Tallinn is the capital city of Estonia, one of the three Baltic states. It was under Soviet rule from the 1940s until 1991, something which is evident in the architecture and style all around. Following adventures this year in Bordeaux and Porto, my cousin Luke and I decided to go for somewhere a little bit different.
Just a couple of hours away from Finland by ferry, Tallinn’s vibe is a fusion of Baltic, Soviet, Scandinavian and Medieval influences. Together, it creates a fairytale feeling and for this reason alone, I had to go and visit.
Two days is enough to explore this petite city but it’s a good idea to plan in advance what you want to see and do to avoid wandering around having to seek things out. Tallinn can hide some of its best secrets so here are some of the ones we saw for you to know about beforehand.
Tallinn Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats)
This is the central square of the old town (Vana Tallinn) where you’ll find the town hall and a host of bars and restaurants. The town hall was built in 1404 and today it hosts events such as small concerts and meetings.
It goes without saying that you will pay considerably more for food and drinks at these venues than those a few streets away.
Knowing this, but in need of sitting down to get our bearings and wait for our apartment to be ready, we sat down on at an outside table under a marquee. The staff there were so lovely and friendly but it has to be said, both of us got stung:
Luke paid 20 euros for a soup; a lovely Estonian soup but.. 20 euros!
I, on the other hand (literally), got stung by a wasp.
One thing I hadn’t learnt in my pre-trip reading was that Estonia has a lot of wasps and their stings are super strength.
I was wearing a strong perfume and the wasp crawled inside my coat sleeve; I watched it sting me and it was the longest sting I’ve seen (this is the third time I’ve been stung by a wasp).
My hand swelled up and went numb and the next day, the pain felt more like I’d punched a wall rather than endured a sting. Luke looked up Estonian wasps and it’s true, they are known to be fiercer than usual.
I didn’t wear perfume during the day again in Tallinn.
(If you visit Tallinn, be aware of the high number of wasps around even in cold weather. I bought Hydro Cortisone Gel there to treat it so maybe pack some with you just in case.)
Later that night we returned to this bar and ended up enshrouded by actors and actresses in early 20th century dress, floodlights and boom microphones. They filmed out in the street in the pelting rain before retreating to a dressing room in the cellar of the bar as we sat drinking our local ales. We will probably never know what film or programme that was for….
There may be more but we saw two and visited one of them, twice. The one that stands out the most is this, Olde Hansa (Vana Turg, 1):
The tavern that we visited is called III Draakon (Raekoja plats, 1) which means ‘The Third Dragon’ and was one of the top experiences we had in Tallinn. I highly recommend you call in and visit the “sharp tongued but warm hearted” tavern women for a good drink, a good feast and a good telling off.
“As a girl who grew up on films such as Anastasia and as an adult loves Anna Karenina, I’ve long had a love for ornate Russian style and glamour.”
Lit only by candlelight, strict rules on a chalkboard state that camera flashes aren’t allowed and the landlady is always right. Try to violate either rule and you’d surely be shown the door.
Here is a transcript from memory of the conversation I had with two of these tavern women:
Me: Hello, do you speak English?
Me: Can I have a menu please?
Woman: No. You have to talk to me.
Me: What do you have?
Woman: Elk soup, elk jerky, sausages and pies. Choose a light or dark beer. There are gherkins in the barrel but you have to serve yourself. We don’t have spoons, drink the soup straight from the bowl. Clear your dishes away when you’ve finished.
For 25 euros in total, we got 2 bowls of elk soup, elk jerky, 2 sausages, an apple pie and a meat pie, 2 dark ales served in ceramic pitchers and a couple of gherkins. Tin whistle music plays in the background while candle light flickers on every table.
I wasn’t sure what I’d make of the soup and as a visual eater, I was slightly unnerved by not being able to see what I was eating but it was really nice and beer definitely tastes better and colder out of porcelain.
Tallinn’s Three Cathedrals
I’m from Liverpool where we are proud to have two cathedrals but Tallinn has three.
Firstly, there is the catholic St. Peter and St. Paul’s cathedral but we didn’t make it to that one. I can only tell you here about the two we did visit.
(Lossi plats, 10, Toompea Hill)
It was a picture of Tallin’s landscape featuring this onion-domed Russian cathedral that made me want to come and see this city.
Opened in 1900, this building was designed in the Russian Revival style and looks more like a palace. As a girl who grew up on films such as Anastasia and as an adult loves Anna Karenina, I’ve long had a love for ornate Russian style and glamour.
What I didn’t realise was how it takes your breath away when you turn the street corner and are faced with the magnitude, not only of the building itself but of every arched window, dome and door.
I wasn’t sure if the interior would be disappointing after the detail and decoration of the exterior but nothing prepared us for the grandeur once we stepped inside.
Inside shimmers with an abundance of gold but even that is almost overshadowed by the exotic colours all over, of teal greens and rusty oranges. Chandeliers and stands of candles along with colourful montages of Jesus are a treat for the eyes but are borderline overwhelming.
It is clear that the architect and designers aimed to peacock their wealth and power with such a captivating but menacingly looming building.
I have seen a lot of cathedrals over the years, many of them stunning, but this one is quite something else. A must see in Tallinn.
“Adding a splash of colour and illusory warmth to a usually cold city, Tallinn looks like something from a cake shop with its icing sugar buildings and frosted rooftops.”
It has to be said, this building pales (literally) into the background compared to its Russian counterpart. Built in the 1200s and originally Roman Catholic, it has been a Lutheran cathedral since the 1500s.
