Impressions of Tallinn

We really enjoyed visiting the capitol of Estonia. Here are some reasons why, along with other impressions.

  • Tallinn is compact and crowded. It has a medieval core of cobbled streets lined with painted stone houses and churches from the 1300s to 1500s, when the city was a major German trading post in the Hanseatic League (a federation of trading towns on the Baltic and North Seas). Its spires are especially beautiful—particularly the tall, narrow one atop the 1404 Town Hall, which was reputedly based on a minaret that the designer had seen somewhere.
Two young woman sit on a stone wall with tower in background
  • Tallinn is full of tourists in August, many from the multiple cruise ships that dock nearby every day. Before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m., the old town is quieter and fun to stroll.
  • Tallinn’s old town is actually a city within a city. The high walled citadel, called Toompea, was home to a castle, a cathedral, and the German-descended nobility. The lower walled city, called Reval, was full of merchants and craftsmen and dock workers, Estonian and international. Despite being crowded together, the two parts of Tallinn’s old town remained separate administrative entities until the 1880s.
Two women in medieval costume selling candy from wooden cart
One of the many “ye olde shoppe” booths and restaurants that cater to tourists
  • Many restaurants and shops in the old town dress their staff in quasi-medieval costumes, which makes for some amusing scenes when workers are heading home on the bus, hunched (like all the other commuters) over their phones.
  • Many people in Tallinn seem like they’re in a hurry. They walk fast and drive very fast, even downtown when they’re only going from one stoplight to the next.
  • The standard of food in Tallinn is very high. We ate out once or twice a day for a week and never had a bad meal. There are lots of wonderful cafes all around the city with tables outside for people to enjoy the summer weather. Staples on menus this time of year include salmon, perch, duck, dark brown rye bread, sour-cream-based sauces, potatoes, rhubarb, strawberries and other local berries, beets, and salad greens. Dill is the number one herb. There’s very good cake, especially cheesecake (heaven!).
People eating at cafe tables on cobbled street
Tallinn is full of sidewalk cafes good for lolling away summer evenings
  • The inner suburbs of Tallinn are full of three-story boxy rectangular wooden buildings subdivided into apartments, with yards and fences. They were mostly built from the 1910s to the 1930s using several different designs—one created by Tallinn’s mayor—to house the growing population. Those characteristic “Tallinn houses” are usually clad in horizontal wooden siding and brightly painted, though some are covered in popcorn plaster. Soviet filmmakers used to come to the Tallinn suburbs to shoot scenes set in Western Europe because they thought it looked more European than anywhere else in the USSR. Today, some of the wooden Tallinn houses are slowly being lovingly restored as residences or businesses.
Tree-story suburban house with brown wood siding and metal roof
One of the characteristic wooden “Tallinn houses” from the early 20th century in the neighborhood where we stayed
  • Tallinn’s outer suburbs have large developments of dull, concrete, high-rise apartment buildings left from Soviet days. Such developments are usually the cheapest places to live, and when residents get a bit more money, they generally move to more interesting neighborhoods or buy a little house in the country and commute into town.
  • Other than McDonalds and Subway, we didn’t see any U.S. shops or restaurants in the city. That sets Tallinn apart from other capitals we’ve visited around the world. Western culture flowed here from Finland, Sweden, and other near neighbors more than from the United States.
  • There are lots of strip clubs, bars, and betting parlors in Tallinn, which makes for a strange mix when they’re in medieval buildings.
Oil painting in gold frame of man in black with large beard
  • Not long ago, Tallinn had a reputation as a cheap drinking destination, favored by backpackers and Britons out for boozy bachelor/bachelorette weekends (“stag” and “hen” parties). Recently, Tallinn has been trying to shed its reputation by raising alcohol taxes and marketing itself to other types of tourists, including cruise ship passengers. To Melissa’s delight, there are usually lots of interesting nonalcoholic drinks on menus. These days, travelers and Estonians in search of cheap alcohol head south to Latvia.
  • Among Tallinn museums, we especially enjoyed the city history museum, which had a special exhibition exploring Tallinn’s social history decade by decade over the century since Estonia first became independent. The Estonian National Gallery of Art, in a large park on the edge of Tallinn, is also wonderful. Besides a special show of paintings by Michael Sittow, a Renaissance court painter who was born in Tallinn, the museum highlights the contrasts between Soviet-approved and -unapproved works by Estonian artists in the 20th century. A history lesson told through art is something we’re bound to love.
  • And speaking of art, Tallinn has a few newish, urban, hip neighborhoods (Telliskivi and Rotermann) reclaimed from old industrial buildings. They’re full of interesting cafes and shops and feel as modern as anything in a U.S. city center. Telliskivi also has lot of great street art. And, for some reason, a lot of ping pong tables. It’s a fun place to hang out on a summer evening.
Man playing ping-pong outdoors

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