How to spend a weekend in Tallinn, Estonia
An impeccably preserved medieval capital, unspoilt wildernesses, cutting-edge galleries and a thriving sauna culture make the Baltic nation an alluring European escape.
In many ways, Estonia can be a little hard to pin down. There are clear cultural parallels with its Nordic neighbour, Finland, across the water, but a centuries-long relationship with Russia — including the former Soviet Union — mean things are a little more complicated. Ever focused on the future, this nation in northeast Europe has carved its own niche and offers something entirely unique for a short-haul escape.
What to expect? The secret of Tallinn’s Old Town — all cobbled lanes, slender-steepled churches and medieval architecture — has long been out, but the Estonian capital is also a modern and progressive city, too, and a burgeoning hub of creativity and technology.
The cuisine will also catch first-time visitors by surprise, with dishes drawing heavily on the excellence of the produce coming from Estonia’s remarkable larder. The country has no shortage of space for producers, either — head out of Tallinn and you’ll quickly see just how sparsely populated a nation this is. Without people, animals have moved in to fill the wild, wooded wilderness, and a trip to one of Estonia’s national parks can include meetings with bears, elk and wolves. Throw in beautiful baroque mansions, excellent beer and an established sauna culture, and there’s suddenly far more here than you can possibly squeeze into one weekend.
City and sea
There’s no denying the beauty of Tallinn’s labyrinthine Old Town. Magnificently preserved, its medieval Hanseatic architecture attracts visitors from around the world. A group tour will ensure you don’t miss any of the highlights, but if you’re going solo, Raekoja plats (a square beside Tallinn Town Hall) will help you get your bearings. The buildings framing the square are endlessly photogenic — none more so than the mighty, gothic town hall itself — but look out for the Raeapteek, a pharmacy that’s been in use since the 1400s and said to be Europe’s oldest. Follow your nose around the cobbled streets and lanes, and head up Toompea Hill to admire the Estonian parliament buildings, the palatial Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and sensational city views.
With historic Tallinn in the bag, it’s time to look to the city’s more futuristic side, at Telliskivi Creative City. This former wreck of an area is now home to dozens of creative start-ups. An easy walk from the Old Town, much of the architecture is industrial on the outside but with inventive gems to discover within. Fotografiska is unmissable: part museum, part gallery, it’s home to permanent and temporary photography exhibitions, not to mention an excellent restaurant. Opposite, La Muu is an incredibly popular local ice cream shop. Around the corner, you’ll find a coffee shop, a brewery and the Junimperium Distillery — a producer of artisan gins — sitting side by side, with the Vintage Beauty OÜ furniture shop opposite.
Head towards the seafront, where you’ll find Põhjala Brewery & Tap Room. Set inside a cavernous facility that also houses its own restaurant and sauna, it has 24 house-brewed beers on tap. The surrounding Kalamaja district is also undergoing massive regeneration, with Noblessner Port unrecognisable from its days as the main submarine shipyard of Imperial Russia. Instead of belching chimneys, you’ll now find excellent restaurants and bars, as well as the Proto Invention Factory, a sort of theme park for virtual reality and prototype technology set in a former warehouse. From here, head to the new Iglupark and its black-wood saunas. Watch the sunset, then round off a spell in the steam rooms with a plunge into the icy Baltic Sea.
Stately Homes and Spas
Fifty miles east of Tallinn, located within Lahemaa National Park, Palmse Manor is one of several grand, baroque estates dotted around the country. It’s existed in one form or another since the early 16th century; the current incarnation dates from 1785. Its gorgeously symmetrical exterior wouldn’t look out of place in a Wes Anderson film. Take a tour of the sumptuous grounds and house and, if you’re not driving, finish off with a tasting of wine and various Estonian spirits.
Heading south, it’s a two-hour drive to the coastal city of Pärnu, so break the journey up with lunch at Põhjaka Manor, near the town of Paide. Dedicated to seasonal, local produce, the menus depend on what’s arrived from the restaurant’s suppliers that morning.
