Tallinn: Europe’s Most Charming Capital

Olivia Balsinger

Heads up, Europe: there’ a new kid in town. While it may not initially evoke the glamor of Paris or the sultry flair of Barcelona, Tallinn, the gorgeous capital of Estonia, is an underrated gem. Here arts, culture, history, and gourmet cuisine flourish in. In recent years, Estonia has emerged as one of the top destinations for European travel, as it contains a storybook atmosphere and amiable population. It is comprised of charming rural villages and beautiful landscapes, unspoiled marshlands, beaches, and swamplands.

Of course, Tallinn isn’t new to the tourism spotlight: in fact, almost 4.7 million foreign tourists visited Estonia in 2018 alone. However, this Baltic capital has often wrongly been stereotyped as a destination you can breeze through in one day–45% of those tourists that visited in 2018 didn’t spend the night (likely only touring inside the Old City walls). We are here to show you that Tallinn–and Estonia in general–is the kind of place that will leave you craving more.

The author enjoys Old Tallinn’s fairytale views on a city tour.

And while a week is a sufficient amount of time to scrape the surface, you’ll undoubtedly book a return. For Tallinn is the melding of the old and new, of tumultuous pasts and optimistic futures, of repurposing Soviet-era buildings to create sustainable, contemporary galleries.

And while Estonia is similar to its neighboring Baltic “sister” countries, Latvia and Lithuania, in terms of geography and weather, she tends to resonate more with the Nordic countries like Finland culturally. Of course, Estonia shares a complicated, intertwined past with Russia and the Soviet Union, who occupied the country for about 300 years (however, the links between the two countries is minimal, at best.)

In short, Estonia is a complex and fascinating country that holds scars of her past near to her visions of the future. The optimal spot to begin explorations in Tallinn, the perfectly preserved—yet dually modern and innovative—capital of Estonia. 

Getting There: Tallinn’s airport is located in the city, making transfers to hotels or homestays incredibly efficient. The airport is conveniently located in the city center, about 15 minutes from Old Town.

To Stay: One of the most glamorous places to stay in Tallinn is the Hilton Tallinn Park, located just minutes from Old Town and with stellar, comprehensive views of the entire city and port. The Hilton also boasts an indoor pool and full spa service.

To Do:
Old Town: You better be wearing walkable shoes once arriving in Tallinn, as you’ll be exploring the UNESCO-listed Old City—a  real-life fairytale—predominantly on foot. Dominated by fortified walls that hold the treasures of the past, Tallinn’s Old Town requires at least a day to explore. You can dually experience the more touristic spots, such as the iconic Russian Orthodox Church with centuries of history ingrained in the walls, or go off-grid, getting graciously lost in the city’s winding stone alleyways, the pulsing veins of Old Town.

Modern Tallinn: Once you’ve had your share of time warp, its time to leave the Old City Walls and experience what many tourists have neglected to take time to explore, the Tallinn of today. Tallinn is a mecca for expats and is one of the world’s hotspots (pun intended, yes) for the startup industry. Though the Soviet Union controlled it for decades, Estonia as a whole has made up for time lost and is a modern city comparable to other European capitals.

And innovation mindsets start early: For those with children (or, frankly, those who are children at heart), The PROTO Invention Factory, opened in fall 2019, is sensory stimulation to the maximum. The exhibits are unlike anywhere else in Europe and transport guests to significant scientific discoveries of the past centuries by using prototypes brought to life by cutting-edge 21st-century equipment.

The city is also a hub of gastronomic and artistic innovation. Chocolala, for example, is a family-owned artisan chocolatiers that combines Fair Trade chocolate with nature’s flavors and Nordic design. Besides being a haven for those with a sweet tooth, the shop invites visitors to participate in a two-hour workshop preparing chocolate truffles under the supervision of chocolate connoisseurs. 

Homemade chocolate creations at Tallinn’s Chocolala.

Arts and Culture: We would be remiss in creating a Tallinn city guide and not include the awe-inspiring art scenes.

For those more interested in art with historical value, The Kadriog Art Museum is an artistic wonder in itself! It was once a baroque palace and still shows off a grandiose interior (the building was a gift from tsar Peter the I to his wife, Catherine—no wonder!). One could spend all day at the palace, soaking in the grand expositions and collections of international and local art.

Fancy a modern flair? The Swedish-designed Fotografiska Tallin is an internationally recognized museum of photography where art, music, design and general creative genius congregate, is a must. The purpose of the museum is to bring the audience into the production, dismantling any barriers between human and art. And Fotografiska’s restaurant, perched overlooking old Tallinn, is based on a zero-waste concept by the food and beverage philosophy of Sustainable Pleasure, developed by the Swedish master chef Paul Svensson.

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To Eat: We aren’t sure why Tallinn hasn’t yet topped every list of innovative European gastronomic cities, but this yet undiscovered facet of the city is a compelling strength and selling point. High quality and fresh ingredients are apparent throughout the entire restaurant scene. For example, the Pegasus restaurant in Old Town prides itself on local and top-quality components, with menu choices such as tempura goat cheese and slow-cooked pumpkin.

For timeless classics and comfort food, Lore Bistroo, in the quayside community of Port Noblessner, is the quintessential choice. For a break from the fast-paced metropolitan environment Mon Repos, translated from French to “my rest” is the ultimate retreat. Some of the dishes on the menu date back centuries, exemplifying the timelessness of the restaurant. 

To Escape: Though visitors will tremendously enjoy their time exploring the metropolis of Tallinn, escaping to the most entirely non-developed and is comprised of charming rural villages and beautiful landscapes, unspoiled marshlands, beaches, and swamplands–known as bogs.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than half of the country has been remarked with conserved forests, making it an ideal place for active travelers to explore the rugged wild. The untouched nature is home to some incredible wildlife, as well as several craters and stunning waterfalls.

The author enjoying a quick rest during her snowshoe adventure at Viru Bog

Estonians particularly enjoy the spiritual connection to life in the form of bog walks–in fast locals even have a saying that all roads lead into the bog. Into the bogland, they go, to free their mind and find their soul! Though all seasons are stunning in the heart of the bog, it is particularly healing in the wintertime, when adventurers can strap snowshoes on their boots and meander off the beaten path, the sound of silence only punctured by the howling gusts of wind and the crunching of pine leaves.

One of Estonia’s nearby nature sanctuaries is Viru Bog, only about an hour from Tallinn and with a landscape characteristic of the iconic Lahemaa National Park. 

If looking to escape for more than just the day, there is no more perfect a hotel just minutes from the action of the bog than Vihula Manor Country Club & Spa, a restored 16th-century manor delicately sitting in Estonia’s countryside. The accommodation here is dually luxurious and romantic, with activities abound during all seasons including hiking, trail hiking, and pampering in the luxurious and newly renovated spa and sauna.

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