The best things to do in the capital, from markets to war tunnels
Estonia has had a turbulent past, its prime location on the Baltic Sea making it an attractive target for invaders. It has been under Danish, Swedish, German and most recently Soviet rule, and all these overlords have left their mark – from German houses and Scandinavian food to a Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Since independence was declared in 1991, Tallinn has gained a reputation as one of the most optimistic cities in Europe, as the sundial on the usually sunless St Mary’s Cathedral indicates. Independence gave Estonians back their national identity and liberated their expressive arts scene. Previously a mass of grey, Tallinn has been transformed into a pastel-painted Unesco World Heritage city ready-made for a clichéd fairytale. Courtyards are hidden off cobbled alleyways that wind past turret-topped battlements, all tidied away inside medieval city walls. ‘Every building has a story to tell,’ our guide says. ‘And if we do not know it, we will make one up.’
Some of the most fascinating sights lie underground. You can wander through eerie so-called bastion tunnels, which date from the late 17th century. Originally built as cannon transport routes, later used as bomb shelters and most recently as a haven for the homeless. Above them sits Kiek in de Kök (Komandandi 2, +372 644 6686), a medieval defensive tower now housing war memorabilia; the cosy café on the top floor provides a panoramic lookout over the city.
Art is visible across the city, but until five years ago Tallinn had no main, permanent gallery in which to display the country’s collection. Then came Kumu (Weizenbergi 34, +372 602 6000), a striking space worth a visit for its building alone. The product of an international architectural competition, it’s built into a limestone hill a short tram ride away from the old town. As well as regular exhibitions of work from the country’s finest twentieth century artists, the gallery also covers Estonian art through the ages, plus a great little café where you can get a hot lunch for less than Dhs30.
During the Soviet era, many restaurants were shut down and few imported ingredients made it through the Iron Curtain. With independence came spices, fancier produce and a surge of international restaurants. To experience authentic Estonian hospitality with a modern twist, head to nAnO (Sulevimagi 5, +372 555 22522), which is located in the bohemian home of Estonian fashion icon Beatrice Mass and her DJ husband Priit. It serves home cooking in a relaxed setting that mixes up the many cuisines the couple have enjoyed on their travels. The house is a splash of colour, with graffiti-emblazoned tables and mural-covered walls.
Estonians have always had an intimate relationship with music; it is a country where song brings change. In the summer of 1988 the Singing Revolution took place, with thousands of Estonians coming together to sing forbidden national songs and waving flags in a peaceful protest against the Soviet occupation. To this day folk music has remained at the heart of Estonian culture and festivals attract enormous crowds year after year – the big one is the Viljandi Folk Festival, which usually happens in late July.
Opera is also popular and Tallinn’s national opera house (Estonia Avenue 4, +372 683 1201) – damaged in a 1944 Soviet aerial bombardment – has now been fully restored. There’s an active programme of operas, operettas and ballets and, if you’re lucky, you can bag the best seat in the house for somewhere in the region of Dhs148.
If you want to hit the shops, forget the high street – it’s not quite Soviet, but there’s not much going on. Shopping in Tallinn is all about handicrafts and markets, and this year the ‘home of the Christmas tree’ (an Estonian claim disputed by some) shifted its spectacular and delightful Christmas market to a new home in the Rotermanni quarter.
Blowout Schlössle Hotel is the oldest five-star hotel in Tallinn. Doubles from approx Dhs885 per night B&B. Puhavaimu 13/15 (+372 699 7700).
Mid-range The four-star St Petersbourg Hotel has Russian-style interiors. Doubles from approx Dhs470 per night B&B. Rataskaevu 7 (+372 628 6500).
Budget Trendy nAnO House sleeps up to three. Family discounts available. From Dhs148 per person per night. Sulevimagi 5 (+372 555 22522).
Need to know
Getting there There are numerous airlines operating flights from Dubai to Estonia. However, all journeys will involve stopovers of varying lengths, depending on when you wish to fly and with which carrier. KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) offer a host of options starting from Dhs3,330 return including taxes. www.klm.com