Mark Bibby Jackson explores Tallinn Old Town, Telliskivi and Fotografiska while discovering the great food scene and remarkable culture in the Estonian capital.
It is not every day you go to bed with a part of the ancient city wall in your hotel room, but there are not many places like Tallinn, Estonia, surely one of the best-preserved medieval capital cities in Europe.
At first I think the wall is some mock-70s feature, such is the quality of the restoration, but it is only once I wander outside that I realise my wall is part of the 14th century Nun’s Tower. My walled room is in Nunne boutique hotel. Opened in late August 2023, it is the perfect base for exploring the city.
Tallinn Old Town Tour
Arriving late with just sufficient time for a cursory exploration of some of the Tallinn nightlife, we depart the following morning on a Tallinn city tour led by Eva-Maria Egipt-Peenmaa, from Nordic Experience. Eva-Maria is full of interesting anecdotes and information about the Estonian capital, such as the one remaining medieval well in the city, which legend has used to contain a mermaid.
Our first stop is at St Nicholas Church or Niguliste. Built between 1230 and 1275, the church has been converted into a museum. A glass lift, opened in Spring 2023, leads up to the church tower from where you get unparalleled views of the city. We can see the wonderfully preserved 1.8 kilometres of city wall and the 26 remaining towers, churches and cathedrals including the spectacular Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
We can also clearly make out how Tallinn Old Town is split into two levels. The clergy and nobility lived in the upper town, while the more industrious lived in less lofty quarters. Gates were closed at night to ensure the lower Tallinn residents knew their place.
Niguliste has one remarkable work hanging on its walls – the Danse Macabre (or Dance of Death) created by the Lübeck master painter Bernt Notke. This striking work dates back to the 15th century and depicts the transience of life. It originally stretched for 30 metres, although the remaining fragment is substantial enough. According to Eva-Marie, it is the only medieval dance of death preserved on this scale. It also has played an important role on the culture of the city, but more of that later.
History of Tallinn Estonia
Tallinn literally means Danish Castle (or Town), referring to the Scandinavian nation’s conquest of the city in 1219 by King Valdemar II. Tallinn received its City Rights in 1248, making it apparently the oldest capital city in Northern Europe.
Despite a major fire in the 1600s and two days of bombing by Soviets in 1944, the city is remarkably well-preserved. When in Riga a few weeks earlier I was amazed by the wonderful art nouveau architecture, its Baltic neighbouring capital is indisputably a medieval classic, receiving UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997, as “an exceptionally complete and well-preserved medieval” city.
After our visit to Niguliste, Eva-Marie takes us to the upper echelons of Tallinn Old Town (Toompea). Strolling through the old cobbled streets it is easy to imagine its former wealth. The medieval Tallinn port became a significant trade hub, from the 14th to 16th centuries, when it was a member of the Hanseatic League. Indeed, the UNESCO citation mentions, “the opulence of the public buildings (the churches in particular) and the domestic architecture of the merchants’ houses”.
Perhaps the best view of the lower town is from Patkuli viewing platform. From here, Eva-Marie leads us to the lower town (All-linn), where we stop for a coffee in Café Maiasmokk, which opened in 1864 and is the oldest coffee shop in Tallinn. Here, Helli shows us how to paint marzipan angels, as she has been doing for 18 years.
The café is close to the main Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) which became the centre of the lower old town towards the end of the 13th century. This is also where the annual Tallinn Christmas Market is held. Tallinn lays claim to having the first Christmas tree, which was erected by the Brotherhood of Blackheads in 1441. Also on the square is the Raeapteek, which opened 19 years before the brothers lofted their first tree, making it the oldest continuous pharmacy in same location in Europe.
Although Eva-Marie’s tour comes highly recommended, Tallinn Old Town both upper and lower are easily walkable. With clearly marked plaques indicating points of interest, this is a city you really can self-guide.
Telliskivi Creative City
Despite its medieval grandeur, Tallinn is a city that has been undergoing a creative renaissance in recent years. It has the highest number of startups per capita in major European cities.
After an excellent lunch at the restaurant Pegasus – I recommend the halibut – we proceed to Tallinn’s Baltic Station which was built 150 years ago to run trains to Russia. The Tallinn railway station is still functioning – although with no service to Russia – and has an excellent market next to it.
However, it is the Telliskivi Creative City (Loomelinnak) in the adjoining Kalamaja district that we have come to visit. Telliskivi is one of the best examples of repurposed industrial projects you will discover in Europe if not the world. It has transformed disused railway buildings into something quite wonderful.
Before Telliskivi Creative City was founded in 2007, this was an industrial wasteland. Two years later the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, established its headquarters here, followed by a flea market and a skate park. This eclectic mix has continued through the subsequent 15 years. Now, Telliskivi has 300 creative industry companies and NGOs. “All rooted in the belief that instead of razing this somewhat ugly place to the ground, we should salvage it and breathe some soul into its industrial lungs,” as its website states.
