by Colin Nicholson, The Telegraph, April 4, 2017
Why go now?
The British are currently in favour in this most charming of Baltic capitals. Last month a large contingent of British troops arrived to help protect fellow Nato member Estonia’s eastern border with Russia. And on Tuesday, the first direct British Airways flight from Heathrow landed in Tallinn, heralding the start of what the city hopes will be a further increase in British visitors focused more on exploring the rather lovely sights of this perfectly preserved medieval treasure trove.
Inside the city walls, political tensions seem far away as Estonians get on with the serious business of drinking coffee and embracing Nordic laissez-faire – and building up to the prolonged celebrations that will mark next year’s 100th anniversary of independence.
British Airways (0844 493 0797; ba.com) flies on Saturday and Tuesday from Heathrow, from £166 return; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick on Friday and Monday; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted on Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday.
Tallinn airport is 15 minutes by taxi from the centre.
Where to stay
Hotel Telegraaf at Vene 9 was Tallinn’s main post office for a century. It is now a sumptuous five-star boutique hotel. Doubles from €149 (£129), including spa entrance and breakfast (00372 600 0600; telegraafhotel.com).
Stay in art nouveau splendour at the Hotel Barons at Suur-Karje 7, a former bank, whose well-supplied breakfast room overlooks the old town. If you don’t trust the wonderful original cage-style lift, there is a modern one too. Doubles from €100, including breakfast (00372 699 9700; barons.ee).
Rarely do hostels boast much history, but the Knight House at Ruutli 16 was a residence for the knights who ruled Tallinn in the 13th century. Like them, you’ll find camaraderie, a hearty breakfast, but maybe not en-suite facilities. Doubles from €50 including breakfast (00372 631 1444; knight-house.eu).
For total immersion in a medieval experience, dine at Olde Hansa at Vana Turg 1, which dates from Tallinn’s time in the Hanseatic League. The olde worlde menu is a bit hard to read by candlelight, but yes, it does say boar, bear and elk (€25 to €55; 00372 627 9020; oldehansa.ee).
Rewind to the late-Eighties and Tallinn is still under foreign occupation, though this time not by Scandinavians but staid Soviets, so Western pop is the great escape. At Depeche Mode at Voorimehe 4 you can rediscover the lure of British synth-pop and the Essex band while drinking cocktails at €6 a shot (depechemode.ee).
Walking past the rows of traders on Muurivahe, whose stalls are nestled between buttresses, head to Hellemann Tower. Here, for €3, you can walk on top of the city walls. Even in the Middle Ages some creature comforts were in order, and their distinctive pointed roofs protect you from rain.
Exit on to the labyrinth that is St Catherine’s Passage (Katariina Kaik), then follow Apteegi to the Town Hall Pharmacy at Raekoja Plats 11. Dating from 1422, it offers cures ancient and modern. Pass the Holy Spirit Church (Puhavaimu Kirik), noting its wooden carved clock, to reach Maiasmokk for a gob-smacking array of chocolate and marzipan fancies in the wood-panelled cafe (kalev.eu/en/maiasmokk-cafe).
Cross the market square to Tallinn Legends. From its doorway on Kullassepa 7, you delve deep into Tallinn’s history, as actors take you through the city’s layered past in nine underground chambers, telling stories of the Black Death and religious wars. For €16, the organisers promise “a bloody good time” (tallinnlegends.com).
After that, a modest, monk-ish lunch is in order at III Draakon in the base of the Town Hall at Raekoja Plats 1. For just €2 you get a bowl of elk soup served in an earthenware pot, enough to sustain you on your climb up to the castle (kolmasdraakon.ee).
Sitting on limestone cliffs, the castle encompasses the Toompea district, a city-within-a-city that includes the parliament, embassies and more souvenir shops than you can shake a tour guide’s sign at. It’s well worth it, though, and make sure you stop at the viewpoints over the Baltic and at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at Lossi Plats 10, where you can witness a Russian Orthodox service.
The castle last prepared for a siege during the 1991 attempt to restore Soviet rule by force. But Russian troops got no further than the TV tower you see on the horizon. For a drink with a view, visit the Dannebrog bar on Luhike Jalg 9, set in the castle’s walls, with its entrance marked by two flaming torches. Be careful on the steps: they are so steep that all the food is delivered by a medieval-style winch.
For a taste of post-Soviet Estonia, visit La Bottega at Vene 4. It has a relaxed, cosmopolitan feel, with a good selection of seafood prepared Italian-style, with mains from €15 to €25 (00372 627 7733; labottega.ee).
Now the only part of Tallinn within the city walls that remains for you to see is the long tongue stretching to the sea. Make St Olaf’s at Lai 50 your beacon, and follow Pikk Street north to the austere yet beautiful Lutheran church. For €2 you can climb the tower of what was – in the 16th and 17th centuries – the world’s tallest building.
Next door sits the “Fat Margaret” tower, like a dumpier sister, housing part of the Maritime Museum (meremuuseum.ee). However, most exhibits, including a submarine, are on the waterfront. A sadder testament to Estonia’s seafaring past is the Broken Line Monument dedicated to the 852 people who died when the MS Estonia sank in the Baltic in 1994.
Hotel Viru is the unprepossessing block where you, as a foreign visitor, would have stayed in Soviet times, under the close surveillance of the KGB on the officially non-existent 23rd floor. And you can see the rooms plus an extraordinary collection of spying paraphernalia exactly as the spooks left them on the night they fled. Slots on the twice-daily English language tours of the KGB Museum are limited, so book your €11 tickets in advance (00372 680 9300; sokoshotels.fi).
Coming out on to Tammsaare Park, bounded by the opera house and theatre, head between the towers of the Viru Gate, with their iconic cone-shaped roofs, back into the walled city. For a final flavour of Tallinn, venture down the little cobbled side road at Vene 6 to Pierre Chocolaterie, whose remarkable beverages include the surprisingly tasty Gorgonzola hot chocolate as well as snacks (pierre.ee).
Take earplugs -- Nightlife sounds echo on the cobbles
Best foot forward -- The best way to get around is by foot – everywhere in the walled city is within walking distance – but take a sturdy pair of shoes to deal with the cobbled streets.
Linguistic challenges -- The native languages are Estonian (very difficult) and Russian. Don’t worry about phrase books – stick to English, which most people understand.
Tourist office -- The tourist office is next to the Niguliste Church at Niguliste 2. It’s open from 9am to 7pm every day, bar Sunday, when it closes at 6pm: visittallinn.ee.