Estonia’s capital city was an important trading post on the Baltic Sea for more than 800 years. Its walled medieval quarter is full of stone towers, cobbled streets, old houses and guild halls where German-speaking merchants and craftsmen did business, and churches with ornate spires. It’s fun to wander around when the cruise ship tourists aren’t too plentiful. Elsewhere in Tallinn, old industrial zones are being renovated into hip urban hangouts, giving the city a modern feel.
During our week in Tallinn, we saw lots of interesting art, both old and new. The Kumu Museum, part of the Estonian Museum of Art, mounted a beautiful exhibition of portraits by Renaissance painter Michael Sittow, who was born in Tallinn, trained in Belgium, and worked at royal courts around Europe. Other parts of the Kumu Museum focus on work by Estonian artists during the half-century of Soviet rule (1940-1991), some of whom followed the approved style of socialist realism and others of whom took a more nonconformist approach. Today, artists are still making an impact in Tallinn, turning the Telliskivi neighborhood into a haven for interesting street art.
Just outside Tallinn, the Estonian Open Air Museum brings together 18th- and 19th-century rural buildings from around the country. The day we visited, a troupe of folk dancers was performing, dressed in the traditional styles of various parts of Estonia. We loved their energy and the twirling striped wool skirts in patterns unique to individual towns. We were struck by how dark and plain the wooden farm buildings were—long and low, with thatched roofs, no chimneys, and very little decoration. There was much less material comfort than in farms from the same period we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe.
While in Tallinn, we took a great day trip with Travelers Tours to Lahemaa National Park on Estonia’s northern coast. It’s an area of small bays strewn with boulders, peaceful pine forests and bogs, quiet seaside villages, and old manor houses built during Tsarist days. Along the way, we visited one of flat Estonia’s mighty waterfalls (25 feet high), tried out a traditional village swing, and saw storks nesting on rooftops (they flew too high for us to get a picture).