“It’s like Prague in the palm of your hand,” enthused travel writer David Graham, as we strolled through a misty drizzle into the Old Town of Tallinn as dusk enveloped the city. The yellow glow of street lamps reflected on damp cobbles and we passed Gothic doorways dating from the Middle-Ages; I nodded in agreement.
The historic centre of Tallinn has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 but many travellers are still unaware of its charms. Centuries ago, the merchants of the Hanseatic League helped create wealth which was invested in grand buildings such as the Town Hall and the Great Guild Hall, today the home of the Estonian History Museum.
The spire of St Olav
St Olav’s Church was the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625 but its impressive 159-metre high spire drew lightning as well as admiring glances and, unfortunately, was burnt to the ground before being rebuilt into today’s sleek-spire of “just” 124-metres.
These sites are all within easy walking distance of each other and still ringed by 1.9km of city walls interspersed with towers, built to keep out envious enemies. Under those walls, in Kiek in de Kök(open Tuesday to Sunday), I learned about how Swedes, Germans and Russians each occupied Tallinn at different periods.
Soviet occupation and Estonian independence
The Soviets stayed until 1991, when Estonian independence was restored. Tourism is picking up in Estonia with Tallinn proving a popular short break destination, especially for Finns who can embark on a ferry in Helsinki, just 82km and three hours away across the Gulf of Finland.
Perhaps many more people would be tempted to visit Estonia if it were not for one of the Soviet occupation’s undesirable legacies, the fact people assume – falsely – that all countries once part of the USSR are characterised by grim architectural monstrosities.
Tallinn’s skyline and the KGB Museum
One of the best places to appreciate Tallinn’s skyline – the Old Town on one side and contemporary office blocks, shopping malls and hotels on the other – is from the walkway on the 24th floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru, which was built in the 1970s to accommodate foreign tourists. The hotel was once riddled with listening devices placed by the Soviet secret service, the KGB, explained my bubbly blonde guide, Jana Sampetova, who leads tours of KGB Museum on the upper floor of the hotel.
She recounted anecdotes illustrating the absurdity of life under the former regime. One guest, explained Sampetova, to the amusement of the group I joined for a tour, was brought toilet paper by a member of staff after the bugs overheard a guest complaining, in their room, that none was present in their bathroom.
As a young nation, Estonia is only now beginning to explore it history and sense of identity. One of the newest attractions in Tallinn occupies the site of an aircraft hangar built in 1916-17. The reinforced concrete roof, which has a minimum depth of 8cm, was riddled with 3.5km of cracks and needed specialist treatment against corrosion before it could be re-opened as Lennusadam, the Seaplane Harbour Museum in May 2012.
The Seaplane Harbour Museum
The impressive hall is subtly lit and tells the story of Estonia’s naval history. The museum’s star attraction is the Lembit submarine, which was on the water for 75 years before being dragged into the old hangar so that it could be explored by visitors. If you’d rather view the exhibits than read historical information displayed on touch-controlled screens that’s no problem, as every visitor is given a swipe card on entry and each time you see something of interest it can be sent to you via email to be read later.
Perhaps surprisingly, Estonians are only now beginning to explore their own cuisine, which was long regarded merely as stodgy filler food. That’s difficult to believe on eating in Maru, the smart cafe-restaurant overlooking the main hall of the Seaplane Harbour, where delicious dark bread is served with soup flavoured by mushrooms fresh from the forest.
Estonian cuisine in Mekk
Rene Uusmees, the Executive Chef of the Mekk restaurant, is one of a generation of Estonian chefs working with local ingredients and traditional recipes but applying techniques learned in France to give his dishes a contemporary twist. Locals and tourists are finding his cuisine appealing.
Forests cover almost half of Estonia, which with just 1.3 million people is one of the most sparsely populated in Europe. This means chefs such as Uusmees can experiment with ingredients such as wild cloudberries and lingonberries to create sauces and decorate desserts. Estonians regard themselves as a Nordic people and, at present, contemporary cooking from this part of the world is wowing gourmets, so it will be interesting to see how dishes develop in the years ahead.
Estonia in the Euro zone
If you plan on touring Europe you will be pleased to hear that Estonia became the 17th nation to adopt the Euro, at the beginning of 2011, meaning there is no need to convert to a different currency. Also, thanks to reasonably priced accommodation and restaurants, those Euros go a lot further here than in many other European destinations.
English is widely spoken, meaning getting around and acquiring information is easy, and Tallinn has a laidback feel and is compact enough to explore on foot.
Getting to Estonia
Stuart flew from London to Estonia’s Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport and stayed at a downtown Radisson Blu hotel.
To learn more about Tallinn, click onto the Tourism Tallinn website.
See the Visit Estonia website to learn more about the country’s attractions.website.
If you enjoyed this post why not sign up for the free Go Eat Do newsletter? It’s a hassle-free way of getting links to posts on a monthly basis.
‘Like’ the Go Eat Do Facebook page to see more photos and content.