Medieval Gem with High-Tech Hipster Hub: Tallinn

We took a day-trip to Tallinn while staying in Helsinki for an extended weekend. The fastest boat trips take just 1h40m each way for the 80km through the Gulf of Finland, our very large car ferry also took just over 2 hours and had the advantage that it would go at any weather (only exception being when the Baltic Sea is frozen too deeply for the ferry’s hull to break it).


Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and the country’s biggest city with about 450,000 surprisingly well-off residents (one third of this small nation’s population). It lies west of St. Petersburg and east of Stockholm. There are no remnants left of the Russian occupation, food rationing, and poorer, sadder times, it all looks and feels very new, modern, hip. The Estonians have done well for themselves since reaching independence in 1991.


When preparing for our trip and reading up on things, we learned that up to 3% of the population are heavy Class-A drug users and more than 1% suffer from HIV. Seems like the enormous growth and the pressure for rapid change that accompanied it, led a significant part of the population into isolation and desperation. It started with heroin, just after independence. Then, in 2002 during a heroin drought, the country began to import something much more dangerous than heroin: fentanyl. Colloquially it is called China white, Persian white, Afghan, or Flatline. This powder, synthesized in secret labs across the border in Russia, was going to stay. It is anywhere between one hundred and one thousand times stronger than the scag it replaced and sends all its users to an early death (hence the nickname Flatline), usually in their twenties. Estonia has the highest number of per capita drug fatalities anywhere in Europe, by an enormous margin. Riga, next door, has the second highest number, but still only less than two thirds of Tallinn’s figure.


The strength of the brown powder makes it easy to smuggle. The largest single police bust last year was a batch of only 1.5kg and could easily fit into any backpack. Uncut, it is close to impossible to detect it and it has to be cut with whey powder or glucose to make it “safe” for humans.

Luckily we didn’t see any of that. Not at all. Our experience of Tallinn was purely positive and very much so. The medieval city was home to the highest building in the world for some 75 years (St. Olaf’s Church Tower) towards the end of the 16th and early 17th Century and it became rich as a consequence of the trade through the Hanseatic League, of which it was one of the main members.

We climbed to the top of the Tower and wouldn’t recommend it, as it is rather scary. You are with a large crowd of tourists walking on rickety, shaky, mouldered, narrow wooden planks that are fitted to the tin roof with little metal wires and the odd screw. The views, of course, are amazing from 80 metres up at the viewing platform (the top of the roof is 125m high).

The town is a medieval citadel, even though only less than a sixth of the city walls are intact today. There are hardly any buildings in old town that are not from medieval times, and nearly all are in excellent shape following years of extensive renovation. It’s so much fun just zigzagging through the crooked and wildly bent narrow streets and enjoying the atmosphere.

A must-do for all visitors and excellent locations from which to shoot panorama photos are the three lookouts (on all tourist maps), which are on the top of hills, about 25m elevated above the rest of town.

We had lunch at Rataskaevu 16. I had braised elk roast on mashed celery, my wife had some local white freshwater fish, and we were both very impressed. The service was incredibly friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. We asked them for the way to Tallinn’s hipster town, Telliskivi, and they made a huge effort pointing out how best to get there.


Hipster town was very interesting. It is the size of five or six football fields and combines cheap office space with – you guessed it – hip cafes, bars, and restaurants, several with live music, bicycle repair shops, and lots of graffiti and art. Considering that locals earn significantly less on average than, say, Londoners, the prices were quite hefty (€9 for a cocktail, €4 for a beer), but we had an excellent 60 minutes there.

Later that day we did what every tourist does in Tallinn, i.e. we had a pint of draught Saku at the Olde Hanse next to the town hall, a medieval restaurant and beer hall that oozes Hanse history from every beam and barrel. In hindsight it would have been better to have more time, but we just managed to tick all the major sights and then already had to head back to the harbour to catch the last ferry back to Helsinki, where we arrived after midnight, dead tired but happy to have visited this mind-blowingly beautiful little gem of the Baltic Sea. In our view, Tallinn is the prettiest capital of the three Baltic republics, and also much more interesting than Helsinki, on par with St. Petersburg and Stockholm, even though the latter two, as major cities can’t really be compared with little Tallinn.

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