Soomaa National Park is an expanse of rivers and forests, and perhaps the best place in the country to watch the river banks burst and fields flood, creating new waterways. The park is also home to huge areas of peat bog, and if that doesn’t sound appealing, a guided tour with charismatic guide Aivar Ruukel may well change your mind. Aivar offers walks out across the bogs to help visitors understand this remarkable ecosystem. Ungainly snowshoes are used to stop you sinking, but if you don’t fancy that, there’s also a series of wooden walkways, too. Growing at just 1mm a year, the sphagnum moss captures huge amounts of carbon, making it a vital part of the landscape. Yet these tours aren’t dry, biology lectures — they also offer the chance to go wild swimming and try wild berries along the way.
In late summer, Pärnu Beach throngs with domestic tourists, drawn here by its golden sands and the rows of colourful, historic houses behind it. The city’s other major draw is its excellent spas. Hedon Spa & Hotel is perhaps the town’s grandest, offering a wide selection of different treatments, including silent spas and even a night spa. Don’t miss the on-site Restaurant Raimond, which offers fine dining tasting menus featuring the likes of caviar, venison, and Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. Although, if you fancy one more mansion for the day, you could always eat instead at the lavish, art nouveau Villa Ammende, a 10-minute walk northwest. The à la carte options include roast beef heart with garlic, pickled apple, dried onion and salty blackcurrant, and roast chicken broth.
Three Soviet relics to discover
1. Hara Harbour
The former Russian submarine base at Hara sits on the northern coast and has become a strangely serene site for watersports. It’s not always been this way, however — built in the 1950s, the now-forlorn structure still has plenty for history buffs to marvel at, including Soviet artwork, photographs from the era and no shortage of stories from locals who lived under the regime.
2. Hotel Viru & KGB Museum
Given its astonishing history, the very fact that Tallin’s towering Hotel Viru is still a working hotel is one of its most surprising features. At the height of the Cold War, the KGB spied on guests, whose rooms were riddled with surveillance equipment. Today the 23rd floor has been dedicated as a museum to the city’s paranoid period of history.
3. Soviet Statue Graveyard
Statues — many created between 1945 and 1990 by Estonian artists — salvaged from squares, plinths and buildings in Tallinn have now been amassed in a plot behind Maarjamäe Palace, part of the Estonian History Museum. It’s an eery feeling to wander among oversized icons of the Soviet area, including Stalin and Lenin. The scowling, ground-level, head of the latter is particularly unsettling.
Five restaurants to visit in Tallinn
Founded by a chef, Janno Lepik, and a sommelier, Kristjan Peäske, Lee goes big on dishes like Estonian venison and locally caught trout. Can’t make up your mind what to order? Opt for the Lee Experience: a number of culinary highlights from the sophisticated menu. leeresto.ee
A short walk from Telliskivi, Ülo has a menu that wouldn’t look out of place in a San Francisco restaurant, offering up the likes of beef-cheek tacos, and tiger prawns with grilled pineapple. Over half its dishes are vegan, too. facebook.com/ulorestoran
3. Lore Bistro
Down by the Noblessner docks, the Lore Bistro is a fine place to dine if you’ve visiting the nearby Proto Invention Factory or Estonian Maritime Museum. Expect inventive, seasonal dishes made almost exclusively with Estonian produce. lorebistroo.ee
4. Rataskaevu 16
At this popular little spot in the Old Town, most of the dishes are made from produce sourced from Estonia, whether that’s the duck fillets, Baltic herring or the show-stopping elk roast. rataskaevu16.ee
Pegasus has been an Old Town fixture since the early 1960s, but with the modern decor and slick presentation of local dishes, it can’t be accused of not moving with the times. restoranpegasus.ee
Plan your visit
Regent Holidays has a three-night trip from £395 per person, including flights, and three nights at Hotel L’Ermitage in a twin room, B&B. regent-holidays.co.uk. Air Baltic flies from Gatwick direct to Tallinn three times a week, Ryanair flies four times from Stansted. EasyJet is set to fly twice a week from the end of March.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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