On a grey Stockholm morning, we boarded a tiny little plane bound for Tallinn. It was one of those trips that just happened; I had lots of frequent traveller points and this was the destination they could take me to. I didn’t have particularly high expectations, and it was mostly an opportunity for me and my dear friend C to spend some time together.
There are many cruise ships going to Tallinn, both from Sweden and from nearby Finland, so I expected a tourist trap (which I mostly define as crowded, with aggressive vendors and bad, overpriced food) but I was positively surprised. Sure, around the tourist hotspots there were large groups following guides waiving little signs around, but away from them it wasn’t too crowded. I was also very happy to find that the vendors sold genuine handicraft, as opposed to cheap crap from China, and they weren’t aggressive at all. As for food, even right in the middle of the Old Town you could get a tasty and decently priced meal (although the beer tended to be much cheaper away from the main streets).
My friend C is a self-confessed scaredy-cat that loves her creature comforts when travelling, and I wanted to gently introduce her to Slow Journeys on this trip. We booked a couple of things in advance, but also left plenty of time for spur-of-the-moment stuff. It ended up being an amazing few days, and I can really recommend a visit to this progressive little country with its mesmerizing (but not always happy) history and heritage!
These are my top tips for a Slow Journey in Tallinn:
Chat to the locals
We had booked a meal in a “home restaurant” for our first evening; literally someone living in Tallinn that invites guests for a meal in their kitchen. It was a hit through and through! I’m going to write a separate blog about our food journey so watch this space for that, but the evening was more than just food. Our host picked us up at the hotel and took us for a walk through neighbourhoods that we probably would never have visited on our own. Their house was in the previously neglected but now slowly restored (and rather hipster) Kalamaya district, that used to house the fishing community of Tallinn. During dinner, we had many interesting conversations about life now and then in Estonia, and also about hopes for the future. Our hosts, Rain and Andres, also told us about their favourite things to do and eat in Tallinn, and we tried many of them during the next few days. We found this home restaurant on Like a Local
One of my favourite activities when arriving in a new town is to get out and go where my feet take me. Sometimes I walk, sometimes I combine it with exercise and run. I love getting lost in a city, and accidentally stumble upon little hidden gems. You really feel like an explorer when you emerge out of a small alleyway and suddenly find a beautiful building or square or view! Sometimes it’s a true hiden gem and sometimes it is one of the biggest attractions in town, but you still feel like you discovered it by chance. The best time to do this is early in the morning, before the crowds hit the streets. I never leave my map at home though. In particular old medieval towns have an ability to get you completely and utterly lost in the matter of a few twists and turns of their narrow streets.
Learn about history
Estonia sits at the opening of the Gulf of Finland and Tallinn, together with Helsinki at the opposite side, effectively controls the access to and from St Petersburg in Russia. Its strategic location led to many, many occupations and incorporations into other territories throughout history. From the Danes in the early 1200’s through to post World War 2 Soviet occupation (the Estonians never considered themselves part of the Soviet Union, and always refer to this time as an illegal occupation) until their independence in 1991. Despite this, the Estonians have retained a strong identity bound together by their language, traditions and the collective suffering under occupation. Today, Tallinn is a progressive city that is working hard to move away from the despair and neglect of the almost 50-year long Soviet occupation and into the 21st century. Did you know that Tallinn is considered “the silicone valley of the Baltic Sea”?! At the same time, Estonians work hard to preserve their rich heritage, evident especially in the Old Town’s beautiful buildings and their quality handicraft.
We visited the Bastion Tunnels, created during the Swedish Empire (1561-1710),to learn about this time of Tallinn’s history, but also about how these tunnels were henceforth used as bomb shelters during WW2, a possible nuclear shelter, as a hideaway for the Punk movement and as a home for those who lost everything at the end of communism.
Another very interesting museum is the former KGB headoffice, at the top of Viru Hotel. This hotel was built in 1972 as an approved accommodation for visiting foreigners to Tallinn. The top floors were occupied by the KGB, who also controlled everything that happened in the hotel (including bugging and camera surveillance of both public areas and guest rooms). At independence, 20 August 1991, KGB literally left overnight taking with them what they could but leaving many things behind. This is a fascinating insight into the communist era.
Climb the towers
The numerous churches and towers in the Old Town provide a wonderful view of the city and its surroundings. It is well-worth the effort to climb a few of them. My favourites were Kiek in de Kök for the wonderful view of the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral and St Olaf’s Church (the tallest building in Europe when it was built in 1549) for a 360 degree view. But there are also nice viewing platforms in the upper Old Town, especially the Patkuli platform that overlooks a large stretch of the old city wall (below this platform, in the park outside the wall, you also get a very good view of the wall).
Go to the sauna
The sauna is an integral part of the Finno-Ugrian people’s culture. It is both a health ritual, and a social experience. And, you know, when in Rome… But since C had firmly drawn the line at the Finnish sauna, we found a good compromise in Viimsi Spa, where you will find both traditional and modern saunas and other treatments. We tried the mud treatment from the Baltic; the salt-steam sauna, and eventually we both braved the 95 degree Finnish sauna with compulsory dip into the 8 degree ice pool afterwards! You can spend up to 4 hours at this beautiful facility, enjoying the different saunas and pools, chilling in one of the comfortable relaxation areas and grabbing a bite to eat at the bar. An extra plus from me (one of the most child-unfriendly people you have ever met) that the place is for adults only! The spa is about 20km from the city, and we took a bus at the very reasonable fee of EUR 1.60. http://www.spatallinn.ee/en/