Imagine crossing an arched threshold of old limestone brick and being instantly shifted back to the Middle Ages. This is pretty much what happens as you walk through any one of the many gates of the great Margaret Wall that surrounds the gem of Estonia, Tallinn Old Town.
How do you get to Tallinn Old Town?
From Tallinn International Airport, we found our way to the edge of the Old Town on Bus 2, which goes from stop number 1 and drops you one the north-east corner of the wall.
There are other ways of getting there from the airport (including helicopter!), and the tips on the Tallinn Airport website are excellent.
Ladies, save on luggage and leave your stilettos at home. This town is best explored on foot. We knew this would be true even as we hobbled across the cobbles, our urban feet trying to get used to the strange, shiny yet uneven surface, to our hotel.
The odd occasion when we were brave enough to take our eyes off the floor to look up, we were astounded by what we saw. Needle spires of medieval churches, the strange squat buildings of ancient Tallinn next to great towering six-level 18th century houses – all strung together by gothic archways and those ubiquitous red-tiled roofs. Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to turn from city slickers to Old Town mountain goats!
Where did we stay?
The hotel we found was fantastic, with both that old world feel, and the comforts of a modern lifestyle. It was also affordable, which can be a challenge to find within the town walls.
Meriton Old Town Hotel was built on the foundations of one the wall’s many fortress towers, the Rentern Tower, which perished in 1880. The hotel is in the north of the town, next door to St Olaf’s Church, which has the tallest spire in Old Town and was the tallest building in the world when it was built in the early 16th Century.
What should I see while I’m there?
• Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its magnificent golden onion domes
• St Olaf’s Church, as we’ve already mentioned. The legend behind the building of this magnificent edifice is mysterious and rather grisly!
• Niguliste Church, which has musical performances every Saturday and Sunday at 16:00 and medieval religious artwork by the bucket-load.
• Tallinn Old Town Square, where you’ll find a beautiful cobbled square and the elegant Town Hall.
• Kiek in de Kok Museum (please tell me it’s not just us who think this name’s funny!), which tells Tallinn’s history. Tours go deep under the city via secret tunnels and up into the bastion tower, where there is a beautiful view of the town and a café for a pit stop.
• Toomkirik – also known as St Mary’s Church or Dome Church. Built by the Danes in the 13th Century, it’s considered Estonia’s oldest church.
From Toomkirik, you should also go to Toompea Hill, which is the best lookout over the town. We could have stood for hours staring over the spires and red roofs of Old Town, then over the walls all the way down to the port and the Baltic Sea. But it was too cold.
We decided to hunt out a drink and some food.
What’s the food like there?
There is a wealth of choices in Old Town. Choose from Indian and Tex-Mex to African and Vietnamese. There’s even a cheese restaurant. That’s right, cheese. St. Michael Juusturestoran has everything from entrées to desserts all on topic. The restaurant was part of the St Michael Nunnery. Therefore, all the waiting staff are dressed in monks’ robes. Their uniform is a little off-putting, as are the menu prices, but it’s a very atmospheric building and the food is tasty.
Careful at the bar
Be careful ordering wine in Estonian! Vein (pronounced ‘vén’) is wine, however, viin (‘veen’) is vodka. Mistake made, we were delighted at the excellent flavour of the vodka we had bought and forgot all about wine for the rest of the holiday!
Best souvenir to bring back
Be sure to grab a sampler pack of Estonian homebrew before you leave. It comes in a little case and holds six miniature bottles of Estonia’s signature tipples. Honey liqueur, Estonian Liviko gin, locally brewed Viru Valge vodka – one original, one watermelon flavoured, Vana Tallinn – a local liqueur, and Liviko Liköör – a wild strawberry liqueur. Delicious!
Check out the souvenir shops for their incredible range of Matryoshka dolls – the wooden dolls with smaller and smaller dolls inside each one. The strangest we saw was of famous despots!
The souvenir shops in Tallinn are called ‘suveniiri pood’, which we thought was quite funny!
Something else to do
Head north east from the Old Town walls and along the shore line of the Baltic Sea. You’ll find the magestic Kadrioru Palace and Kadriorg Park. Built in the 1700s by Peter the Great, this beautiful park also houses the Rusalka Memorial. The bronze angel stares out to sea in the direction of a Russian war ship that sank in 1893. The chains around the statue are covered in padlocks engraved with the names of the lovers who put them there.
If you somehow find all this history overwhelming and lust for something different, Tallinn Port is a short cab ride away (we walked – not recommended!) and there are regular ferries across the Baltic to Finland. A day-trip there is well worth it if you have time.
Tallinn Old Town is a beautiful city and one which deserves exploring. We went mid-week, mid-May, which was to our advantage. The weather was warmer (though we still needed coats most days) and avoiding the weekend meant we had the town to ourselves. Come Saturday, however, hoards of shouting tourists invade the little laneways and cobbled precincts, and life seems a little less happy.
Want to know more about Tallinn? Here are some useful links:
www.inyourpocket.com/data/download/tallinn.pdf – this is a comprehensive document of the town.
www.local-life.com/tallinn/culture/ – has some great info on what you can do and where things are.
whc.unesco.org/en/list/822 – gives reasons why Tallinn Old Town has been listed as a World Heritage Site since 1997.
If you’ve been to Estonia or are planning to go, tell us about it in the comments!