It’s not every city in the world where you expect to see a teenager dressed up as a monk talking on a mobile phone. Especially when he hurriedly hangs up and waves you into his restaurant, the candlelit Peppersack, and serves you a medieval feast fit for a king. But this magical experience neatly sums up Tallinn, capital of Estonia, which is not only Northern Europe’s most ancient city and a Unesco World Heritage site but, as the birthplace of Skype, has also been listed as one of the world’s top ten digital cities.
Tallinn is the perfect place to unwind and escape the hustle and bustle of modern life. And Estonia is the smallest of the Baltic countries with one of the lowest population densities in Europe. Surrounded by formidable walls dating back to 1265, the city is a joyous jumble of enchanting cobbled streets, fairy-tale steeples and turrets with biscuit-coloured roofs. Based around the central, imposing town hall square of Raekoja Plats, the whole city is easily manageable on foot and makes for a fantastic weekend city break for the tourist who fancies a departure from the norm.
Everything was within striking distance of our hotel, the excellent, four-star Nordic Hotel Forum, on the edge of the Old Town. Even the airport was only a ten-minute cab ride away. Over the centuries, Estonia has been invaded and occupied by the Danes, Russians and Germans and only gained independence from Russia in 1991. Now, it is a vibrant, proud country full of hope, optimism, and smiling faces.
Gloriously unpredictable, it is a city stuffed with hidden delights, and Tallinn’s back alleys are crammed with outdoor theatres and amazing ancient churches where painted skeletons dance the Danse Macabre, such as at St Nicholas’ Church. We stumbled across an archery lesson delivered by British world longbow champion Steve Morley, set against an ancient castle wall. While we were no Robin Hoods, we did at least beat some Americans.
You can set your sights further afield on a cycle tour by the sea, where you can take in the Moscow 1980 Olympics site or visit the amazingly opulent Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great of Russia in 1718 for his wife, Catherine I. Both of these are relics of Tallinn’s complicated past as a former Soviet colony. Should you fancy a well-earned rest, you’ll be happy to know that Tallinn is stuffed with tasty treats such as the legendary Chocolats de Pierre, serving handmade truffles and hot chocolates to die for.
You will also find no shortage of meat-laden banquets or lively feel-good bars. Quaint craft shops and market stalls sell traditional knitted jumpers and handcarved wooden kitchen wares, felt bowls and slippers in Katarina Kaik and all around the Old Town. They are a fraction of the prices back home. Likewise, the cost of food and drink harks back to the glory days, as a two-course meal for two with wine can be as little as £20. Do make sure you buy a Tallinn card online — three days before you need it — for free entry to museums, free travel and discounts on many top attractions and shops.
Suitably refreshed, we set our course for the brand new and impeccable Seaplane Harbour maritime museum. Fifteen minutes by bike, you can take a submarine ride or go inside the torpedo tubes on the British-built sub Lembit, exploring on walkways raised from the ground. The harbour was awash with day trippers heading to Helsinki, capital of Finland, which is only two hours away by ferry. As the sun set, we headed for cocktails to the Radisson Blu hotel’s Lounge 24, in a skyscraper with breathtaking views across this wonderfully ancient city and out to sea.
As the Prosecco arrived, we raised a glass to the ancient monks of Tallinn — and agreed visiting this city is a habit we could definitely grow used to.
GETTING THERE: Estonian Air flies three times weekly from Gatwick to Tallinn. Return fares from £92pp. Visit estonian-air.com or call 020 7333 0197.
WHERE TO STAY: A night at the Nordic Forum Hotel costs from £90, based on two sharing, with breakfast. Visit nordichotels.eu or call +372 622 2900.
A Tallinn Card costs 12 euros and includes free use of public transport and free or discounted entry to tourist attractions. For more information, go to tourism.tallinn.ee/tallinncard.