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Text and photos Neil Taylor

Tallinn Old Town is everything that central Moscow is not. The streets are so narrow that one car or a couple of pedestrians can use them, but not both at the same time. A large hotel is one with 20 rooms, and the one bar that can seat about 200 people is so out of line with the others that it has to be called the Moskva Café. Streets are cobbled rather than paved, and none are straight. The buildings are all at least 300 years old, and none are more than four stories high. The government seems rather shy about displaying itself: Parliament sits in what Muscovites would see as a modest country house, and it is quite easy to walk past the prime minister’s office without being aware of it at all.

St. Nicholas Church

City Gates and St. Olav’s

The Old Town is a monument to the Baltic Germans who ran Reval (Tallinn’s German name) as a manufacturing and distribution center from the 14th century until 1920, no matter whether Swedes or Russians were Estonia’s nominal masters. Just look at the external architecture of any church or the coats-of-arms that adorn their interiors to see the extent and the success of German power; look at any old plaque or document and German is the language you’ll see. While Tallinn has often been fought for, it has never been fought over, and only Soviet bombing in March 1944 damaged parts of what is otherwise an intact medieval town. The 1980 Olympics, when Tallinn hosted the sailing events, were an incentive to the Soviet authorities to start proper conservation of the Old Town. This process has of course accelerated since Estonian independence in 1991. In mid-summer and in the runup to Christmas, the Town Hall Square is given over to a market, as is the custom in Germany.

Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great

Only the Soviets tried to rule Tallinn from afar, and the hatred their regime generated explains the current political friction between the Russian and Estonian governments. There is no sign of this, however, at any day-to-day level, and as 40 percent of Tallinn’s population is Russian-speaking, it is just as well that the two communities coexist so easily. Unlike Riga, Tallinn does not have Soviet-style restaurants catering to the nostalgic. It does, however, have several, such as Klafira ( and Tchaikovsky (, that sensibly recreate 19th- rather than 20th-century Russian food. Tallinn is well geared up to “both” Christmas festivals, offering special meals around December 25 and then again two weeks later for the Orthodox holiday.

Perhaps this coexistence is best seen on a walk through Kadriorg Park, a short tram ride away from the Old Town. Visitors from ages 8 to 80 come here to enjoy the mixture of formal gardens and areas left wild. In the summer there are concerts and in the winter ice-skating. Peter the Great, always a fan of Tallinn, built a palace here for his wife. Though neither lived long enough to enjoy it, contemporary visitors can happily do so in their place. Peter, who visited Tallinn 11 times, admitted that had he conquered the Swedes sooner, Tallinn rather than what later became St Petersburg would have been his capital.

KUMU Art Gallery, opened in 2006

Once in Kadriorg, walk a little further to KUMU (, which displays Estonian art from the last 200 years. See, for example, how some artists subtly resisted Soviet pressures, while others were quite willing to toe the party line. The spacious museum has light, proper ventilation, and a decent gift shop — all qualities missing in many of Tallinn’s older and smaller museums, which are squeezed into rather inappropriate buildings.

Going out in Old Tallinn means dressing down rather than up. Bring a suit only if you plan to attend the opera or a concert, both incidentally good ideas as tickets rarely cost more than €10. Otherwise stay casual but neat, whether you want the raucous atmosphere of an Irish pub such as Molly Malone’s ( or a quiet leisurely meal at Lydia (, named after Lydia Koidula, Estonia’s most famous poet, who in fact lived much of her life in St. Petersburg. Though locals complain about increasing bar and restaurant prices, they still bear no relation to what is charged in Moscow.

Juniper kitchen articles make practical souvenirs, as does hand-embroidered linen which often matches it. Or choose from a variety of small items made of dolomite and limestone, both quarried in Estonia. At the airport pick up a bottle of Vana Tallinn, Estonia’s famous herbal liqueur, but do make sure you pay the lower prices charged to travelers leaving the EU. Look out, too, for whatever other drinks are on special offer there so as to postpone paying Moscow prices again for as long as possible!


Estonian Air offers convenient schedules for a weekend break in Tallinn, with a Friday afternoon departure from Moscow and a Monday return. Fares start at €92 each way including taxes, but it may well make better sense to book a package through a Baltic specialist rather than try to book all the elements separately. Such agencies include Jarkoff (495 203-2068,, Las Flores (495 961-3441,, and Star Line (495 740-4395, Also check out Estonian Air’s rates for business class, as they are often not much more than an economy fare.

Packages tend to be based at one or another of the very modern Norwegian-run Reval Hotels (, such as the three-star Central or the four-star Olympia, both within walking distance of the Old Town and both always a little ahead of the competition in the facilities they offer. Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were very happy at the Three Sisters in October 2006, which provides a luxury alternative in the Old Town itself. British expats are often attracted to the two Uniquestay hotels (, which offer tea- and coffee-making facilities and a computer in each room.

Do not be surprised to hear the chambermaids or waiters speaking Russian, as many will come from the eastern suburbs of Tallinn where it is still the predominant language. However, English, which has been taught in all Tallinn schools for the last 15 years, is now the country’s second language and is oft en used between Estonians and Russians.

The Estonian currency, the kroon (abbreviated to EEK), is tied to the euro at EEK15.65 = €1.00, and in a few years Estonia will probably adopt the euro. For now, however, make sure you change money at a bank (they are open on Saturdays) and not at an exchange bureau since few shops accept euros and those that do are probably overcharging. Banks are equally happy to change dollars, sterling, or the Scandinavian currencies and — unlike exchange bureaus — give very sensible rates.

Taxi drivers can be as naughty as their Moscow counterparts in dealing with foreigners but given the size of the city, they can be avoided altogether. If not, keep in mind that speaking to the driver in Russian will probably ensure that the meter runs at a sensible pace and that any journey in town is unlikely to cost more than €5.00

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