I knew very little about Tallinn and Estonia before I went there last week, and even now after I’ve spent four days there I still feel like I barely scratched the surface. Despite having so little time to really experience the culture, I did pick up a thing or two about the place from both the people and the medieval Tallinn Old Town.
I spent my days there in the office working with Estonian people, who were so lovely and were happy to answer my questions on the city and share their knowledge and passion for their country, but I barely experienced any of it for myself.
I basically had a window of one to two hours a day of daylight after work, before it got too dark that I was uncomfortable being out and about on my own. It may be Europe, but it felt a whole world away from home, unlike some of the other cities I’ve been to where I’d happily trot about for the whole evening.
Luckily the Old Town is pretty small, and the ancient streets and buildings were an absolute pleasure to wander around, knowing there would always be a landmark in sight so I’d not get too lost. I feel like I saw the majority of it with it being so small, even if I didn’t get chance to go in to anywhere or really do much other than see the place.
So that’s where I’ll start – the old town is really small!
In just an hour a day I definitely walked up and down what felt like every little street and around every little square or courtyard at least twice. Every time I thought I was lost a recogniseable church or the town hall spire came into view so it was easy to navigate your way around.
Tallinn has the oldest working pharmacy in Europe.
Raeapteek is located in the main town hall square, right on the corner next to the town hall at number 11. It originated in the 15th century and it looked like Professor Snapes potion cupboard from what I could see through the window. It’s been passed through the generations of the same family for hundreds of years.
It’s completely medieval – but GOT wasn’t filmed there.
Tallinn dates back to the 13th Century, and is built up of upper and lower Tallinn. Up on the hill is Toompea, aka upper Tallinn, and underneath it is lower Tallinn. The old city walls encircle the city, with many defence towers and the Viru city gate still intact. You can walk along parts of the walls, and you can see cannonballs from past battles still lodged in the Kiek in de Kök military tower.
As well as the city defence structures the streets are filled with colourful old gable houses, churches and taverns, and it really was like a scene from a storybook.
There are parts of the place that look like a cross between Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, and I searched to see if any filming was done here as I was so sure it would have been, but apparently not. I’d definitely describe it as one of the most medieval cities I’ve ever been to.
They keep Christmas decorations up way past Christmas!
I was really surprised to find the giant town hall square tree still standing and decorated. Many of the shops still had decorations up and the streets had lights still flashing overhead. It’s a very quaint place so some bars and cafes had fairy lights that I don’t think were for Christmas, just part of their decor year round.
But there’s no mistaking Christmas trees. I asked a few people and most weren’t really sure why, one said that they think they stay up until after Chinese New Year in February. One thing is for sure I can imagine just how festive and beautiful the place would feel in December when the market is on too.
You can still see the Russian influence.
The Russian influence on Tallinn is most obvious in the form of St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox church that sits on top of Toompea Hill. The cathedral is beautiful, with white and coloured exterior and the big onion shaped spires on the top. You can go inside and see the mosaic designs on the walls, and hear the bells ring.
There are many souvenir caves and stalls dotted among the streets of Tallinn, usually found at the best viewpoints, and among traditional Estonian items there were so many Russian dolls. Not Estonian at all, but pretty and a hint back to the cities past.
Estonia is 100 years independent.
On 24th February 2018 Estonia will celebrate being 100 years independent, and it was declared in Tallinn. There are a number of celebrations throughout the city this year to mark the occasion. I found Freedom Square on my last evening in Tallinn.
Estonian food is very meat based.
I was told about this from the lovely Akvile Stan – check her out, who previously lived in Tallinn and is now North East based. She was right as well, with many of the menus I read heavily featuring pork, chicken, wild boar, game sausages, liver, duck and fish. I didn’t get chance to eat at a real Estonian Restaurant, but I did find one in the Old Town called Kuldse Notsu Korts, meaning Golden Piglet Inn. It is one of the few fully traditional Estonian restaurants in Tallinn.
The dark alleys hold some of the nicest cafes and restaurants.
Maybe it was because I was on my own, but the many alleys, tunnels and archways that lead off from all the main cobbled streets through Tallinn kind of intimidated me a bit especially at night which is when I was walking down them.
I’d heard about the famous St. Catherine’s Passage, which was so cute and colourful especially in the snow, and this was the first one I went down. If I hadn’t done it in the day I would never have ventured down in the dark, but I did on the promise that there was a great Italian restaurant called Controvento along there. It was a tiny old wooden door, with a wooden sign above it set into the old city walls, but inside it was gorgeous and a really amazing restaurant.
I’m so glad I was brave! On another occasion I went to find the Pierre Chocolaterie, which was again down a side alley that opened up into a courtyard. It was very eerie and surreal in the dark, especially with the music clanking along and the tiny windows that you can’t really see through to know you’re in the right place.
The little door led to an Aladdin’s Cave of a cafe, where everything served is or contains chocolate. It was like a little old woman’s living room, with velvet chairs, and heavily patterned tablecloths. I’d definitely say research the places you want to visit so you aren’t alarmed when you’re veering off the main streets down dark alleys, but be brave enough to do it if you know there’s something good at the end of it.
Be careful with taxis.
Taxi’s aren’t governed by fare laws in Estonia, so they can get away with charging you anything if they want to. Pay attention to the meter, as they do have to charge you what it shows, but make sure it starts at the low charge and is in fact turned on. If not they could try charge you a lot more.
Use the ranks and taxis parked at hotels, companies like Taxofon and Taxify. I got taxis to and from the airport, and once to the office, and I found the drivers of these companies really friendly, really helpful and they wanted to tell you about their city. Don’t just hail one off the street.
It’s a photographers dream!
In the few hours I spent walking around the Old City, I took about 50 million more photos of the cute little streets and coloured buildings than the entire day I spent sightseeing in Copenhagen recently. There were pretty doorways and colourful corners everywhere you turned, and the charm of the place brought me back through the same streets so many times, not just to photograph but to actually just enjoy being in such a charming place.
What I absolutely hated though were the local kids who I kept seeing graffitiing (is that a word) on some of the blank spaces they could find. Sometimes graffiti adds to a place, but it really pissed me off when I saw them tagging a blank empty wall that has been there for so many years, and earned the city UNESCO world heritage status.
As well as the colourful buildings there are so many places with incredible views over the old town.
But that’s for another post.
You might also like:
Pin this post: