Easy living in Estonia

Hipster bars, medieval banquets and roaming robots in this charming old-world town.
The writer at what must be the most Instagrammable spot in Tallinn.

I’d been meaning to grab myself a Tallinn city-break and check out Estonia’s colourful Old Town, for a while. I will admit that the attraction was quite superficial really, and mostly arising from Google images that kept reminding me of those fairytale books we read in our childhood. 

Gorgeous castles, colourful spires and tiny cobbled streets. Oh yes, and so many trees, despite this being a city. You can see why I was seduced. Shamefully, other than that, I knew pretty much nothing about either the country as a whole or Tallinn itself. 

That all changed last summer, when one of those E19.99 ticket sales coincided with a Rammstein concert (if you don’t know, don’t ask). Clearly, the time to pay those fairytale castles a visit was now. 

So – is Tallinn a good city-break? 100 per cent.  It’s compact and you can easily hit the main landmarks over three days; you can catch an exhibition or a concert over the weekend; and if it’s three days of hearty food and good beer you’re after, there’s that too. Bonus – trees. Tallinn is worth visiting because it offers a bit of everything, from food to culture, nature and unique landmarks. But also because it’s extremely good value for money.

For the foodie – Great news for Malta’s carnivores, Tallinn is very big on meat. To be fair, if you Google the words ‘Estonian food’, you’ll be pointed in the direction of a bunch of smoked sardine sandwiches. Well, sprats actually but still – hard pass.

Happily, what I actually found were endless taverns serving food in the mediaeval style. Think pork, game, hearty stews, blood sausage and potato in all its forms and sizes. The potato pancakes and the fried potato cakes were pretty amazing, but they also do a mean mash with sour cream. Beats the British version hands down.

You’ll find plenty of restaurants serving these mediaeval banquets in the centre of the city, and they’re usually very well-priced. My favourite was Olde Hansa, which at first comes across like a tourist trap but actually turned out to be a genuinely lovely experience.

There are a few vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but because they’re few and far between it’s advisable to put in a few reservations to make sure you don’t end up wandering the streets hangry.  The one I can vouch for is Vegan Restoran V, which is bang in the centre and super-easy to find. 

One weird find that I didn’t regret was an Italian restaurant unimaginatively called La Prima Pizza. Why would I go to an Italian restaurant in Tallinn? No idea, except that I peeked inside just as the waiter was serving what looked like killer Tiramisu, so my fate was sealed. Happily, my faith was not misplaced and the pasta is actually better than the pizza.

Nice restaurants don’t come cheap in Tallinn. Somewhere like La Prima Pizza will easily set you back around €100 for a very basic pasta meal, dessert and two glasses of wine. The tavern style restaurants tend to offer better value for money and bigger portions, especially if you opt for a set menu. A seven-course feast at Olde Hansa cost €55 per person, water included.

For the culture vulture – Telliskivi, Tallinn’s reply to London’s Shoreditch, is where it all happens. Think of it as a huge, previously industrial outdoor area packed with warehouses that have today been repurposed into art galleries, clubs, hipster joints, vintage stores, design centres and the like. 

The cherry on the cake? The greenery outside is complemented with hammocks, huge beanbags, outdoor gyms and picnic areas. When the weather’s warm it’s buzzing with people from early afternoon till late at night, and it doesn’t even need to be the weekend. I tried my hand at one of the tight rope courses that was set up between two massive trees. I nursed a bruise on my butt for the entire week. Embarrassingly, a couple of 10-year-olds breezed right across the five-metre span.

My favourite art gallery was the Fotografiska, with two museum floors and the chillest coffee space on the ground floor. Cleverly, the back of the cafe is a small performance space that can host gigs and plays, and I’d love to see something like that set up in Malta. When I was there, the entire first floor was dedicated to photographer Frank Ockenfels’s photography, including his David Bowie series, so I did feel rather lucky. 

For the tourist about town

Old Town – Needless to say, this is probably your first stop. The UNESCO Heritage Site is charming, colourful and very easy to fall in love with. Take your time meandering the cobbled streets, people-watching in the Town Hall Square, admiring the beauty of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and walking all the way up Toompea Hill. Stop for an insta-worthy shot at the Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform with views stretching all the way to the harbour, before making your way down through Danish King’s Garden.

