When you boast to your fellow office drones that you’re going on holiday, it typically flows thusly:
“Oooh that’s nice, bet you’re looking forward to it”
“Oh you bet I am”
“I’m so jealous, going anywhere nice?”
At that point, a quizzical look is thrown your way, as if you just told them you’ll be having dog food for lunch. It’s a fairly valid point too, why on earth are you going to Estonia?
I have no personal connection to the place, outside of a fondness for Estonian born Ice hockey player Leo Komarov (Go Leafs Go!). It’s by no means on your average travellers ‘must-see’ places in Europe. Tallinn doesn’t compete with folks Instagram affections like Budapest, Prague and Paris does. It’s a hunk of land squeezed in between the Baltic sea, neighbours to Eastern Europe and Russia.
That is where the curiousity begins for me about Estonia, can’t quite label it as Scandinavian, can’t quite label in the same boat as Latvia and Lithuania and can’t label it Russian. It’s an odd thought which probably why my colleague consider it an odd choice for a holiday.
However from a few Google searches Tallinn’ s old town looked magical, so off we went.
Ryanair offer a cheap flight from the U.K which takes just under 3 hours on a good day. Tallinn airport has a tram which slinks through to the city centre at a cost of 2 Euros and about 15 minutes of your time. Although on the return journey the Tram driver didn’t take our money, so we got a free ride! Not a word was said from the guy, just gave us our Euro’s back. A passenger, who spoke English, just shrugged and helpfully exclaimed “It’s the Estonian way”.
First impressions is that Tallinn and Estonians come across as one of the most relaxed paced cities going. It’s a small city, everything feels like it’s a 5 minute walk away and no one is particularly in a rush to get there. Coming from tightly wound office jobs in the U.K, Tallinn is a perfect detox from stress
Our base camp for the next few days was the Go Shnelli Hotel, which is a right by the city train station. Wait, don’t Go!
Just hang with me here…. usually a hotel by a cities main station isn’t a palatable choice. We were uneasy about booking it, but looking on TripAdvisor, reviews seemed positive about the lack of noise and a decent-ish breakfast. It sits just outside of the Old Town, which means should you be lucky enough to be on the right side of the hotel you wake up to this view…..
Old Town Tallinn
Old Town Tallinn skyline, or some of it at least.
Outside of the view, the room is nothing to write home about, it does the job of being a comfortable den for us. Despite being right next to the platforms of the station, it was one of the quietest rooms we have been in! Breakfast is included in the room and is a buffet of the usual hot and cold breakfast subjects. I’m a sucker for a breakfast buffet so I loved every second of it.
Tallinn tourism sells itself by it’s Old Town, with folks giving Prague as a comparison. My own take on it is that it’s a darn sight smaller but I have never managed to wander around the same square mile over and over again and consistently finding something new. It has been meticulously kept, with the various architecture being a physical manifestation of the countries history. Having one time or another been ruled by the Russians, Swedish, Germans and Danish, has produced an old town which has oddities. You’d be walking through a mostly Western European look which would then give way to a large Orthodox church planted in the middle of it, for example.
A couple of highlights is the Danish King’s Garden, with the three monk statues, where it is told the Danish Flag Came to be! Along with the town square, packed with horrifically over priced restaurants, is picturesque and shows off the Town Hall. The Town is surrounded by old walls & distinct looking turrets and a couple of viewing points, allowing you to look over Tallinn onto the harbour and the Baltic Sea.
On that note, a word to the wise, by all means go to the old town during the day time, everything will be open. However
raiders tourist groups, will decant from the gigantic cruise ships and pillage the old town from late morning to late afternoon. Old Town is small, so areas can at times turn into a combat area for space to look at things and warring over that precious resource…photo opportunities. Only the most courageous and most obnoxious will be the victor! However when it’s a 30 degree afternoon, it was a bit too bothersome for a diplomat such as myself.
