What to do in Tallinn: through time & across town [3 days]

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia between 2006 and 2016 sums up Estonia beautifully: “Estonia is like a wild strawberry: pristine and small, difficult to find […] but once it is ours, then it is one of the best things of all.” Its capital, Tallinn is a real gem, from its well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Old Town to its remnants of the Soviet era, from its spa culture to its intimate speakeasy bars. Let’s travel through time and explore Tallinn!

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Kessu is quite rough around the edges. Running the III Draakon tavern in the heart of Tallinn, she has seen many travellers flocking in the dynamic Hanseatic town, and not the most refined of them. With her loud voice and fast quips, borderline rude at times, she knows how to be respected by her patrons. She is constantly serving generous ox ribs, moose sausages, meat and vegetable pies and soups in the dimly-lit interior of her unpretentious tavern, along even more pints of ales and horns of mule house wine. Some even dare ordering the dragon tear schnapps, clearly not for the faint of heart, and it does not seem to improve their manners… But Kessu has seen worse.

Most of these men are passing by on business. From Tallinn that had been funded in 1219 by the Danes (importing Christianity during the Northern Crusades, and tactically keen on the fertile lands of today’s Estonia), cargo was being transported all over the Baltic Sea: jugs, pots, clothing, leather, shoes, baking trays, grinding stones, barrels, timber, fur, grains, fish, blubber, wax, salt, spices… Cogs, hulls, caravels, schute, ewer and kreyer such as the one showcased at the Estonian Maritime Museum were moored in the busy harbour of Tallinn, an important outpost for the German merchants for the profitable East-West trade that attracted many.

The wealthy merchants favour a much more comfortable, entertaining and expensive inn such as the Olde Hansa, a stone’s throw away from III Draakon. During cold and damp winter days, large velvety curtains keep the heat in and the large room is lit by 900 candles on hung chandeliers. Frescoes adorn the walls. Patrons sit at large wooden tables enjoying a handcrafted berry schnapps with its secret medieval recipe, a gold grūber schnapps (voted the best of Estonia), a cinnamon beer, or wines imported by the Hanseatic league served in handmade glassware. The atmosphere is jovial with musicians playing on medieval instruments over the loud laughs filling the dining room. Polite waiters go back and forth, hands full with generously plated recipes, recreated from the medieval records of the Hanseatic league.

Putting their wealth to the service of religion, hoping for a better treatment in the afterlife, the German merchants also funded Saint Nicholas’ Church, housing today the excellent Niguliste Museum, focusing on medieval art. The marvellous Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke (1440-1509) is the best known and most valuable medieval artwork in Estonia, and the only surviving medieval Dance of Death painted on canvas in the world. Remember you must die seems to say the painting…

While the Hanseatic town was bustling in the low city with its inns, the mighty Kiek in de Kök artillery tower dominated the area for the perfect bird’s eye view, also over today’s hipster Kalamaja District with its old wooden buildings (literally, the “fish house district” is the closest to the Estonian architecture as the old town was built by Germans, Swedes and Russians). The 14th-century fortifications and bastions have a fierce reputation with 30 loopholes for small weapons and 27 embrasures for cannons. Even the Russian army of Ivan the Terrible could not harm the mighty tower when they besieged Tallinn during the 1558-1583 Livonian War! The access to the Baltic Sea was then refused to the Russian Tsar, and the territory got divided between the Poles (Southern Estonia), the Swedes (Northern Estonia) and the Danes (the largest Estonian island, Saaremaa). This did not last for long, as when Sweden took over in 1629 with the Truce of Altmark with Poland, leading to the 1700-1721 Northern War: Russia and Denmark teamed up to end the Baltic superpower supremacy around, and Estonia became part of the Russian Empire. But Kiek in de Kök has seen many other conflicts: the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Estonian war for independence (1918-1920) and the Second World War (1939-1945) also shook its foundations to the ground and its bastions have taken many different roles over the years from ammunition storage to prison, from bomb shelter to punk stronghold, from homeless refuge to today’s museum.

