Stone cold classic: Exploring Estonia’s wonderful and romantic capital city Tallinn | Travel News | Travel

Snowy overview of Tallinn

Snowy overview of Tallinn (Image: Getty)

Tallinn is Estonia’s capital and this beautiful atmospheric city sits on the edge of the Baltic in the country’s north. It is one of, if not the best preserved medieval city in Europe. It’s no wonder Tallinn was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997 thanks to its incredibly intact 13th-century Old Town with spires galore and original buildings.

When I visited in January, the dusky winter sky was an intoxicating blend of pink, warm apricot and milky white.

Wandering across the cobblestones of the magnificent, medieval Raekoja Plats (town hall square) dusted in light snow was like walking straight into a fairytale.

The old marketplace is dominated by the 13th century limestone Town Hall. (raekoda.tallinn.ee)

It’s here you’ll also find the 15th century Raeapteek (town hall pharmacy), still trading today. Keeping with the age – and mood – staff wear traditional long dresses.

Historical cures are displayed in a mini museum off to one side, such as unicorn horn and dried bees to dubious looking tinctures.

If your ailment didn’t kill you, the medicine certainly would. (raeapteek.ee)

Branching off from the town’s epicentre are tiny winding streets, pretty hidden courtyards and massive wooden doors opening onto galleries and workshops.

Tallinn Old Town

Tallinn Old Town (Image: Jane Memmler)

What to see

The Old Town actually consists of two distinct areas: the Upper Town, or Toompea, which is home to the Estonian government which has sat in the pretty medieval pink Stenbock House and the 800-year old Toompea Castle, and the Lower Town.

These grand buildings overlook the town and visiting dignitaries such as Barack Obama have been known to surprise tourists taking in the same view from the adjoining Kohtuotsa viewing platform.

No wonder the nobility and clergy chose Toompea Hill, which sits 100ft higher than the rest of the city, to build their mansions. It has an old-monied, gentrified feel about it with leafy squares and grand, shuttered houses.

The Lower Town, Vanalinn, is the more lively and where to really feel the Old Town’s heartbeat.

Despite the population in the 14th century being no more than 8,000, the city was surrounded by thick walls. Along them sat an incredible 46 towers, with 26 of them still standing today.

An old train in the Telleskivi area

An old train in the Telleskivi area (Image: Jane Memmler)

What to do

Pikk Hermann Tower, part of Toompea Castle and 150ft above sea level, is the one to climb if you’re game. Needless to say, the views will literally take your breath away. If they don’t, the 215 steps to the top certainly will. (riigikogu.ee)

Lower down at the Kiek in de Kok Fortification Museum, once an artillery tower, you can follow in the footsteps of thousands of soldiers who traversed the dark passages during the 17th century. (linnamuuseum.ee)

Another former bastion is the circular Fat Margaret, now home to the Estonian Maritime Museum. Once a prison, then a gunpowder store, its unusual shape proudly displays a 700-year-old wreck and old fishing equipment. (meremuuseum.ee)

Back up at a ground level, Pikk Street has the pick of the most beautiful buildings. The Great Guild Hall with its ancient wooden doors, stained glass cupola window, and vaulted chambers, house ancient musical instruments. (ajaloomuuseum.ee).

The Blackheads Guild where merchants and craftsmen once gathered, has a fabulous Renaissance facade and colourful doorway. (mustpeademaja.ee)

A display from the KGB Museum

A display from the KGB Museum (Image: Jane Memmler)

Estonia was under Soviet rule until 1991. The chills of this time can certainly be felt at Pagari 1.

Behind nondescript wooden doors was one of the most notorious KGB pre-trial prisons with six cells set deep in the basement.

This tiny, claustrophobic space was where politicians, intellectuals and civil servants were tortured, and in many cases died, before their trials. (vabamu.ee/kgb)

Equally sinister, yet less foreboding, is the Hotel Viru. Just outside the Old Town and the beautiful Viru Gate with its red-cone roofs, the stark Finnish-owned hotel, built in 1972, was the only place Westerners could stay during Soviet times.

Officially the hotel had 22 floors but there was a hidden floor on level 23, reached via a door that looked like an entrance to a utility room which hid two radio rooms for monitoring ‘spies’.

When independence arrived, the KGB quickly legged it and incredibly these rooms weren’t discovered until 1994.

Now a museum it includes uniforms, reel-to-reel tape machines, listening devices such as side plates and ashtrays containing tiny microphones, and detailed floor plans of the hotel revealing where bugs were placed.

Sauna at the pretty Iglupark

Sauna at the pretty Iglupark (Image: Jane Memmler)

It’s thought 60 of the 465 rooms were once bugged. The management assure us that isn’t the case today. (viru.ee)

At the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, also on Toompea Hill, it’s business as usual, as worshippers and tourists come to sit among the gold icons and intricate mosaics, breathing in the incense.

Its five onion domes dominate the skyline and within the tower sit 11 bells bought from St Petersburg. (nevskysobor.ee)

There is much that is old and beautifully historic in Tallinn but it is surprisingly progressive too.

Try your hand at driving a locomotive or flying in a hot air balloon at PROTO Invention Factory in the Noblessner district, once the site of a secret Soviet submarine factory. (prototehas.ee)

Estonians love to sauna and you can do the same at the pretty Iglupark. Bookable by the hour you can sit in one of the beautiful shingle structures looking out over the sea as you sip on a cold beer.

The more adventurous can alternate with a cold-water dip reached via a private platform. (iglupark.com)

Telliskivi is another regenerated area. Bars, microbreweries, and eateries sit around a series of courtyards. It’s where you’ll find the Hektor Hotel, whose rooms are repurposed shipping containers. (telliskivi.cc/hektorstay.com)

food from Tallinn

31 restaurants are recognised by Michelin Guide (Image: Jane Memmler)

Where to eat 

The food scene is hugely important in Tallinn.

No fewer than 31 restaurants have been recognised by the esteemed Michelin Guide with two awarded coveted Michelin stars.

You feel the passion and enthusiasm everywhere you go, from the head chefs to the waiting staff. And all are committed to being as sustainable as possible.

At Vegan Restaurant V, with its rustic cafe vibe, locals queue down the street for its incredible Caesar salads with baked artichoke, lemon risotto with roasted pumpkin, and beetroot ravioli with cashew cream, costing from seven euros. (veganrestoran.ee)

The same can be said for Restaurant Lee. The extraordinary, eclectic menu is created by head chef, Canadian Hiroaki Takeda, who came to Estonia in 2020.

His fusion-style Estonian dishes (the six-course tasting menu is sensational) include Estonian beetroot with rosehip chutney, venison tenderloin and glazed pork belly with sour cabbage. From €15/ tasting menu €63.

Hotel Telegraaf is minutes away from the Town Hall

Hotel Telegraaf is minutes away from the Town Hall (Image: Jane Memmler)

Where to stay

The fantastically-located Hotel Telegraaf is minutes away from the Town Hall Square.

This elegant boutique hotel has 84 rooms and is lavishly decorated in rich tones with chandeliers, elegant furniture with original old telephones in the rooms.

In the basement is a lovely pool, Jacuzzi and sauna. (telegraafhotel.com)

There’s so much to digest in this stunning, pocket-sized city. Make sure you follow in the footsteps of the Estonians, don’t rush anything.

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