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Walking Tallinn – Estonia's Medieval Capital

David Cawley explores one of Europe’s best city break destinations

Written by . Published on August 4th 2014.

Walking Tallinn – Estonia's Medieval Capital

JUST 45 minutes ago we’d collected bags from the small airport; caught a taxi into town (15 euros), checked into the hotel and explored everything our room had to offer; picked-up some tips from reception as to where to grab a beer and were now already pounding through one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cities. If choosing a city break purely in terms of quick access, Tallinn has to be up there.

'Soviet spies spent years on this unofficial floor, nefariously monitoring local comings and goings. All their equipment is still there and our English speaking guide offers humorous insights into the murky, paranoid world of Soviet occupation'

We’re heading for Raekoja Plats, the main square and epicentre of Tallinn’s Old Town, a large, slightly sloping cobblestone space  dominated on one side by the city’s imposing, 15th-century Town Hall.

It’s a late and sunny Friday afternoon and despite the chilled air the café terraces lining the remaining three sides of the square are filled with jovial, blanket-wrapped office workers celebrating the end of their working week. It’s a good place to get your bearings but not one to linger.

Drinks and food prices are more expensive here and armed with our hotel receptionist’s tips, we bypass The Depeche Mode Bar playing non-stop hits from the Basildon boys and continue on to the Hell Hunt Bar. It turns out to be one of the many lively nightspots for Tallinn’s ruddy-cheeky, cosmopolitan youth. Lured here by the promise of micro beers and a more varied 80s playlist, we gorge on dense dark brews and the traditional ale house snack of toasted black bread, rubbed with garlic and plunged into sour cream.

Dusk Falls On The Town SquareDusk falls on The Town Square

The following morning, it’s hardy walking shoes on and back onto medieval cobblestones to see the sites. We arrive at the National History Museum just as its great medieval doors are swinging open to the public. Housed in one of many grand, 15th-century Guild Halls, its displays recount Estonian past back to pre-history. It’s far from overwhelming and there’s fun-filled animation along the way relating often traumatic periods from the past. Even if history is not your thing, a glimpse of the striking and possibly world’s best museum bathroom is almost worth the price of an admission ticket alone.

Tallinn. Your Nuts M'lud. Medieaval Characters Offer Free Roasted Almonds Outside Olde Hansa Restaurant. %282%29For centuries Swedes, Prussians, Russians and Nazi’s have all conquered and outstayed their welcome. Up to 1991 when Estonian peaceably kicked-out the Soviets during the “Singing Revolution” Estonians had never truly had their country to themselves. To date, the past 23 years have been the longest period of independence enjoyed by the country.

They even saw off more recent tribes from Britain, who came as belligerent stag groups and left behind a trail of urine and vomit soaked streets. Local laws discouraging bar owners from letting in groups of ‘our boys’ soon saw them off and Tallinn’s brief reputation as a destination for cheap beer and bad behaviour was laid to rest.

Back blinking into the daylight, we bypass the Museum of Marzipan opposite, tuck away city maps and enjoy the simple delights of just ambling for a spell. Like most old towns, there’s joy to be had from wandering aimlessly. Little can go wrong, the Old Town is small.

Vene StreetVene Street is a central artery to explore the Lower Old Town

It takes just 15 minutes to cross and much of the good stuff is neatly packaged within its thick, medieval city walls dotted with conical-roofed, fairy-tale towers. Along narrow meandering streets, pink and primrose painted townhouses and 14th-century church spires cast shadows over the cobblestones. Walking along Vene Street, we stumble upon one of many, half-hidden courtyards and take a coffee in a shabby-chic hangout, Chocolate de Pierre.

Deciding to give quaint mediaeval heritage a rest for a spell, we head out through the ramparts and walk 20 minutes through the crumbling old port quarter to the Seaplane Harbour Museum on the Baltic waterfront. 

Tallinn. The Striking Seaplane Harbour Museum With British Sub 'Lembit'Tallinn – the striking Seaplane Harbour Museum with British sub 'Lembit'

Housed in a cavernous, concrete hanger built in 1917 by the Soviets to  accommodate seaplanes, entering into the main cathedral-like gallery prompts audible ‘blimeys’ from all of us. Its sheer scale and curved grandeur is staggering and a happy three hours is spent exploring maritime and military exhibits including the star of the show – a 1930s-built British submarine which they let you climb inside.

At 2:30pm we’re in the capital’s modern commercial district for an appointment at the KGB Museum.  Housed in situ on the 23rd-floor of the Hotel Viru, Soviet spies spent years on this unofficial floor, nefariously monitoring local comings and goings. All their equipment is still there and our English speaking guide offers humorous insights into the murky, paranoid world of Soviet occupation. 

Away from the bizarre cloak-and-dagger confines, we head to the suburbs, take a late lunch at Restaurant Salt and spend the remains of the day strolling the former royal gardens at Kadriog Park. Then to the sleek KUMU Art Museum where, legs and brains cultured-out, we give Estonia’s art treasures less time than they deserve.

The Olde HansaThe Olde Hansa offers surprisingly good fare

This evening we have a date with comely wenches and bear sausages. A table is booked for the touristy Olde Hansa mediaeval restaurant. In a lively and darkened, candle-lit space we order tankards of honey beer and feast heartily on our pre-booked banquet of bear sausages (gamey since you ask), salmon, smoked sauerkraut and lentils served to us in wooden bowls by our costumed and jolly serving-wench.

With each new round of drinks brought she shouts ‘terviseks’ (cheers) and, as the night goes on, flushed with ale we joust jokes with her. It’s all good clean Middle-Ages banter and the food is actually rather good.

Tallinn. Views Over Tallinn's Old Town And Beyond From Toompea HillViews over Tallinn's Old Town and beyond from Toompea Hill

Set on and around Toompea Hill, Tallinn’s old town can be divided into two. Yesterday we’d meandered around the lower town, this morning we wend our way uphill along more charming medieval loveliness to the top of the Old Town.

For the past 800 years the old town hilltop was the upmarket, grandiose preserve of the rich and powerful. Government buildings are still housed in the 13th-century castle and apart from parishioners attending the incense-filled Cathedral Church of Saint Mary the Virgin we have the place to ourselves. 

A number of viewing points offer panoramas across the city; the most rewarding at the end of Kohtu Street is where we look down over the red-tiled roofs of the lower Old Town. It’s a small town with big history and we’ve barely scratched the surface. The tunnels under the city, the TV Tower, 20th-century Occupation Museum and Marzipan Museum will all have to wait.

Fact file

Getting there:

David flew from Manchester with Finnair via Helsinki. EasyJet also offers a service from London Gatwick

Where to stay:

The Savoy Boutique Hotel offers historic, art deco grandeur on the edge of the Old Town.

More information:

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