Off the Brochure: Tallinn, Estonia
Perched high on the Baltic Sea, Tallinn, Estonia is a spirited city with a vivid past and an electric future—a siren calling visitors to port. Wirelessly.
A beacon of ancient and modern, Estonia’s energetic capital is both a medieval wonderland and technology Mecca. Finally freed from Russian rule in 1991, Estonia lost no time getting hip to a new start. Tallinn is the “It” place to be, wireless and booming with a young and “paperless” government Skype-ing in medieval headquarters.
A compact city that is easy to navigate, Tallinn boasts perfectly preserved medieval turrets, towers and red-roofed buildings. The best (yet most crowded) time to visit is in the summer, where the days are bright and the nights stay light. Revelers crowd in the cobblestone streets until late, intoxicated by the dreamy summer spell … and Estonian beer.
Tallinn isn’t called the “Baltic Vegas” for nothing.
Estonia is plugged in and wired at every stop, with 364 national hot spots and counting from gas stations, car washes, grocery stores, buses, and bars. Look for the Wi-Fi signs in orange and black, and sip beer at a pub while surfing the Internet. Most hotels and libraries also have coverage. For a complete list, visit www.wifi.ee
OUT AND ABOUT
Follow a cobblestone road down to Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), where Town Hall still serves a Gothic centerpiece hearkening back to a medieval time—when Tallinn was the strategic port on the Hanseatic League trade route between east and west.
Wander up Vene to Müürihave Street to spend a couple of Krooni on Katariina Käik (St. Catherine’s Passage), a narrow passageway with local artisan shops lining the ancient monastery walls. Although definitely on the brochure, this is a delightful passage to browse, while observing Estonian arts and crafts from the Middle Ages in the making. You can stop in Katariina Gild to see leather bookmakers, weavers and potters at work, and then buy the finished products. Katariina Gild, Vene 12, Katariina käik.
Poised on the corner of Hobusepea and Pikk Streets, A-Galerii displays unique and modern jewelry created by local artisans trained at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Learn about traditional metalwork as you marvel over these inspired creations—every piece is truly a work of art. Find Irene Jürna’s lace patterned metal cuffs, created with old techniques for an urban look. Adolfas Shaulys throws a new spin on the classic cufflink, while Ülle Köuts marries metals to create smooth, ornamental rings. A-Galerii, Hobusepea 2; 646-4101, www.agalerii.ee
On the other side of Town Hall Square, follow along Pikk tänav (Long Street), to Pagari, home to the old K.G.B. headquarters and catch sight of St. Olav’s impressive medieval spire looming above. Dating back to 1267, St. Olav’s was also used for surveillance by the K.G.B. The hefty climb up to the top is worth it for the view. www.oleviste.ee (in Estonian)
MUSEUMS AND TOURS
Museum of Occupations
Estonians are filled with a strong national pride—a quality that kept their identity alive under decades of foreign rule. Check out the harrowing Museum of Occupations. This museum chronicles the history of Nazi and Soviet oppression in Estonia from 1939-1991. Although the modern Estonia has moved on, this museum ensures that the horrors won’t be forgotten. Toompea 8, 668-0250; www.okupatsioon.ee/english
Intrigued by espionage? Take a tour of the Bastion Tunnels. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, these mysterious passageways have been used for storage, concealment of soldiers, and just plain spying. Book in advance as you’ll need a guide, whom you’ll meet in the Tower Kiek in de Kök. 644-6686; www.linnamuuseum.ee/kok
For a lovely hike outside the city, head east to Kadriorg. The Baroque palace built for Peter the Great rests on grounds where you can wander among aging chestnut tree and swan-filled ponds. Stroll the expansive grounds while also visiting the Museum of Foreign Art in the Kadriorg Palace and the cutting edge Kumu Art Museum. You can walk, skip and run free in this palatial park, but be polite as these are also the grounds of the Presidential home. Kadriorg Palace-Museum of Foreign Art, Weizenbergi 37; 606-6400, Kumu, Weizenbergi 34, 602-6001, www.ekm.ee
BARS AND RESTAURANTS
For an unusual experience, try sweating it out Estonian style with a beer and a sauna. Beer House is a popular Austrian-themed bar and restaurant teeming with beer on tap, lederhosen, accordions, and … a sauna. Avoid the crowd, order a Vana Viini, and turn up the heat. Dunkri 5; 644-2222, www.beerhouse.ee
Gloria Veinikelder (Gloria Wine Cellar) is the perfect underground spot to unwind and curl up with an unusual Nordic wine. This cellar, built deep within a medieval stonewall, is known for its extensive wine collection. It’s got a huge fireplace, an à la carte menu, and plenty of nooks and crannies in which to sip your wine.
