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4 April 2019

A Weekend in Tallinn: Bex's Guide

Estonia is the 12th EU country I've visited since 24 June 2016, in addition to trips to Norway and Iceland. I've been to most of these countries before, but my Euro-philic sensibilities have also encouraged me to venture into EU pastures new — and to hope that these visits don't turn into a EU-logy. I'd been meaning to visit Tallinn for some time and was able to book BA flights, including an outbound leg in business class, for a good price during the Christmas sale.


Located just 50 miles south of Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland, Tallinn is a compact capital city whose pretty Old Town is one of the best preserved Mediaeval cities in Europe. I spent a weekend there, flying in late on Friday afternoon and heading home (via a short hop to Helsinki) on Sunday evening, which was a good amount of time for a first visit. I'd feared my late March visit might translate into terrible weather, so I tried to plan for some indoor activities too, but I was lucky and it was cold but mostly sunny, with a short period of rain on Saturday. Inevitably, Tallinn is extremely busy in July and August, but much calmer in the earliest days of spring.

THINGS TO DO
Exploring the Old Town. With its often steep, labyrinthine streets and fairytale-ready pastel-hued architecture, Tallinn's Old Town is a great place for sightseeing. I arrived in time for golden hour and immediately dashed out of my hotel, chasing the gorgeous light. The domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral looked particularly fetching as they caught the evening light.



There are two viewing platforms where you can take photos of the classic red-rooftops-of-Tallinn view: Patkuli lookout, which faces north towards the Baltic, and Kohtuotsa lookout, which looks out over the Old Town to the east.



As usual, I brought a Lonely Planet guidebook, which included a two-hour walking route through the Old Town, journeying through various city gates, and past the Toompea Castle, the former KGB quarters and the city's diverse guilds.




Tallinn City Museum. Keen for more history and culture — and to avoid the rain — I ducked inside the main branch of the Tallinn City Museum on Vene Street. I spent a diverting hour in the small museum, which combines history of the city — both back to its formal establishment in the 13th century, and more recent 20th century history. Upstairs, a collection of Langebraun porcelain was on display, which did not help to dispel my ceramic cravings.


Kadriorg Park. On Sunday morning, the sun came out again and I decided to walk out to the Kadriorg district, 1.5 miles east of the Old Town. Even during the earliest days of spring — and with the weather still wintry — the large park was on fine form, and many families were out and about, enjoying the sunshine. The colourful, baroque Kadriorg Palace was built for Catherine I of Russia by Peter the Great, but is now home to Kadriorg Art Museum.




FOOD & DRINK
Unsurprisingly, I spent a lot of my time in Tallinn enjoying the local food and drink. I've already written about my speciality coffee experiences in Tallinn, but you'll have to read on to find out how I ended up having two multi-course tasting menu meals in one day. For breakfast or a casual brunch, I would recommend RØST for pastries and T35 for larger dishes; both of these cafes also serve very good coffee.

I was out of meals, but the Balti Jaama Turg (Baltic Station Market) is a great place for (indoor) street food bites. Baojaam — serving Taiwanese bao — is highly recommended.


I visited Trühvel and Sfäär for their umlauts, for their coffee and their food. At Trühvel, a contemporary Mediterranean restaurant in the Telliskivi district, my cocktail and roast chicken were both delicious, but I was most excited about the garlic bread: a small rye loaf that contained about 50% roasted garlic cloves, 20% bacon and 10% cheese. I was cleaning my teeth every few hours for the rest of the weekend but it was so worth it.



I had heard good things about the Saturday brunch menu at Sfäär, and when I turned up to the stylish, minimalist restaurant in the Rotermann Quarter, I pointed to the menu item I wanted to order. It turned out, however, that brunch was a six-course affair for €22. Although I had already booked another tasting menu for the evening, I somehow couldn't say no. The six courses included Estonian foods and dishes with a contemporary, creative twist. My favourites were the salted trout and trout roe on crispy bread, and the bulgogi beef.



Restoran Ö is an ode to the ö, a letter which is used frequently on Saaremaa, the island from whence the restaurant's owners hail. The menu consists of either the taste journey (five courses plus nibbles and candy) for €59 or the taste exploration (nine courses plus nibbles and candy) for €76. Given my earlier indulgence, I opted for the latter, choosing a Crafter's Gin Collins to accompany my meal rather than the drinks pairings. Each dish was exquisitely prepared and beautifully presented, and the wait staff provided just the right level of detail about each dish, along with a very warm welcome.


Although I enjoyed the perch pike and quail, the celebration of celery ended up being one of my favourite dishes with roasted and grated celery accompanying celery foam — oh, with a little caramelised butter to keep things interesting. The dessert was also an Estonian classic: a malted caramel beer ice cream, served with curds enrobed in a berry glaze, hazelnut, and tomato beer gel. While I ate this dish, a branch of fir was brought to the table and turned into a sort of diffuser, filling the air with fir-scented mist. And just in case I hadn't had enough garlic, one of the 'candies' was a chocolate and black garlic caramel; yum!


SHOPPING
I didn't do much shopping in Tallinn but I wanted to highlight a few of the shops I liked. Estonian Design House, inside the Solaris shopping centre, and Tallinn Design House, in the Rotermann Quarter, both have a great range of lifestyle goods and homewares, jewellery and accessories. Oma Asi, in the Old Town, also sells homewares and gifts with a focus on locally designed and produced products. I bought a turquoise leather pouch and a wolf pin badge for my mum — there was a lot of wolf iconography in Tallinn, and Wolves are my family's football team. Over in Katariina Käik (St Catherine's Passage), you can find craft workshops selling a variety of traditional goods.




PRACTICAL INFORMATION
Accommodation: I stayed at the Hotel Telegraaf in the heart of the Old Town. The grand building on Vene Street was once the central post office and in a nod to its history, there are vintage telephones around the building. I had one of the smaller rooms (€124 per night), which was quiet and comfortable. The hotel also has a small but beautiful spa, and I spent a little time relaxing — and warming up — in the jacuzzi, steam room and sauna before dinner each evening.




Arriving and getting around: Thanks to a fast (20 minutes) and cheap (€1) tram, the journey from the airport to the Old Town is extremely convenient. I stepped off the plane at 4:50 pm and was at my hotel 35 minutes later. You can pay your tram fare with cash or use your contactless card (you'll need to use the reader near the front of the tram; some of the readers only accept local travel cards). Other than my trips to and from the airport, I didn't use any form of transport, but there are various trams and buses in case you don't fancy the stroll out to areas like Kadriorg.


Money: Estonia uses the Euro and everywhere I went accepted credit card payments. In fact, I only used cash for tips on a couple of occasions when I didn't have the option to add a tip to the card payment. Most of the venues I visited accepted contactless payments too. This is perhaps unsurprising given Tallinn's reputation as a tech hub.



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