It has also been an incredible success, attracting around a million visitors each year pre-Covid. Eva-Marie shows us around Telliskivi pointing out a wonderful mural by Edward von Lõngus, or the Estonian Banksy, consisting of a hipster taking a selfie of himself with Death, a clear reference to the Danse Macabre we had seen in Niguliste.
Junimperium : Tallinn Gin Palace
Eventually, we bid adieu to Eva-Marie outside of Junimperium, a gin distillery in the heart of Telliskivi.
Junimperium was conceived by Aare ‘Archie’ Ormus, in his mum’s kitchen. They eventually received their licence and opened the distillery in 2019. It is the only artisan gin distillery in Estonia. The cool, dark bar opened in March 2023.
Archie greets us with a gin tonic as he takes us on a tour of the distillery. Now, I have been on many a distillery tour, so I am thankful that ours starts with the tasting rather than the ‘tour’, especially after spending most of the day traipsing around Tallinn Old Town.
Archie talks us through the array of gins set before us. They have already won numerous awards. From an excellent London dry gin to a sloe gin and even a rhubarb gin. My favourite is the navy strength gin, which leaves my mouth tingling.
According to Archie, navy strength gins have to be more than 57% proof because if they were less alcoholic, they would have ruined the gunpowder on board the ship in case of leakage. Fortunately, this gin has a slight citrus flavour and is amazingly light considering the alcohol content. It certainly is not explosive.
What overpowers more than gin is the amazing passion Archie shows for his work. I can just imagine him with a chemistry set at home as a boy.
Fotografiska : Tallinn Food at its Best
A significant part of the reason for my trip to Tallinn was to visit Fotografiska, which is also based in Telliskivi.
I first encountered Fotografiska when in Stockholm where I visited its amazing gallery. There I had been wowed by the incredible photography on display. At its sister establishment in Tallinn, I was to sample its food.
Fotografiska has a zero waste philosophy. This progressive concept is one I first encountered at Frea restaurant in Berlin. At Fotografiska Tallinn, all the food is local, with much of it coming from its own garden. They use as much as the produce as they can, and compost the rest apart from the bones.
My waiter Kristjan explains, “they do what Estonian nature offers them,” creating seasonal produce. Where Estonia is lacking, for instance in wine, they order in bulk hence reducing their carbon footprint.
Following Kristjan’s suggestion, I start with one of Fotografiska’s own beers, which I find refreshing after the gin.
For starters, I opt for a trout pastrami with trout roe and sour cream on a sourdough waffle, which is amazing. This is followed by a pike perch dish served with Jerusalem artichoke. The crunchiness of the latter complements the delicacy of the latter perfectly. I conclude the meal with a walnut cake served with an ice cider which is a new experience for me. The restaurant has a very contemporary and quite buzzing vibe, while Kristjan’s service was excellent.
Tallinn Sauna at Iglupark
After dinner I have a real Estonian experience. Sauna is deeply rooted in the culture of the people, as anyone who has watched Smoke Sauna Sisterhood will realise.
I join Elin Priks at the Iglupark sauna. Elin is promoting the Year of the Sauna in Estonia. According to her, people go to the sauna on Saturday nights instead of heading down the pub. Whole families attend, or perhaps a close group of friends. You chat and relax inside the sauna.
Igloo saunas are so named after their curved shape, which I understand helps to spread the heat evenly. They have become popular – Beckham has one.
After showering and changing, we are given a brief explanation about the culture of saunas by Elin, before heading into the sauna. There she somehow manages to maintain the conversation while ladling water onto the hot coals. The rising heat almost scorches off my eyebrows, or at least that is how it feels, as I try largely unsuccessfully to focus on what Elin is saying. After a while I become accustomed to the heat and sit comfortably for ten minutes while Elin explains how a sauna experience helps both body and soul.
Part of the attraction of the Iglupark is that it is in the old Tallinn port area of Noblessner. This allows us to dip our toes, or for the braver plunge, into the near freezing waters of the Baltic – on our evening it was 2C. Earlier in the year I had bottled going into the slightly warmer waters in Bergen harbour, but not this time. It certainly does make the heart pound.
Tallinn Estonia Photo Gallery
The next part of our cultural immersion is a bout of whisking.
This involves me lying down on the wooden planks while Elin whips my back with birch twigs and leaves. I half joke that Elin could make a fortune in the House of Commons. Then, I return for another dip in the waters this time managing to immerse myself down to my neck. One more spell in the sauna when I decline Elin’s offer of a second bout of flagellation and our Tallinn sauna experience concludes. I feel refreshed. After such a varied and lengthy day I find sleep easy back in the hotel.
Continue Mark’s journey to Tallinn Estonia here.
Tallinn Old Town Hotels
For Tallinn Old Town hotels, Nunne boutique hotel has to be an excellent choice, especially if you can get a room with a wall.
Tallinn Best Restaurants
Tallinn Things To Do
If you are planning your Tallinn holidays, we suggest you visit the official Visit Estonia website for more inspiration on Tallinn places to visit.