There are loads of reasons why Tallinn is made for short breaks – 2011’s European Capital of Culture, Estonia’s capital is drop dead gorgeous (the entire old town is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list), it’s literally choc-full of cafes and bars and it’s so compact you can enjoy everything it has to offer in one day.
To get your bearings, first stop has to be Oleviste Church (Lai 50). In the 16th century, it was the tallest building in the world – for €2 you can climb the steep steps to the church tower’s viewing platform to appreciate Tallinn’s beauty. Claustrophobes be warned, the winding stone staircase is extremely narrow, and people will pass you on their way down as you ascend.
While many European cities look alike with their old towns, Tallinn has the X-factor – its medieval city walls and red-roofed watch-towers, built to keep out invaders. Some of the remaining towers have been restored to allow access, and have fantastic names such as Fat Margaret and Kiek-in-de-kok. Our favourite is Hellemann Tower (Muurivahe 48) – climbing this, you can walk along a section of the walls and peer down into people’s living rooms.
After all that exertion, you’ll probably fancy a drink, and Hellemani Korts (Muurivahe 50) is ideally situated next to the tower’s entrance for a sit-down and a glass of mulled wine.
Most European cities have an old town square, and Tallinn’s cobbled square, known as Raekoja Plats, is one of the loveliest (and tiniest) you are likely to see. It’s dominated by the Town Hall with its slender white tower and drainpipes shaped like dragons. The square is lined with pastel-coloured buildings home to bars and restaurants. One tip from my wife though – as the square, and most of the old town, is cobbled it’s a no-go area for heels, so bring sensible shoes.
Just up the hill from Raekoja Plats is Toompea. Meaning “Castle Hill”, this area has a regal feel to it and is home to the Estonian Parliament as well as housing a distinctive Russian orthodox church (Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) and a castle. From the viewing platforms, there are stupendous views of the city walls and the watch-towers – make sure your camera is fully charged, as it’s from here that Tallinn is at its photogenic best.
By now you deserve a bite to eat, and the pick of Tallinn’s cafes has to be Josephine (Vene 16; www.pierre.ee/est/cafe-josephine). The epitome of cosiness, I’d recommend you sink into one of the pink-cushioned sofas and order a slice of chocolate cheesecake and the best hot chocolate you will ever taste. It’s tempting to stay here all day, and it seems some people do just that, but having seen central Tallinn, it’s now time to venture to the suburbs.
Kadriorg Park is 2km to the east of the old town – to get here, jump on tram number 1. A single journey costs €1, with tickets sold at kiosks throughout town. Remember to stamp your ticket on board to avoid a possible €40 fine. Burn off some calories from all that chocolate by strolling through this landscaped park towards the Baltic Sea. From here, turn right and take a brisk walk along the shoreline towards Pirita Beach as ferries cross the Baltic to Finland and Sweden in front of you. You will see the spires of the old town in the distance, with pine forests and white sands ahead of you. When you’ve had enough of the great outdoors, head back to the old town to enjoy Tallinn’s nightlife.
Estonian cuisine doesn’t have much of a world-wide reputation, but after eating at Leib (Uus 31; www.leibresto.ee/eng#!__eng), you will be asking yourself why. It serves fresh local dishes with homemade bread (Leib is Estonian for bread). The service is excellent, as is the locally caught pikeperch fish, and the Estonian soft cheese I had for dessert is a new entry in my top five cheeses of all time.
Finding a bar to suit your taste is a simple task – there are quiet bars, noisy bars, cocktail bars, quirky bars and the obligatory Irish bars. We enjoyed watching the shenanigans in Molly Malones (Mundi 2; www.mollymalones.ee), before sipping cosmopolitans in Clazz (Vana turg 2; www.clazz.ee). But our favourite place for a drink in Tallinn was Depeche Mode (Voorimehe 4; www.depechemode.ee/bar) – it plays only the 80s band’s songs, has DM memorabilia on the walls and its cocktails are named after their singles.
After experiencing a day in Tallinn, I guarantee you’ll be back for more. To paraphrase Depeche Mode, you just can’t get enough.
A Bit of Culture top tips:
Tallinn is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world but it can get overrun with stag dos at times. The best time to visit to avoid them is from October – December when it’s not too cold and almost deserted. Temperatures from January – March can drop to -15C.
Tallinn is not as cheap as you may think – Estonia joined the Euro in 2011, so expect to pay around €4 for a pint (at November 2011 prices).
Having said that, the city has some of the cheapest off-season hotel rooms in Europe and it’s easy to get a double room in a five star hotel in November for £70/night. Try the excellent Hotel Telegraaf (Vene 9; www.telegraafhotel.com), with pool and spa a stone’s throw from the Town Hall square. A former telegraph building in the soviet era, it was in Tripadvisor’s Top 10 Luxury Hotels in Europe list and will be one of the best hotel you’ll ever stay at.
And if you really want to see a stag do in action, go to O’Malley’s (Viru 24; www.omalleys.ee). This Irish bar is popular with Scandinavians – watching a drunken Finn singing “Living Next Door To Alice” in Estonian is an experience not to be missed. Joining in is optional.