August 25 – September 22, 2016 (End of summer, beginning of fall)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: Medium
Tallinn is the largest city of Estonia, but one of the smallest on our trip. Because of that or in spite of it, we found Tallinn to be among the most likable places we’ve visited. It boasts as charming a medieval Old Town as Kraków or Dubrovnik but also has a distinct and modern identity.
For introverts, Estonia is a dream. People in public are quiet and mostly don’t converse with strangers. They move briskly and purposefully on sidewalks – this may be the only place in the world where we were the slow walkers. There were few crowds outside the cruise ship tour groups, little traffic, and tons of places to lose ourselves, from quiet back alleys to spacious parks to an extensive waterfront promenade. In a lot of ways it epitomizes our digital nomad ideal – good quality of life, plenty to see and do, but also great for getting work done.
Where we stayed
For this stay we chose an Airbnb↗ in the Raua neighborhood, halfway between the Old Town and Kadriorg Park. It was a bit over our budget, though. Add in the slightly higher cost-of-living than Poland or Hungary – though still low for Europe – and Tallinn was kind of a splurge for us. The apartment was worth the price at least. Very spacious, nice (if stuffy) furniture, good wifi and a huge and excellently-equipped kitchen. There was a desk-like table for seated work, and the corner heating stove, coupled with an ironing board, made a decent approximation of a standing desk.
The inclusion of a sauna stunned us, though it turns out they’re quite typical in this region as a way of combating the bitterly cold winters. The bathroom also included underfloor heating, which was a new treat. Like other stays (Budapest, Warsaw) in the eastern half of Europe, the shower lacked a curtain. But the most confusing decision must have been the toilet. Rather than being in the bathroom, it was by itself in a tiny closet near the front door. We had to walk clear across the apartment to wash up after. Very strange!
The neighborhood was quiet and livable. We were right next to a small bakery that taught us Estonian pastries rivaled the Poles’ for preeminence. The Old Town was about a 20 minute walk away, Kadriorg park barely 15. Groceries were easy with a small supermarket only two blocks from our house and a much larger hypermarket just 10 minutes further. We did get unlucky with some construction noise next door though, as usual.
Tallinn does have Uber and a good bus system, but aside from going to and from the airport, we didn’t take advantage of either. It was just too easy and pleasant to walk everywhere we needed to go. Citizens famously don’t have to pay↗ to ride the bus in Tallinn, but even for us non-free-riders the charge was pretty nominal – it was something like 2 euros per person to get from the airport to our stop. On our way out we considered Uber, but found it too unreliable in the wee morning hours and hired a transfer instead.
What we did
Of course, the biggest attraction in Tallinn is its well-preserved Old Town. Despite being a popular cruise stop, we found it extraordinarily uncrowded and accessible. St. Olaf’s Church is one of the premier attractions. For a pittance we were able to climb the steeple, the tallest in the city and one of the tallest in the world. The views were worth the workout, but we didn’t feel like hanging out on the rail-thin ledge for any longer than necessary. The impeccable City Walls are also worth a walk around. Mostly, we enjoyed simply wandering the cobblestone streets, peering into churches, getting ourselves lost and finding neat little corners here and there. Those kinds of experiences set a place apart and make it your own, and Tallinn had them in spades.
Kadriorg Park is a huge and stunning expanse east of the city center. It surrounds a beautiful 18th century palace that now houses the Kadriorg Art Museum. There were plenty of beautiful classical works scattered throughout, but our favorite featured Tallinn’s own waterfront. It perfectly encapsulated how much the city has changed and stayed the same. Past the palace grounds is the Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia, which amazingly we could walk right up to. In fact, we almost stumbled into a diplomatic arrival, as the new British ambassador met the president with a military band and everything. Finally, there’s the huge Kumu Art Museum, which likewise had excellent of classical art as well as an interesting exhibit on Soviet-era propaganda, (but watch out for the creepy stuff). But the park itself was its own top attraction, with plenty of paths winding through trees, canals and ponds, and even a Japanese Garden.
The only thing we run into more often than construction noise are festivals. Continuing that noble tradition, Tallinn surprised us with its Light Walks festival during our stay. This is a celebration of the end of summer and beginning of autumn, like Labor Day in the US. Walking paths throughout Kadriorg were lined with thousands of candles and the buildings and fountains lit up with colored lights. Thousands of people come out for the party, probably a decent chunk of the country’s population. Still, it was worth braving the crowds and the chilled air, as the festival was absolutely beautiful.
The park was also our favorite (if a bit roundabout) way to get to the Waterfront. Due north from Kadriorg Palace is Tallinn Bay, along which runs an extensive promenade. A few times each week, we’d stroll along the beach and boardwalk, watching the waves and seabirds and taking in the somewhat musty sea air. Along the way we could see the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (not much going on when we were there, but cool history↗) and the imposing Maarjamäe Memorial.
Most of the people who do make it to Tallinn are daytrippers from Helsinki. This is insane. Finland is by far the pricier country. We found it much more sensible to stay in (relatively) economical Estonia and spend a day on a Ferry to Finland. Estonia’s terminal is conveniently located right by the city center. The ferry is an experience in and of itself. It’s the size of a small cruise ship, and with similar facilities – cabins, lounge, even restaurants. There are tons of competing providers to choose from. We chose Eckerö Line, but Viking and Tallink offer similar service while Linda Line is faster. The crossing was short enough for us and offered good views. We should note that unlike some other lines, Eckerö docks on the west side of Helsinki instead of the more central Market Square, so it took a bit more walking to reach the “core.” But we didn’t mind. It was a great opportunity to see another side of the city.
