Tallinn’s historic centre:
The upper town (Toompea) and the narrow streets at its feet incorporate some of the best preserved medieval buildings in Europe. They make up a delicious cocktail with a generous glug of baroque with dashes of Russian revival and art nouveau.
|Tallinn's oldest cafe|
The Estonian History Museum has been created beautifully in a building dating from 1410, originally the Gothic style HQ of the Great Guild of Hanseatic merchants. It’s many fascinations include a boot supposedly worn by Peter the Great, who long desired and eventually acquired Tallinn as it was ice free for longer periods than other Baltic ports – plus exhibits from the Second World War and the Soviet era.
Don’t miss the KGB Museum in the Hotel Viru with its collection of paranoid spy equipment – including a purse that exploded red powder when opened, to catch out members of staff tempted to steal.
And spare time for the stunning modern KUMU art gallery, where Soviet realism sits alongside work by artists who subtly thumbed their noses at Moscow’s apparatchiks.
There’s no shortage of comfortable places to stay. See my review of the Savoy Boutique hotel in Tallinn. I can also recommend another excellent boutique hotel, the Frost in the seaside resort of Pärnu – lovely rooms with coffee machines – mine had a pine writing table and a tree cross section as sculpture – good reading lights, huge breakfast.
A real surprise if you fear the often poor quality of pre-perestroika east Europe. The Hedon’s young chef, for example, has worked at Noma in Copenhagen and produces the likes of wild boar with celery and juniper sauce (for a modest £14 or so) bass in cider sauce and hare roulade with smoked black plums. At the Café Mahednik, also in Pärnu, I ate delicious smoked salmon marinated in lime juice and beech vodka. At NOP, and informal eaterie serving organic food in Tallinn’s Kadriorg district, I ate a one of the finest risottos I had tasted. Besides the usual parmesan its ingredients included rufous milk caps (wild fungus) and spicy cladonia, lichen loved by reindeer. As you might expect on the Baltic there’s very good fresh fish to be had.
Plenty of decent beers with small independent breweries increasingly challenging the big boys such as Viru Õlu (see this useful website). Sea buckthorn liqueur (astelpajunaps) has a distinctive flavor for those in search of something different. Wines are very reasonably priced in some restaurants, among them the Café Pegasus in Tallinn.
Independence has created an enthusiasm which is palpable everywhere. You hope it won’t become jaded with time but for now it’s infectious .
Take the boat to Kihnu Island for a glimpse of the past. Older women still wear woven, colour coded skirts to indicate their status – single, married, widowed. In deep winter people drive to and from the mainland across the ice. See my full Silver Travel Advisor article on the island here.
Great stretches of white sand that shelves gently into the Baltic. That keeps water temperatures at an average 18 – 20 degrees C. in summer. Pärnu waters are particularly shallow and warm – and it even preserves a women only beach, harking back to the 19th century when men and women bathed from piers a mile apart. See my full Silver Travel Advisor article on Pärnu article here.
Wildlife and nature:
OK – I didn’t see any wild beasts but I’m assured that in Soomaa National Park there are elk, wild boar, lynx, wolves and even bears. I walked a wooden trail across one of the park’s immense bogs, where beavers build dams. A huge variety of plants, trees and fungus grows there, including blueberries, cloudberries and lingonberries.
Interesting handicrafts such as juniper wood kitchen utensils, woolen goods – such as the hand woven scatter cushions sold in the Kihnu museum – any of countless types of black bread, cloudberry (maruka) or sea buckthorn jam (moos) or liqueur. Hää EESTI ASI on Viru street sells a wonderful range including Estonian style adult and kids’ clothes. Head for the supermarket in the basement of the Viru Keskus shopping centre, which sells all manner of vacuum packed, smoked or marinated fish. Don’t be misled into thinking amber is Estonian. You’ll see it in shops but it mostly comes from Lithuania.
Top guidebook: get Neil Taylor's superb Estonia guide, published by Bradt (£16.99)