By: Barbara Rockwell
A former medieval trading city on the Gulf of Finland, Estonia’s seacoast capital and largest city is enjoying a surge in popularity among travelers to Eastern Europe. In January of 2011, visits to Tallinn were up 19 percent over the past year, with visits from the United Kingdom up a full 35 percent.
What’s driving the spike in interest? In addition to offering medieval churches, museums, and lively nightlife, the city was crowned a 2011 European Capital of Culture. The honor prompted Tallinn to offer an incredibly rich cultural calendar for 2011—over 7,000 events are scheduled, including dance festivals, concerts, museum exhibits, and a storytelling series.
Getting to Tallinn is also increasingly easy, with discount air carriers ramping up direct flight service to the city. EasyJet now offers flights from Liverpool and London Stansted, and Ryanair recently introduced routes from Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Oslo, Dublin, Milan, London, and Edinburgh.
While 21st-century travelers are just discovering Tallinn, the city’s historic attractions have been around for centuries. With twisting cobblestone lanes and medieval markets, Tallinn’s famous Old Town is one of the world’s best preserved medieval towns and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its hub for the past 800 years has been the rustic Town Hall Square, home to the world’s oldest continuously operating pharmacy.
Other Old Town attractions include original wall fortifications, the 17th-century Bastion Tunnels (tour them by visiting the Kiek in de Kök Museum), and the picturesque St. Catherine’s Passage, where artisans sell and demonstrate crafts ranging from ceramics to glass work.
Historic churches and palaces also number among Tallinn’s prized attractions. The grandiose Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great in 1718, features an art collection and beautifully manicured gardens, while over in Old Town the needle-spired St. Olav’s Church ranked as the world’s tallest church from 1549 to1625.
Two other significant historic churches are found on Toompea Hill: the opulent, onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and the medieval Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, better known by locals as the “Toomkirik” (Dome Church). At the latter, visitors can climb the 69-meter bell tower for sweeping city views.
Despite its historical attractions, Tallinn is decidedly not a city stuck in the past. High-tech startups like Skype and Kazaa were born here, and the city is blanketed in WiFi. The modern Rotterman Quarter is especially future-focused — the bustling commercial and cultural district is home to avant-garde architecture and the new Kumu art museum, which opened in 2006.
Tallinn’s lively nightlife scene also stands firmly in the present (its famous Depeche Mode bar notwithstanding). The growing popularity of Tallinn’s bars and nightclubs with British bachelor parties in particular has even led some to dub Tallinn a “Las Vegas of the Baltics.” While we’re not sure that reputation will hold, Tallinn’s general tourist appeal is certainly on the upswing.