Those looking for a reasonably priced city break would do well to book themselves a seat on the next flight to Estonia’s sunny capital, Tallinn. Located on the Gulf of Finland, some 80km across the bay from its Finnish counterpart Helsinki, this picturesque European capital is guaranteed to surprise.
Imagine for a moment, a city in Eastern Europe. I suspect that you’re picturing a run down, grey, post-Soviet nightmare which wouldn’t even rank on the maybe list of travel destinations you’d like to visit at some point in the near future.
Well that is not this. Tallinn has done a phenomenal job in casting off its brutalist shackles and has reimagined itself as a vibrant cultural powerhouse with a burgeoning tech sector. While the big draw remains the old town centre with its Hanseatic charm and towering church spires, there’s a lot more beyond the walls for those willing to get out and about.
Culture vultures should certainly pay a visit to any of the city’s galleries and museums. Outstanding in its field is the Estonian Contemporary Art Museum (EKKM) by the city’s passenger port. Shoehorned into what was a coal loading conveyor for a now decommissioned Soviet era power station, the museum offers a mould breaking experience which is a treat for all senses.
Exhibiting at the time of my visit was the Köler Prize 2016 judging. Artists including Art Allmägi, Laura Põld, and Raul Keller were each invited to display two pieces to the public which were to be rated by both judges and the viewing public. Each piece complimented and contrasted its counterpart and made for exciting viewing, Allmägi’s being particular favourites for the striking use of sound and colour. Both the museum and the power station it once fed are well worth a visit, with the station’s furnaces now serving as gargantuan set pieces for an event space and ancillary buildings housing a creative hub. Entry is free, so there’s no excuse not to pop the head in.
A short distance away, past Tallinn’s main station, Patarei the former sea fortress prison is, without question, a sight to behold. Initially build under the Russian Empire to house its prisoners, the prison also served the first incarnation of the Estonian republic, then the Soviets and finally contemporary Estonia before its doors were shut in 2004. A small beach café on the prison’s northern shore is the perfect set piece to provoke a sense of striking contrast between the abysmal conditions prisoners lived in and its modern day incarnation as an open air museum.
Visitors can access part of the prison for a small fee and guide themselves around cells, medical facilities and exercise yards. A broader section of the prison which houses art exhibitions in the now empty cells is also open for viewing but only by guided tour so do plan ahead. A lucky find was the PÕRGU exhibition in a former outhouse of the prison. Put together by students of the Estonian Academy of Arts, the exhibition offered jewellers a chance to demonstrate their tactile chops to great effect.
The city is small and easily walkable, but with a lot to see you’re going to be up against an empty stomach. Tallinn is a phenomenal place for those who like their food. Not overly expensive and with many places sourcing ingredients locally, it’s very easy to treat yourself. My first meal there was taken at a trendy bar and venue built into the walls of the old town. Beetroot and risotto are not two things I ever would have put together, but the kitchen at Kohvik Sinilind produced an excellent meal at a very reasonable price.
Vegetarians, vegans, and those who just like good food should check out Vegan Restoran V on Rataskaevu. A three course meal for two with two glasses of wine came to €50, and the quality of the food was impeccable. A starter of vegan terrine, interesting in and of itself, led into chickpea stuffed courgette in a Mediterranean sauce with a pumpkin garnish. Not content with providing an excellent starter and main, the dessert of apple strudel was also perfect. The drinks menu is also decidedly vegan, and offers up excellent German sourced Riesling; perfect for a summer evening.
If your walks take you as far as the abandoned Linnahall at the city’s docks, a visit to Klaus on the corner of Kalaranna and Kalasadama is in order. Chic and modern in design, but with a kind of typical Nordic homeliness, the café and restaurant offers up traditional Estonian fare with a distinct modern twist. Very reasonably priced, Klaus is worth the walk.
For the full tourist experience in Tallinn’s old town, Olde Hansa is worth checking out if only for its heather and honey infused beers. Occupying a period building in the centre of the old town, staff are decked out in Hanseatic garb and stick to the script to such an extent that you’re likely to be asked if you can read before being offered a menu. Charming, if a little pricey, Olde Hansa is one of those places which really needs to be seen to be believed.
- Words and photography by Seán O’Reilly, Editor.