The Estonian capital of Tallinn serves up a gastronomic fusion of traditional dishes and modern flair. Old also meets new in the charming old town and bustling business district
Head to Estonia’s diminutive capital city, Tallinn, for lashings of Baltic charm. Medieval treasures and modern pleasures combine seamlessly here – the picturesque seaside city never fails to enchant. Due to its strategic location, Tallinn was a thriving Hanseatic trading centre during the Middle Ages. It’s been conquered by Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia over the centuries and, since emerging from Soviet rule in 1991, Tallinn has boomed once again.
What to do
Despite its beleaguered past, Tallinn’s old town (Vanalinn) remains almost perfectly preserved and it is this labyrinthine network of timbered merchant houses, imposing city walls complete with fairytale towers, lofty church spires and narrow cobbled passages that entice visitors. Be sure to go beyond the old town’s walls, however, to see the real city – skyscrapers are going up in the business district, which is also home to Tallinn’s modern hotels and fancy boutiques.
The port bustles with activity thanks to cruise ships stopping off on the Baltic route and day-trippers from Finland. Having been regenerated, the area is now home to some of the city’s coolest clubs and bars. Explore tranquil Kadriorg Park, a beautiful well-manicured green space, or take in a classical concert at the opulent Kadriorg Palace (00 372 606 6400). Be sure to visit the fantastic new Kumu, the Art Museum of Estonia next to the park (00 372 602 6001; www.ekm.ee) and, at the end of the day, wind your way up the aptly named Long Leg Street (Pikk jalg) to the highest part of the old town and Toompea Hill – the best place to watch the sun sinking behind the city’s ramparts.
Where to stay
Tallinn’s first five-star hotel, Hotel Schlössle, exudes charm from every nook. Located on the evocatively-named Holy Ghost Street, this former merchant’s house is now a lavish and intimate hotel: a fire roars in the grand baronial foyer, which is complete with original beams, oil paintings and tapestries. There is a traditional Estonian sauna too and breakfasts are magnificent. Its sister hotel, Hotel St Petersbourg, is another good option, just off the town square. The oldest running hotel in town, it has been sympathetically renovated. For something altogether more modern, Swissôtel Tallinn in the financial district has comfortable rooms and a luxurious spa.
Where to eat and drink
You’ll more likely find foie gras and sashimi than sauerkraut and pigs trotters on the menu at Tallinn’s sophisticated eateries. There is a surprising amount of choice with plenty of upscale options and cool bars, such as Moskva Lounge on Vabaduse Square. For traditional surroundings and cutting-edge cuisine head to Stenhus (see Hotel Schlössle). It’s hard to imagine a more romantic spot to dine than this subterranean candlelit restaurant with its vaulted stone ceilings. The inventive menu offers dishes such as roasted sole with sea urchin risotto and lemon foam. Go for the degustation menu to do it justice.
In contrast, Vertigo (00 372 666 3456; www.vertigo.ee) is a modern, hedonist complex at the top of a skyscraper in the business district. In the summer, when the roof terrace opens, you can drink in wonderful views of the old town. The smart fine dining restaurant serves up classical French and Italian cuisine with an Estonian edge - think crayfish tartare with a creamy parsnip soup. Or you can graze on fusion food in the bar area whilst sipping chef-owner Imre Kose’s deliciously decadent cocktail, mojito deluxe, where champagne replaces soda.
Nip down St Catherine’s Passage to Contravento (00 372 644 0470; www.controvento.ee) for a great Italian meal and, if time allows, try The Golden Pig (see Hotel St Petersbourg), which serves typical Estonian country inn fare. Flagons of beer, or glög, accompany the huge portions.
Time running out?
Visit one of the cafés in the old town that buzz with sweet-toothed locals. Off Vene Street is Café Chocolaterie, serving thick hot chocolate with a cinnamon stick for stirring. Buy handmade chocolates in Anneli Viik Café on Pikk Street.
Head to the Estonia Open Air Museum (www.evm.ee), a short drive out of town. Covering 80 hectares along the coast of the Bay of Kopli, the museum is a village of reconstructed traditional buildings.
Currency is the Estonian kroon. Tallinn is two hours ahead of GMT and a two-hour 45-minute flight from London.
Estonian Air (00 372 640 1163; www.estonian-air.com) flies from Gatwick. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from Stansted.
Tallinn City Tourist Office: Niguliste 2 / Kullassepa 4 (00 372 645 7777; www.tourism.tallinn.ee).
Tallinn Card: can be purchased online and from tourist offices. The card grants free entry to museums and many attractions, free city tours and free use of public transport. Visit www.tallinncard.ee.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.