Where to stay
Hotel Palace Good location near Town Hall Square. Spick and span with airy, individually decorated rooms with paintings by local artists. Doubles from £91. Vabaduse Väljak 3, 00 372 680 6655, tallinnhotels.ee
Hotel St Petersbourg This Old Town hotel is one of Estonia’s oldest, yet features luxurious, up-to-date interiors. Its sophisticated Tabula Rasa restaurant’s menus make the most of fine local produce. Doubles from £130. Rataskaevu 7, 00 372 628 6500, hotelstpetersbourg.com
Hotel Telegraaf One of two five-stars in the Old Town, with all the
bustle of a high-end chain hotel in a world-class tourist destination. The
Tchaikovsky restaurant offers top-notch food and music pairing. Doubles
from £143. Vene Street 9, 00 372 600 0600, telegraafhotel.com
Radisson Blu Sky Hotel The newer of two Radisson Blu hotels in
Tallinn and just what’s called for after a long day. Quality rooms and great
views of the city from its Lounge 24. Free sauna. Doubles from £83.
Rävala Puiestee 3, 00 372 682 3000, radissonblu.com
Three Sisters Old Town charm at this much-loved Relais&Chateaux outpost. It has a kind of rickety, windy-stair appeal and its breakfasts – coffee especially – are at the top of the Tallinn culinary tree. Doubles from £105. Pikk 71, 00 372 630 6300, 3s.ee
Tallinn, the capital and cultural hub of Estonia, is situated on the Baltic Sea and combines a walled, cobble stoned Old Town with modern amenities and a burgeoning food and drink scene. Currency is the euro (EUR) and the time is three hours ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport take around 2 hours 40 minutes.
easyJet offers regular direct flights from London Gatwick to Tallinn’s Lennart Meri Airport. easyjet.com
Ryanair has a service from London Stansted to Tallinn. ryanair.com
Hidden Tallinn is the best possible guide to the city, offering an insider’s view of what’s hidden in plain sight. hiddentallinn.com Visit Estonia is the official tourist board and its website provides a wealth of information to help you plan your trip. visitestonia.com
Treading Air by Jaan Kross (Harvill Press, £16.99), published in 1998, is a novel that tells the life story of Ullo Paerand, moving through 30 years of violent political upheaval. Abandoned by his father, Paerand grows up to embark on a career as electoral assistant to the parliamentary office in Tallinn. From this vantage point, he witnesses first the Soviet and then the German occupation of Estonia.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Tallinn, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 0.59 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £4.43.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with half a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
180° Noblessner port’s fine-dining flagship. Chef Matthias Diether directs his talented brigade in an open-plan kitchen to create tasting menus for diners at the counter. High on taste with innovative New Nordic accents to boot. From £65. Staapli 4, 00 372 661 0180, 180degrees.ee
Kalambuur Tiny fish restaurant set in a park serving up Estonians’
beloved pickled herring, salmon, white fish and sturgeon, cooked to
perfection. Quirky and unlike anything else you’ll find in Tallinn. From
£35. Toompuiestee 8, 00 372 5669 4194, kalambuur.ee
Katharinenthal A drop-in café, bakery and snacking place worthy of a visit. Coffee and cake from £4.50. katharinenthal.ee
Moon Chef Roman Zasterinski turned his back on the five-star circuit to cook beautifully balanced, flavour-packed traditional Russian dishes.
Opt for a combination of snacks, soups and starters and don’t miss the
blinis, which are possibly some of the best in the world. Good vodkas,
too. From £50. Võrgu 3, 00 372 631 4575, restoranmoon.ee
Ore It’s Old Town a go-go outside but contemporary inside. The menu offers a succession of thoughtful, pretty dishes, each with a
harmonious balance of textures and sometimes powerful, unusual
flavours. From £45. Olevimägi 9, 00 372 611 7290, orerestoran.ee
Pegasus Café among the first of the post-Soviet hang-outs, where
writers congregated and dined. Now popular with locals and visitors
alike. From £35. Harju 1, 00 372 662 3013, restoranpegasus.ee
Põhjala Tap Room World-class beers, a great atmosphere and
genuinely tasty hot-smoked brisket, ribs and German-style sausages.
