Destination guide: Tallinn

Churches, Christmas markets and confectionary characterise the Estonian capital - the perfect destination for a wintery weekend break

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Prague, Berlin, Budapest. They’re all well-known for their wintery charms and attract truckloads of tourists during the festive season. But tucked away on the Baltic coast is the Estonian capital Tallin and during the lead up to Christmas there is no better place to get you in the festive spirit.

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Enchanting cobbled streets, exquisite architecture and a skyline dominated by red-tiled rooftops and medieval spires make up the Estonian capital. By day, a stroll through the Disney-esque streets offers layers of history. Outdoors may be chilly but come evening the bustling restaurants and bars that litter the central old town are anything but frosty.

Begin your visit with a tour of the Old Town. Largely built up from the 13th to 16th centuries, Estonia has been occupied by Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden and the influences of its European neighbours are evident. The city’s central quarters are a throwback to the Tallin of old, comprising twisting roads lined with colourful houses and majestic churches.

The Old Town is divided into two parts: Lower Town and Toompea hill, connected by two picture-perfect passageways – the long, straight Pikk jalg (Long Leg) and the narrower, winding Luhike jalg (Short Leg). Visitors often choose to ascend to Toompea via one and come back down along the other. Climb up to the top of Toompea hill and you will be rewarded by one of the best views of the city from the Patkuli platform, overlooking the old city wall and towers and out to the nearby harbour.

The city’s medieval fortifications first appeared in the late 13th century, surrounding the downtown area and turning the settlement into a fortress. Nowadays 1.9m of the original wall remains standing, as do 20 defensive towers and portions of the six outer gates. If you fancy getting a closer look, many are open to the public – including Fat Margaret’s Tower (home to the Estonian Maritime Museum), Hellemann Tower which offers the chance to walk a 200m stretch of the old wall, and Epping Tower where you can try on chainmail and wield replica swords.

A tour of the Old Town is not complete without a peek inside some of the city’s sacred sites. St Olav’s Church was once the tallest building in the world, its 159m spire overlooking all its rivals until 1625. Today it stands at 124m, still towering above its surroundings – winter visitors can step inside to wander beneath its high vaulted ceilings while spring and summer tourists can climb to its zenith for panoramic views. 

Whether you ascend or descend by the Pikk jalg, pop inside St Nicolas’ Church for a visual feast of stunning alterpieces, baroque chandeliers and plenty of religious artwork to linger over. Destroyed by WWII bombing, the imposing structure has been painstakingly rebuilt and holds Bernt Notke’s famously spooky painting, Danse Macabre (Dance with Death).


Discover Tallinn this season with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


The Old Town boasts history and architecture in abundance but is also a prime location for keen shoppers. St Catherine’s Passage is so much more than a photo opp, offering visitors plenty of opportunities to part with their Euros in a collection of intimate craft shops where artists sell their hats, ceramics, hand-painted silk and other wares.

And once you’ve made your way to the Town Hall Square, step back in time with a visit to the old pharmacy, first opened in 1422, and with a room full of wacky medieval remedies (for display purposes only, thank goodness).

If your visit falls in the winter months, the city’s piece de resistance is a giant, shimmering fir tree surrounded by the city’s renowned Christmas market in the main square. Browse the quaint stalls for a unique festive trinket for your loved ones, from knitwear to jewellery and woodwork fuelled by a warming cup of mulled wine. And if you’re in the mood to continue the Christmas spirit into the new year, Tallinn is the place – their Christmas markets continue the festive cheer until Wednesday 8 January.

ENTERTAINMENT

Sore feet? Fancy a sit down? Why not liven up your rest with some traditional Estonian confectionary? Lavishly decorated gingerbread is a regular fixture of the shops that line Tallinn’s streets, but if you’re feeling creative, take the opportunity to bake and decorate your own at Bonaparte Restaurant‘s gingerbread making workshop. Step below the shop floor – which boasts stacks of elaborately designed biscuits – for a group session with the deli’s head confectioner, whipping up your very own batch of gingerbread to take home (or scoff on the plane).

And if you’re in the mood for a tipple pre-dinner, arouse your taste buds with some wine-tasting inside Luscher & Matiesen – one of the city’s historic wine cellars.

EAT

At Leib Reisto ja Aed, fresh local ingredients are used in modern Estonian recipes. “Leib” means bread in Estonian – but not the processed, sliced grains we buy in the supermarket. Their loaves are rich, dark and handmade – a fitting accompaniment to a simple yet delicious meal within a private courtyard in the centre of the Old Town.

If you finish the day in the mood for a hearty helping, look no further than Olde Hansa for an all-you-can-eat Medieval-themed three course meal for €45 (£37). Get into the spirit with plates of cheese and hunks of meat, all polished off with flavoured beer served in giant tankards.

The nearby sea offers an opportunity for a coastal getaway, but if you’ve only got a couple of hours to spare, stop for lunch at the remote Oko Restaurant for panoramic views of the Kaberneeme marina. Just 30 minutes from Tallinn’s town centre, this rustic hideaway’s adventurous menu offers such treats as elk tartar and eel salad, all enjoyed against the backdrop of the lapping shoreline.

And if you’ve got some time to spare outside the city, Estonia’s myriad manor houses are a hop, skip and a jump away, offering a peaceful respite from the city throngs. If you have children in tow, try out the Sagadi Manor for family-orientated craft and science activities, or for a romantic break for two, pay a visit to Vihula Manor surrounded by historical buildings, rolling grounds, a luxurious spa and even a functioning water mill.


Discover Tallinn this season with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


STAY

The Hotel St Petersbourg situated in the heart of the Old Town offers a luxurious yet intimate ambience. All 27 rooms are spacious yet tasteful, and the boutique hotel’s foyer boasts a welcome, crackling fire. In-house food comes from either the creative Nevkij restaurant or the Kuldne Notsu eatery offering authentic Estonian recipes. (rooms from £91 per night , suites from £268)

TRAVEL

Fly Easyjet (0843 104 5000, easyjet.com) from London Gatwick to Tallin’s Lennart Meri airport, or Ryanair (0871 246 0000, Ryanair.com) from Stansted airport.

Estonia Tourism Board hosted this trip.


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