Our final Baltic destination was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. We spent the week wandering around the old town, admiring the medieval architecture, haggling with vendors at the Russian market, wading in the cool clear waters of the Baltic, and eating more than our fair share of meat and vegetable pies from Krug Inn. Our arrival to Tallinn was a bit stressful; we had a reservation at a hostel which had failed to tell us that they had gone out of business (or refund our down payment for that matter), but luckily after a sour arrival, the rest of our time there was wonderful. In hindsight, we wish we had seen more of rural Estonia, but for our first trip, the capital was a great introduction to this beautiful country.
Tallinn is the most streamlined capital of the Baltic States, with right around one million residents. It felt a lot like Germany: clean, modern, blond, with ancient architecture tucked here and there between hip clubs and restaurants. Lodging is comparable to Warsaw and Riga in price and quality, although to our dismay, the prices at restaurants and most other things were more similar to Western Europe than their Baltic neighbors.
In the touristy old town area, in the main square, there is a fantastic restaurant; the maps call it Krug Inn, but the sign outside reads “III Draakons”, this place has been open since the 1500’s serving up some traditional Estonian specialties such as elk soup, sausage, meat and vegetable pies, locally brewed beers, ciders and schnapps. This is also one of the best budget meal spots you will find in this area; almost everything on the menu costs one Euro, and the ambiance is unlike any place else in town, plus you can indulge yourself in wondering what was happening there on this day hundreds of years ago. This place is seriously addictive; we dropped in almost every day for food or drinks.
Tallinn is filled with medieval architecture, and has several museums dedicated to the subject. Tallinn also has an Open Air Ethnographic museum, which is much like Riga’s, although not quite as large. Ancient churches dot the landscape with their steeples. In the downtown/old town area there are souvenir shops everywhere, as well as artisans selling all manner of Estonian folk art. Tallinn was way more tourist-oriented than we thought it would be; herds of American retirees and Asian tourists were everywhere. For great views of the city, head over to the Estonian Freedom Monument, which has survived years of Soviet occupation. From there, there is a large hill you can climb, in the summer there are occasionally outdoor concerts up here, and locals tout this as the best place to drink beer, since the cops don’t like to climb up it. From here you can see old Tallinn melt into the modern streets and skyscrapers in the distance. If you are here in the summer, the views will be great all night, after the summer solstice, the sun barely dips below the horizon.
From the main square of the old town, you can easily wander into the Central Market, located outside of the train station. It is much less impressive than Riga’s market, but none the less, worth a look. It is less a food market and more of a Russian market, selling old Soviet (and Nazi) memorabilia, second-hand clothes, and lots of dingy flea market type stuff. On the not-totally-Russian side of the market, piles of wild mushrooms cover tables, bunches of herbs scent the air, and grandmothers sell little cups of wild strawberries and bundles of herbs. There are buildings where flies hover over pallid produce, and meat and fish are sold with careless abandon to food handling standards. Rumor is that developers would like to tear it down and build an upscale mall here, so if you’re in town, head over there before it’s too late.
When you head toward the coast, you will see beautiful blue Baltic expanses, it seemed like the water was more vibrant in Tallinn than anywhere else we went. The best beaches are northeast of the city, and can be accessed via a short bus ride. There are some large hotels in this region if you want to stay closer to the water, and paths weaving through the pine forest that caresses the edge of the shoreline. Although the beach is the main draw in this area, there are also some public hiking trails that meander from the beach into the woods along the river. When the Baltic is a little too cold to enjoy a swim, head to this area, the river is much warmer.
Tallinn is a great jumping off point for exploration of this region. There are also some beautiful national parks outside of Tallinn, there is a lot of information about organized trips to these areas at the hostels. These parks are not accessible by bus or train, so unless you can rent a car, an organized tour is the way to go. Laahema National Park is one of the most popular in the area. And if you’d like to see what’s across the sea, for about 50Euro, you can take a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki and back for a day trip. There is also a lot of information about trips from Tallinn to St. Petersburg and Moscow; since Russia is not in the Schengen Zone these trips cost a bit more due to visa fees.
If you are leaving Tallinn by air, you will most likely be routed through Helsinki to your destination. The flight from Tallinn to Helsinki is beautiful; it only takes about 20 minutes, the plane stays low, and you can watch the emerald islands of pine trees and boulders strewn amongst the glittering blue of the Baltic, eventually turning into peninsulas jutting out from Finland.
Conclusion? The Baltic coastline is one of northern Europe’s most beautiful destinations, accessible on any budget!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Linguists on the Loose have just released an eMagazine entitled, "The Path Less Traveled", which features lots of gorgeous photos and helpful information on visiting the Baltic region. You can download a copy at this link.