The Heart of Tallinn

So you’ve arrived in Tallinn. You’ve heard about its beautiful old buildings and that the alcohol is cheap. What do you do? Visit the Old Town, of course. Probably along with 784,149 other tourists who are doing exactly the same thing.

Old Town

If I’ll be honest, I spent the least amount of time in this part of Tallinn. Don’t get me wrong – it is a gorgeous area steeped in history. But, I think, any effect it could possibly have had on me was undone by the throngs of tourists walking around and blocking everyone’s way.

Tallinn Old Town
Tallinn’s bustling Old Town

That said, things get much better earlier in the mornings or in the evenings, when you’ll see much fewer tourists out and about. These were the times when I walked through the Old Town and it was easier to appreciate the place’s character while doing so. There’s also quite a different vibe when the tourists aren’t there. Not as hectic, for sure, but one gets the feeling that there’s more space to admire the cobblestone streets and architecture and soak everything in.

At any rate you didn’t come here to read my grumbles about tourists, so let’s move on.

In my opinion the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the most impressive buildings in the Old Town. It sits atop Toompea Hill and was opened in 1900, when Estonia was still a part of Russia. I neither went inside nor bothered to read more about its history, but perhaps you might like to, so here’s the Wikipedia entry about the cathedral and a company that offers to bring you closer to it from where you currently are.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

In the cathedral’s vicinity is a building that features somewhat frequently in Estonia’s day-to-day affairs. It is of course the parliament building, and it is painted pink. (Perhaps salmon for those who refuse to acknowledge its pinkness.)

Estonia’s centennial
1918 – 2018

As you might’ve noticed from the above photo, the Republic of Estonia celebrates its 100th year of independence this year. In fact it’s been doing so since April 2017 and will continue to do so until February 2020. These dates have historical significance, which you can read more about on the official centenary website. The Estonians have even designed a very cool logo that you can download and use! Feel free to feature the logo in your daily life and spread the good word.

While walking through the Old Town, I chanced upon a building that caught my interest. It’s not so much the building itself that I found interesting, but rather its name.

Kiek in de Kök
One of three towers with the same name

You see, the pictured building is called Kiek in de Kök and there is nothing Estonian about that name. It comes, as a matter of fact, from Low German and means to look into the kitchen. If you speak Dutch you’d probably understand it at first sight because it looks so similar to the corresponding phrase kijkje in de keuken. This was actually how I got the inkling that the name might’ve been derived from a Germanic language, because the words in de seemed so much like Dutch to me.

Strange name, isn’t it? But then, Kiek in de Kök is the Low German nickname for a tower, the gist being that one would be able to peek into someone else’s kitchen while standing in the tower. Furthermore, there’s not one but three towers with this name: the first seen here in Tallinn; a second in Gdańsk, Poland; and a third in Magdeburg, Germany.

I found this link between Low German and Dutch fascinating. Another thing the tower in Tallinn illustrated to me was how influential the German language has been on countries in Europe. For a language that isn’t even European, Estonian has several German loanwords. I didn’t realise this until I hopped on a ferry for a day trip to Helsinki – post forthcoming! – and recognised absolutely none of the words I saw. (By the way, the above few paragraphs make more sense when you know that I also speak German and Dutch.)

But enough about the West Germanic languages, and enough about the Old Town.

City centre

After completely ignoring what I said at the beginning of this post and wandering around the Old Town in the late morning because you couldn’t be bothered to get up early, you’d probably feel your stomach grumbling at some point. It is time for lunch.

But where do you go to eat your fill?

You could, of course, try places like the mediaeval restaurant Olde Hansa, which serves overpriced exotic dishes. There’s also a restaurant that sells bear meat if you’re looking for something truly unconventional. (Look for the small bear statue to spot the eatery!)

Alternatively, you could be a cheapskate like I am and look for inexpensive but tasty food. I recommend the Baltic chain restaurant Lido. The food is great – you don’t get to stay in business for 31 years by serving rubbish, that’s for sure. For around 7€ you would get a decent meal; for around 9€ you would dine like royalty. If you skip a drink or dessert you’d pay about 2€ less, even.

There is simply no need to pay western European prices for food in Estonia. And if you do, the restaurant had better be serving top-notch food. Olde Hansa is one of those places charging western European prices, but I’ve also been told that their fare is very good. I didn’t dine there this time, but perhaps I will when I’m next in Tallinn.

Lido is located in a mall called Solaris. It has many stores inside and a large supermarket. It even has a cinema, so you can enjoy mid-afternoon entertainment after your sumptuous lunch at Lido.

Solaris mall
The Solaris mall in downtown Tallinn

After lunch and a possible movie, a walk in the city centre is a good idea, where many lovely buildings await your admiration and appreciation. The streets are also very wide and spacious, which was a welcome change for me, coming from the narrow streets of the Netherlands.

Building in Tallinn

As you wander around Tallinn’s dusty streets, you will no doubt encounter noteworthy sights. Like this one, for example.

Parking barrier outside Tallinn’s concert hall

This stands at the entrance to the car park of the concert hall. Its design surely contributes to the anticipation and dignified mood of a concert performance. The only appropriate thing to do, therefore, is to make a photo of it and share it on Instagram.

And then you continue walking.

Tallinn has several works of art, but at some point you might encounter this particular one.

’Broken Line’ memorial
The ‘Broken Line’ memorial

Perhaps it reminds you of a curved beam that’s only half built and you’re wondering why this is so. Well, the structure is actually fully built and it is a memorial to the victims of the Estonia ferry disaster. This incident occurred in September 1994 and cost over 800 passengers their lives, most of whom were Swedish. I even had to learn about this in school, which was probably also my first exposure to the country of Estonia.

And so, after a sobering moment and potentially several more hours of wandering, it will be time for an evening meal. You could go back to Lido in Solaris if you want something cheap but substantial, or you could try something in the Old Town. It may be slightly difficult to get a table at some of the restaurants there if you haven’t a reservation, but you could always try your luck.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, the Old Town is much calmer in the evenings, allowing for a relaxing stroll through the streets after dinner. Enjoy how the setting sun’s rays cast a warm, romantic glow on the ancient buildings of Estonia’s capital city.

Sunset in Tallinn’s Old Town

Unless it’s cloudy, in which case search for photos fitting the above description on Google and daydream about the scenes you could’ve beheld.