Posted July 5, 2017
Carrie and I continued our journey through the Baltics traveling north by bus to Tallinn, Estonia from Riga, Latvia. The comfortable four-hour bus ride departed late enough for us to enjoy our morning in Riga and arrived early enough in Tallinn to give us lots of time to explore the city. This was not my first trip to Tallinn but was Carrie’s. I had traveled to Tallinn with my family nearly 15 years earlier on a day trip from Helsinki. I was curious to see how much I recalled from that trip.
Estonia and Tourism
Estonia is a popular destination for travelers, particularly day-trippers from Helsinki, which is only a short ferry ride away. Because of this, Tallinn has the most developed tourism industry of the three Baltic capitals we passed through. In the old town, we encountered lots of tourists. It wasn’t overbearing but was more pronounced than in Riga or Vilnius.
Tourism, as you can imagine, is important to the domestic economy. According to Statistics Estonia, the country saw a 7% increase in tourist (domestic and international) hotel nights in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the largest number of international arrivals were from Finland 46%, Russia 10%, and Latvia 7%. According to the World Tourism and Travel, Council Tourism represented 16% of Estonia’s GDP in 2016 and is expected to grow by 3.8% in 2017. The industry’s total contribution to employment is important too, supporting 16% of jobs, with this figure expected to rise by 1.7% in 2017.
Where to Stay in Tallinn
We opted for something a little out of the ordinary by staying in an apartment instead of a hotel. Much of the accommodation options were out of our price range, not in or near the Old Town or not walking distance to the port. Since we were coming from the bus station and leaving from the port, I wanted to cut down on expenses and make sure we were centrally located between both while also staying in close walking distance to the Old Town. This place was a perfect-a 10-minute taxi ride from the bus station and a 10-15-minute walk to both the port and the Old Town.
Angleterre Apartments is an apartment in a large building, located directly across from Kanuti Garden. The apartment was a loft with a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and a tiny stairwell leading to the bedroom. It was perfect for our short stay. The kitchen was great for making breakfast and lunch. Another perk is the Rimi Supermarket just a couple of blocks away.
The apartment was located on a busy, but not loud street with trams (one stop not too far from the front door of the building) and a great view of the Old Town of Tallinn. We couldn’t have been happier with the location.
The only issue though was access to the bedroom area. The narrow staircase and low hanging ceiling upstairs made for some difficulty in getting in and out of the bedroom area. I’m only 5’10 and wasn’t able to stand up straight in the bedroom and had to duck beneath low hanging beams when walking around.
What to See and Do in Tallinn
Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's also the location of nearly all of Tallinn’s historic sites, which is why we wanted to stay fairly close. Often just walking around and getting lost in some of the narrow cobblestone alleys is just as good as visiting the sites themselves.
Viru Gate and Street
Medieval Tallinn was surrounded by a large defensive wall that included 8 gates. Viru Gate, constructed in the 14th century, remains standing along with towers. Today Viru Gate stands as one of the main entrances to the Old Town and marks the beginning of Viru Street is a popular pedestrian shopping street.
Old Town Square
If you walk up Viru Street away from the Viru Gate you will eventually end up in the Old Town Square, the epicenter of the Tallinn’s medieval old town. This is where every traveler to Tallinn ends up at least once. It’s a wide square ringed with shops, cafes, and restaurants. Carrie and I strolled through the square several times always on our way to some historical site or local bar or restaurant.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
One of my most vivid memories from my first visit to Tallinn was standing outside of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was the first time I had ever seen a Russian Orthodox style cathedral, and this one constructed in 1900 is impressive. The construction of the cathedral occurred during the Russification of Estonia and it remains an important landmark of Tallinn.
Not far from the cathedral is a great lookout point. Definitely go here for sweeping views of Tallinn’s Old Town and Tallinn Bay. This is definitely the spot to take Instagram-worthy photos!
