Four days was definitely not enough time to spend in this charming Baltic city. Built in the 14th century, the medieval old town is extraordinarily well preserved and ranks as one of the most aesthetically delightful places I’ve been so far. Sadly, everyone else thinks so too; a plague of cruise-ship vacationers descends on the town between the hours of 9:30 am and 6:30 pm like a swarm of locusts. The only choice is an exodus beyond the fortifications after a solitary morning wander.
And exodus, frankly, is a good thing.
See, Tallinn’s old town suffers from a rare condition called “too fucking cute.” I heard myself repeat that phrase under my breath several times a day, as if expletives could somehow moderate the saccharine overload of perfectly pastel shops, restaurants and hotels, all lined up as if waiting for a dance on the ancient cobblestone alleys. Even the rain couldn’t diminish its fucking cuteness; in a way, you almost hated it more; Tallinn avoids a wet bedraggled fate and continues to smile brightly in its perpetually-fucking-charming way.
Fortunately, there are a number of escapes; once you cross the railroad tracks you realize this is not your average tourist-trap town. Tallinn is a fascinating study in contrasts: a lovely sweet charm mixed with a slightly gritty edge. It’s like seeing the innocent next-door beauty sporting low-slung jeans and some bad-ass tattoos. Ahh… if Tallinn were a girl, I’d date her.
The other side of the tracks
Venture through the west gate, pass by the train station, and follow the signs for Balti Jaama, the town market. The path will take you across the tracks and through a tunnel, and pop you out in a newly hip neighborhood called Kalamaja.
You’ll first come to Balti Jaama market itself, renovated recently. The ground floor is where you’ll find fresh produce and little coffee shops in refurbished shipping containers. You’ll also find a very good organic store if you’re into that sort of thing; this is where I bought my groceries. But hey folks, the fun is just beginning: head upstairs and activate treasure hunt mode: it’s a vast antique store with some crazy items like gas masks and old Russian military uniforms mixed in with the typical flea-market wares.
After the market, there’s still plenty to explore here. You’ll soon discover that Tallinn couldn’t bear to do a gritty hipster vibe in an anything less than its inimitably fucking-perfect way. The surrounding area is littered with shipping-container coffee shops, cool street art, and a restaurant in an old refurbished train.
Keep walking to Creative City, a renovated industrial complex full of studios, restaurants, coffee shops, clothing and home decor with Nordic design sensibilities. I loved this place, and spent a rainy afternoon here working in a laughably fucking perfect hipster café, sipping my perfect latte surrounded by plants, Edison bulbs, elegantly designed home wares, and an actual 20-something hipster dude sitting across from me with yoga stickers on his laptop. You can’t make this shit up.
Next stop: the harbor
From Creative City, head northeast toward the water; you’ll walk through one of the last wooden-home neighborhoods — very New England-y — and you’ll eventually arrive at the harbor. You’ll see signs for Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour Museum; my first day I passed by and didn’t think much of it, but later that evening I read that you can go inside an actual submarine. Cool! Sign me up.
So the next day, after a way-overdue hair appointment (30% of US prices for cut and color, with amazing quality; go see Natallia here if you’re in the neighborhood) I came back to the Harbour Museum and spent hours photographing everything in sight. A submarine, a tank, naval guns, and more: nearly all of them you can touch and turn the knobs. The building itself is a marvel of engineering, far ahead of its time.
Their current exhibit, Sex and the Sea, featured the long-distance romantic lives of seamen. I was obsessed with photographing the wall of bottles and a 10-foot high love letter written in white script on black.
Last stop: the prison
Just a short walk from the Harbour Museum is the Patarei Prison, a well-preserved showcase of the worst of humanity and the terrors inflicted by Communist and Nazi leaders in the name of power. The place is now a museum dedicated to remembering the horrors that occurred here in hopes that it will never happen again. Thousands of Estonians were imprisoned and executed here when the Russians took control of the country in 1941. Later the place was used by the Nazis during the Holocaust; 700 French Jews were brought here in cattle cars after all the Estonian Jews were executed; only 20 survived. Yes, it was disturbing, but it’s meant to be. #neverforget.
On a lighter note, I should not forget to mention…
My first night In Tallinn was spent in the Kadriorg area; I’d hoped to explore the palace grounds and the museum, but thanks to the torrential downpour I postponed it for another time that never happened because I spent my one extra day in Helsinki via ferry. However, I hear it’s amazing so do try to make it. When you’re in that neighborhood, eat at the Old Boy Mary Jane restaurant: lovely, clean design, with a slightly hipster vibe. Good food and very reasonably priced.
Getting around: Public transportation is very easy and affordable here: 2 euros gets you anywhere you need to go. That said, most of the city is quite walkable. I only used public transport from the airport, to the bus station, and to/from Kugiorg.
Language: Primarily Estonian; Russian and English vie for secondary language. I never used Google Translate until I got out of Tallinn.
Another blog with a different twist on Tallinn is HiddenTallinn. Here you’ll find more detail on the different neighborhoods, plus some random tidbits you won’t find elsewhere like myths, ghosts and legends!