I don't know what it is in particular, but I've always had a fascination with Estonia and have wanted to go there for quite some time. I found its capital city, Tallinn, to be enchanting and the Estonian people intriguing. What did I know about Estonia before visiting there? Not too much of anything really other than the fact that they were behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet era, that their capital is supposedly one of the more beautiful European cities, that I really like their flag, and that the nation has a highly respectable hockey team. Well, I learned a lot in my couple days there in town, both about the history and modern culture of Estonia and also about some of the very admirable characteristics of the Estonian people.
Tallinn sits on the northern coast of Estonia, parked along the Gulf of Finland, which shoots off of the Baltic Sea. It is 88 km across the water to Helsinki and just a little over 200 km to the Russian border. Estonians share so much more in common with their cousins across the Gulf than their enormous neighbor to the East. I'll get to that later though. Tallinn has a very well preserved medieval city center, and its skyline is dominated by the old city wall towers and church steeples.
The new city, with its few high-rises, lies just beyond the old medieval center. The star of the show there is the Viru Hotel, a relic of the Cold War era and Soviet rule. The Viru was the hotel used by foreign (including Western) dignitaries during the Cold war. So it should be no surprise to anyone that the place was also frequented by the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB. Now, the Viru is home to the KGB museum, an excellent exhibit offering a look at the dreaded agency, its covert practices and fear tactics, and use of hotels around the Soviet empire to gather intelligence on whoever they could manage to.
Tallinn is also a harbor and port city, and with its long coast line, Estonia has always been a seafaring nation. The port has served for centuries as one of the major trade hubs in the Baltic Sea corridor. Unfortunately in our modern times, this excellent access to the seas also brings with it cruise ships, and anyone who reads this blog regularly should know exactly how I feel about cruises and cruise ports. More on that below...
Down on street level... cafe culture reigns supreme. The great thing about Tallinn is that it is lovely right down to the smallest detail. For instance, take a close look at this street scene: notice the specialty writing on the wall on the upper left, the strings of lights strung above the street (in August!), the soft pastels of the different buildings, the Estonian flag, the globe lamps, the flowers and other plants around the cafe seating. The whole place just screams charm.
Put simply, Tallinn is a picture perfect, ideal European city.
One thing you'll find around Tallinn is that they are definitely proud of (or at least very willing to embrace for the benefit of tourist euros) their medieval heritage. Several places in the center are themed around medieval architecture and "culture". I found all this kind of fun and for the most part, it feels quite a bit more authentic than many other places I've been that take the medieval aspects to nearly Disney World levels of fake and tacky.
Another great thing about Tallinn is the mix of architecture. They have all sorts of gems tucked in and around the old center. They are all in such an interesting state of preservation too... not so clearly recently restored nor overly crumbling or decrepit... just a perfectly authentic state of old.
I love the layers and curved paths you get in old medieval towns. They are so much more organic than modern cities.
Tallinn was a big medieval city that stood as an important trade post between Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. The city was heavily fortified to protect its financial interests, and the old city walls and towers are still standing today.
Tallinn's giant old town hall, seen here on the right in the Town Hall Square, is supposedly the oldest in the Baltic region and Scandinavia. The building was finished in 1404, though has been restored and altered multiple times since.
Then there are the old buildings like this one... they seem like something out of a movie or even a cartoon; they are so perfectly charming and quirky.
Tallinn also has plenty of old doors just oozing with character. As anyone who follows this blog regularly knows, I do love door shots, so there are several sprinkled through this post!
Back in Town Hall Square. If you wander around the Old Town, you end up stumbling back upon the same landmarks multiple times; the old center is not a tremendously big town, which is nice since it is quite approachable to explore on foot and you can do a decent job getting quite familiar with the layout in a short amount of time.
In many places, the facades just seem to glow with some kind of living warmth.
Pictorial signs were very important prior to widespread literacy... a picture is worth an infinite number of words to someone who can't read. From the hops, I would guess this is a brewery. There were several brewpubs around town, including a few in old cellars, which I always love visiting in Europe.
This is one of my favorite shots from this trip... I just love the various colors and textures.
These three old houses are quite famous for their photogenic charm. Like in Amsterdam, the beams sticking out above the central windows on the 3rd floor used to support cranes for hauling goods up into storage lofts above shops (ground floor) and living spaces (2nd floor).
