Executive summary by Darmansjah
Despite a recent building boom, Tallin remains loyal to the fairytale of its Old Town, one of Europe’s most beguiling walled cities, complete with cobbled streets, looming spires and brooding battlements.
Kiek In De Kok
One of Tallin’s most formidable cannon towers, its name is Low German for ‘Peep into the kitchen’ – from the upper floors medieval voyeurs could peer into the houses below. Built around 1475, the tower barely survived the 16th-century Livonian war, and today houses a museum tracing the city’s military history (linnamuuseumm.ee; Komandandi 2; closed Mon; US$6).
Tallinn’s city Museum is split over 10 sites and its main branch is set in a 14th-century merchant’s house that retains some typically medieval features, including a lancet-arched portal. The engrossing displays chart the city’s development from its earliest years and are well laid out, with plenty of information in English. The top floor presents an insightful portrait of life under Soviet rule (linnamuuseum.ee; Vene 17; closed tue, US$4.60).
St. Nicholas’ Church Museum
This 13th-century Gothic church houses the Estonian Art Museum’s collection of medieval religious art. Its most famous work is Berndt Notke’s 15th-century masterpiece Dance Macabre. Other artefacts include altar pieces, tombstones and a chamber overflowing with silverware. The acoustics are first rate and organ recitals are held most weekends (nigulistemuuseum.ee; Nigulsite 3; closed Mon & Tue; US$4.80).
More than a mile of the original city wall remains, showcasing medieval fortifications and 26 defensive towers. The Patkul lookout offers fairytale views, while at Suur-Kloostri you’ll the best-preserved section of th Lowe Town walls. Take the Tallinn Old Town Walking Tour, an audio guide you can download or pick up from the tourist office (audioguide.ee; US$4.80).
Rising over the Old Town’s main square, this is the only surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. Built between 1371 and 1404, it was the seat of power in the medieval Lower Town, Old Thomas, Tallinns’s symbolic guardsman, has been keeping watch from his perch atop Town Hall since 1530. You can find similar views by climbing the tower (Tallinn.ee/raekoda; Raekoja plats; Jul & Aug closed Sun, entrance by appointment only between Sep-Jun; US$ 5.50).
Toompea Castle is Estonia’s traditional seat of power and the state flag flies from Pikk Hermann, the finest of the castle’s surviving towers, which dates from 1371. In the 18th century, the building underwent an example makeover at the hands of Russian empress Catherine the Great, converting it into the pink, Baroque-style palace that is now Estonia’s parliament building. You can’t go inside, but a wander around the grounds provides decent photo opportunities (rigikogu.ee).
Holy Spirit Church
The luminous blue-and-gold clock on the façade of this striking 14th-century Gotic church is the oldest in Tallinn, dating from 1684. Inside there are exquisite woodcarvings and painted panels, including an altarpiece dating to 1483 and a 17th-century Baroque pulpit. The church hosts regular classical musical concerts (eelk.ee; Puha Vaimu Kirik; closed Sun for worship; US$1.50).
St Catherine’s Church & Cloister
The ruined St Cathrine’s was part of a Dominican monastery founded by Scaninavian monks in 1246, later torched by a mob of Lutherans in 1524. Partially restored in 1954, the complex is today strewn with carved tombstones and includes the gloomy shell of the barren church and a peaceful cloister (Kloostri.ee; Vene 16; open mid-May-Aug; us$2.80).
Estonia’s oldest church was founded in 1233 or earlier by Danish conquerors. It stands on Toompea hill, with its fine views over the town and harbor. The exterior dates mainly from the 15th-century, with the tower added in 1779. The building was a burial ground for the rich and the walls aredecorated with the coats of arms of Estonia’s noble families (toomkirik.ee; Toom-Kooli 6; closed Mon; free).
British Airways, Lufthansa and AirFrance offer flights from Singapore to Tallinn, while KLM, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines flights are available from K.L. airport (from US$9,648, britishairways.com). Tallinn airport is just 2½ miles southeast of the Old town; you can get a taxi (ask the driver in advance for the fare because they set their own rates – it should cost no more than 10 euros), take a shuttle bus (book in advance or go to the airport’s customer service desk and expect to pay about US$6.50) pr get bus number 2 fro mbus stop number 1 (tickets US$2.20 from the driver, cheaper prepaid at a kiosk).
Where To Stay
Old Huse apartments is a special 14th-century merchant’s house that’s been split into eight beautifully furnished apartments, including a spacious two-bed with traces of a medieval painted ceiling (oldhouse.ee; Rataskaevu 16; from US$111).
Eat in (medieval peasant) style: The Estonian diet relies on red meat, pork, chicken, sausage, cabbage and potatoes – and sour cream is served with almost everything. Fish such as herring or salmon appears smoked or salted as a starter. Like Blood - Most traditional Estonian restaurants serve verivorst (blood sausage), verileib (blood bread) and verikakk (balls of blood roled in flour and eggs with bit of pig fat thrown in). For a medieval-themed meal, head to Olde Hansa, where peasant-garbed servers labour beneath large plates of wild boar, elk, and bear, and delicacies such as juniper cheese and forest mushroom soup. The chefs have done their research in producing historically authentic food – locals rate this place (oldehansa.ee).
June’s Old town Days is a week-long festival that has dancing and costumed performers (vanalinna paevad.ee), while the Meideval Festival in July has a parade, carnival, long-bow tournament and craft stalls (folkart.ee).
Lonely Planet’s Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania (US$26) has plenty of information on Tallinn, including a walk around the Old town. You can download the Estonia chapter at lonelyplanet.com (US$4.90).
Pille Petersoo’s blog nami-nami.blogspot.co.uk gives a good insight into Estonian food. The acclaimed novel Purge by sofi Oksanen weaves together Stalin’s purges and modern-day people-traficking (US$13; Atlantic Books).