For a splurge, follow in the footsteps of royalty, rockers and rulers by taking the grand staircase to restaurant Gloria. Originally opened in 1937, Gloria has been renovated by celebrity Estonian restaurateur Dimitri Demjanov to evoke the height of 1930s pre-war charm. Each booth has a uniquely themed décor, adorned with porcelain, mirrored ceilings, and flowing velvet drapes. Art Nouveau pieces from Demjanov’s personal collection frame the space. Gloria offers an impressive menu with European and Estonian influences complemented by the hearty collection from the wine cellar below. Try the tournedos rossini, or the beef stroganoff. A reservation is necessary. Restaurant Gloria, Müürivahe 2, 644-6950; Gloria Wine Cellar (below) 644-8846, www.gloria.ee
Kompressor is a hip, urban Estonian café and bar where the young crowd chills out in the minimalist environs. Grab any table you can, order a beer on tap and get ready for the authentic Estonian pancakes to come your way. The smoked ham and cheese might bring you to your knees. These pancakes are massive, yet delightfully cheap— a tasty snack to gird you en route to the next fortress. Rataskaevu 3; 646-4210
Kuldse Notsu Körts (The Little Piggy Inn) is a pork lover’s country paradise, re-creating specialty Estonian recipes from the old days—also known as peasant food. Try “snacking” on the specialty of the house, crispy pork knuckles with sauerkraut—but keep in mind this could feed an Estonian Army. It might take you awhile. Located in the St. Petersbourg Hotel, Kuldse Notsu Kõrts, Dunkri 8; 628 6567, www.notsu.ee
Olde Hansa is like a medieval Disneyland on speed, but the food is tasty and meticulously researched down to the juniper berry. Be prepared as wandering minstrels serenade you and wenches encourage your stomach to think big. Try the wild boar plate and the bear marinated in rare spices. Wash it all down with another tankard of honey beer, and fill ye old hollow leg. This is beyond touristy, but great fun. Olde Hansa, Vanaturg 1; 627-9020, www.oldehansa.ee
For a restaurant that prides itself on having the most authentic Estonian fare in Tallinn, Eesti Maja (Estonian House) is a crowd-pleaser. Set just outside of Old Town, this folksy spot is where the locals go to get their fix of authentic Estonian delicacies. With many National favorites to choose from, like “cold piggy” and mustard sauce, blood sausage, and the national fish, Baltic herring with sour cream and onion. Eesti Maja, Lauteri 1; 645-5252, www.eestimaja.ee
Soomaa National Park
Soomaa National Park, a place like no other, sits about 105 miles south of Tallinn. “Soomaa” means land of bogs—appropriately named as it is formed by four bogs and split by the tributaries of the Parnü River—creating a sparse landscape with an almost prehistoric glow.
This is the land of five seasons. Spring, summer, fall, winter and flood. Summer is the best time to go so you can hike miles into the swamplands on wooden planks to swim in the bogs, which are rich with legendary, rejuvenating health properties. The water is surprisingly clear and crisp, but so black that you might not see your limbs mid-stroke. In Estonian culture, swimming in a bog is said to soften the skin and soothe the soul. Just watch out for the legendary bog people.
Soomaa National Park offers bog-walks, mushroom picking, swimming and canoeing areas. You can even learn about the traditions and making of Log-boats (haabjas), the preferred mode of transportation during the flood season. And at the end of the day, try the National Park Office’s small and simple log cabin sauna in the forest overlooking a bog—an outdoorsy yet relaxing treat.
Once you find Soomaa, you might not want to leave. Name another place in the world where you can float in saunas, walk for miles through swampland, delve deep into mineral rich bogs, and look fabulous talking about it later. Soomaa National Park Visitor Center; 435-7164, www.soomaa.com
Helsinki and Stockholm
Because of Tallinn’s strategic location, venturing out is almost mandatory. Try the two-hour Tallink ferry to Helsinki, or an overnight ferry to Stockholm on Tallink Victoria—Estonia’s very own version of “The Love Boat,” with flashy dance shows, restaurants, and plenty of places to get a nightcap. D-Terminal of the Ferry Station, Uus-Sadam; 631-8320, www.tallink.com
For the rugged adventurer—secure your Russian visa in advance and jump on Euroline’s six-hour double-decker overnight bus route to St. Petersburg. Hang on as you traverse crater-sized potholes alongside drunken passengers. Expect to go back in time as you cross the border and stop at an old communist checkpoint for a serious inspection. Tallinn Intercity Bus Terminal, 46 Lastekodu; 680-0900, https://www.bussireisid.ee
To get to Riga, Latvia, in style, hop aboard the karaoke singing, DJ mastered, film-screening Hansabuss, for the ultimate five-hour bus experience. The business line has Wi-Fi, printing capabilities, and even “bus-flight attendants” to check your progress. Hansabuss AS, Kadaka tee 62A; 627-9080, www.hansabuss.ee
By Margaret Emery for PeterGreenberg.com
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