by Patricia Dillon, Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Professor in Contemporary European Studies and Professor of Economics
The medieval town of Tallinn is right on the Baltic Sea, which is very cold. The country is covered with forests, but the highest spot is less than 1,000 feet, so don’t plan either a tropical or an alpine adventure. There are nature preserves all over the country, and parks and forests in and around Tallinn.
The Soviets controlled Estonia for nearly 50 years, and you will see evidence of that around the old town; most Tallinn residents live in tower blocks. The Soviets built badly, but everyone had a home. The center of Tallinn, the old town, has survived intact centuries of occupation and is enjoying now freedom and prosperity. The average per-capita income in Estonia is less than half that of European Union countries, but life is steadily better. Estonians are among the most disciplined and determined economic reformers of all the post-Soviet nations. They belong to NATO and next year will become part of the EU.
Estonians are enterprising and progressive folks. Theirs is one of the most wired populations (we’re talking Internet here) in the world. They use cell phones and smart cards more than we do; they routinely charge purchases large and small using their phones.
There are fewer than 1.5 million people in all of Estonia, so the capital of Tallinn is manageable on foot. It has perhaps the finest ancient (15th century) town hall in northern Europe, much of the old city wall remains, and the Soviets did not do a lot of damage to the medieval town. It is splendid. If you have only a few days (and you can get there on a fast ferry from Helsinki), check into a hotel in the center of the city and start walking.
All of Tallinn has been or is being carefully restored. One tower in the ancient city wall, known as Kiek in de Kok (“peep in the kitchen”), because that’s what one can do from there, is a museum. Tall Herman is the highest tower and always flies the Estonian flag, a horizontal tricolor of blue, black, and white. Another tower (also a museum) is named Fat Margaret, and it is. So, go climb a tower.
In the higher part of the city are the parliament building (pink) and the beautiful Orthodox church (you can’t miss the onion domes) with an interesting shop. There are two ways up, Long Leg and Short Leg. The cobblestones are real and lumpy. There is a restaurant, Neitsitorn, in part of the old wall, and it’s fun to climb stairs inside the wall. All of Tallinn has been or is being carefully restored.
Rocca al Mare, the outdoor folk museum, is a wonderful place just outside of Tallinn, with complete houses from most areas and periods of Estonia’s past. I loved watching a woman inside one of the houses, at an antique loom, creating the brilliant striped wool used in the skirts of traditional folk outfits. She was wearing one. I saw children in traditional dress performing folk dances on the grass, accompanied by a musician playing a sort of bagpipe.
If you have longer than a week to spend in Estonia, explore an island and don’t forget mosquito repellent. The forest mosquitos are enormous. Or visit Parnu, the country’s favorite seaside city, or Tartu, the location of the country’s oldest university. Don’t miss using a sauna with friends. I leave it to you to figure out whether to wear anything or not. I once made an embarrassing error in that regard.
There are a remarkable number of Estonian artists, especially in Tallinn, and they display and sell their work all over town. They do extraordinary ceramics, woodwork, textiles, glass, paintings, leather, paper, iron. Their imaginations are distinctive and typically influenced by folk and mythic traditions. Estonians make beautiful wool sweaters, very Nordic (they are linguistic cousins of the Finns). In the lower part of town, around the city square, there are whole streets and alleyways of artists gathered together. There are also street markets; against the western stretch of city wall there are stalls of woolen things. It’s such a small city that you can find everything.
Estonia has picked up Western standards of accommodation. For ease of local travel, I recommend that you pick out a hotel in the center of town, if possible (but bus rides are cheap). If you can splurge, my favorite is the Hotel St. Petersbourg, one block off the city square. This four-star, comfortable, attractive hotel offers great breakfasts. But be warned: because it is housed in a very old building, it does not have a lift, so you must be able to climb stairs. Its sister hotel is the only five-star in the country-Hotel Schlossle-also offering terrific service, housed in an ancient building, and very beautiful. Both hotels are on the small side, with Hotel St. Petersbourg offering 27 rooms and suites, Hotel Schlossle only 23 (visit www.schlossle-hotels.com).
But there are several more options for the more quirky, discerning, or budget-conscious traveler. Do check out a Lonely Planet guide or run a Google search on Estonian hotels.
The town is full of places to eat and to drink coffee or something stronger. (The Estonians are great drinkers, so get yourself invited to a party if at all possible.) Most establishments are in medieval buildings or their basements, which may be Roman. There are good restaurants of every sort, but it is difficult to find any that cater just to vegetarians. If you like herring, you’ll be in heaven. My favorite traditional Estonian dish is a scrumptious soup made of big beans.You can get it at the charming log snack shop in Rocca al Mare, the outdoor folk museum. When in central and eastern Europe, I always go to grocery stores and buy fresh-baked bread, local cheese, fruit, and whatever looks interesting, plus some unidentifiable red wine (it’s cheating if you can read the label) and create hotel-room feasts. Travel suggestion: remember a little corkscrew and a knife for cheese, but pack both in your suitcase, not your hand luggage. Take along your personal treats-mine are dried fruit and trail mix. Bottled water is easy to find.
The Estonians love music, and there are concerts of all sorts available in an amazing range of venues. Choral singing is important there; they refer to their expulsion of the Soviets as the Singing Revolution, partly because one-third of the entire Estonian population showed up at the 1989 song festival, an outdoor tradition, and sang patriotic folk songs. They also displayed the Estonian flag, both forbidden in Soviet times, which were not yet over in 1989.
When to Go
Unless you like the frigid north, visit in the fall or spring or summer. Winters are Nordic. Early in June is Tallinn’s Old Town Days. Tallinna Vanalinna Paevad is one big party over about five days. The square becomes a market, there is music and performance all the time, and in general much revelry. Foolishness is encouraged, and sobriety is not everywhere observed. If you can manage to be there over the summer solstice in June, everyone in the entire country joins as friends, stays up all night, eats, talks, jumps over bonfires, and struggles home at dawn.
For more information on travel to Talinn or other cities in Republic of Estonia, please check out the Lonely Planet online.