Tallinn, a Baltic Gem
Most travellers step into Tallinn with absolutely no expectations. Estonia sits far off the tourist circuit, devoid of buses packed with day-trippers and hostels stuffed with interrailers. As much as I love meeting other travellers, their absence in Tallinn makes the city tranquil, snow settling on castle tops the same it has for centuries. The old city feels as though it’s similarly unchanged. Medieval turrets, taverns and tiny, winding cobbled streets make up every corner of the old city.
Given that the weather is, literally, baltic, and that Tallinn isn’t home to any enormously famous landmarks, it isn’t surprising that it isn’t near the top of many tourist’s lists. But, as we arrived on the coach from Latvia, we were immediately in love with the city. Lively, without being rowdy. Old style architecture, without being kitsch. Full of friendly people that were more than happy to help us find our way around, which we hadn’t become accustomed to over the last few days in Riga.
The skyline looks like a fairytale, and the culture in the city is a blend of old school authenticity and a new wave of hipster hot spots. It’s actually one of the best cities in the world to travel as a vegan, with a ton of cafes and restaurants catering to vegans and vegetarians, which was fairly rare when we visited (late 2015). There’s a handful of great, sociable hostels to choose from, pointing you in the direction of the £1 pints you can get all over the city.
What you’ve got to do
1. Kohtoutsa view point
Though fairly distressed at the prospect of having to climb a bit of a hill on icy cobbles, we were very happy with the decision when we got there. With a view over the entire walled city, this is the most picturesque spot in Tallinn. Climb to see the sunrise, the sunset, the city at night, the city pretty much any time of day. It’s always good. It’s also one of the only places in town that we saw groups of tourists, with a huddle of Russians vying with us for the best photo spots when we first arrived. They dispersed, we got a great view, I took too many photos.
2. St Olav’s Church
If you’ve seen a standard Eastern European church, you’ve seen St Olav’s. It’s perfectly pleasant, but maybe not something that you’d be writing home about. However, the view from the top of the tower is worth the trip. You can look out over the whole of the old city of Tallinn, all the way out to the Baltic sea. Climb up a twisting and narrow medieval staircase, embracing some authentic, traditional claustrophobia. You can look over the rooftops of Tallinn, which are home to a popular activity here, which we didn’t partake in, rooftop tours around the city. Clamber over tiled tops and get (yet another) scenic view over the picturesque town.
3. Wander round the Old Town
Like I say, the city looks like an illustration in a book of fairy tales. Stroll around winding cobbled streets, pop in and out of the ‘medieval-style’ shops, designed for tourists, sit in the street, drink a strong beer, and enjoy the local ambiance. If you like taking photos it’ll probably take you an absolute age, pretty much every corner feels instagrammable.
4. Alexander Nevski Cathedral
Unlike St Olav’s, this is actually a fairly remarkable church. Very reminiscent of the Orthodox churches you find in Moscow and St Petersburg, the church is tall and heavily ornamental. It’s only 100 years old, and its architectural influences can be easily mapped around Europe. It’s a little bit out of the way of the centre of the Old Town, and the walk to the church is also a pretty enjoyable activity in itself.
5. Kiek In De Kok
This towered museum in a corner of the old town is fairly inauspicious, a pretty building that blends in with the hundreds of other pretty buildings in town. However, you’ll always find a number of people taking selfies with the sign, indicating the name of the museum. Couldn’t possibly tell you why. If you actually go into the museum you’ll find information about the history of the city fortifications, and some vintage weaponry.
6. Kadriorg Palace
A lot of tourists skip this palace, because it is a bit of a hike away. It’s about a 30 minute walk outside of the old town, but the walk is very pleasant if you’re not too phased by the cold. We went down to the Baltic Sea, and dipped a toe in the coldest seaside we’d ever encountered. Considering we lived in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne at the time, that was a big statement. The palace is a beautiful piece of Russian design, built by Tsar Peter the Great in 1718, honouring his wife Catherine 1. The gardens are beautiful, apparently modelled after the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. A secluded spot outside of the bustle of the city, Kadriorg is definitely worth wandering down to. There is also a tram, if you’re keen to practice your Estonian.
7. Estonian History Museum
If you, like I, and like many of Estonia’s tourists, actually know almost nothing about Estonian history, this is probably the place to start. With 11,000 years of it, there’s plenty to explore. A land under virtually constant occupation, Estonia has developed under a myriad of cultural influences, and it’s survived it’s occupiers various wars and upheavals.
Tallinn isn’t London or Rome, it isn’t packed with a long list of sites you have to see. Your time is best spent walking slowly through the small old city, or drinking in underground, medieval taverns. If you’re feeling brave, you can even try out the local cuisine. If visiting in the winter, enjoy snow capped turrets and frosty towers, if visiting in the summer, enjoy not having to slip and slide over icy cobblestones when trying to get around.
If you’re travelling on from Latvia, check out my guide to Riga here.
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