I will admit I knew next to nothing about Estonia before meeting the wonderful friends who got married there two weeks ago. If asked, I might have guessed the capital to be Riga or just shrugged. In fact, it’s Tallinn, and it has a very beautiful old town, complete with almost intact walls, stunning vistas, solemn churches, cobbled streets and alleyways under arches, and a bustling main square.
We had two days to enjoy Tallinn after the wedding in rural Estonia. While Luxembourg was suffering through endless days of rain, up on the Baltic coast we had wall to wall sunshine and long warm evenings.
The old city is quite small and mostly pedestrianised, which makes exploring very easy but also means the many tourists are confined to quite a small area. We tended to avoid the central square and main streets, and escape to side roads away from the crowds of Nordic, Russian and (of course) Japanese tourists taking photos.
Off the main streets we discovered lovely small cafes, fantastic restaurants, and lots of good places to sit and watch the world go by. We were definitely happy to discover this little capital. So here are some of our tips for this small city if you’re planning a trip…
Like I said already, wander through the main square on your first morning for photos but then avoid it for the rest of your trip if you want to keep your sanity intact – from around 11am on you’ll be pounced on by at least four waiters trying to pull you into their restaurant or bar. Instead make sure you duck into Master’s Courtyard, a small and beautiful courtyard that’s easy to miss and therefore much more unspoiled. You can get a coffee and a hot chocolate here and browse the craft and souvenir stores.
St Catherine’s Passage is beautiful at dusk, when this narrow alleyway with it’s strange archways is lit up. In fact, the whole city is better at dusk – most tourists have gone off for early dinners and the light gives the whole medieval town a magical quality that you can miss during day.
The old walls run around a large part of the old town. Close to the Viru gates they are busier and it’s hard to get a good photo without other tourists in it, but head west towards Laboratooriumi and Kooli streets, and the walls are just as impressive and you can admire them in peace. Close to here is also St Olav’s Church which is certainly worth the climb for the incredible view from it’s rickety summit (the first photo in this post was taken there). But maybe give it a skip if you’re afraid of heights – the wooden ledge may not increase your confidence! Again, climb late in the afternoon for an almost-private viewing.
We avoided the many “medieval” restaurants, although our friends had a good experience at one. Instead, we headed at lunch for Kompressor. This basic bar and restaurant had a definite aura of “student” – basic furnishings, cheap drinks and a simple menu of pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes! Sweet or savoury, these come as big as French crepes but much thicker and heavier so you are guaranteed to leave full. We’d have liked a more generous filling-to-pancake ratio, but they were satisfying none the less.
Our best evening meal was a surprise. We wandered in to a restaurant garden we’d spied close to Fat Margaret’s Tower on our meanderings, and were enchanted by the restaurant we discovered. Opened last summer, Leib Resto ja Aed is run by two friends who wanted to do simple but good food and wine (and great value!). We lucked out getting a table without a reservation in their beautiful garden, and then enjoyed the most amazing last-night-of-the-holiday dinner without even planning it!
I had a salad with soft goats cheese and beetroot to start, and then we both had the fresh-caught fish of the day served with green pea cream and potato mash which was delicious. For dessert we shared a dessert called “rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb” which was a rhubarb cream on a rhubarb sauce served with a rhubarb crisp! The atmosphere was wonderful and the staff were really friendly and helpful. I think I’d make a trip back to Tallinn just to eat here again!
Beyond the Old Town
Yes, there is life in Tallinn outside the medieval walls of the Old Town! We were a little tired at the end of our trip to really explore the rest of the city fully. But we did make the walk out to the Park of Kadriorg with its two palaces. The park itself was a pleasant place to wander around; the palaces themselves were not very exciting.
But we found a fantastic cafe on the way that made the walk worthwhile: NOP cafe and shop on J. Koleri street is a local cafe and eco shop that does good cheap lunches and drinks in the little courtyard. We shared some lentil wraps and a couple of Mexican bean quesadillas, both of which were really good.
The area around NOP is a curious mix of old (mostly falling down) wooden villas, communist-style blocks and super modern buildings in between. The walk out to the park was definitely worth it just to see some of the “real” Tallinn so we’d definitely recommend it. If we went again, we might hire bikes like some friends of ours did, and be able to cover a bit more ground around the rest of the city.
Try and find a copy of the Tallinn map and guide that is printed by like a local city guides. We picked up one in our hotel and it was a fantastic guide, much better than the lonely planet chapter print out we had with us. The old town doesn’t have much that feels truly “local” – it’s quite targeted at tourists – but where there were places, this little map pointed the way.
The airport is a 10-15 minute bus ride from downtown Tallinn so very easily accessible (#2 bus when we were there). If you’re combining Tallinn with a trip to either Helsinki or Sweden, the port is just under 1km from the northern point of the Old Town, and the ferry tickets are very reasonable.