From £25. Peetri 5, 00 372 5666 2800, pohjalabeer.com
Tuljak Designed and built in the 1960s, following a 50-year hiatus, this local institution is back in business after an extensive renovation. It now boasts a large, stylish dining room and leafy terrace. Menu specials include big sandwiches, Baltic herring in tomato sauce and decadent, cognac-flavoured cakes. Pirita Tee 26E, 00 372 530 22020, tuljak.ee Ülo Mainly plant-based, this Station Market spot does a great light lunch, or else go for a full evening meal – every dish will be fresh. On hot days, be sure to dine on the patio. From £30. Kopli 16, 00 372 605 0052
- A hot and spicy, yet subtle dip, often used to flavour food
- The brand name of Estonia’s oldest chocolate producer, which is considered to be the country’s best
- A mix of roasted barley, rye, oat and pea flour, it is used as an ingredient to make delicious Estonian desserts. Locals also mix kama with buttermilk or kefir and eat it for breakfast
- Sprat. The fish can be found in almost every restaurant and shop
- Sprat sandwich, usually consisting of dark bread, sprat, boiled egg and some sauce
- Traditional fermented beverage made from rye bread, which tastes somewhere between beer and soda. Considered non-alcoholic, but it might still have up to about one per cent alcohol after fermentation
- Potato and pearl barley porridge with a sauce sometimes containing bacon, traditionally eaten to celebrate local holidays
- The classic cold soup. Its ingredients include mostly raw vegetables – often beetroot – boiled potatoes, eggs, and a cooked meat such as beef, veal, sausages, or ham
- Shards of thin, crisp bread, often flavoured with berries, hazelnut, garlic or herbs
- Dried salted fish, usually herring
- Traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday but its popularity means that you can now find it year-round. Made from a wheat bun and stuffed with whipped cream
Food and Travel Review
Walking into a restaurant in Tallinn’s Old Town, we hardly expected to see Estonia’s Prime Minister in shirtsleeves. But there he was, Jüri Ratas, sitting in a corner of restaurant Ore, by the window. Was he finishing a late lunch or enjoying an early dinner? We were too polite to ask. But perhaps spotting him wasn’t such a surprise. In a young country, senior politicos can function without an entourage of aides and bodyguards.
It takes five minutes to drive downtown from the airport. At the other end of Estonia’s capital city, the abandoned Patarei Prison (it didn’t close until 2004, a decade after independence) bears witness to the thousands held there en route to the gulags. Sandwiched between them is an evolving modern city that radiates from the hub of a perfect medieval core.
Don’t let its pencil-tipped towers befuddle you, nor St Olaf’s stiletto spire, or the onion domes of the Chapel of the Consistory. They belong to the cruise-ship junkies patrolling the ancient cobbles on their walking tours. Outside the Old Town citadel, the pastel-painted wooden houses of Kadriorg and Kalamaja districts echo the forest blanket wrapped around the city, while architects refigure towering tenement blocks left by the Soviets.
Our guide, Jaan-Laur Tähepold, believes he typifies aspiring Estonian millennials. He’s worked as a DJ promoter, lighting technician, publisher and barista and has lived in Berlin. ‘Estonia is a small Baltic country,’ he says. ‘When the Russians left, we didn’t have much scope for developing careers and many of us went abroad. Now the trend has reversed and people are coming back.’
Silver Saa, Ore’s chef-owner, reinforces this. After training in London at the Savoy and in Scandinavia, he opened his eclectic bistro in the Old Town. At first he littered his menus with the spruce shoots, pine needles, lichens, berries, buckthorn and birch syrup that have spread from Scandinavia into the Baltic states. Now, he is trying to do something more – witness shiso tempura with salted mackerel, cep and a pickled chanterelle tartlet, or a cranberry sorbet perched on a toasted oat crumble and yoghurt custard that flit between culinary cultures.
Fusion suits contemporary Tallinn. For centuries it belonged to the Hanseatic League of North European cities. At one time it was a Swedish dependency. Then, Peter the Great annexed it. An ethnic German aristocracy controlled local government throughout the Middle Ages. Merchants prospered on what they claimed was their ‘city built on salt’ – not that it had any of its own. Tallinn, called Reval then, acted as a go-between and tax collector for salt on its way from France, Portugal and Germany to Russia.
The complex of Telliskivi Creative City has brought itself bang up to date, primping itself with galleries, designer boutiques, cafés and performance spaces. La Muu ice-cream shop, despite its name, dabbles in vegan chocolate brownies as well as lip-salving blackcurrant and mascarpone ripple. At F-hoone, a breakfast bowl of oat-linseed porridge with banana, berries and honey retails for £2.25. Elsewhere, gluten-free restaurant Kivi Paber Käärid mischievously announces ‘Food, Booz’ and Culture’.
Still in the quarter, we visit yellow-washed Muhu bakery. Its dark, malted rye loaves answer to an atavistic Baltic passion for black bread. Chewy and slightly sweet, liberally smeared with butter, they deserve to be Estonia’s national dish. Muhu’s touche personnel are the flecks of flax, hemp and sunflower seeds. Any surplus rye dough is used to make pitsleib – a shard-like lace bread. It’s similar to old-fashioned Melba toast, flavoured with raw cacao and dried berries, hazelnut and garlic or cumin, coriander and fennel seeds. It’s the kind of snack that appeals to the neighbourhood’s stylistas.
Tallinn is already an IT world leader. It can boast three dedicated restaurant apps for locating the nearest establishments, what they serve and how much they cost. Menüüd, or ‘Menus’ menyyd.ee does what it says on the tin. Wolt wolt.com doubles as a delivery service. And Päevapakkumised päevapakkumised.ee is for Estonian speakers wanting cheap eats – visitors may need Google Translate to help decipher the language, which is akin to Finnish.
