“A Scandinavian Disneyland?” I remember thinking as I walked through Tallinn’s Old Town covered in a fresh coat of snow. Any expectations of grey, ex-Soviet influences certainly did not materialise. It seemed the whole town tried to remain true to its fairytale charms, despite being close to becoming the “Bangkok of the Baltics” at one point (attracting scores of men with cheep booze and prostitution).
Starting from a settlement of Finno-Ugric people around 2500BC, Tallinn has been controlled and influenced by the Danes, the Knights of the Sword, Germans, the Teutonic Order and the Russian Empire. With a railway linking Tallinn to St Petersburg in 1870, the city became a chief port of the Russian Empire. As the city expanded, more of its new population came from Russia with the creation of Soviet-style settlements in the suburbs.
The Old Town however, feels for the most part, like walking through 15th century village life. It’s filled with cobblestone streets, towering church spires, medieval courtyards, town walls, lively cafés, and local restaurants whose staff seemed to be always dressed in peasant attire. And as you weave past each building, scale the Lower Town Wall with its nooks and crannies, or listen to a public bench playing concertos by Chopin, there’s a story from centuries gone by or more recent years, waiting to be learnt.
Among these treasures is St Olaf’s Church – one of the tallest buildings in the world in the 13th century. A great fire sadly burnt it down. It’s often linked with Olaf the architect in local lore (despite being dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway). Legend has it that this Olaf (the architect), ignored the prophecies of doom to befall the one who completed the church’s construction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he subsequently fell to his death from the tower after which a toad and snake crawled out of his mouth.
As I climbed a set of stairs up Toompea Hill, I stumbled onto the Patkuli viewing platform. If there was ever a postcard of Tallinn with a panoramic vista of red snow-covered rooftops, Tallinn Port, Disneyland-esque towers with coned roofs and the Old Town gates, it was photographed at this spot. Moments later I passed the seat of Estonian power – the pink Baroque Palace (Toompea Castle) – which is now home to the Estonian Parliament.
My final stop for the day was the Christmas Market in Town Hall Square. It was exactly as you’d imagine it to be. As snowflakes floated down from the sky, the smell of sizzling sausages, gingerbread and mulled wine filled the air, with the imposing Gothic Town Hall standing austerely in the background. Occupying prime position in the centre was an enormous Christmas tree. Apparently it’s been there every Christmas since 1441 when a local guild (Brotherhood of the Blackheads) erected the world’s first publicly displayed Christmas tree (a fact heavily contested by its Baltic neighbour, Latvia).
Not all of the Old Town is a Scandinavian Disneyland. Right across from Toompea Castle is the Alexander Nevksi Cathedral. Entering it could easily lead you to believe you’ve crossed into Russia, if only for a few moments. Everything from the classic Russian Orthodox onion domes with gilded iron crosses, to the language spoken inside and the signage makes you feel like you’ve crossed an invisible border (most of the items including the 15-tonne bell were imported from St Petersburg).
While the ornate exterior and the detailed interior are a visual delight, the cathedral’s history in Tallinn hasn’t been entirely rosy. It was built at the turn of the 20th century when Russia was trying to stifle emerging nationalist movements in Estonia and many saw it as a symbol of oppression. However demands for it to be demolished didn’t come to fruition, so the cathedral still stands. It’s a small window into the underlying areas of friction between native Estonians and Russia (and the country’s own ethnic Russian minority) that exist even today.
My two years in hipster Hoxton, London (where I felt woefully out of place on many levels) have given me some nostalgic joy every time I visit the bohemian neighbourhoods of any city. Tallinn was no different. A mere ten minute walk away from the Old Town, hipster and formerly industrial Kalamaja is the place to be for excellent coffee (Brick Coffee Roastery), craft beer (F-hoone), and vegan restaurants (Ülo).
Lots of these independent establishments are housed in a cluster of disused factories that have now been brought back to life (Telliskivi Creative City). Each corner I turned around seemed to have a different treasure. Around the first was a former railway depot that’s been converted into a hotel made with sea containers, serving as a hub for digital nomads. Around the second was a series of murals. After the third was a massive metallic structure which was the backbone of an outdoor exhibition. And beyond the fourth were two decommissioned train carriages that had been transformed into a resto-bar. There’s never a boring moment while wandering through Kalamaja.
