Talinn – My First Post-Lockdown Weekend Break
The joy of travelling has been dealt a pretty harsh blow. Covid-19 has cancelled plans and thrown any holiday ideas out of the metaphorical window. But as a meagre, dim light shines at the end of an extremely long tunnel, perhaps now you can start thinking of places to go as restrictions ease.
Having visited this wonderful country regularly during my year abroad in Helsinki, I nominate Estonia – or the capital city Tallinn to be more precise, as one of the places you should pencil in at the top of your lists.
Where modern meets medieval, Tallinn is a mythical and exciting city nestled in the shores of the Baltic. Since the declaration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, the country has become a magnet for innovation and a thriving technological sector with Tallinn providing a unique paradox between the medieval Old Town and the bustling modern city quarters. Once again, this UNESCO World Heritage site and European City of Culture 2011 should be on your bucket list because it makes an ideal weekend away and should be the focal point of any Baltic adventure.
…this UNESCO World Heritage Site and European City of Culture 2011 should be on your bucket list…
As I previously mentioned, I had been studying at the University of Helsinki a short trip across the ocean from Tallinn and was told that students regularly venture over the waves to pick up cheap ‘booze’. This seemed like a valid excuse so I quickly booked the seven (7) Euro boat and was in for a captivating surprise. Estonia has a population of under 1.5 million. Although it is small, it never really occurred to me at the time. But as the horizon breaks on the two-hour boat journey suddenly the allure of this wondrous city announces itself, and my initial preconceptions proved to be inexact.
As the horizon breaks on the two-hour boat journey suddenly the allure of this wondrous city announces itself, and my initial preconceptions proved to be inexact.
You are immediately taken aback by the striking skyline. From afar you see steep, Dracula-esque spires overlooking the multitude of skyscrapers meaning you can travel 800 years in time from one side of the road to the other. The contrast between the old and new gives Tallinn its distinctiveness. Walking from the dock, you begin to see how incredibly modern and innovative the city is with many striking skyscrapers and businesses forming the ‘New Town’.
Tallinn is simply divided into two parts, old and new. As the headquarters for the European Unions IT Agency, and the home of the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, it is no surprise to see the city at the forefront of innovation. The glass-clad infrastructure is indicative of the ‘Silicon Valley of the Baltic‘ tagline coined by the New York Times to describe the city. Just walking around the New Town is an enjoyable experience, the Rotermann Quarter boasts a wealth of restaurants and cafés, whilst the clean and superbly well-maintained streets host an array of designer stores, local handcrafts, and industrial businesses. Located in the city centre are additional medieval churches which are excellently preserved.
…it is no surprise to see the city at the forefront of innovation.
Places to visit in Tallinn’s New Town are:
- Freedom square – This is the nucleus of Tallinn, acting as the proverbial bridge between the Old and New Town. Here are two important churches and the Monument to the War of Independence. This memorial provides a beautiful reminder of the strife Estonia faced for its freedom.
- The large freedom square provides a great place to have a break and some days watch performances and events.
- Rotermann Quarter- This area is an architectural showcase with numerous awards to its name. Again, there are fashion shops, cinemas and eateries all conglomerated in an innovative way. Here you can find the Tallinn Design House and the enigmatic Stalker’s Path. This is named after the movie Stalker, not for any sinister reason and is home to many quaint shops and intricate cafés. Intriguing architecture and immaculate streets line Rotermann
Intriguing architecture and immaculate streets line Rotermann
- Poordi street – Brand new area between the Old Town and New Town, here you’ll find every cuisine and eye-catching accommodation.
- Maakri street which is home to cafes, banks, media houses and interior design shops. This street winds through the “Manhattan of Tallinn” and provides stark contrast to the overlooking Old Town.
Estonia has been heavily influenced by the nearby Nordic countries, and has an economy growing at almost 4%. The developments over the past 20 years have been immense.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating as early as the 12th Century, it would come as no surprise that the Old Town is Tallinn’s ultimate attraction. The narrow, cobbled streets winding through the medieval buildings offer a charming walk and a unique glimpse of life centuries ago with gothic architecture and traditional markets.
At just 1.1km2 there is an incredible amount to see in such a small area. Strolling around you can’t help but feel humbled at the exquisite sights and authenticity of a city labelled as one of the cities you have to see before you die. Under the Old Town is a labyrinth of 17th Century tunnels, of which 380 were opened to the public in 2010. The medieval fort that constitutes the Old Town has been impeccably preserved so that 1.9km of the full 2.4km still remains today.
Peering over the New Town, the Old Town contains a wealth of churches, shops, streets, and parks to discover as you try to navigate the alleyways and twisting cobblestone paths embedded within.
Old Town attractions include:
- St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – my favourite building. This ostentatious Church is evidence of the time Estonia spent under Russian Rule. The cathedral is Tallinn’s largest and grandest orthodox church. The onion-shaped domes are synonymous with other buildings built under the Russian Empire.
