WITH THE advent of low cost airlines and the expansion of the EU, Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, has become easily accessible – you can fly direct from London’s Gatwick or Stansted airports. So, why not consider a weekend break in one of Europe’s most beautiful and intriguing cities?
A huge bonus when planning a short break is choosing a city with a nearby airport – the last thing you want to do is spend your precious holiday sitting on a connecting train – but, fortunately, Tallinn’s airport is only four kilometres from the city.
Once in the town, you will find a really interesting and attractive travel destination with a rich cultural heritage – a medieval old town, diverse cultural events, bargain shopping and a pulsing nightlife.
The best way to soak up the atmosphere of Tallinn’s charming old town, Vanalinn, with its winding cobblestone streets and storybook medieval houses, is on foot. The town is enclosed by ancient walls interrupted by several historic gates, most notably Viru Gate, the main portal between the new and old parts of the city.
Start your exploration of Tallinn at Toompea, a rough grey limestone castle at the heart of the old town. This is the setting for the seat of government, a 20th century building with a pink art nouveau façade and a tall thin corner tower, known as Pikk Hermann, the city’s oldest structure. Toompea overlooks the turrets and red-tiled roofs of the town towards the silvery Bay of Tallinn and the cruise ships on route to Stockholm, Helsinki or St Petersburg. If you arrive early enough, you will have the viewing platforms to yourself, which makes the whole experience really special.
After taking in the stunning views from Toompea, head down to the heart of the lower town’s Raekoja Plats. This picturesque square was once famous for the quantity of public executions that took place here – a record 72 took place in one day in 1806 – but now it’s more famous for the antics of the Finnish day-trippers and stag parties, drinking in the bars around the square. Be sure to take a look at the town hall – Tallinn’s civic life has been centred here at the southern edge of Town Hall Square since 1341, but the imposing Gothic building of today dates to 1404. Old Thomas, the weather vane which symbolises Tallinn, has been keeping watch since 1530.
As you wander on, take the time to admire the smart houses on Lai, the theatre street, which is home to the Applied Arts Museum, and walk along the city walls. With 46 towers, medieval Tallinn was known as one of the most fortified burgs in all Northern Europe. Today, 1.85km of the original city wall and 20 towers still survive – some are now museums, such as Fat Margaret’s tower and Kiek in de Kök, while the oldest towers, Nunne, Sauna and Kuldjala, are open to the public.
Vene, the street of food, is the perfect place for lunch. If you’re feeling brave, try some typical Estonian cuisine – marinated eel, sauerkraut and blood sausage are favourites. After lunch, visit the Dominican Monastery, founded in 1246 and one of Tallinn’s oldest existing buildings. The courtyard and surrounding passageways are filled with fascinating 15th and 16th century stone carvings.
Tallinn’s other outstanding religious attractions include the Holy Spirit Church (Püha Vaimu kirik) – an awe-inspiring, 13th century church adjacent to Town Hall Square, with an impressive Baroque tower as well as an ornate outdoor clock that is said to be one of the most photographed objects in Tallinn. The real treasure, however, is the intricate, wood-carved interior, which includes Baroque pews and a Renaissance pulpit.
Tallinn’s most famous work of art, a wall-sized fragment of Bernt Notke’s 15th century masterpiece Dance Macabre, is on display in the 13th century Gothic Niguliste Church-Museum. Destroyed during World War II and rebuilt during Soviet times, the church now houses a fascinating collection of medieval religious art, with altars from the 15th and 16th centuries, a collection of Baroque and Renaissance chandeliers, and a silver chamber. The church is also known for its acoustics – organ concerts are held here every Saturday and Sunday. Also look out for St. Olaf’s, with its 124metre spire – it’s a Tallinn landmark and some say it was once the tallest building in Europe.
It is well worth taking time to see some of Tallinn’s new town as well. You can take a tour or taxi, there’s even a London bus style, hop-on, hop-off service, but we suggest using the reliable and inexpensive public transport network of trolley buses, trams and electric trains.
A popular daytime destination is Pirita beach – here you can walk along the banks of the Pirita river and admire the ruins of St. Birgitta convent. Alternatively, take a walk in Kadriorg Park and note the contrast between the simple wooden houses and Peter the Great’s grand summer palace. There’s also the Rocca al Mare open-air museum, which is dedicated to preserving the customs of Estonian peasant life.
When you tire of sightseeing, switch to shopping – there are plenty of opportunities to spend some money in Tallinn. The Old Town’s streets are lined with souvenir, antique, clothing, footwear and speciality stores. In the city centre, there are two department stores, Kaubamaja and Stockmann, which offer everything from electronics to cosmetics, as well as large clothing sections for men, women and children.
After a hard day’s shopping and sightseeing, you’ll need some good food to fuel you for the night ahead. Tallinn’s restaurants have apparently upped their standards in the last few years and the number of ethnic restaurants has also increased. It’s still good value for money though, and it’s not hard to find a full meal for six to eight euros.
Finally, no matter how fatigued you are after dinner, it’s worth summoning the energy to sample Tallinn’s legendary nightlife – for a town its size, there is a suspiciously high number of bars and clubs. From traditional Soviet beer houses to cutting edge designer nightclubs, cigar bars to casinos…you’re sure to find somewhere perfect to round off your trip to Tallinn.
PDM verdict: A mix of modern, medieval and magical – Tallinn has joined the list of perfect short haul weekend breaks.