Estonia’s population falls well below the population of the city of Philadelphia. So, on an early morning walk through Tallinn, the country’s capital, curtained by a gray mist off the Baltic Sea, the quiet feels entirely unsurprising.
But it doesn’t take long to dissolve. As the day starts, the cobblestone streets of Tallinn’s old city slowly fill with tourists, locals, and an outpouring of delicious food and medieval history. What’s more, the prices are extremely low for a European capital city; a full breakfast will often cost no more than five euros, and a decent beer about three.
Though Tallinn’s history reeks of invading powers like Russia, Germany and Sweden, today it thrives under its own banner. A refreshed contemporary art scene, lively bars and expansive parks make Tallinn a tourist-friendly hidden treasure.
Visit in late May or June, when sunlight lasts until about midnight, or around Christmas-time when a lively Christmas market takes over the old city. Don’t forget to the items on this check off this list as you go.
Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tallinn’s medieval old city feels like an ancient European playground, complete with cobblestone streets, quiet shops, ornate churches and ancient landmarks. Look for famed St. Catherine’s Passage, recognizable by the terracotta-tiled archways, and Saiakang Passage off Raekoja Plats, or Town Hall Square. A free walking tour of the old city sets off every day at noon from the tourist information spot (Niguliste 2).
When the old city meets a steep uphill climb, you have reached Toompea Hill, the very heart of old Tallinn. Dating back to the early 13th century, this limestone mound offers sprawling vistas of the old city stretching out to the Baltic Sea. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral stands as a beacon of old Tsarist Russia’s control over Estonia, but Toompea Castle, where the Estonian government now holds court, shows the heart of Estonia and its people. On your way down the hill, pop in a record shop and listen to some Estonian music. Two have settled in at the base of Toompea: Contemporary Biit Me Record Store and Raamatukoi Grammofon, which also offers Soviet memorabilia.
Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky recognized the dark beauty of the industrial region of Tallinn in his film Stalker. Now, young creatives have transformed these old Soviet factories, military grounds and ship graveyards into art spaces along the Baltic Sea, creating the Culture Kilometer. It begins just outside of the old city gates and stretches for 2.2km, or about one mile. The pathway includes EKKM, the Estonian contemporary art museum with free admission, contemporary art and design shops like the Estonian Design House, and trendy new restaurants; cafes; and bars. Take a break on the way at Kultuurikatel, an experimental community for food and design connected by a spacious yard with Ping-Pong tables and a basketball hoop.
Photo by Ashley Schneider
Patarei Prison lurks at the end of the Culture Kilometer. Built by czar Nicholas I on the Baltic Sea and used as a holding place for dissidents by the Soviet secret police, this building finally ceased operation in 2004. It is a living relic of the damage inflicted by outsiders on Estonian soil, and it now houses a seaside bar, a bicycle rental shop and an art studio. Visitors can also roam former prison facilities including the medical wing, library, auditoriums, solitary confinement area, exercise yards, and, if you have the courage, the hanging room. Access to the prison costs a mere three euros, and we suggest going in a group, as eeriness pervades the halls filled with virtually untouched equipment and prisoner belongings.
Williamsburg is to Brooklyn what Kalamaja is to Tallinn. From the end of the Culture Kilometer, wander through this district and check out some of the best-preserved wooden homes in all of Estonia. Kalamaja began as a fishermen’s neighborhood and eventually became home to the Culture Kilometer’s former factory workers. Visit Sesoon, a vegan-friendly and gluten-free cafe that can also dish out a lamb dinner for only 10 euros. Try the most Estonian of all treats at Kalamaja Pagarikoda: Hot black bread. If you drop it on the floor, Estonian tradition requires you to pick it up, kiss it and eat the entire piece.
Follow St. Catherine’s passage to Kohvik Sinilind, a cafe and restaurant from the creators of Must Puudel, another inexpensive, trendy eatery in Tallinn’s old city. Sinilind hosts a cinema night, a quiz night, live music from local and international bands, and DJs on weekends. The cafe’s retro interior includes white-painted brick walls and plush pillows. Try the smoked salmon bruschetta or the beet soup with goat cheese before catching a show on the Sinilind stage.
For some rustic Estonian culture and hands on history, visit the Estonian Open Air Museum, it’s worth the 30-minute bus ride. This museum boasts replicas of different Estonian farmhouses, allowing visitors to walk through and experience Estonia’s village history and culture. The grounds host several events throughout the year, like their Midsummer’s Eve bonfire celebration, so check the calendar before you go, and don’t miss the Kolu Inn on your way out for some traditional Estonian treats like the vastlakuklid or shrove buns, cream-filled bread in an Estonian cross between a doughnut and a profiterole.
is a Brooklyn-based writer, translator and traveler previously hailing from France and Russia.