After our magical Christmas in 2017 where we visited Croatia and Slovenia, and the likes of Zagreb and Ljubljana Christmas Markets, Lake Bled and Plitvice National Park and waterfalls in heavy snow, we again planned to seek out the cold and snowy landscapes of Europe. This time, we set off for the city of Tallinn in Estonia.
Sitting just a small boat trip south of Finland’s capital, Helsinki, Estonia is a country with a complicated history. The 20th Century saw it traded between occupation of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany during World War two, then back to the Soviet Union afterwards where it stayed under communist rule until 1991. It was then, along with the rest of the Soviet bloc, that Estonia finally achieved its independence and has gone to thrive as a democratic country, joining both the European Union and Eurozone and, conveniently for us, being crowned ‘Best Christmas Market in Europe’ for 2018.
Before you visit, we recommend… the Brandt travel guide to Estonia and as many warm clothes as you can pack into a suitcase!
Flying out from London-Luton with Wizz Air, a theme of 2018 for us, we arrived in Tallinn’s small modern airport a little under three hours later. Stepping onto the tarmac, it was confirmed that the weather forecasts weren’t lying. It was cold. Around -5c. What we didn’t know, is how much colder it could get!
It was late morning, and quick taxi ride to our hotel on the outskirts by lunchtime. We dumped our stuff and planned to get our bearings of where we were, where the town was, and how we would navigate the next few days. We walked for around twenty minutes before arriving at the ancient stone town walls, into the olde worlde town centre of picturesque medieval buildings with their pastel coloured stretched facades, and finally into Tallinn’s fabulous, yet modest, Christmas market.
The stalls were filled with knitted wool, bespoke Christmas decorations and amber trinkets, all backlit by the enormous, beautifully decorated tree and stage with seasonal music filling the square. More stalls vending local foods and drink (namely sausages, sauerkraut, mulled wine and locally brewed beer) filled the air with rich aromas. It’s a beautiful and immersive site, and the warm food and drink is frankly irresistible in the sub-zero conditions.
We walked out of the town towards a location we had planned out in advance, the Tallinn Cat Café. As avid animal lovers we had been to something similar in Nottingham (England), and wanted to make a quick visit to warm up before heading back for the night. The café is run as a charity where proceeds go to looking after its feline residents. It’s a great cause, especially with the freezing conditions, meaning that the cats are pampered and adored by regulars across the city until they are adopted into a forever home.
Out of sync due to the early flight, and Tallinn’s sun (largely conspicuous by its absence) having set by 3pm, we decided to head back for the night.
Our first job on our first full day was to find the tourist information centre and purchase a Tallinn Card, allowing us to get free entry (or discounts) to a wide variety of venues, and on public transport. A highly recommended purchase, costing just over €50 for three days. If you are intent on exploring as much as Tallinn has to offer, and intend to go to at least ten of the main landmarks or museums, and any trams or buses, you will recoup the money in no time!
On our way into the town we crossed Freedom Square, home to St John’s Church and the monument to Estonia’s independence. Painted white with snow, with a digital thermometer on a nearby building, the church sits proud and would incredibly play Christmas tunes on the bells at various points during the day!
Walking up through the city, we passed a number of unusually colourful, mismatched shaped buildings, St Nicholas’ Orthodox Church, St Mary’s Cathedral and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, all within just a few hundred metres of one another, adding a quirk to the city’s skyline.
The trail of streets led us to a viewing point in the raised old town that overlooked the city. A spectacular view of the old buildings, the colours of the buildings and snow-topped, red tiled rooftops, all the way out to the Gulf of Finland on the horizon. The snow adding an air of calm and quiet to this vibrant city.
We walked down the seemingly endless stone steps, back into the lower part of town to visit the fairy-tale like city walls, which sit on the north side of Tallinn’s old town. To view the walls from the inside, we climbed up steep stone spiral staircases, and explored the towers and wall, as well as enjoyed another picturesque view of the town centre rooftops. Many of the towers in the town serve as museums, evoking images of heroic knights and damsels in distress, medieval torture chambers and firing cannons.
