Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson stated “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travels sake.” Never has a globe trotting quote ringed so true to my approach to life and it has lead me to many places I hadn’t otherwise considered. Most recently I found myself planning a mini break to Finland and being obsessed with maps and wanting to make the most of a plane ticket I searched to see what other countries were nearby… thus my journey to Estonia was born.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Estonia was limited to two facts, Tallinn is the capital and it boasts an old town so well preserved it is UNESCO protected. It’s clear I won’t be entering any trivia based television shows anytime soon but the UNESCO fact was enough to entice me. To put it simply venturing to Tallinn is like venturing back in time and I feel incredibly blessed to have seen what is a living and breathing museum.
Understandably it is more popular to visit Western Europe but the prices are naturally higher and the crowds more dense. However, if you’re looking for something less popular, cheaper yet still a quality place to explore step back in time with me and add whimsical Estonia to your bucket list.
The Quick 5
How did you get there?
Reaching Estonia’s seaside capital is incredibly easy for those visiting Scandinavia, in particular Finland as Helsinki is a mere two hours away by ferry. The small distance, combined with the number of daily sailings and low fares makes Tallinn not only readily available for tourists but not visiting this beautiful city is almost inexcusable given the above.
Three lines make the crossing all at competitive prices: Viking Line, Eckero Line, Tallink Silja the latter of which was my company of choice as they provided the lowest fare at 35.00 euro return from Helsinki. Given my unorganised self only booked the night before I found this price to brilliant as I was mentally preparing for my wallet to take a bashing. Naturally fares are much lower if you book in advance. The best way to compare prices and book is through Direct Ferries which can be accessed by clicking here.
Now I can only speak from my experience with Tallink Silja, though tickets are purchased online, they can only be collected at the ferry terminal 45 minutes prior to departure at the very latest. Though no passport checks are currently in place (damn wanted that Estonian stamp) nevertheless be sure to carry it on your person as immigration officers patrol the arrivals hall in both Finland and Estonia and make random selections for document inspection.
Access to the historic centre is within walking distance from the ferry terminal and easily spotted given the contrast in medieval architecture surrounded by modernity. The walk is roughly 10 minutes and as always be sure to wear appropriate footwear due to the myriad of cobblestones which await you. Taxi cabs are also available outside the arrivals hall should you require assistance.
Best place to unwind?
My favourite place in Tallinn is the small enclave known as the Merchants Quarter. It is here that you will find quality artisan crafts and in my opinion the worlds best hot chocolate at the French themed Chocolaterie Pierre. Given the establishment has been in operation since 1932 it is no wonder they have perfected their hot chocolate but what really makes this place unique is its theatrical and delightfully eclectic décor. Tucked away way from the hustle and bustle of the town square, Chocolaterie Pierre maintains its mystery through both its location and no internal photography policy.
A very close second is Maiasmokk, a tea room established in 1864 but given its proximity to the town square I can only assume this place gets very busy during peak season. Feeling gluttonous and indecisive I selected three pastries and repeatedly told myself it was for research purposes only. Like most of Tallinn, Maiasmokk is an inexpensive option as the cost of three pastries and two drinks only set me back five euros and is slightly less expensive then Chocolaterie Pierre. If you arrive in Tallinn early this is great place to have a naughty breakfast whilst planning your sightseeing agenda… and if you are feeling a little guilty for over indulging rest assured knowing that a day of cardio exploring the lengths of the historic centre awaits from the serene Alexander Nevsky Cathedral to the delightful Catherine’s Passage. That’s what I call a win win situation.
How long is long enough?
It is entirely possible to see all of Tallinn’s old town in one day provided you book yourself on an early morning crossing for a scheduled arrival of 9.30am and an evening departure. However, should you wish to visit sites outside of the old town like Kadriorg Palace or the Viru Hotel KGB Museum keep in mind you will need to access these by public transport or taxi in order to fit everything in as unlike everything enclosed in the walls of the old town, these sites are not within walking distance. I would recommend visiting anything outside the old town your first priority upon disembarkation to maximise your time as I guarantee you will get caught up in the old towns charm and you will inevitably run out of time.
Tips, tricks and advice?
Many, if not all of Tallinn’s museums close on Mondays including the Bastion tunnels. Unfortunately, my schedule only permitted a Monday visit and though I still found myself occupied with plenty to see and do I was disappointed to miss out on the KGB museum in particular.
If you plan on climbing the city walls and visiting religious sites be sure to carry some coins on you for admission as the prices are generally so low paying via card will most likely cost you more in bank and currency exchange fees.
Tallinn’s ferry terminal doesn’t offer much by way of eating options so either grab something from the old town or wait until you have boarded. Should you have specific food requirements, intolerances or allergies you might want to consider packing your own snacks before leaving for Tallinn as I found it difficult to source gluten free options.
Best places to buy unique souvenirs and gifts?
One thing I love about Estonia is how cheap it is and the national produce available for purchase. I relish in purchasing food based products as gifts for the family as anything plastic eventually gets thrown away and the souvenirs which are made off shore don’t reap benefits for local craftsmen and small businesses.
If you’re looking for chocolate based delights, the aforementioned Chocolaterie Pierre in the Merchants Quarter is a fantastic place to start. Pre-packaged gifts are readily available and patrons can even select from the array of chocolate variations available to create their own bespoke gifts. As Australia has strict laws pertaining to the importation of foreign food that is not sealed I happily settled for blocks of milk, dark and white chocolate. I just now have to find the self discipline not to devour them before visiting Australia in the coming weeks.
If you’re looking for Estonian teas and coffees, Kohvi Ja Tee Pood on the outskirts of the old town has an abundance of flavours to chose from and the British blood that runs through my veins gravitated towards this herbal Mecca. The store is incredibly well priced and the staff eager to assist customers. Coffee connoisseurs will relish in the flavours available and the aroma will entice even strict tea drinkers like myself to cross to the dark side. What I adore most about this store is that I was able to find something for everyone in my family as the selection caters to all tastes and personalities. Each product I came across, whether it be tea, coffee or chocolate reminded me of a family member: tiramisu flavoured coffee beans for my caffeine addicted eldest brother, chocolate coated ginger for my grand father and an array of herbal teas for my mother who swears by the anti ageing affects of green tea. Given how good she looks, I indulged in some Japanese green tea for myself too.
Lastly, if food inspired gifts are not your thing gravitate towards the Little Red House which holds an abundance of hand crafted knick knacks. Here I was able to find earrings that captured my sister in laws calming personality and notebooks crafted from Estonian recycled paper for my other sister in law who is a talented singer/songwriter.
If you live within the Eurozone and are not bound by quarantine laws, the Town Hall Pharmacy (Raeapteek) offers a selection of medicinal potions available for purchase. Known as Europe’s oldest pharmacy, Raeapteek is a unique option for those looking for something from an institution established in 1422.
Though my time in Tallinn was short, it was one of the most memorable places I have visited. As my ferry departed back to Finland I was overcome with sadness knowing I might never visit again but took comfort that I had the opportunity to travel there if merely for travels sake.