Estonia’s capital combines its historic past with a modern, tech-focused present for an increasingly popular destination, writes Shilpa Ganatra.
Strategically placed in a corner of the Baltic Sea, Estonia has endured an eventful history, with periods under Danish, Swedish, Tsarist, German and, most recently, Soviet rule, which only truly ended in 1994, when Russian troops finally left. Since then it has entered the digital age in spectacular fashion, becoming the tech hub of the region. Today its picturesque capital, Tallinn, welcomes visitors in droves, who come to amble through its fairytale medieval Old Town, take in the upmarket Suur-Karja, one of the city’s handsomest streets, and visit the ultra-modern NO99 Straw Theatre.
This mix of old and modern is attracting visitors from the UK in increasing number, in no small part thanks to its value for money (a large beer in a central bar costs £1.80 to £2.30) and new flight routes: last year, aided by British Airways joining those already flying direct from London and Edinburgh, numbers rose by 23 per cent.
The trend looks set to continue in 2018, as Estonia marks 100 years since it first became an independent republic. Throughout the year major events will keep Tallinn busy, peaking with the Estonia 100 Great Summer Week from August 18-25.
The Estonian capital is a city that punches above its weight, helped by its compact size, which means visitors can pack plenty into a weekend. Its amenability to tourism is to be applauded (the Tallinn Card, which offers free entry to 40 attractions, is a huge convenience), and its centre is a smooth 10-minute drive from the airport. It is even easy to combine Tallinn with a trip to Helsinki, just across the Gulf of Finland.
Tallinn arguably, first took the spotlight as a progressive destination in 2011, when it was the European Capital of Culture, showcasing the Kumu Art Museum, which was critically acclaimed both for its architecture and its exhibitions. By that point it had already begun to play its part in the tech revolution: Estonians were behind the filesharing network Kazaa, as well as Skype, and Tallinn has continued to develop as an e-capital at breakneck speed, both in the private and public sphere. Successes include its fast, free wi-fi, available everywhere in the city, a vibrancy only to be expected in a country where the President is aged 48 and the Prime Minister is 39.
Telliskivi Loomelinnak, the city’s creative hub, which melds Berlin’s hip factor with Tallinn’s friendliness, is where 250 start-ups and creative companies occupy converted buildings and shipping containers. It is a buzz of activity, with boutique shops and artisan eateries, and, occasionally, ping-pong games, flea markets and festivals.
This dynamic modernity is mirrored in other aspects of Tallinn: there is, for example, a mature craft beer scene, with bars such as Taptap and the gothic Porgu.
Old world charm
The joy of Estonia’s capital is that this modernisation is not at the expense of its history. Rather, it is a new shade in the colourful palette that makes up Tallinn.
To see the full picture, climb up Toompea hill and admire the view from the Kohtuots viewing platform: not only the Unesco-protected old town, with buildings that date back to the 11th century, but further away towards the harbour and the outskirts of the city. Kohtuots hosts an outdoor café during the summer, and in the evenings dances are held on the platform space. Or dig deeper with a visit to a museum or several: those on offer include a KGB museum, a forest museum, a seaplane museum and a firefighting museum.
Tallinn’s other attractions include restaurants such as Olde Hansa, with a menu based on 15th century recipes, and Leib Resto ja Aed, with its garden tucked between the town walls; historical hotels, such as the Three Sisters, a triptych of merchants’ houses from the 14th century, refurbished to exacting standards; St Olaf’s Church, the tallest building in the world in the 15th and 16th centuries; and Katariina käik (St Catherine’s Passage), filled with workshops where craft workers use traditional methods to create and sell everything from glassware to hats, jewellery to quilts, and ceramics to hand-painted silk.
Tallinn’s ability to look backwards as well as forwards gives it a unique perspective. The city marks Estonia’s 100-year anniversary with both celebration and also its trademark dynamism.