On our way back down, we stopped off at the unusual, but frankly adorable marzipan museum and shop, with genuinely breathtaking pieces of handcrafted artworks made completely out of marzipan. We headed past the market down to the south west side and the famous Kiek in de Kok (or ‘peek in the kitchens’ in the old tongue, pertaining to its 360-degree views and vantage point over the town) and Maiden’s Tower. The towers themselves house a military museum of weaponry and armour from over the years, as well as excellent views of the city from various angles, although slightly hindered by the frost damage glass which covered the drop.
Below the towers there are the bastion passages and stone carving museum. The passages, a series of tunnels which have served the city in various capacities over the centuries as protection from Soviet gas attacks, Nazi bombings (including saving around 1,000 lives in one such attack) and even as shelter for the homeless and social outcasts during Estonia’s communist rule, such as anarchists who had immortalised their stay with the graffiti, ‘Anarchy in the USSR’, a testament to the famous Sex Pistols’ song.
With night time descending, not just darkness as the sun had barely shown all day, we returned to our apartment in anticipation of the next day, and a trip to Tallinn Zoo.
Starting early, we got on the bus to head out to Tallinn Zoo. Amazed at the punctuality of the public transport and the simplicity of the system, a quick swipe of your contactless Tallinn card and you’re on board! We spent hours wandering the exhibits of animals, some of whom were in hiding or had been taken indoors to shelter from the weather. Particularly memorable was a rhinoceros feeding its young, and the happiest polar bear the world has ever seen…
The polar bears were particularly happy, and in their element as temperatures had dropped to a frankly painful -11c (with a wind chill of -18c), which went as far to cause my phone to crash (we later learnt that iPhones, and lithium batteries in general, don’t cope well in sub zero temperatures – a lesson for next year!).
On our way back into town we made a short stop at the KBG prison cells. A small poignant museum in the former prison, situated fairly covertly within an unassuming house. A fascinating insight into the horror this country faced under communist rule.
Our final stop for the day was at the Georgia Tavern Tbilsi for tea. Georgia being another former Soviet country, and with a slightly different take on food, offered up a beautiful mixture of beer, wine, well flavoured food and, best of all, an open fire.
Having felt that we had mastered public transport, we decided to get the bus out to the Seaplane Harbour and museum on the outskirts of town. The old Soviet naval base houses the EML Lembit submarine, the Suur Tõll Icebreaker, military warships, mines and weaponry to walk around, and venture on board.
The submarine, EML Lembit, was originally launched in 1936, and was the pride of the Estonian Navy as it was the peak of submarine warfare of its time, surviving both the Second World War and a long exile in Russia, whilst its sister ship, Kalev, was lost during the war. On board is a somewhat claustrophobic experience, with tiny living quarters where the crew literally slept next to torpedoes, and an overwhelming amount of red and chrome valve wheels, dials and pipes. Lembit is one of the few surviving submarines that predates the Second World War. Until 2011, it was also the oldest submarine still afloat at the age of 75.
The Suur Tõll icebreaker was standing proudly at the frozen quay of the Seaplane Harbour, designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters, and provide safe waterways for other boats and ships. It appeared very much in its element here in the arctic waters.This museum ship, Estonia’s oldest and most dignified, is one of the three steam-powered icebreakers from the early 20th century that have been preserved in the Baltic Sea region. The ship was built in 1914 in the German Vulcan-Werke AG shipyard in Poland. Once among the world’s most powerful icebreakers, the steamer has flown the flags of Imperial Russia, Finland, the Soviet Union and the Republic of Estonia under the names Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich, Volynets, Wäinämöinen and Suur Tõll. On board the icebreaker we were surprised by the grand interiors of ambassadorial cabins, the stately officers’ mess-room and the captain’s cabin, the crew’s rooms, and an exhibition on the history of the icebreaker. We also visited the engine and boiler room, a genuinely impressive feat of engineering. Comprised of coal fired steam engines, it was easy to imagine the incredible heat and hustle and bustle of days gone by. A genuinely fascinating exhibit that showcases something rarely seen.
