When friends asked me why I was going to Tallinn all I could say was that I’d seen it in the National Geographic travel magazine and instantly knew I fancied it. Maybe it was the tales of vodka, National liqueurs, saunas and the cobblestoned Old Town or maybe it was just the unknown nature of it to me. I knew next to nothing about Estonia with my frame of reference being a Jane MacDonald cruising episode and that one article in Nat Geo travel. But the proximity of it to Finland and the mystery of the place to me sealed the deal. Flights booked with a night in London to break up my journey I set off in mid June of this year.
Tallinn’s white nights were less of an oddity to me, as Scotland shares a similar phenomenon of light summer nights with its Northern European neighbours. But here they were more extreme and celebrated. Estonia like many Northern European countries has a deep connection to nature. This is juxtaposed by the tech savvy and modern entrepreneurial culture of the country. Even when it was under the control of the Soviet Union, and with western television banned, the engineering minded Estonians would alter there TV sets to hook into western Finnish TV from across the water. It’s due to this history of occupation and ingenuity that many Estonia’s though bi or multilingual are immensely proud of their country and their language.
I’d booked 3 nights at the Fat Margaret’s youth hostel, a stones throw from the old town and the ferry terminal. Tallinn and the hostel were proving very popular when I went in mid June, owing to Estonia’s proximity to Russia and the imminent football World Cup. Estonia was proving a handing stepping stone for fans hopping to dodge expensive direct flights and fit in a wee holiday in between. So my mixed dorm was mostly young male football fans and young business people. From the hostels front door I could be see one of the gates into the Old Town.
First full day in Tallinn, I was up and out really before anything had gotten started. Delivery drivers, builders and street cleaners were the only people about. In the main square the market stall holders were just setting up and a free early risers like myself were getting to grips with the hilly tangle of cobblestone streets that make up the old town. After a quick brekkie and a wander, I decided to join one of the free walking tours starting from the tourist information shop after stocking up on leaflets. Our tour group was varied and our guide an informative local. Humorously as she noted herself when she spoke English with her Estonian accent it magically mutated into an Irish accent despite never having been or learnt English from Ireland or an Irishman. The tour untangled Old Town for me and if in doubt looking up and picking one of the many spires would lead you back to a more familiar area. In Tallinn you can quickly walk from medieval old town, to modern new town to the older concrete stylings a couple of blocks out. I walked a lot but also used the trams and buses, made easy by buying a Tallinn card before I arrived (less a card and more a print out with a QR code). I hopped on and off easily and only stood on the wrong side of the road like an idiot once before I remembered where I was. And that was the thing Tallinn felt chill, yes it was a busy city but you could walk or hop on a tram and you’d be in a public park or green space within minutes. Kadriorg palace though beautiful was outshone for me by the peace and tranquility of the setting.
That night I got chatting to some Colombian guys from Bogota who were over for the football. We chatted, drank whisky and went out in the Old Town at night. Went into a tiny bar and I marvelled as they marvelled at the beauty of the white nights and the architecture of old town. We agreed to go to the beach the next day and try and catch the World Cup opening ceremony. I rose surprisingly not hungover and went to my chosen destination. The Estonian open air museum, maybe not first on the list for twenty something solo travellers but it floated my boat. Nestled between woodland one side and the gulf of Finland on the other you get a mini tour of Estonia through the ages. I walked miles that day, I sketched outside, I honestly could have stayed there all day. There was also a cat, a small shop selling fudge and a restaurant. Outside, sunshine, sea, history, fudge and clapping a cat. Pretty much a perfect day for me. To top it off I went with the Colombian guys to the beach at Pirita and got something I didn’t think I’d get on this holiday, sand. I love the ocean and the seaside and the feeling of walking on sand is wonderful for me. I was almost rendered mute just by sheer contentment I felt that day, I truly had nothing to say. I think this slightly weirded out my new Colombian buddies but a bottle of wine and some ping pong in the hostel common room loosened my tongue. Tomorrow bright and horrendously early we would part ways all headed for Finland by separate means. My interest in Colombia truly piqued and the stress of work and daily life washed away by the chill green outdoorsy yet vibrantly modern vibes of Tallinn.
My top tips of things to do, eat, see in Tallinn:
- The Old Town of course. I’d recommend going early and taking the free walking tour.
- The Estonian open air museum, a short bus ride from the centre of town.
- The beach and marina at Pirita. Again accessible by bus, tram or Uber.
- Kadriorg Palace and gardens.
- Lieb restaurant named for the famous Estonia black rye bread. Fresh and locally sourced Estonia cuisine in a gorgeous garden courtyard at what was once and is still part of the Scottish club in Tallinn. I’d definitely pick here over the restaurants in the main square, it’s authentic and without gimmicks. Just good products cooked in interesting and fresh ways.
- I know I’ve mentioned it before but the restaurant in the open air museum is also really good.
- Get a Tallinn card before you arrive, not only is it good for public transportation but also gets you access to many attractions.
- Climb up the town hall tower stairs for a nearly 360 view of old town.
- Experience the white nights.