Snelli Park – Also known as Toompark, it takes up the area right underneath Toompea Castle and around Snelli Lake, connecting the back of the Old Town with the newer side of Tallinn. It’s great for a leisurely stroll along the ample walking trails, a jog if you’re feeling energetic, a read on one of the benches if you’re not, various insta-worty shots and even a spot of duck feeding.

Baalti Jam Market – fresh fruit, smoothies, fresh vegetables, flowers… life is colourful and happy at Baalti Jam, and it’s worth a visit even if you’re not buying anything. If you time the end of your visit for lunchtime, the food market area has communal seating space and some lovely treats. The focus here is healthy, fresh and seasonal, so even your quesadillas will be guilt-free. 

Food delivery robots are a big deal in Tallinn.

For the party animals – Let’s just come out and say it – Tallinn is not best known for its pumping club scene, so if this is what you’re after maybe better choose another destination. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing fun to do on the chilling and drinks front. 

Once again Telliskivi is your best bet, with a lot of bars that also serve food, and some live music on the weekends. Nudist Winery (chill – no-one’s actually nude) is a pretty sweet spot for music and a club-like vibe with live gigs in the evenings. The Old Town is best for dinners and a bit of a stroll after, and restaurants tend to wrap up pretty early too, although in the summer months you’ll find people strolling around till after midnight. 

Kalamaja, closer to the coast, is also worth a visit for its architecture, the specialty bars (there are some super gin and rum bars and a bohemian vibe.

For the shopaholic – Not much going on here. The Old Town sports some traditional clothing and crafts stores, but these scream more ‘tourist’ than ‘foksy’. There are a few malls spread around, sporting all the obvious high-street names. Prices are a tad cheaper than you’d see in Malta.

Look out for: The robot invasion – In Tallinn you’ll find yourself sharing the pavement with the cutest delivery robots. The first time I saw one of these waiting for the lights to change (I kid you not) I was so mesmerised I walked straight into a pole. I’m not the only one to have done that, I am reliably informed.

These robots have almost taken on a personality of their own, and are regarded almost as pets. They regularly get stuck in snowdrifts and need to be rescued by the police, they say ‘excuse me’ should they bump into you… Adorable, really. And they also deliver food, though I’m told it’s a pretty expensive delivery service. 

The Palace Hotel’s spa is undoubtedly its biggest selling point.

Where to stay – We splashed out on a room at the Hotel Palace, which is part of the InterContinental chain, and it was worth every Euro. The location is perfect, across the road from Freedom Square – from our room, we could see the sunset over the square and it was only a two-minute stroll into the Old Town.

Rooms are spacious and clean and the breakfast buffet is lovely. Keep an eye out for the freshly prepared waffles and the kohuke, packaged cheese curd that is perfect to pick up and go to keep your energy from flagging while exploring. Oh yeah – it’s covered in chocolate. Perfection. 

This hotel’s biggest USP, however, is undoubtedly the spa, which stays open till 10PM. When we were staying there, the hotel was at full capacity but we still found quiet time at the spa. The finnish sauna and the jacuzzi were both given a run for their money every evening, and the heated pool is one of the best ones I’ve seen: consistently warm and big enough to actually enjoy a swim. Best of all, guests adhere to spa culture, so it’s the perfect way to wind down and relax after a day of walking.

My tip? Ask for a room on the top floors if you’re a light sleeper. In summer it’s light until after midnight and the area outside the hotel tends to be busy. 

When to visit – It depends what you’re after. I was there in July and the weather was glorious. This does allow you to enjoy the outdoor attractions in a more comfortable manner. Tallinn is also very easily explored on foot – but in two inches of snow this becomes a tad more difficult. However, if a winter wonderland is what you’re after, then Christmas time and January are ideal as you’re pretty much guaranteed snow.

Getting around – Tallinn is the perfect place to get those walking shoes on, as the main sites are within walking distance. To get to Telliskivi or Kalamaja we walked or used an e-scooter. Cabs are extremely cheap, so if you just want to get to your hotel fast, go for it. I didn’t have a need to use public transport, but I’m told it’s extremely reliable. 

Getting there – Air Malta can get you to Tallinn with a short London stopover. The journey from the airport to the centre of the city takes about 20 mins and a cab will set you back about €20. I stayed at the Hotel Palace.

For other Sunday Circle magazine features check out this piece about work from home blues or this piece about grieving for your pet.

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