My entire knowledge of the Baltic states before I arrived in Tallinn could be summed up as follows: I knew the captain of the Soviet submarine in The Hunt for Red October had fished in the rivers near Vilnius when he was a boy, I knew that one of the cities would be having a medieval festival when I arrived, and I had some knowledge from scanning over my Lonely Planet guide and history I remembered from the time of the fall of the Soviet Union.
None of that prepared me for how delightful Tallinn was.
Of the three Baltic capitals, Tallinn has best preserved its medieval center and in a manner that really doesn’t make one think of “Ye Olde” tourism center. Sure, the kids in medieval costumes enticing people to enter the Museum of Medieval Torture Instrumentswere a little cheesy, but the center of the Old Town feels absolutely alive with real people and the shops, pubs, and restaurants there fit naturally into the old buildings.
And right in the heart of the Old City, I ate the best bread I have ever had in my life at the Pegasus Cafe. The. Best. Ever. Knowing full well that there was no way I’d ever actually be able to make the bread, I searched for it and found that the author Margaret Atwood had a similar reaction to the bread.
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) June 1, 2015
Lively without being too crowded and bustling without ever feeling too loud, the Old Town is filled with winding streets, small shops, and great vantage points for photographs and views of the city. Freedom Square is a bit uninspired as a former parking lot, but Toompea Hill is a lovely, wooded area that offers a respite from the crowds down below.
And if you can make it during the medieval festival, the games are certainly worth planning your trip around them. While there was a fire-eating act that went on way too long, watching men and women dressed as knights competing in horse races and simulated jousting was actually quite impressive.
Tallinn is also a city that is clearly on the upswing. The neighborhood I stayed in, near Telliskivi Street, felt like a newly discovered neighborhood in Portland, complete with massive old wooden buildings that realtors had purchased to flip right after the food trucks and artisanal pizza arrived. That’s not meant as a slight. Trust me, if you wander by Kaja Pizza köök, you absolutely want to dive into one of their pizzas (with chorizo, octopus, or other toppings) and drink the house beer that comes in an unlabelled bottle.
Despite all the construction, the city seems to straddle three worlds still: its medieval core, the remnants of Soviet rule, and what seems to be a Nordic future. I’d definitely recommend visiting while the three are still in place, as more of the old Soviet buildings, ugly and unloved, are coming down.
I heard a number of times that Estonians often rate themselves as some of the least happy people in the world, but that wasn’t something I noticed in my four nights in the city. Perhaps it’s different in the winter, something Montanans can relate to, but I found the people of the city to be incredibly warm and inviting.
I’ll have more detailed recommendations for the city in a later post.