise over, we headed to the cosy underground Munga Kelder for some pork stuffed with mushrooms and blue cheese served with a side of garlic potatoes, and vegetarian crumb-fried cottage cheese with zesty garlic sauce.
4. Get high on design
This relatively young country has been independent only since 1991 but is already known for its design and there’s something for every taste in its winding streets. Feast your eyes on wonderful design at little stores all across the old town, especially down Pikk Tanav, which is the literal translation of ‘long street’. Beautiful and cutesy prints on linen will tempt you, as will sweet-scented juniper wood artefacts, both of which, are an authentic Estonian must-buy. Close by, on Viru Tanav, find a hand-picked selection of these local crafts made by master artisans in one place – at Estonia in Tallinn. Shop for knits, patchwork, leather, felt, ironwork and ceramics. If you want to buy a handmade doll, tin soldier or puppet, check out the Nuku Pood Doll Shop.
Explore the Kalamaja district, where old wooden houses and Tsarist architecture are giving way to new cafes and galleries that worship everything locally made, organic, sustainable, ironic, and hip. Cruise by the design shop Tali for clothes, jewellery like the fantastic creations by Triinu Tiisel and inspired, and cool whatchamacallits by local artisans.
The Telliskivi Loomelinnak area, which loosely translates into ‘creative city’, was a former industrial complex next to the Balti Railway Station. Today, it’s where you must head for cutting edge creativity. Ogle ateliers and studios and browse stores offering all aspects of design, be it interiors or fashion. Avoid the crowded flea market on Saturdays but head to Eesti Disaini Pood, which reinterprets local crafts in a contemporary design aesthetic. An absolute must-check out for eccentric Estonian by local designers like crumpled totes from 3 Wind Knots and leather butterflies from Kuma. For a fresh take on style, riffle through Nu Nordik on Vabaduse Väljak (also known as Freedom Square), which is a favourite amongst fashion-forward locals.
5. Paint Tallinn purple!
For a night on the town, there are plenty of bars and clubs to choose from. Our top pick is the 1930s-inspired Klubi Teater. Expect drama (it’s the baroque phoenix that rose from the ashes of an old theatre), showgirls and expensive drinks. If your style is more The Big Bang Theory than Sex & The City, down test-tube shots at the science-themed Labor Bar in Suur Karja, while you marvel at their touch-sensitive tables.
Did you know?
- The earliest human settlements in this region date back 5,000 years.
- From the 13th century until the first half of the 20th century, Tallinn was known across the world by its historical Danish name – Reval.
- Estonia was ruled by the Danish, Swedish, Germans and Russians throughout its chequered history.
- It was an important medieval port and trading hub due to its strategic location in the Baltic Sea.
- From the 14th to the 16th century, it grew in importance as part of the Hanseatic League.
- Tallinn’s Old Town in Kesklinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- With the highest number of start-ups per person among European countries, it is where many international high technology companies, such as Skype came to be.
- The city is home to the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency and the NATO Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence.
There are flights from Delhi to Tallinn on various airlines. But we recommend taking the scenic route as we did. Add Tallinn to an itinerary that includes either Stockholm in Sweden or St Petersburg in Russia, or both, and make the connection across the Baltic Sea by a very affordable overnight ferry (it’s actually a well-equipped cruise ship!).