At the risk of beating a dead horse here, I’d like to come out and express my love for Estonia’s capital. Having been to Tallinn twice (and chronicling the adventures), I can safely say it’s one of my favorite cities in the world! As such, the combined factors of proximity to Moscow, homeliness, and general sense of wanderlust are pushing me to make a return trip there, particularly over the winter break; it’s a relatively long wait, but I’ve never been during that time and want to experience it first hand.
To keen readers, what I’m about to say now may be a major case of deja vu, but I feel compelled to rehash my thoughts. So, simply put, Tallinn is one of the cozier places I’ve been to. It never felt so at home with a new location, and the capital’s relatively small size greatly contributes to this. This is evidenced by the fact that from the airport, it took maybe fifteen minutes to get to my hostel. Meaning, you can jump into exploration mode right from the very start! And for me, wandering through its neat streets was an attraction in and of itself! Which leads both figuratively and literally leads me to the Old Town. Out of all the images associated with the Baltic country, Old Town and the Singing Revolution are the two biggest. With the former, this association is highly justifiable given the quaint cobble stoned streets that runs through this part of Tallinn. Every time I meandered along, I made sure to just absorb my surroundings and be thankful for them. This even extended to outside the Old Town, because it is extremely rare to find a city that so seamlessly blends the old with the new. As I said before, it’s hard to imagine a more unassuming capital city, especially compared to my current home in Moscow. Looking back on it, when I walked through a certain section of the city (more on that very soon), I apparently saw the Presidential Palace. I use the word “apparently” here, because nothing really clued you in to that fact, which is a bit of fresh air when you think about it. It’s no big deal, the president just happens to live there. Can you imagine that in America, Russia, or in other countries?
For those of you who want to chronicle your trips, you’re in luck: there’s wifi practically everywhere. Yes, even the countryside has speedy internet connection! Not only that, but the country routinely places as one of the ten countries with the fastest internet speeds, so quality doesn’t suffer. Estonia is one of the world’s leader in technology, which is demonstrated in that Skype was invented by Estonians (with Danish and Swedish partners). As someone who relies on social media to map my travels, I’m entirely thankful that I could spread the word about Tallinn and Estonia!
When I made my first visit, I honestly had no idea what to expect other than a) it’s the capital and b) Estonia? What’s there to do there? So, imagine my surprise when I found it to be a vibrant, colorful city. I don’t say that in a patronizing way, I really do mean that it has a certain “wow!” factor than you can’t help but love! Aesthetically pleasing and full of quirky places, I found that there’s plenty to see and do. One of my favorite areas of Tallinn was the Kadriorg district, which, being home to politicians past and present, arguably is one of the most colorful places in the entire country. Strolling along in the gardens and seeing the Petrine Baroque-style architecture is well worth it, plus you can find plenty of top-notch art galleries in the vicinity. In particular, Kumu was a treat because it introduced me to the Estonian artists whose works I never would have gotten a chance to see. Plus, the building itself is very snazzy, which again hearkens back to my point about the overall aesthetics of Tallinn. Honestly, finding things like these are what endears me to cities, you know? In the grand scheme of things, art and splendidly designed buildings may not be much, but for me, they demonstrate not only the local mentality, but offer a certain sense of warmth and familiarity. Culture indicates the history of a country, and what I saw in Tallinn really helped me to understand Estonia.
Barracking off of that point, one thing I should mention are the presence of manors scattered around the pristine countryside, which is easily accessible from the city. (That contrast also is worth pointing out. Tired of city life? Why not take a twenty minute bus ride to get away from it all!) Dating from the 12th century, there was an influx of foreign presence in the Baltic and thus a need to make that presence felt. Manors were given to and built for those that stayed, and the term Baltic Germans evolved over time to describe these crusaders, merchants, and other craftsmen; the caveat is that they weren’t exclusively German, but cursory research indicates a strong contingent from other European nations/intermarriage. This becomes important because over time, a growing resentment towards this class emerged, which culminated in their exodus around 1918 and the independence movements. Nowadays the manors lie abandoned, but the beauty of that is anybody can purchase them. You’d need at least 200,000 euros, sure, but the idea still is there. The government attempted to restore some of them, but it ultimately was a losing attempt against nature’s reclamation.
Obviously I’m heavily biased towards Tallinn, but even then, when you compare it to the other two capitals, Riga and even Vilnius felt a bit…lacking. I dunno, but something didn’t completely connect when I was in the capitals of the fellow Baltic countries; maybe this is self-inflicted because I set the bar very high by starting my way literally up at the top and working my way down. Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast there-everybody should visit the entire region-just, it’s hard to top a city that did its absolute best to make you not want to return to work. According to cursory research, it’s the smallest of the three Baltic capitals, clocking it at about 447,000 inhabitants. So, it is rather intimate! For starters, I felt the balance between tacky/touristy and local places was managed extremely well, especially in the Old Town. Inevitably you’ll find the tourist traps and the suckers that pay twice as much for everything, but it didn’t take much exploring to stumble across the local spots. (If you go just outside Old Town, there are lots more places. Seriously, just go a few minutes further and you’ve got lots more options sans hassle.) Given their proximity to the Baltic Sea, the food is fresh and hearty with lots of fish and potatoes. Oh yes, the beer is wonderfully cold to complement your meals! However, if that doesn’t suit your palate, then there’s plenty of smaller dining establishments that cater to every need. Menus generally were/are trilingual, so don’t fret if you haven’t yet mastered either Estonian nor Russian.
On that note, the people were super welcoming. One can see the remnants of Baltic German legacy with the occasional reminder of Slavic influence, but given its past, the country has done a great job of blending them into an overall Estonian identity. Multiple languages are spoken (Estonian and a smattering of Russian), but there was absolutely no problem as people helped me out in English. That’s another thing that I really liked, because, and again this might just be my experience only, I felt that people in Riga (I’m throwing them under the bus just for comparison’s sake; I did like the city) weren’t as open. And now that I really think about it, I’d liken my stays there as being akin to reading a nice book in the corner of a cozy cafe on a rainy day: you feel warm and at peace. Sadly, the Baltics are criminally underrated as a tourist destination, so I felt that there was a real enthusiasm when locals saw tourists. (I’m excluding the Finns who take the Tallink ferry just to buy cheap(er) booze, because let’s be honest, they’re not going to be interacting much with Estonians.) And I felt a bit obnoxious because I couldn’t speak the local language, despite my tour guides constantly bemoaning the fact that their native tongue is tricky to learn. People take it in stride though, which was a testament to the overall charm. Yet another anecdote I can share is that my various taxi drivers all politely inquired as to what I do for a living, why was I visiting Tallinn, and other small talk. Each and every one offered tips for what to see and do, and damned if I didn’t ply them with solid tips. All in all, the people are what made my trips for me and there’s no way to get around that. I hope that future visitors to one of my favorite countries get to experience this first hand!
After writing what I hope is a moderately decent explanation of why Tallinn is a city I’ll not get tired of, maybe you, dear reader, will want to explore it for yourself. If anybody does use this post as inspiration, hopefully I’ll see you there myself!