Tallinn - Baltics culture club
With its perfectly preserved medieval Old Town, towering church spires and charming cobbled streets, Tallinn has every reason to bask in the limelight as European Capital of Culture 2011. What I hadn’t banked on was actually becoming one of the many head-turning sights.
As our guide Kristina urged us to pedal faster, and the “conference bike” gathered speed, curious Estonian drivers slowed down to take a look and bemused tourists turned their cameras from architectural gems tofocus on our novel mode of transport. While walking is the best way to discover Tallinn at leisure, the circular bikes made for seven illustrate that this is no city stuck in a time-warp and it’s easy to combine history with a decidedly different experience.
After cycling past the wood-boarded houses of the Kalamaja neighbourhood to the coastline that was out of bounds to citizens under Soviet occupation, we reluctantly turned for home, wishing we’d signed up for the 32 euro one-hour tour. We’d opted for 30 minutes based on pre-ride nerves that were quickly dispelled with Kristina firmly in charge of the steering – and brakes.
Tallinn’s focal point is the Old Town square, a great place to start a city tour. The town hall is a Gothic masterpiece and the main sights are within walking churches and unique attractions such as the Town Hall Pharmacy with ancient lotions and potions on display.
After stopping for coffee in one of the many cafes lining the square, we set off to Toompea, once the preserve of the city’s aristocracy and home to the president’s residence and parliament building. It’s well worth the walk to the Patkuli viewing platform overlooking the stunning UNESCO-listed Old Town and we stopped for a breather at the Cathedral of St Mary, where countless coats of arms adorn the white walls.
Spring is the start of the main tourist season and midsummer, with up to 18 hours of daylight in June, is another popular time to visit and also a good time to enjoy some of Tallinn’s many festivals.
One of the biggest celebrations takes place at the beginning of June. Old Town Days is a week-long streetparty packed with medieval characters, musicians, dancers and entertainers. In July there’s Beer Summer (www.ollesummer.ee), the largest outdoor festival in the Baltics. Despite its name it actually incorporates a huge music festival, albeit with plenty of beer on the side.
By the end of October things quieten down. But if time to visit, especially during Tallinn’s Christmas market that starts in the last week of November.
After the cycling and walking, we had worked up an appetite and the next stop was Cafe Moon (www.kohvikmoon.ee) in the Vorgu district. Far removed from your average cafe, talented Tallinn chef Roman Zashterinski has teamed up with two fellow chefs to serve fantastic food worthy of a designer restaurant but in an informal setting. Although Estonia waved goodbye to its kroon and joined the eurozone at the beginning of the year, it’s still an inexpensive destination for UK visitors.
My borscht soup with beef was three euros and the main course of duck in a honey lemon sauce was under 10 euros, a fraction of what you’d pay for similar food at home.
When it’s time for shopping check out the Rotermann quarter (www.rotermannikaubamaja.ee), whereold industrial buildings have gained a sophisticated new lease of life and rub shoulders with striking modern architecture. Loovala is an open-plan craft studio and the place to find unusual gifts, accessories, art and jewellery – although getting a rocking chair made of bricks back on the plane is probably a souvenir too far! Bright hand-made knitwear and butter knives and bowls made from sweetly-scented juniper wood make excellent and more portable gifts.
Round the corner, and part of Rotermann, we discovered the equally fascinating Soviet Technology Exhibition, which reinvents itself each spring and is only open during the summer. Housed in a cavernous former grain store, household appliances, motorbikes, food packaging, clothes, leisure items and industrial equipment are among the eclectic exhibits.
Teenagers will love things such as the conference bike and these more off-beat attractions. However, Tallinn is not an obvious destination for younger children and best suited to couples and groups of friends. A big draw is its good value nightlife, much of it centred in the Old Town, and we spent an entertaining evening at Olde Hansa (www.oldehansa.ee). The candlelit restaurant serves hearty medieval-style dishes including wild boar, elk and even bear, although some Brits might be reluctant to try the latter. Huge plates of food were interspersed with beer, wine and rather questionable “medieval” shots served up by jovial staff in period attire. Set menus start at 35 euros a head, which is pricey for Tallinn but it’s a fun night out.
The many nearby watering holes include everything from atmospheric wine vaults and cellars to karaoke, sports and 70s-style retro bars. Try Viru beer, which comes in distinctive tall bottles, and other local brews.
This year is a particularly exciting time to visit the smallest Baltic state and one of northern Europe’s oldest capitals. To celebrate its European title, Tallinn is hosting one of the biggest cultural events in Estonia’s history with a host of special exhibitions, festivals and attractions on the theme, “Stories of the Seashore”, highlighting the legends and inspiration the sea has given to generations of Estonians. That said, there’s always plenty to see whenever you decide to visit and if you set off on a conference bike you’ll probably end up being the centre of attention.
when to go
The main season runs from April to October and summer is pleasantly warm with long hours of daylight. Snow-covered Tallinn is beautiful in wintertime but it gets very cold.
For a luxury hotel near the Old Town try historic Hotel Schlössle (www.schloesslehotel.com) or Swissotel Tallinn (www.swissotel.com/tallinn), which has a spa. On Saaremaa, the modern Go Spa hotel is by the sea (www.gospa.ee).
Baltic Holidays (www.balticholidays.com) features Tallinn short breaks, Estonia tours and spa holidays and Regent Holidays (www.regent-holidays.co.uk) offers city breaks and a Tallinn and islands tour.
The best way to enjoy Tallinn is on foot. The Tallinn Card, available at the Tourist Information Centre and starting at €12 for six hours, offers unlimited free public transport.
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Tallinn.