While life in England may have prepared me for grey cloudy skies, an endless powdery drizzle and near-freezing temperatures, this was my first time experiencing -10 Celsius. With the cold penetrating my bones, I knew there was only one remedy. Think like an Estonian and find a sauna.
Estonians, like their Finnish neighbours, love to sweat it out at 90 C. Unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of saunas in the city. However, I only felt comfortable going to one that was relatively empty in COVID times – was that even possible? So one evening, I popped into the Tallink City Hotel, a 5 minute walk from my Airbnb. “Hardly anyone uses the sauna in the evenings,” the receptionist said reassuringly. My ears pricked up, and I asked if I could have a quick look around. The Relaxation Area had three saunas (steam, aromatic and Finnish), loungers, waterbeds and showers, and was 16€ for 2 hours (the Tallink App gets you a discount). It was a Thursday evening at 9pm and completely empty. Perfect, I thought. I knew where I’d be going on Friday night. True to the receptionist’s word, there wasn’t a soul there the following evening. I enjoyed the sauna so much (especially having the whole space to myself) that I woke up at 7am the next morning to visit again before leaving for London 🙂
FOOD & DRINK
I was pleasantly surprised when it came to food in Tallinn. Similar to other aspects of life, the restaurant and cafe scene in Tallinn has more in common with Scandinavia (cinnamon buns, good coffee, nouveau Nordic dishes, warm soups and salads) than the more stodgy dishes that pop up in your imagination when thinking of the former Soviet Union.
Two tips I learnt:
- For more space, interesting decor and lower prices in the capital, Kadriorg or Telliskivi might be better bets than the Old Town
- At lunchtime many restaurants have a dish of the day (Paevapraad) where for 6€ you could get a decent portion of meat and vegetables
Røst – for baked goods in Tallinn
I happened to stay near the city’s recently redeveloped Rotermann Quarter. Amongst other independent stores and cafés is the famed Røst bakery. It specialises in Scandinavian-style cinnamon and cardamom buns made on site, and they excel at it. When asked, two different people independently cited Røst as the top bakery for cinnamon buns in the city. Judging from my 4 visits in the span of a three day stay, I couldn’t agree more.
Ülo – for vegan food in Tallinn
According to the very friendly waiter, the concept is inspired by an old gentleman who favoured vegan dishes, but had friends who ate meat/fish, so designed dishes to cater for them too. Prices are a bit above average, but the ambience is relaxing, servers are ever helpful and the food is excellent. Never thought I’d see a raspberry vinaigrette in olive oil – it was surprisingly divine with black bread.
F-hoone – for craft beer in Tallinn
After foolishly struggling for a good five minutes to find the door, this warehouse conversion is probably the epitome of the hipster district it is in. It’s a cozy retreat on a dark winter’s night to sip away at a warm drink while the snow gently falls outside. Surprised to see a nasi goreng on the menu, I decided to try it and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve read it’s also good for hearty broths (like borscht with rye bread) and breakfasts (the curd cheese syrniki with sour blackberry jam is supposedly delicious).
The Brick Coffee Roastery
Inspired by the smooth coffee I tried at Røst bakery, I went to the roastery that produced the coffee itself. Nestled in the Kalamaja district, it lived up to high expectations; service was excellent.
NOP Cafe and Restaurant
A popular local eco-friendly hangout that grows all its produce locally. They have a seasonal menu to order from and a comprehensive normal menu that has vegan, meat and fish options. Most main plates are around €7-9. I ordered the Rich Seafood Soup (tomato soup with tiger prawns, mussels, salmon and coriander) but was tentatively eyeing the chia waffle with sea buckthorn curd and ginger-cardamom coconut cream. Lattes were €3.2 and mimosas were €5.5. There’s also a (slightly pricey) deli next door.
Vegan Restoran Rataska, Old Town
A family-run establishment, this cosy restaurant seemed very popular judging by the number of tables reserved for dinner. I visited at lunchtime on a weekday so there was plenty of space. The pumpkin puree soup with Sichuan chilli oil and black bread was perfect for a light lunch (bill = €7 including tip).