- St Olaf’s Church – It is believed to be from 1267 and forms part of over 20 churches in the Old Town. It is also imagined to have been the tallest building in the world between 1549 and 1625. It is so steep and tall that this iconic 159-metre spire is an excellent lightning rod. Remarkably, it has burnt down three times due to lightning fires. it is free to enter the church.
- Town Hall Square and Town Hall – this is where the winner of Christmas market of the year 2019 was held. The big, imposing hall is over 600 years old and the only intact Gothic town hall in Northern Europe and is amazingly still in use today.
- The huge market square is an excellent point to grab a beer or coffee and has dozens of pathways spreading outwards from it to all corners of the Old Town. A must-see for those who love Christmas.
- St Catherines Passage – picturesque and charismatic lane. Along this path are a number of open-faced craft and art shops providing traditional glass, ceramic, metal, and jewellery products for you to buy and watch being made. Creativity combined with the medieval ambience of the Old Town.
- Masters Courtyard – area for more handicrafts and Estonian sweets and snacks.
- Toompea castle – the central part of Tallinn the location of the Parliament of Estonia. Another incredibly old, stone building with orange rooves. Here you can find the Patkuli and Kohtuotsa viewing platforms. These both provide panoramic views of all of Tallinn and are excellent spots to see the contrast of the old and new in such close proximity. On the slopes lies the Danish King Garden. This is where the Danish flag originated and is a place for locals to understand the influence Denmark had on Tallinn’s history.
- Kiek in de Kök – I laughed when I saw the sign for this place. Located along a path between Old and New Town. The cylindrical stone towers are topped with bright orange cones. This artillery tower is also a museum and has many walls and bastion passages connecting the other towers across Old Town for you to explore and learn about Estonian military history.
- Café culture – Tallinn fully embraces the café culture and can be found throughout the city. I feel Old Town is the best spot as their cafes are bijou and charming. The earliest café was built in 1864 and there are hidden places amongst the nooks and crannies of the Old Town to discover and enjoy. The Danish influence also means there are some awesome pastries.
This is quite a comprehensive list and is testament to the abundance of interesting opportunities Tallinn has to offer. Estonian patriotism and pride of their city has meant their unique Old Town has been fantastically restored and maintained. This creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere of people proud to live in such an incredible spot. The Old Town is compact and encompassed within the Ancient City Walls, so seeing everything isn’t arduous.
The fun doesn’t stop after the New and Old Town either. The largest creative centre in Estonia is just a 15-minute walk beyond the Old Town’s limits. Telliskivi Creative City has almost 600 cultural events a year and is a hotspot for innovative street art and design. An abundance of stores, studios, bars and restaurants dotted amongst displays of contemporary art and design is a distinct parallel to the Old Town lurking in the background. Whilst walking through here, I bought some food from a place made out of an old storage unit and had a drink at a bar in an old train carriage.
I bought some food from a place made out of an old storage unit and had a drink at a bar in an old train carriage.
Lots of innovation and methods of maximising space and sustainability can be found there too. Tallinn really is at the forefront of globalisation, for example: they are environmentally conscious; Wi-Fi is available everywhere and bus transport is free for residents. A flea market is held every Saturday at Telliskivi, and the nearby Balti Jaam located at the train station is a modern setting for a traditional market. Expect fish, flowers, sausages, and cheeses.
To the East of the Old Town is the KGB museum, this is along the road back to the harbour and is an interesting place to understand the Soviet impact on Estonia. As a coastal city, there are also lots of beaches to chill on as well.
Watching the sunset on the Baltic sea is a really nice experience, whether it is on the beach or on the boat across the sea. Pirita beach is 2km long and provides a full view of the Old Town. Akin to the city, the beach is perfectly clean and has been awarded a Blue Flag for its water quality.
Watching the sunset on the Baltic sea is a really nice experience, whether it is on the beach or on the boat across the sea.
I hope this has given you comprehensive insight into why you need to visit Tallinn. The remarkable thing is that you could see and do all of these in one day, but it would be a very long day. Due to my fortuitous location in Helsinki, I was able to visit often. But due to the abundance of intricate streets and sights, there are sometimes things you miss. Therefore, coming back is always great, especially with friends who may know a special area they found.
The boat to and from Tallinn and Helsinki runs frequently every day and is only two hours long. So grabbing an early morning boat and a late evening return has always been a great way of conducting the trip. However, I would only advise this if you are in Helsinki already and if flights are cheaper to Helsinki I would suggest doing so. But, if you’re starting from the U.K I would highly recommend Tallinn as a weekend break, to ensure you experience everything and maximise your visit. Tallinn can also act as a great destination for a wider trip to Riga, Helsinki, Stockholm or even St. Petersburg.
Tallinn can also act as a great destination for a wider trip to Riga, Helsinki, Stockholm or even St. Petersburg.
As travel restrictions ease and big, foreign adventures may continue to be postponed, I think a fun-filled weekend away would be a great way to kickstart your travelling again. An idyllic and pristine gem in the shores of the Baltic, Tallinn is an ideal destination for anyone looking to enjoy a new culture and explore a new and exciting part of Europe.