After years of oppression under the Soviets, Tallinn is revelling in its economic and artistic freedom. Tom Chesshyre enjoys a feast of colour in the northernmost Baltic capital
Above Tallinn’s Old Town is a hill with a cobweb of twisting streets, medieval fortifications, a pretty square and the stunning, Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (pictured). This is area is known as Toompea and is a great place to get your bearings in Estonia’s picturesque capital. From the fortifications you can look out across the spires and higgledy-piggledy terracotta roofs of the city centre into the Bay of Tallinn, which opens into the Baltic Sea. The cathedral stands out amid the classical architecture of the other structures on the hill (including the bright pink Toompea Castle, home of the Estonian parliament). Its onion-shaped domes, elaborate white-washed stucco, and curved windows have the look of an elaborate wedding cake. Inside, it is a world away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Tallinn. There are orange candles on shiny brass racks, gilded picture frames, sparkling gold icons, hunched attendants who only speak Russian, and a hushed silence. The Russians built the cathedral to make a statement on behalf of the Tsar against Estonian independence in 1900. Many Estonians still speak Russian and have strong Russian roots.
2. Occupation Museum
Down the hill away from the city centre – about a 250m walk – you come to the Occupation Museum, a small building with an interesting modern design consisting of a strange sloping section twisting round above the entrance with seats for a cafe. It’s worth spending half an hour here to familiarise yourself with Estonia’s years under Soviet rule. The country broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, ending 47 years of Communist control, after a series of protests that are outlined in displays. Items such as old phone boxes, cars and dentist chairs give a flavour of the austerity of life then. There is also a section highlighting the “singing revolution”, which consisted of “patriotic song fests” of up to 300,000 people. These began in 1988, greatly increasing the pressure for independence. Visit okupatsioon.ee/english.
3. Town Hall Square
By this time, you’re probably ready for a break at one of the many cafes and bars around the main sqaure in Tallinn by the Town Hall. This is the central hub of the city, with lots of small streets leading off to yet more cafes as well as stylish restaurants. The architecture shows Germanic influences, which is perhaps unsurprising since Estonia has had strong trade links with Germany over the centuries. (An interesting piece of trivia is that it’s believed the world’s first Christmas tree was decorated here in 1441.) The square is a great place for people-watching and there’s almost always a place free at one of the cafes.
4. Kumu Art Museum
This is a must-see, on the eastern side of the city centre in a fantastic new building that looks like a giant slice of lemon made from grey-stone and tinted glass. The building was designed by the Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori; inside, there are brilliant works of art spanning the centuries in Estonia. The Impressionist works are particularly fine, although the Soviet-era art is historically interesting, with its heavy industry and “struggle for progress” themes. The top floor, accessed via cleverly crafted walkways that are works of art in their own right, displays abstract modern works that wouldn’t look out of place in a trendy boutique in Shoreditch. Visit ekm.ee.
5. Kadriorg Palace
Next to the Kumu Museum is the Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great in the 18th century. It is a splendid pink and white two-storey building set in pretty gardens and described by locals as a “mini Versailles” – a fine place for a stroll after seeing the art next door. Tallinn was important to Peter the Great as it was an ice-free port for his empire. Regular trams run back into the city centre, offering a glimpse of local life, or grab a cheap cab.
6. Lounge 24, Radisson SAS
On the 24th floor of the tower-block Radisson SAS hotel – a five-minute walk south of the city centre, and close to several swanky shopping malls – is Lounge 24. It is a great place to unwind, with a terrace and several sofas, and has terrific views back across town (as well as wifi internet access). A meal here with three courses and wine will cost around £25. The Radisson SAS, along with the trendy Three Sisters Hotel closer to the Old Town, are also good choices for places to stay. Visit radissonsas.com, threesistershotel.com.