Should you visit, I advise you invest some time in the evening to wander around the old town at a gentle pace. You can soak in all the old world around you, poking your eyes around every nook and cranny. Also the viewing points, which during the day have waves upon wave of tourist groups dominating them, become relatively scarce of humanity, space for photos and heaven forbid, enjoying the view.
Food-wise, Old Town has number of tourist traps where the average price of a meal is jacked up somewhat, 17 Euro’s for a main where you can get the same meal for 9. You could rinse through your spending money real fast, but we picked on a couple of good places. If you’re just looking for a quick coffee, the oldest cafe in Tallinn, Maiasmokk cafe is worth a dip into. It’s interior is the same as it was a century ago, so it gives a Parisian cafe feel, which you can’t find elsewhere in town. It’s the usual coffee and cake deal, however you can go pretty adventurous on the cake front, passionfruit-spinach cake anyone? I’d recommend it! I mean, we went for honey cake, but I recommend you go and try it and let me know how it is.
In case you’re looking for something more substantial, Progu restaurant is a diamond in the glorious rough, hidden by St Nicholas’s church. This restaurant in a cellar offers divine food at divine prices, it also, more importantly, has a beer list that goes on for the best part of 4 pages. Spiced Porter was a treat.
However if you were just to go to one place in Old Town, go to the Kompressor. I’d never thought I’d say it, but the best pancake house I’ve ever been to is a Soviet Styled joint in Estonia. It’s gimmick is that it hasn’t changed its interior since the Soviet Era, so it’s dingier and darker than other places. You order your beer and your pancake of choice at the bar, grab a table and they will bring it too you. I went for Ham and Brie (A catalogue of sweet and savoury choices are there for you) and we shared some fried potato balls. The balls were perfectly fried, but dramatically overshadowed by the pancake. They fold the pancake up but not before stuffing it with your filling of choice, in my case, ham and cheese. Inferior establishments tend to make pancakes which are devoid of any flavour and rely 100% on the maple syrup or whatever partner it has on the plate. Kompressor pancakes, don’t know how they make the batter, but they are full of flavour. Forget the ham and cheese or any kind of syrup/sauce, if you gave me the pancake completely dry I would be one happy little clam.
Tellsiviki – Tallinn’s Hipster Hive
Old town is beautiful and it sells postcards and videos but that’s not Tallinn totally, outside of government buildings and embassy’s it’s mostly a well kept ornament. See a completely different side of Tallinn and go to the other side of the tracks. Tellsiviki is a 5 minute walk from Old Town, literally adjacent to the station, on the other side of the tracks from Old Town. It is an area that was at one point home to Soviet industry; factories, warehouses and industrial units which have been given a second life. Coined as a ‘Creative City’ Tellsiviki’s old buildings have been reclaimed by restaurants, cafe’s, designers, bars, clothes and antique shops, running art and music festivals, selling vintage items and organic products and they will throw in a bicycle too. Essentially it’s a hipster haven, I’m not a hipster…. I just happen to enjoy everything that can be found in this scene.
It’s the most chilled neighbourhood in the most chilled city I’ve come across. In a district where, perhaps once, it felt empty, cold with brittle industrial bones, now the place has had a warm buzz installed to it. It’s inviting, inviting you to stay there all day with a beer made from across the street, sitting with some calm music you’ve never heard of, watching Tallinn Hipsters go about their day. I’ve not been on holiday and visited an area and instantly felt right at home.
It’s brimming with places to drink and eat but a few places stood out, should the weather be kind to you as it was to us, a little area of Tellsiviki called ‘Depoo’ or atleast a giant sign above it is saying that. It’s an area which is centred by a bar being run out of two old soviet train carriages, encircled by ping-pong tables, a seating area and food being sold out of modified shipping containers. We gorged on shawarma, waffles and crepes from that area, it also seemed to have a place that sold eye-catching Indian Food. A couple of nights were ended as can be seen above, eating waffles whilst watching some table tennis enjoying a warm evening. Absolute bliss.