The stark contrast of white walls and black roofs and spire with austere windows and doors does not give off the glamour of the Alexander Nevsky nor does it seem particularly inviting however it serves the Lutheran community of Tallinn.
Estonia now has around half of its population identifying as non-religious, a shift that has taken place since the Soviets took over and has endured after independence.
Marzipan Museum at Café Maiasmokk
Tallinn claims to be the place where marzipan was invented in the middle ages, originally used for medicinal purposes. I’ve googled this and I’ve seen all different places of acclaimed origin including Germany and Italy so it seems to be one of those myths that many places claim.
Café Maiasmokk was opened in 1864 and is said to be the oldest café in Estonia.
We called in to see their marzipan museum room because I absolutely love marzipan or anything almond based for that matter.
Feeling tired from several early mornings and a lot of walking, I ordered my first ever espresso. I know, but I’m really not a tea or coffee drinker. I chose a few miniature marzipan sweets from the counter with lemon, hazelnut and lingonberry which went so well with the bitterness of the espresso.
The decor of the main café has been largely untouched since the 19th century. Red velvet and gold trimmings adorn the room with glittering chandeliers hanging from the ornate ceiling.
In the marzipan room, a lady was painting marzipan figures freshly prised from their 100 year old molds. You can tell they are old molds due to their old fashioned style, like vintage Victorian christmas style ornaments.
In a glass case in the counter, there is a giant marzipan girl preserved from 1936. A groom bought it for his bride as a wedding gift and decades later, after they had both died, their daughter returned it to the shop where it is now displayed.
Adding a splash of colour and illusory warmth to a usually cold city, Tallinn looks like something from a cake shop with its icing sugar buildings and frosted rooftops.
Here are a few of those Hansel and Gretel style buildings, a far cry from the favoured grey, white and beiges that we have here in the UK:
Greens, blues, yellows and creams near the Alexander Nevsky and Parliament buildings
A cute doorway of a building at the side of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral
A café and chocolaterie covered in ivy
A garlic restaurant which we didn’t try but I can’t imagine how strong the food here is
Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform
A great place to see the cityscape of Tallinn is to follow the cobbled streets of the old town up Toompea Hill to the Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform.
Here, you will see just how diverse the skyline is in 2019: modern towers and hotel chains intermingle with old church steeples and rustic brown tiled roofs.
Tallinn’s Bars/ Nightlife
Tallinn is an increasingly popular place for incoming stag dos from Scotland and neighbouring Finland, where drinks are double the price. We arrived on a Sunday and left on a Wednesday so we didn’t see this but we perhaps overestimated the nightlife of a Sunday/Monday in October.
Drinks were not as cheap as we had been told either. I didn’t once see a 1 euro beer, more like 4-6 euros per drink. Wines tend to come from Italy, France or Spain and occasionally some local dessert wines are listed which I didn’t try.
The star of the show in Tallinn is their own ale. I’m not an ale drinker but I don’t mind one from time to time in the right conditions. Their dark ale tastes like honey but doesn’t have an overwhelming taste or alcohol strength.
Tread VERY carefully with their local liquor- VANA TALLINN.
Its wikipedia page describes it as ‘robust’- this is a polite way of putting it. Maybe we have delicate British palettes but one sip of this rum based, cinnamon, citrus oil and vanillas based concoction was met with wincing expressions akin to that of someone who might have sucked a sour blue and pink cola bottle dipped in lemon juice and battery acid. We paid 10 euros for two drinks, took one sip each, and left them. You may have a different opinion on it and I hope you do! The Estonians appear to be very proud of this and you’ll see chocolate and biscuits flavoured with the stuff…
Stand out bars (for good and for bad) include Mad Murphy’s– a dubious Irish bar in the central square where a Finnish pest wouldn’t take the hint so we had to run away…
Labor is a lurid 90s/early 00s laboratory bar decked out in test tube shaped cocktail glasses and neon lights.
Hell Hunt offered a livelier crowd and an excellent food and drink menu. It has a slightly rocky vibe and the staff are extremely friendly.
There were several others but their names fail me right now…
If you find yourself in a supermarket, pick up a can of this beautiful stuff, a Belgian cherry flavoured beer ❤ :
When to visit Tallinn?
Obviously, I only know what it is like in autumn. I don’t know how mild their springs are, how sunny their summers are or how bitterly cold their winters are. However I do know how charming and cosy their autumn is so part of me imagines it could very well be the best time of year to visit- not too warm and not too cold.
Brown and golden leaves scatter on to the cobbled streets below and a bicycle parked outside our apartment collected conkers that fell from an old-looking chestnut tree.
Afternoon temperatures averaged around 9 celsius but you’d feel the chill in the air late at night. Definitely bring a coat with you however you won’t be freezing either…
Where to stay?
I only know one place, the place we stayed. It was an Air B&B and I would recommend it to anyone. Our apartment was centrally located in the old town, slightly eerie at first but I fell in love with the old school glamour and that trumpet chandelier. If you like the look of this, contact Karina on Air B&B. Otherwise, you’ll find you’re spoiled for choice in terms of affordable hotels and apartments. I personally would choose the old town every time; the modern industrial side to Tallinn is just slightly out of the way…
As an English teacher, I am used to providing keywords so the students can understand my lessons. In Tallinn, you’ll find they (admirably) have a very good command of English so communication is generally smooth and clear.
I usually try to learn a few words and phrases of the language of all countries I visit but due to a hectic work schedule, I only learnt two words of Estonian and they are probably the only two you will need:
Aitäh– thank you
As one of the tavern women reminded me, nobody ever forgets the second part of the Estonian word for ‘cheers’.