The cobbled streets, quirky passageways and terracotta roofs of medieval Tallinn have earned a reputation as a pearl of Baltic Europe, yet it is still largely undiscovered by UK tourists.
The historic Estonian capital city’s Old Town dates back to 1050, when the first fortress was built on its limestone Toompea Hill that towers over the coast. Estonians take a great deal of pride in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site’s origins, with medieval-themed restaurants, museums and shop fronts taking you back to a different millennia.
With its history deeply intertwined with neighbouring Russia and with Finland a close neighbour, there are touches of Scandinavia and the Eastern Block all over the place.
From being occupied by Nazi, Soviet and Danish conquerors over the years, this vibrant independent state is a cocktail of European culture. On landing in Tallinn’s small but refreshingly central airport we toured the grey, Soviet streets of the city before setting foot on the quaint cobbled passages of the elevated Old Town which is guarded by ancient fortified walls.
Staying at the beautifully decadent St Petersbourg Hotel, at Rataskaevu 7, we were just a stone’s throw from the Old Town’s main Town Hall Square, which becomes a typically festive winter wonderland come the end of November.
The smell of mulled wine fills the air and an interesting, slightly odd array of ‘festive’ treats are on offer in the Christmas huts that surround Tallinn’s show-stopping Christmas tree. Believe it or not you can choose anything from expected treats like pretzels and German sausages to grilled salmon and risotto in the festive markets.
It is these quirky little touches that add to the charm of one of the most picturesque Old Towns in Europe. And its elevated stance, towering over the Lower Town, is made the most of through a number of stunning viewing platforms which offer unrivalled panoramic views of the modern city, which is backed by the bustling port of Tallinn.
The St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a great place to start your Old Town adventure. Its eye-catching onion-domed outline has an interesting history, having been symbolically built at one of the highest points in the medieval Old Town when the country came under the rule of Tsarist Russia in 1900. And, though beautiful, many Estonians still aren’t thrilled at its existence so close to the salmon pink Estonian Parliament Building.
The Pikk Street Guilds are also worth a look. This cluster of museums gives a window into the powerful merchant and craft guilds that controlled much of everyday life during the 14th Century. And there are steps into that medieval heritage all over the Old Town.
You can even visit Europe’s oldest continuously working pharmacy, the tiny Raeapteek, which exhibits some of the hocus pocus potions once thought of as remedies from when it was founded in 1422.
The overtly-themed Olde Hanse Restaurant is a prime example of the Estonian embrace of history. The dark, candle-lit venue is packed with wooden benches, goblets and traditionally dressed waiters who might as well be actors. They appoint a head of the table to do the ceremonial breaking of the bread before you tuck into a veritable feast harking back to the Middle Ages – it’s an unforgettable experience.
More modern attractions are also available, such as at the Luscher & Matiesen Distillery which has risen from the ashes of a winery that was lost having once been highly regarded across Europe. With stunning views of the Lower Town, it hosts a museum and busy bar.
Outside of the Old Town, the striking Kadriorg Palace, which is within walking distance, is somewhere else you must visit. The salmon pink Baroque structure is placed within the expansive Kadriorg Park, which is also home to the ultra modern Kumu Art Museum.
Modern Tallinn’s cosmopolitan feel means there are plenty of cafes and bars to relax in or to enjoy during an exploration of city nightlife.
We visited the unusual Hell Hunt pub, at Pikk 39, which offers in-house beers and ciders in a cosy and traditional yet youthful setting. If you’re feeling less adventurous, there are a handful of Irish bars in the city and several swanky wine bars to take in such as the rooftop Lounge 24 bar at the Radisson Blu in the city centre.
And despite lively Tallinn’s beauty and vibrance, there is much more to Estonia than its capital city. Though a small, sparsely populated nation, there are a series of beautiful manor houses that sprung up from the production of vodka dotted all over the country.
On the way to our first manor we stopped for lunch at the stunning Oko Restaurant, located east of Tallinn in Kaberneeme. Its idyllic seaside location looks directly out on to a virtually uninhabited stretch of Baltic coastline, while the local delicacies of salted white fish and elk give an interesting taste of Estonia.
A one-hour drive from Tallinn is the Sagadi Manor, which is so secluded that you wouldn’t know it exists. Built in 1753, the estate has been turned into a destination in itself with a hotel, museum and activities for children.
The nearby 16th Century Vihula Manor estate is home to over 25 buildings. A beautiful estate that sits in untouched countryside, it offers a taste of authentic Estonian decadence.
In Estonia – one of the Europe’s youngest countries, only made independent in 1991 – there is much to love and explore in what is a friendly and thriving little nation.
Direct flights to Tallinn are available from Easyjet and Ryanair from Manchester Airport. They depart on Friday and Monday. In April start from £29.99 one way.
Rooms rates for staying at the Hotel St Petersbourg vary from €110 to €380 dependent on date and whether you wish to stay in a superior or deluxe room, or a junior suite or standard suite. Visit www.hotelstpetersbourg.com.
For more information, see www.visitestonia.com.