By Rick Steves
Stepping off the boat in Tallinn, Estonia — a short ferry ride from Helsinki (and an overnight sailing from Stockholm, or an easy flight from anywhere in Europe) — you'll likely feel as if you've nevertheless traveled a great cultural distance from Scandinavia. Located about an equal distance from Stockholm and St. Petersburg, Tallinn's culture is both Nordic- and Russian-influenced, and a rewarding detour for those who want to spice up their Scandinavian travels with a Baltic twist.
Among Nordic medieval cities, there's none nearly as well-preserved as Tallinn. Its mostly intact city wall includes 26 watchtowers, each topped by a pointy red roof. Baroque and choral music ring out from its old Lutheran churches. I'd guess that Tallinn (with 400,000 people) has more restaurants, cafés, and surprises per capita and square inch than any city in Scandinavia — and the fun is comparatively cheap. Yes, Tallinn's Nordic Lutheran culture and language connect it with Scandinavia, but two centuries of czarist Russian rule and 45 years as part of the Soviet Union have blended in a distinctly Russian flavor. Overlying all of that, however, is the vibrancy of a free nation that's just a generation old.
Estonians are related to the Finns and have a similar history — first Swedish domination, then Russian (1710–1918), and finally independence after World War I. In 1940, Estonians were at least as affluent and as advanced as the Finns, but they could not preserve their independence from Soviet expansion during World War II. As a result, Estonia sank into a nearly 50-year period of communist stagnation. Since then, the country has made great strides in its recovery; it joined the EU and NATO in 2004, adopted the euro currency in 2011, and today feels pretty much as "Western" as its Nordic neighbors.
Tallinn's post-communist chapter has been a success story. Since independence in 1991, the city has westernized at an astounding rate. ATMs are everywhere, credit cards are widely accepted, and most Estonians can speak English — it's the first choice these days at school. The Old Town has been scrubbed into a pristine Old World theme park — a fascinating package of pleasing towers, ramparts, facades, striptiis bars, churches, shops, and people-watching. Meanwhile, the outlying districts are a Petri dish of architectural experimentation.
Given its compact scale, Tallinn can be easily appreciated as a side-trip (from Helsinki, or from a cruise ship). If you've only got a day, hit the ground running by following my guidebook's self-guided walk right from the port. It's a short from the port to the lower end of the Old Town, an area that was once an autonomous Hanseatic trading center filled with German, Danish, and Swedish merchants who hired Estonians to do their menial labor. The walk to the center of town is lined with these medieval merchants' home/warehouse/offices, featuring plenty of fascinating touches from the Hanseatic Golden Age.
Town Hall Square, the focal point of the Old Town, has been a marketplace through the centuries, and still flaunts a cancan of fine old buildings. Once, it held criminals chained to pillories for public humiliation and knights showing off in chivalrous tournaments; today it's full of Scandinavians and Russians savoring cheap beer, children singing on the bandstand, and cruise-ship groups following the numbered paddles carried high by their well-scrubbed local guides.
Beyond it lies the upper town, the lower town's old rival, long the seat of the Estonian govenrment. This is where you'll find the exquisitely renovated Russian Orthodox Cathedral, as well as the pink palace known as Toompea Castle, which now houses the Estonian Parliament.
Day-trippers can enjoy a nice restaurant in the Old Town for lunch, then spend the afternoon shopping and browsing, or heading to one of the city's worthwhile outlying sights: an ambitious nautical-aviation-military museum called Seaplane Harbor, the Rotermann Quarter for its cutting-edge architecture, the Estonian Open-Air Museum for folk culture, or Kumu Art Museum for Estonian art and a walk in nearby Kadriorg Park.
Those who spend the night, however, are rewarded with the opton of touring the Old Town early or late, when it's much less crowded. Mid-day is a perfect time to explore some of the sights and more colorful slices of life outside the Old Town walls.
Of course, no one expects visitors to arrive having mastered Estonian (a language that's similar to Finnish and equally difficult) — only a million people speak it worldwide. But even just on a one-day visit at least two words are certainly worth learning: "Tänan" (TAH-nahn; "Thank you")…and "Terviseks!" (TEHR-vee-sehks; "Cheers!").