All these conflicts and foreign influences have marked Estonian art, and the modern Kumu Art Museum allows a time travel from the considered more advanced German to Russian influences. The artwork follows local politics as the Baltic German elite predominance was ended by the first independence (1918-1939), and the land redistributed in an egalitarian society in this new progressive republic. Later, during its Soviet period, the ideological messages of the communist party echo, before the society became more liberal in the 1950s, and completely lost itself after the 1991 collapse of the USSR: the young independent at last republic of Estonia seemed to not really have known what to do with its freedom, leading to a fair amount of shady business…

These times are long gone, and Estonia with its 1.3 million inhabitants has become an innovative start-up nation. “In the 400,000-strong start-up capital of Europe, lots of young professionals familiar with London or New York City pass by, and they need to be able to relate to the cocktail culture”, Jiří Mališ explains while mixing some original cocktails behind his marble counter in a country where the culture is yet to be developed. Whisper Sister is the first craft cocktail bar in Estonia discretely located in the underground of a 1910 Art Deco style building on the edge of Tallinn’s Old Town. Past a secret door and velvet staircase, covers of modern songs in a 1920 jazz style set the tone in this elegant yet relaxed speakeasy bar.

At Whisper Sister, inspiration comes mostly from the gastronomy of Michelin-starred restaurants. With this in mind, the bar tender Jiří revisits classics such as the Fake Italicus Spritz, crafted with a homemade bergamot Suze-based liqueur, white wine and Champagne. In the intimate living room, some jungle sounds resonate softly. The wink to animal shows, serving as covers to sell alcohol during prohibition, is not lost. Jiří joins us to chitchat and adapts his next round to our taste. The Chewy Gooey is a delicious creamy dulce de leche pumpkin with aquavit and the old-fashioned Toffee Apple marries calvados to Madeira Sweet Wine and a syrup of apple and maple for a bit more sweetness. Jiří also crafts cocktails based on the best-known local liquors: the 7 Lucky Gods is based on Estonian Crafter’s Gin while the Jamaican Chix mixes thyme-infused rum with the local Vana Tallinn.

As we sit at NOY City, a local restaurant slightly away from the Old Tow, Dimitri Saley holds a bottle of Vana Tallinn that he is about to pour for us. On the table, other less famous Estonian liqueurs and liquors are standing. A history buff and tour guide with a reasoned passion for spirits, Dimitry is a well of knowledge. As we taste different local drink specialties, he takes us to the first fermented drinks thousands of years ago to the distillation process that allowed Alexander the Great to desalinate seawater and the alchemists, from the Estonian landlords to the Soviet times, from fishermen smuggling alcohol into Finland to nuns distilling in their monastery, from egg liquor to a smooth 80 percent alcohol Estonian vodka!

As we walk back to pamper at our hotel’s spa to enjoy another deeply rooted Baltic tradition, we realise we cannot agree more with Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ quote and feel very privileged to have found the wild strawberry…

Notes:

  • Tallinn was funded in 1219 by the Danes at the decisive battle of Lindanise and was a Hanseatic town between the end of the 13th century and the 16th century. Our story starts during the early years of the Hanseatic times.

Travel tips:

  • To get the most of Tallinn, consider the Tallinn city card. The city is packed with gems, and 3 days in town (minimum) is ideal to take it in.
  • Over a dozen farms from all over Estonia have been gathered at the Open-Air Museum for a glimpse of 18th to 20th centuries rural life. The 19th century Kolu Inn used to be a stop for travellers to rest, and a way for manors to sell their goods and spirits to recover from the Great Northern War, allows visitors to enjoy some traditional Estonian dishes, such as mashed potatoes with groat or sauerkraut soup with potatoes, a locals’ favourite.
  • Owned by an Estonian art collector and the Estonian sports association, the comfortable 4-star Kalev Spa Hotel on the edge of Tallinn’s old town houses the only 50-meter pool in Estonia where you can do your laps next to the Estonian Olympic swimming athletes, or simply relax at the spa or in one of the many saunas taking you on a sensory journey. Make sure to ask for a room with a view: clearly the best in town!
  • Woman looking at hte view on Old Tallinn from the room in the Kalev Spa Hotel
  • View on Old Tallinn from the Kalev Spa Hotel
  • Woman entering the sauna at the Kalev Spa Hotel, Tallinn
  • Breakfast at the Kalev Spa Hotel, Tallinn
  • Gym with a view on Old Tallinn at the Kalev Spa Hotel
  • Olympic pool at the Kalev Spa Hotel, Tallinn
  • Woman in the Hymalayan salt sauna at Kalev Spa Hotel, Tallinn
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in the Baltic States:

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