Like Prague in the palm of your hand, the compact, walled old town of Tallinn with its marvellous medieval buildings is truly one of the gems of Northern Europe.
The vibrant capital of Estonia blossomed after brutal, bleak decades of Soviet oppression ended in a bloodless revolution, and there have been even more changes in the ten years since I was last there.
But the timeless charm is still very much there, with more reasons for going there added to the mix and very little taken away. The bitter, all-too-recent past can’t be readily forgotten, so the Estonians choose to have it on show in their proud timeline? A small country with a very large, welcoming heart on its sleeve.
A trek through the atmospheric Old Town with its stunning skyline and iconic Town Hall square is a must, and although rough cobbled lanes and steep inclines are a pain if you’re not too good on your feet, the place is so compact and cosy that most of it is manageable, with no shortage of bars and pavements cafes for regular stops to rest and people-watch. Problems might come with spiral staircases in some of the old fortifications, where it is impossible to instal lifts, but there are always alternatives to make sure you don’t miss out on either views or lasting impressions of what is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is brought home at the Kiek in de Kök – when the inevitable sniggers subside, it means ‘peep into the kitchen’, as the 15th century tower is so high that guards joked they could see down the chimneys of the houses below. For as well as the view from 38 meters up, you can also go down under Toompea hill to explore the labyrinth of Bastion Tunnels, some of them only recently discovered. They were designed to move soldiers and ammunition around the powerful defences during the 1600s, but were later used as bomb shelters, particularly during the Second World War when the Soviets unleashed a senseless blitz on the city. In later years, the Soviets, in turn, added electricity, running water, nuclear-proof ventilation systems and phones, and a select list of who could be kept safe.
As well as painful modern times, the Estonian History Museum’s new permanent exhibition in the beautifully-restored Gothic-style Great Guild Hall in the centre of the Old Town also traces 11,000 years of the country’s past and is well worth a visit, especially after you have looked over the historic rooftops from one of the accessible viewing platforms on Toompea.
Move outside the Old Town and Tallinn begins to show how it has spread its wings – almost literally at Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour, which has to be one of the most impressive maritime museums you will ever see. The huge triple-domed hangar on the waterfront has been restored with tremendous imagination, effectively showing three layers – above, on and below the sea – with very British connections. A raised walkway on the ‘surface’ of the sea leads from dug-out canoe to powerboats, then above you looms a life-sized replica of a British-built Short 184 torpedo-carrying seaplane from 1915.
Next is what you’ve been longing to get to, as you climb onto the hull of a submarine. Not just any submarine, but a genuine, 600-ton fighting machine built for the Estonian Navy by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow in 1936, which survived the Second World War to be later restored and dragged from the water and become a jaw-dropping centrepiece. Wide steps mean even the less intrepid can go in through one of the torpedo hatches and explore almost the entire boat, before climbing out and then going ‘underwater’ among torpedoes and sea mines to reach all manner of hands-on activities for both grandchildren and the big kids with them.
Across town, next to the relaxing beauty of Kadriorg park and Peter the Great’s baroque palace, is the modern masterpiece of the Kumu Art Museum, which serves as Estonia’s national gallery and a centre of contemporary art, and which could very easily take up a full day for culture vultures.
So there’s plenty to feed the mind and soul, and even more food on offer in all manner of bars, cafes, hotels and restaurants, ranging from a very discreet McDonald’s on the fringe of the Old Town, to the very finest of fine dining which doesn’t need to break the bank.
First to make a distinct impression was Mekk, in the Old Town, with its historic setting a counterpoint for the best of modern Estonian cuisine. Chef Rene Uusmees stresses freshness and eco-friendly ingredients in a dazzling menu, but one of his four-course specials can be as little as €30, or €46 with wine, and it is special.
Only a short walk away is Neh, the seasonal city restaurant of the 5* Pädaste Manor, a resort and spa on the island of Muhu, which supplies much of the kitchen’s fresh produce from its estate and the forest. Nothing on the menu is frozen, apart from sorbet, ice cream, and vodka.
And where to stay – My room was on the 21st floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru, a fully-refurbished former Soviet tower with commanding views of the harbour, which was always off-limits for locals. The 23rd floor – not marked on any of the lifts – used to provide even more commanding views, for it once belonged to the KGB, complete with their cameras and listening devices.
The rooms are now a museum, forming just one piece of a complex and colourful jigsaw which makes Estonia a remarkable place to visit.
For the very best short breaks to Tallinn and other cities across Europe and beyond, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.