It’s not as far off the beaten track as it used to be, but when I said “We’re going to Tallinn,” there was still something of a response of “Where?”
Where is Tallinn?
Tallinn is the capital of the small Baltic republic of Estonia. It’s a coastal port on the south side of the Gulf of Finland. In fact, it’s almost opposite Helsinki.
Here are some reasons you might want to visit Tallinn:
- The Old Town. Tallinn’s Old Town is a full blown World Heritage site, one of the most beautiful Medieval towns in Europe, and beautifully preserved.
- Textiles. Estonia is known for textiles, and you can buy wonderful wools and linens in Tallinn for, well, wonderful prices. Not dirt cheap, no, but perfectly affordable.
- Museums. The Seaplane Harbor has an amazing collection of, of all things, mines, in an building of considerable architectural significance. Kiek-in-the-Kok has Medieval and slightly later arms and armor, as well as passages under the Bastion that include a mock up of an air raid shelter and an interesting collection of carved stone. There are a couple of museums that go into the Soviet era past, too.
- Churches. The churches. There are Lutheran churches. Catholic churches. An Orthodox cathedral with an absolutely beautiful iconostasis. There are churches just plain everywhere.
- The food. The food is absolutely delicious.
Mostly, if you like Medieval architecture and overall quirkiness, you will like Tallinn. You might even find a note in your hotel room warning you not to touch the wall, because it’s a World Heritage Site…yeah. Your wall.
Tallinn was a rich city when Helsinki was a fishing village, so the sense of age in this place is quite amazing. It’s also very colorful, with many of the houses painted in elegant pastel hues. The Communists left the Old Town intact and built away from it (they also did this in Bratislava, which also has an interesting Old Town).
Also, because the area was unstable for a while, the city walls lasted into the era of cannon. Check out the tower above; that’s for artillery!
There are no direct flights to Tallinn airport from the United States. There are direct flights from the UK, however, and from a number of other places in Europe.
If you book a flight from the United States you will most likely fly via Amsterdam or Paris.
Another alternative is to fly to Helsinki, which gives you a lot more flight options, and take the ferry across the Baltic. The ferries run year round, although they are sometimes canceled during extreme weather. Fortunately, the Baltic idea of extreme weather…
I’m told that the trip is quite spectacular in winter as the ship breaks through the ice.
I recommend this route because Helsinki and Tallinn pair well as destinations.
The final option is to fly to somewhere in western Europe and take an extended rail and ferry trip, of which there are several options. Going via Stockholm would be an interesting choice (I haven’t made it there yet, but have heard good things). Regardless of your choice of route there will be at least some ferry time. The Stockholm route, though, allows this to be overnight, which may work out cheaper than a hotel.
There is an entirely overland option, but it involves long-distance buses. Which I personally try to avoid.
All of these options, though, take several days. If the journey is the destination, though…
(Tallinn is also a shore leave destination for many Baltic cruises).
Food and Accommodations
Accommodations in Tallinn vary tremendously. You can stay in former Soviet era hotels, in old buildings in the Old Town, and in more modern hotels. Expect to pay something around $100 in the winter…and over $200 a night in the summer high season.
I personally stayed in Merchant’s House, which was a great experience in the heart of Old Town, but not for everyone (see caveats below).
Estonian food tends to be heavy and hearty. They are particularly proud of (you have been warned) their blood sausage. It’s very good blood sausage, but it’s still blood sausage.
They are also very proud of their bread.
Menus are likely to include things like elk roast, baked or fried fish, assorted game and some excellent duck.
Make a reservation for any restaurant in the Old Town, ideally the day before. A lot of them have very limited tables and fill up fast.
There isn’t a lot in the way of international cuisine, but there are a number of Italian places. I didn’t try any because I’m a firm believer in eating like a local.
For alcoholic beverages, try the local cider (Estonia grows great cider apples), fruit wines, or Vana Tallinn (which tastes somewhat like rum). They also do produce some very good beer.
First the big one.
Tallinn is not friendly to people with mobility issues. There is no public transport of any kind in the Old Town for the simple reason that the streets are too narrow for anything much bigger than a regular car (and judging by the struggles I saw). A lot of the streets are cobbled. Because it’s a World Heritage Site there is very little they can do.
This sometimes includes in the hotels; not all hotels can accommodate wheelchairs, and users should look at modern or Soviet era hotels outside the Old Town. Merchant’s House is a specifically listed building and they can’t change the layout at all, no, not even to put in an elevator.
There is a land train tour of part of the Old Town. I hope one day we’ll work out a way to better accommodate people without damaging our heritage. But as of right now, it’s a distinct problem. This also includes quite a few of the attractions, although the Seaplane Harbor is very accessible.
Other things to know:
- Estonia is part of the EU. Americans do not need visas to travel there as tourists. There is also no passport check at all on the ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn, so you can keep your passport tucked away somewhere safe. (They may spot check, but I hear that’s pretty rare).
- Most people speak English. You can absolutely get by in English. Which is a good thing; Estonian is an Ugro-Finnish language hard for outsiders to learn. It’s very similar to Finnish. If you think you can get by in Russian…don’t. The Estonians have yet to forgive the Russians. They may never forgive the Russians. And you can’t really blame them.
- There are no specific health risks in Estonia and no required vaccinations. The tap water is drinkable, but has a bit of an odd taste to it. It’s also radioactive, but not badly enough to cause issues on a short stay. They’re working on this (it’s caused by natural uranium and thorium deposits not Chernobyl).
- Outside the Old Town, Tallinn has a good public transport network, but to use it you will need to rent a smart card. You can do this at the port. Tallinn is a small enough city that if you’re fit you may be able to walk everywhere you want to go.
- Estonians do dress up slightly for dinner. You’re best off wearing a button down or polo shirt, not a t-shirt. From my feel from when I was there, wearing t-shirts will make you stand out as a tourist and might attract the attention of various attraction and restaurant touts.
- Speaking of the touts, they’re kind of annoying. It’s hard to walk through the center of Old Town in high season without somebody trying to sell you something. Usually dinner. They’re all dressed in Medieval outfits, too.
- It does rain in the summer. You might be lucky and get beautiful weather, but just in case, take a rain jacket.
- The monks in the Italian King’s Garden are creepy. Like Doctor Who monster level creepy…
Tallinn is a beautiful city a lot of people don’t consider visiting. Maybe I’ve sparked some desire to go there in a few readers, though.