Stroll through Kalamaja
We were looking to escape the touristy Old Town and explore more of Tallinn’s neighborhoods so we headed west of the Old Town towards the neighborhood of Kalamaja. Kalamaja with its unique wooden homes and cool cafes is often referred to as the “hipsterville” and was the perfect place to escape the crowds. The neighborhood can easily be reached from the Old Town on foot or by tram. Besides bars, galleries, and restaurants, the neighborhood is home to the maritime museum, Seaplane Harbor. Looking to see more of Tallinn I’d recommend exploring Kalamaja.
Where to Eat and Drink in Tallinn
Leib Restaurant is where we ate on our first night. Leib, meaning black break in Estonian, is self-described as soulful. What sets the restaurant apart is its seasonal menu using simple Estonian ingredients, the perfect restaurant for Backpacking with the Bonds to visit. We started our meal with the whitefish roe with marinated potatoes and smoked sour cream. We accompanied the whitefish roe with Vormsi Tume Eripruul special dark lager, an Estonian beer!
For the main courses, I went with the slow-cooked Liivimaa (certified organic and sustainable agriculture practices) grass-fed beef shank with roasted kale and caramelized salsify (an edible plant of the daisy family), which was paired with another Estonia beer the Vigurvant from Tanker Brewing. Carrie had the butter brown baked pumpkin with goat curd and pumpkin sauce.
Reservations at Leib are an absolute must. They have a great outdoor space, which wasn’t open during our visit in March, but looked like an amazing place to enjoy a beautiful meal. We would return.
As you know by now Carrie and I are huge local craft beer fans and had read this place has an awesome selection. Situated not far from the tourist-heavy Old Town, but along a quiet street, Frank Bar is the ideal spot to escape the crowds. While we stopped in for lunch and Estonian beer, Frank Bar is actually known for its cocktails.
Like the name implies this is a place to drink! Drink Bar, located around the corner from Frank Bar, has an English pub type feel, which unless we are in England we typically avoid, but the selection of Estonian beers here cannot be beaten. This place has such a huge selection, most of which are in bottles, that it’s best to have decided what you are looking for before arriving as it will be difficult to sift through the enormous offering.
This place is ridiculously cool. Accessed via a nondescript alleyway in the Old Town, and set in an old cellar, Koht is the perfect place to sit back and enjoy Estonian craft beer. My only regret is not coming the night before because I would have returned the following night. Koht isn’t enormous, but for what it lacks in space it more than makes up for with its unbelievable selection of beer. Grab a seat near the fireplace and enjoy the night. My advice is to either do your research on Beer Advocate before you go or connect to the WiFi and read up on the Estonian craft beer scene.
For our last night, we were looking for somewhere to eat closer to our apartment. Luckily there were several options. One of which was Restaurant Ö, which happened to be located right next door to the apartment building. We didn’t make reservations, so we had to wait about two hours that's when we popped over to Koht for a beer.
The restaurant is named after the letter of Ö in the Estonian alphabet. On the island of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island, the letter Ö is used more so than on the mainland. The traditions on Saaremaa are heavily influenced by their Nordic past, which has seeped into how the food is prepared. The restaurant has captured that style of cooking and brought it to the capital. The culinary experience was well worth the wait. Not only is the food delicious, but its presentation is spectacular. We started with a small nibbles platter than included dumpling soup on a spoon and two other items, which were so intriguing and delicious we forgot to write what they were.
For our main course we split the elk meat served with black garlic and cladonia (moss-like fungus) and perch served with fresh cabbage and algae. Both dishes were delicious and well plated.
The incredible meal, which I must confess is the best-presented meal I’ve ever had, continued to impress us with the dessert. We ordered the horseradish, caramel, buckwheat ice cream which was accompanied by a bowl of chestnuts placed on top of liquid ice. It’s not possible to adequately explain what an experience dining at Restaurant Ö is like. Looking for that one splurge meal in Tallinn? Then go to Restaurant Ö.
From Tallinn, we took the ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki, Finland. As with Tallinn I had traveled to Helsinki many years before and was excited to re-explore the city.
All Photography by Carrie and Albert Bond
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