Afterwards, back in the centre of Tallinn, we went to the unusual and entertaining Tallinn Legends, a theatrical and interactive museum, recreating historical events, myths and legends that have contributed to the folklore of medieval Tallinn. The experience lasts around 40 minutes, with nine mysterious chambers each depicting a different story by professional actors, special effects and surreal animatronics.
Lastly for the day, we made a quick visit to the Knighthood Museum. A small three room exibit housing a unique collection of original, breathtakingly beautiful (and presumably mind bogglingly expensive!) medals, state decorations and insignia belonging to royal, religious or military orders of knighthood from countries all over the world. Adorned with real diamonds and precious stones and metals, the exhibit is perfect for anybody who loves history and shiny things.
We had originally considered taking a bus or train out to Estonia’s second city, Tartu. However, with a travel time of a couple of hours, and a shortage of remaining days, we instead decided make the most of our Tallinn Cards and take one of the city bus routes to the outskirts of town instead.
We first went to the TV tower, a huge mast of Soviet construction, with a lift to a viewing platform complete with restaurant. The views are stunning, albeit the winter mist meant we couldn’t see as far as usual. We had a local breakfast of sprats (small fish), fruity rye bread, onion and coffee. An unusual mix, but certainly not unpleasant. Before getting back on the bus towards town, we went to the nearby botanical gardens. Seemingly out of place, a large, heated building filled with lush, grand plant life, tropical birds and even cacti.
On the way back towards town, we stopped at Kadriorg’s Palace. A magnificent building with an art gallery inside. We then visited the fantastic Museum of Occupation, which is dedicated to stories of individuals who lived in Estonia during its Russian and German rule during the 20th century, up to the most recent revolution. A fitting end to our time in the centre of the capital and a must see for anyone visiting Tallinn.
Our final day in Estonia started with breakfast in a small café before going on a tour booked through Prangli Travel / Tallinn Day Trip. Our guide was a wonderful lady, Helen, who told us facts of the city as we head out to Jagala waterfall. Whilst not completely frozen when we arrived, it is possible to walk under the fall at times as the ice is solid, it was mostly frozen and made for a surreal spectacle.
The waterfall was only a stop off on our way to our main attraction, Paasiku Dog Manor. A wonderful husky farm located out in the wilds of the countryside, we were met by dozens of excitable dogs, almost as excited to meet us as we were to meet them! Ready to be walked and played with, we hiked out with them for a few kilometres into the snowy fields. It’s possible to sledge with the dogs here as well, but unfortunately not for us as the snow hadn’t thickened sufficiently. After the walk, we relaxed in the company of the dogs, in a heated shed with delicious fruit tea and pastries before making our way back into Tallinn.
Back in the town we went to the surreal, bizarre and absolutely brilliant Olde Hansa, a restaurant which embraces an ‘olde worlde’ atmosphere, hundreds of open flame candles instead of electric lights, actors playing the part throughout, live music with food ranging from bear meat sausages to dried elk meat. We set off the next morning, so it was a fantastic way to see off Estonia.
Is a fantastic, hospitable place that does Christmas well in terms of its tree and market, but also its natural ability to produce the snow we all seek out for this time of year. That said, it was very cold, and has the potential to be even colder. Also, being on the verge of Scandinavia, it’s not the cheapest place to visit, certainly more expensive than our last Christmas escape to Slovenia and Croatia. However, as we visited on the tails of being voted best Christmas market in Europe, this is probably understandable!
Estonia, and Tallinn, is so much more than a Christmas market though, and a trip during the summer months is definitely on the cards.
Article and photography by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan