A step out of the ferry terminal greets you with a lightly frosted breeze. Poking out from the top of the industrial and bustling port is the spire of St Olaf’s Church – striking a magical contrast to a more modern first glimpse of Tallinn. Winding your way in the direction of the spire, the symbol of the famous old town, the shift between the new and old becomes gradually clearer. In less than quarter of an hour, pavement transforms to cobbles under your footsteps and houses brighten to many shades of pastel colours. The architecture is Romanesque and appears to have eastern European influences which only intensifies the medieval atmosphere, the buildings form part of the UNESCO World Heritage site – reaching as old as five hundred years. Each has charming character and a diversity achieved through ornate details and turreted roofs – it would be easy to lose hours capturing the architecture on camera when just walking the ten minutes to the town square. Unfortunately, with a return ferry to catch in two hours we hit the ground running. We were enraptured by the many distractions of underground souvenir shops and took delight in snapping as many pictures as we could, in what now seems a fruitless attempt to capture the true essence of Tallinn’s Old Town. However, the humbling opening of the narrow side street into the expanse of cobbles surrounded by authentic Estonian coffee shops and many a bar (or “baar”) quickly stole our attention. The Town Hall, in the centre of the square, stood imposingly and a magnet to our eyes. I highly recommend sitting and sampling some local cuisine or refreshments in order to take time to soak up the atmosphere, outdoor seating was offered in nearly every café or baar in the square and this proved a highlight of our trip. The Vana Tallinn Cream Liquor does not disappoint if you are struggling for choice, which we enjoyed with a cheeseboard overlooking the square. In my opinion, the beauty of Tallinn really is the vibe you get from people watching and experiencing life within the city itself. The square offers a microcosmic view of the authenticity, cuisine and architecture and so is an excellent way to begin a trip.
A walk up Toompea Hill reveals the extravagant sight of Alexander Newsky Church – a must see if you get the opportunity to visit the city. The stunning baroque domes and elaborate depictions of religious mosaics are definitely worth taking in. A little further along from the church, are the two viewpoints of Tallinn (signposted and only 150 metres apart) from which a panoramic view of the city can be seen from above. The first is the Kohtuotsa viewing platform. The second viewpoint (Patkuli viewpoint) can be reached by continuing left and was a lot quieter than the first whilst having equally fantastic views! One thing I’d also really recommend is finding St Catherine’s Passage (Katariina Käik), which connects Vene Street with Müürivahe Street. It is one of the original structures of the city and is lined with glass artist’s workshops and arch features, the passage is a guaranteed mention in any list of Tallinn’s attraction and a visit will leave you with no doubt in why.
Although two hours was definitely enough time to walk round the Old Town to take in the key architecture and sit for a lunch and drink, with less time restrictions I would have loved to have visited much more. The apothecary ‘Raeapteek’ in the town square recently celebrated its 597th birthday and runs tours in a museum fashion to allow visitors to explore what medicine in the middle ages would have consisted of, which cannot get much more authentic seen as the apothecary is one of the oldest in Europe. The many museums and art galleries surrounding the Old Town are also recommended, especially for those with an interest in Soviet history as Estonia was occupied for a duration by the Soviet Union. For a more touristy experience, the Olde Hansa restaurant offers medieval European dishes which despite being reviewed as slightly pricey also has been rated highly as an immersive and enjoyable glimpse of dining in medieval Estonia. One thing worth mentioning is it is usually recommended to visit Tallinn during the summer months of July- August when temperatures are highest, we completely ignored this with an impromptu visit in February via ferry from Helsinki. From November to February Estonia tends to reach freezing temperatures and heavy snow is known to fall, even parts of the gulf between Finland and Estonia freeze over with ice. Whilst we did get lucky with clear skies and sun, there was still ice on the ground and this meant parts were slippery to walk on so this may be a factor you may want to consider when choosing a time to visit if mobility could be an issue. Otherwise, we sat outside with coats and did not struggle with temperatures or ice underfoot once we reached the Old Town. In both Finland and Estonia, we actually found the winter climate to make the cities we visited even more atmospheric and found no disruption to any form of transport – our taxi driver’s ability to drive so well on sheer ice and snow amazed us both! It definitely created a unique and more magical experience and so I say wrap up warm and invest in some good shoes. �F