The bright colors help a lot with making these three so popular too...
OK, and more doors (not nearly as old)
Tallinn offers up a pretty classic European city experience, and other than the cruisers (who mostly suck when they are around), it doesn't seem to be completely inundated with tourists like so many other "classic" European cities. Plus it really is so much more approachable than so many of the bigger European cities. Add to that some pretty admirable characteristics of the locals I had the pleasure of interacting with, such as genuine kindness, straightforwardness, and this interesting form of timidity, and you have the recipe for a great travel experience. One of the stories that sticks with me came from the young Estonian woman who helped run the hostel I stayed at: she informed me of how the Estonian national animal is the barn owl and how Estonians relate very much to this bird in their timidity and love for nature. She also told me about how Estonia also has the "right to a night" freedom to camp just about anywhere in the country and the same love of sauna (in the nude of course!) as the Finns.
Tallinn also has plenty of churches around town. Their towers, which are the tallest structures in the old center, seem to always be in eyeshot. I got super lucky with these skies too... the lighting and the clouds were just perfect.
Several of them just completely dominate the skyline too... they are huge compared to the surrounding buildings! Views like this are offered up from several great overlooks on the hill that sits on the southwestern part of the old town.
More of Tallinn's wonderfully bright and cheerful colors. This of course was at the height of summer... it would be interesting to see the contrast in the city on a dark and cold winter day.
Little imperfections add charm. This tiny little place seemed more like something out of Harry Potter than the real world.
Check this old courtyard out... can you say character and charm? What is it about a crumbling facade that is so endearing and strangely attractive?
Could a street scene have more character? This picture makes me want to know so much about the history of this building and who is living there and using those chairs now.
Tallinn's back alleys are very inviting... they draw you in making you wonder what new sights lie around each corner.
Its streets do much the same...
I loved this building. The combination of the deterioration, the fact that its color contrasted so much with the surrounding buildings and its red roof, the chopped front corner of the roof, and the lighting at this particular time on this particular day just all seemed so right. It looked like a scene right out of a classic WWII movie.
Tallinn also had some very entertaining street art sprinkled around here and there...
This is just amazing.
Like Latvia, it seems the Estonians also have some ghosts haunting the nation since the Soviet occupation... this graffitied surveillance camera and reference to the KGB and 1984 (Big Brother anyone?) reminded me a lot of that... the black cat just added to the shot so nicely too, especially with the camera pointed at it like that! Big Brother is watching you!
And street art of a different form... there is plenty of official decoration of all types on the buildings around town. Much of which is also very entertaining.
For example, who is this bespectacled man? Whoever he is, he must love people watching (or he's just a peeping tom).
I really enjoyed this mock-Egyptian facade too... especially with it's reflection in the building opposite it.
A shot of the artist...
Unfortunately for travelers like me, Tallinn is a major cruise port of call on the Baltic. This means that each day, the city is swarmed by a plague of inconsiderate cruise tourists. What it is about cruises that just seems to collect the worst type of tourist escapes me... maybe it is the laziness of the travel in general. Anyway, that was a major point against Tallinn, though I did my best to avoid it. Tallinn's sky needle transmission tower, seen behind the port here, is one of the tallest in the world, putting it up there with cities like Tokyo, Toronto, Tehran, Berlin, and Auckland (to name just a few).
Hard to imagine in the heat of August, but they get cold winters there too, as is evident from the wool scarves on sale at the market.
If you're ever in Tallinn, be sure to swing by this wine cellar... and go inside... it is quite impressive. However, if you're there in the cellar, I recommend you take your wine out to the street to enjoy the people watching from one of those lovely little alcoves.
The food in Tallinn was fantastic too. All of the ingredients seemed to be very local and very fresh.
I found many things had an elegantly simple style, which was epitomized in the food I had there. They seemed to pay the utmost attention to quality of the ingredients and preparation as well. This trout for example was perfectly cooked and served with garden fresh vegetables.
This place sits at the base of the old town hall. It serves up some interesting rustic dishes, including elk soup, which is delicious!
The sausages there weren't bad either.
If you want to feel like you're eating in an old medieval inn... be sure to stop at this place and grab a spot at one of the tables inside.
Tallinn: I will return!