When news of its vastly cheap alcohol began spreading through Europe a handful of years ago, the formerly Soviet-occupied country of Estonia succumbed to being known for one thing: stag parties.
These days, however, this Baltic Sea-encircled state, whose landscape is dominated by thick forestry, lifeless Eastern Bloc infrastructure and medieval-looking thatched-roof villages, boasts far more than idiosyncratic nightlife. After all, it was the forward-thinking Estonians who invented Skype.
And in Tallinn, the country’s picturesque capital (which has also been one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2011), it is the culinary scene which is thriving.
What's the deal?
The central Raekoja Plats is lined with a host of vivacious restaurants come sunshine or snowfall – while it seems as if nearly every nationality (Brazilian, Greek, Argentinian, a host of African styles) has its food represented on the streets of the city’s most densely-populated parts.
Kuldse Notsu Korts, part of the Hotel St Petersbourg (www.hotelstpetersbourg.com), is situated within the walls of the Old City – whose red-turreted and orange-roofed Hanseatic merchants’ houses make for a charming step back in time. This is an eatery where diners come for a slice of authentic Estonian culture.
Its name translates as the 'Golden Piglet Inn'. And the speciality, unsurprisingly, is pig. Pig knuckle, pig tails, pig ears – while the ‘Estonian blood sausage’ (verivorst) and ‘blood dumpling’ (verikakk) tend to be the other most ordered menu items.
Washed down with a pear cider or a Saku Estonian beer, a meal here will set you back a reasonable-ish €40 per person. And with local music performances, wooden benches, kaleidoscopic rugs, pastel-coloured walls and wagon wheels hanging down from the white-bricked ceilings, there is no better initiation to Tallinn’s energy and tradition than this oink-centric restaurant.
What else is good?
In terms of food, the Russian restaurant Nevskij (also part of the Hotel St Petersbourg, and a place where you find a chatty resident parrot, Misha), is another must-visit. Expect to be served exquisite beef stroganoff, zavarka (Russian black tea), ikra krasnaya (red caviar) and eye-watering vodka.
Its sister hotel, the boutique Schlossle Hotel (www.schlossle-hotels.com), is an award-winning, distinctive place to stay, its staff kitted out in traditional Estonian garb. There are wine-tastings in its cavernous candle-lit restaurant, a sun-trap terrace caters for the summer months, and roaring log fires in each of its armchair-filled reception rooms look after the colder corners of the calendar.
Low beams and wall-draped tapestries hang in each of its bedrooms, making the Schlossle the perfect place to shelter from the city’s menacing winter weather. Its central location is one of its best features – it sits minutes from the Raekoja Plats and a few steps away from the Kalev Marzipan Museum (where Estonians believe the almond-flavoured confectionary was born).
Today’s Tallinn is a new city. Granted, much of what you see in the Old Town has a historic tale to tell, but then, this is a country whose inhabitants were still being forced to queue in snaking lines for overpriced groceries little more than 20 years ago.
In the years since the Soviet Union’s fall, Tallinn has been eager to make use of its independence.
Evolution and modernisation has been key to its change, yet stark reminders of the Russian occupation remain.
The Sokos Hotel Viru (www.sokoshotels.fi) continues to be a widely-enjoyed tourist destination.
It was from this hotel that KGB officers – who had made it their business to wire rooms and illicitly listen in on other people’s conversations for several decades – fled on the night of the Union's collapse. They left behind two untouched rooms (now known as the ‘KGB Museum’) full of equipment, cigarette butts, documents and other such paraphernalia.
Here is a haunting reminder of how different life was for ordinary Estonians for much of the 20th century.
Of course, if you do grow tired of your weekend in Tallinn, remember that the old capital of the Tsarist empire, St Petersburg, is 217 miles away by one of the various ferry routes available.
The Finnish capital Helsinki is closer still – just 53 miles away.
Rates for a Superior Double room at the Schlössle Hotel (www.schlossle-hotels.com) start from €174 (£149) per night, buffet breakfast included.
Estonian Air (www.estonian-air.com) offers flights to Tallinn from Heathrow and Gatwick.
More on Estonia at www.visitestonia.com