We ate and explored a bit, but spend most of our day in Helsinki climbing all over Suomenlinna fortress. The fortress, spread across several islands, is a beautiful destination for hiking and wandering. A little boat zipped us between the larger vessels and straight to the archipelago, offering a great opportunity to look back over the Helsinki waterfront along the way. We loved exploring the tunnels and watching ships small and large pass through the narrow channels.
Perhaps our favorite museum was the impressive Seaplane Harbor, which is for boats what Seattle’s Museum of Flight↗ is for airplanes. The indoor hangar was full of seaplanes, buoys, and cool interactive exhibits. There was also an extensive and fascinating temporary exhibit on Viking history. Outside were several large ships that we could climb on and explore at our leisure, including an Arctic icebreaker and a selection of naval vessels. A fun way to spend a day for big kids like us.
Food & Drink
Traditional Estonian cuisine is very much in the meat-and-potatoes tradition of Central/Eastern/Northern Europe. Partially for that reason and partially due to rent busting our budget, we didn’t eat out much. Grocery stores offered plenty of interesting local specialties, though. We tried elk and moose jerky, cold cuts, and the like. There was even canned bear meat (which was way too expensive to take a chance on). On our day trip to Helsinki, we browsed the dishes on offer at Market Square and had to try the reindeer stew. It was a bit like a plainer version of bison, but with a berry-flavored sauce that really brought it together.
We were lucky enough to have a working oven this month, which meant we could bake and roast. Duck was surprisingly easy to find, available in several grocery stores at a fair price. But our absolute favorites were the salmon and trout. Sourced from Norway and Estonia, it was local, fresh and affordable. And good! We had definitely been missing quality seafood since we left Seattle.
The snack foods were only okay. Chip flavors were on the boring side, though Danielle rather liked “creamy forest mushroom” Lay’s. Kalev chocolate was very good, among the best we’ve had on our trip. Danielle picked up something called kasukas or shuba, a beet salad with herring and crumbled egg, that she enjoyed entirely on her own. Frozen kebab pizza didn’t look like much, but turned out to be one of the low-effort dinner highlights of our stay.
Our closest grocery store was Comarket, which was also the easiest place to return recyclables or buy bottled water (tap water was drinkable but not very good). Most days, we walked a little further to the Norde Centrum shopping center, which housed a Rimi hypermarket. There was also a liquor store, but the selection and prices were no better than the grocery store. Just across the hall was Beerexpress, a tiny specialty store with a huge selection of craft beers. Well worth a stop for variety’s sake, though the cost reflected the scarcity of the items on offer.
The two biggest beer brands are A. Le Coq and Saku. Saku had more varied options and better flavor overall, especially their porter. Half-liter bottles are the standard, though craft beers are frequently sold in 0.33 L bottles or 0.3 L cans. Wine was less popular. The selection was decent but almost all imported, save for a couple local fruit wines. Those were interesting at least: red- and blackcurrant varieties, lingonberry, and more. They were cheap and very sweet – Danielle was a big fan.
Vodka was the real star of the show. Russian, Belarusian, Finnish, Estonian; just walls of the stuff. But the local specialty Vana Tallinn, isn’t a vodka at all. It’s instead a spiced rum that was off-putting at first but that eventually grew on us. We even branched out to some of their spin-off flavors like “winter spice.” Also popular and ubiquitous is something called a long drink, canned cocktails in the vein of Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg Lemonade.
Alcohol is much, much cheaper in Estonia than in nearby Finland, so it’s become something of a tradition for thrifty (and thirsty) Finns to come over on the ferry and take home armfuls (or cartfuls, or carfuls) of booze. Liquor stores in the ferry terminal and throughout the city cater to this cottage industry by selling travel-ready cases of alcohol. Not just beer, but whole cases of vodka or Vana Tallinn ready to wheel right onto the ship. We witnessed big parties of middle-aged women on a ladies’ night from Finland, giggling about the low prices and trying to settle on this bottle or that. Oddly, Tallinn was about the only place in Europe where we were asked for ID buying alcohol.
One last thing we made sure to try was kvass, a beer-like beverage made from fermented rye bread. It’s the most literal version of liquid bread we’ve ever had, with a taste (according to Kevin) of a sickly-sweet dunkel or (according to Danielle) toast. It’s not fair to compare to a beer though – despite the fermentation, it’s basically nonalcoholic. Fun to try but a little too heavy for regular consumption.
Stuff of interest
Our choice for mobile provider↗ was Elisa. We bought two chips with 4 gigs of data apiece for $18 total.
The Estonian language is really fun. Stores are “poods.” The country’s name is “Eesti.” It’s adorable. On the other hand, we mostly spoke English and got by fine. Not much negative reaction from the locals, though older folks tended not to speak English and were sometimes more annoyed at us.
As with most euro countries, cashiers are really picky about exact change. Prepare for dirty looks and to hear “you don’t have ONE euro?”
Estonians are very proud to be an independent nation, and the Soviet era is collectively referred to as an occupation. The city has an interesting museum about the how the country batted around between different controlling interests before the Cold War, and the oppressive nature of the regime. Still, hundreds of thousands of Russians were settled in Estonia during those years and still make up about a quarter of the population. There is definitely some remaining tension between the two groups.
What we learned
We felt very at home in Estonia. Tallinn single-handedly convinced us to try the other Baltic states in the future. As Estonia straddles the line between Nordic and Baltic, we needed to know which were responsible for such a pleasant stay and to spend a lot more time among them. If we can afford it.