When naming a list of countries you’d most like to visit, Estonia probably isn’t in the top ten. Or twenty. Or at all. I’m sorry to say that before my first visit I felt the same way, but after a brief couple of days exploring Tallinn and beyond, I quickly understood that Estonia isn’t just a nice place to visit, it really does deserve a spot near the top of everyone’s travel lists. So that’s why today I thought I’d share a few reasons why I enjoyed my time traveling in Estonia and I’m willing to bet that they’re attributes many of you didn’t know about.
Chances are if you’re traveling to Tallinn you’ll get there by boat. The most popular method is the easy, 2-½ hour ferry ride from Helsinki onboard an Eckerö Line ship. These large ships are more like cruise liners than any ferry you’ve been on before and the food and entertainment options onboard make the time fly. Plus it’s just a beautiful trip sailing over to Tallinn. If you don’t arrive by ferry then you might be on a longer cruise itinerary. Several larger cruise lines offer itineraries sailing along the Baltic and Northern Europe, including ports like Helsinki and Tallinn. Once you arrive, getting into the Old Town is pretty easy. If you’re on a longer cruise itinerary, then your ship will offer excursions into town but if you arrive by ferry you’ll have to coordinate your own transportation. Cabs are readily available as is public transportation for the easy drive into town.
Enjoy Delicious Estonian Cuisine
Throughout the touristy Old Town of Tallinn, you’ll find any number of restaurants but sadly many are clearly geared towards visitors. When I think of Estonia I don’t think of ribs, BBQ, pizza or Cajun food – all restaurants I found while walking around one morning. No, when you visit you should make an effort to seek out classic but innovative Estonian cuisine and one of the best places to do that is at Restaurant MEKK. Located in the luxury Savoy Boutique Hotel, this was the first Estonian restaurant to spell out the principles of contemporary Estonian cuisine and the culinary adventure the chef takes his guests on every night is an amazing foodie experience. Estonian food has influences from the Germans, Russians, Danes and more, and this unique history has created an equally unique food culture. There are several other restaurants and cafes around town, each offering a more intimate look into Estonian food. While exploring I found several small bakeries, tucked in out of the way spots throughout the Old Town. Choosing one, I enjoyed a leisurely coffee with some Estonian pastries. Similar to what I found in Finland, they were different enough to make me confident that I had found a non-touristy café and I enjoyed a quiet morning people watching and learning more about the city through its food. It’s so important to take these moments when we travel – they usually teach us more about new places than any book or guide ever could hope to manage.
Amazing UNESCO Old Town
Sometimes the photos we see of cities on calendars or in travel magazines don’t quite live up to the reality. Within just a few minutes of walking around the Tallinn Old Town though I knew that not only did it live up to those lofty expectations, it well exceeded them. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town of Tallinn is a special place to explore thanks to the colorful, medieval architecture and the history that seeps from the city’s pores. The capital of Estonia, Tallinn has a long history and its role in both the Hanseatic League (an early trading group) and in broader European politics has made it a very important city for a very long time. One of the reasons why it’s a UNESCO site is also what makes it so much fun to explore. The remnants of this rich history can still be found in a nearly intact medieval, walled city. These are increasingly hard to find in Europe due to war and hard times, but the colorful homes and shops in Tallinn look just as they have for centuries. There are plenty of great walks and tours through town, or you can just explore on your own. The downtown core isn’t that large and if you follow the rule of heading up, then you’ll see everything that makes Tallinn great. There are several small walkways to the top of the hills overlooking the city and nearby sea, and as I discovered the views are amazing no matter what time of year you visit.
For the best well-rounded experience, spend a few days and explore the beautiful Estonian countryside, particularly at one of the country’s many rural spa hotels. Beautiful manor houses and estates dot the Estonian countryside; historic remnants from when Russian nobles were awarded tracts of land by the monarch. One of the best to visit is the picturesque Vihula Manor, a 16th century manor that has been transformed into a hotel, restaurant and spa. Set amongst the wildlife-rich Lahemaa National Park, this massive estate includes two manor house buildings and an assortment of 25 other historical buildings. I love luxury retreats like Vihula, and getting out into the rolling Estonian countryside and spending a weekend of pampered luxury was exactly what I needed to relax and decompress. Located just an hour from Tallinn, it’s a couple of miles from the Baltic Sea coast making it the perfect home base to learn more about Estonia’s natural offerings. The estate itself though is naturally the star of the show, including its award winning restaurant and the spa, one of the best in the country. For some down time in Estonia, I can think of no better place than Vihula.
Not What You Think
Many visitors are in and out of Tallinn in less than a day, and I get that. Either you’re there on a longer cruise sailing or you just hopped over from Helsinki for the day. But if you have the time, I definitely recommend spending at least a couple of days exploring not only Tallinn, but Estonia in general. Yes the food is tasty and the Old Town in Tallinn is incomparably beautiful, but Estonia is also one of the most digitally connected and active communities in the world. Almost immediately after it gained independence in 1991, the country started the hard work of transforming itself into a modern country that’s now better run than most in the world. Ultra-high-speed 4G mobile covers basically the whole country, WiFi is almost always free and is considered a human right, Skype had its start here and everyone does almost everything online, from telecommuting to voting and nearly every other aspect of modern life you can think of.
Like its neighboring countries, Estonia is incredibly innovative and to see the hip, creative side of Tallinn, there’s no better place to start than in the Telliskivi neighborhood. This large group of buildings used to be part of a secret Soviet factory that fell into disrepair. Thankfully, a few enterprising souls saw the potential and have since turned it into the creative hub of the city. Anchored by the restaurant F-Hoone, this eatery is the perfect place to start your exploration of the district. They fuse traditional Estonian tastes with a modern, international twist creating meals (and drinks) that will count amongst your favorite in Tallinn. From there explore the rich array of shops and boutiques that make up this innovative quarter. Most of them are so-called pop-up shops, temporary galleries and stores featuring the top designers and artists in the country.
Estonia sometimes gets lumped in with its neighbors and is many times relegated to being a travel way point on a longer trip. That’s fine I guess, but Estonia really is a fun destination in its own right and while small, I know I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s a lot more to the country than first meets the eye and I hope one day I can return and continue my explorations and in the process convince as many people as possible to add this small Baltic nation to the top of their travel bucket lists.