There are few language barriers at the twenty-something eateries in Balti Jaama Turg – Station Market. Here the restaurants have names like Surf Café, Veg Machine, Baojaam and Cheat Meal. Authentic Estonian street food? Hardly. They’ve dipped their toes in the fast-food pond, but rinsed off its surface grease, with Estonians preferring Nordic neatness and clean flavours.
Ikroff, plate-glass-protected from the rest of the market, deals in fish: not the kind that flaps about on a slab, but the smoked, dried, salted and pickled kind that was once a Baltic staple. Estonian legend has it that its favourite herring once had legs. On board ship it would kill rats like a cat. Instead of catching vermin, one greedy fish gobbled the salt cargo, chewed through the hull and sank the ship. As punishment, Neptune condemned it to live in the sea. And that, so they say, is why seawater is salty.
Kalambuur, a fish restaurant in a park below the walls of Toompea Castle, marinates spiced herring in dill, mustard, garlic, sugar and leek. Lounge 24 on top of the Radisson Blu Sky Hotel, includes large salt-dried räîm in its cured fish platter. Meanwhile Moon, in the Kalamaja district, serves kilu (sprats) as part of a zakuska (spread of starters) to accompany vodka. It’s about as good as Russian home-cooking gets. Slices of vodka-cured salmon with salted cucumber and rye-sunflower crisps outdo the best gravlax for their melting texture. Okroshka with kefir, horseradish and quails’ eggs is far more than chilled beetroot borsch. Adzika (stewed green pepper compote), chopped wild mushroom preserve and smoked egg yolk blend into a beef tartare. And for dessert there’s marzipan and poppy-seed cake, a buckthorn curd and blackberries.
Our guide, Tähepold, believes that the speed at which Tallinn is moving has accelerated recently. ‘Partly it’s a consequence of gentrification and partly it’s because entrepreneurs are finding new uses for old industrial premises,’ he explains. Claiming his own slice of this revolution is Peter Keek.
After selling designer brands for skateboarders in the USA for a while, he returned home to Tallinn and, with four passionate home- brewer friends, started making their own beer. They founded Põhjala Brewery, now housed on the edge of Noblessner, and brought in a Scottish brewer, Chris Pilkington, as a partner. ‘All the new places you go to are run by young people who have gathered experience abroad, come back and created their own kind of fusion,’ he says.
Any real-ale geek quickly learns that Estonians like dark porters and stouts. Põhjala ages its range in a mix of bourbon, sherry, cognac and tequila casks. The brewery has its own taproom diner, cooking short ribs, brisket and wurst in a dedicated Texan smoker, to match any of the 24 house and guest beers on tap.
Some of the other buildings around the brewery look ripe for demolition, although at the nearby seafront the finishing touches of a makeover are clearly visible. Bright red anglepoise street lights beam over a piazza. A hangar that made Russian submarines in 1913 and became Factory No.7 is about to open as the KAI Arts Centre. Design companies have moved in. Restaurant 180° is aiming high. Its German maître de cuisine, Matthias Diether, and general manager, Bart Dufour, want it to break into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings. It offers a choice of prospects: all the action of the open-plan kitchen or the glimpse of a ferry heading to or from Helsinki. New Nordic veneer paints its duo of six-course tasting menus (one for omnivores and the other, vegetarians), which don’t disguise a sympathy for old-school richness and textures that linger. Case in point: the cauliflower- tarragon Mont d’Or dish, or a Lego cube of Atlantic turbot served with champagne, cabbage and watercress.
New Yorker and filmmaker Mary Jordan saw the future of the Kopli district as a 21st-century docklands. A peninsula poking its crocodile snout into the Baltic, it’s changing from drug-riddled slum into respectable cool. ‘The shipyard owner teamed up with a real estate developer to revive the area and it’s happening in a very beautiful way,’ she says. Jordan, who is married to the one-time head of Estonia’s intelligence service, opened Odeon, which hovers between Brooklyn cocktail bar and a social club. The barman mixes wasabi-infused vodka, kaffir lime leaves, ginger beer and lemon syrup for his Moscow Mule. On the menu are ‘Flora’ and ‘Fauna’ sharing plates, while recycled seating is a confection of algae and plant extracts. ‘It’s crowded in the Old Town,’ Jordan says. ‘Everything is directed towards fast delivery. Here we’re more about lounging.’
Tallinn, like the Roman god Janus, looks both ways. Slap in the middle of the Old Town is Café Maiasmokk, which has been selling hand-painted marzipan figurines since German confectioner Georg Stude started in 1864. The alternative, not very far away, is Chocolala in Kalamaja, where lawyer turned chocolatier Kristi Lehtis hand-dips dried reindeer moss (a kind of lichen) in couverture and adds soft fruit from her dacha to silky ganaches. A young country yes, but one whose past has equipped it richly for the future.
Michael Raphael and Mark Parren Taylor travelled to Tallinn courtesy of Visit Estonia. visitestonia.com
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