F-Hoone was our Hipster dinner of choice, the atmosphere in their stone-brick warehouse turned restaurant is relaxed and casual, with giant windows keeping the place full of the sun. They do a fantastic burger, delivered on a dark bread bun and what swings it is a parsley and chilli pepper aioli. Bite into that burger and the juices from the beef mixes with the aioli to make a carnivorousness combination for the senses, joy. Vegetarian options are there too, in fact they showcase some delicious ingredients in a build your own salad option, goats cheese with a raspberry and balsamic vinaigrette makes salad a big attraction.
Lastly, in a hot sunny afternoon, just around the corner from F-Hoone is an ice cream shop joint aptly called La muu. 3.50 Euro gets you 3 big scoops of ice cream, all the usual flavour suspects with a couple of oddballs. They offer a Bacon and Maple Syrup ice cream, which does actually have bits of fried bacon in it, when we asked for it they gave use tester tastes just to make sure we’d like it. It works, certainly for a scoops worth, sweet and salty warring on your tongue. I don’t think I could eat a whole tub of it in one go…..probably not anyways.
Outside of old and hipster, we did venture to other parts of the city, the harbour front is worth a waddle too, if only to see the HUGE ASS CRUISE SHIPS. It also has a couple of markets and shopping centres to cater for the boat goers. Not only is it cruise ships but the boat to Helsinki and Stockholm are there. Should you be in Tallinn a couple of days longer than we were, you could pop over to Helsinki for the day, it’s an hour and half voyage.
Another little area worth is the Rottermanni quarter, which is near the centre of New-er Tallinn. Home to the Museum of Estonian architecture and a bunch of restaurants, it’s similar story to our hipster nest, an old mill, a factory and warehouses from the 19th century re-purposed. We had lunch there at a Kosher cafe called Ruby’s, made bagels stuffed with magical ingredients, we grabbed one pulled BBQ beef and one salted salmon bagel. It’s the first place I’ve been to where they present your food with a set of disposable gloves, as the filling will get all over the place!*
You may have noticed that throughout the food talk that Tallinn doesn’t market ‘Estonian Food!’ as a big deal**, as Italy would of it’s recipes for example. Don’t get me wrong, Tallinn is probably one of the best cities for food and you will come across loads of Estonian Ingredients (And Numerous Estonian Beers). However it’s not really shouted about, mostly due to Estonian Cuisine being bits and bobs smudged together from other countries around it. Although a slight treat, is how they put cottage cheese in sweet pastries, an acquired taste, but it worked for me.
Estonian Cuisine thoughts kind of lead me back to that question, what are Estonians? Our visit didn’t really answer that, it feels 80% Scandi but not quite. Despite being next door neighbours it didn’t feel Russian***, in fact walking around, outside of the different language it felt more like the U.K. Estonia seems to be the most Eastern point of the Western world. We have been to places such as Warsaw and Prague, which certainly had more of a hungover feel from their Soviet days. Throwing that point to one side, what we really discovered is that Tallinn is one chilled out city with a fantastic food scene, a history on display along with an exciting new creative scene. It’s not a place you go to go sightseeing, it’s a place you go make yourself part of the fixtures for a few days. Go and be an Estonian Hipster!
Where did you stay: Hotel Go Shnelli – Perfect location in between Old Town and Tellsiviki
How Long For: 3 Nights
When did you go: May 2018
Would you again? Absolutely, I’d grab an Air BnB just a stones throw away from Tellsiviki
Writers note: This space has been left dormant by myself for a while. truthfully the work-life got in the way and I dropped it. Hopefully life will let me have some more time to put more stuff up on here, cheers 🙂
*I didn’t wear them, sauce all over my fingers is part of the experience!
** I don’t want to underplay or undersell Estonian Cuisine, for a bible of the stuff visit this wordpress : https://estoniancuisine.com/
*** Estonian T.V routinely took the piss out of Russia, I noticed.