August 25 – September 22, 2016 (End of summer, beginning of fall)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: Medium
Tallinn is the capital and largest city of Estonia, which is incredible, because it’s one of the smallest we’ve lived in. Because of that or in spite of it, we found Tallinn to be among the most likable cities 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 smile or 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
As usual, we stayed in an Airbnb↗. We decided on an apartment in the Raua neighborhood, directly between the Old Town and Kadriorg Park. It was a bit over our budget, and that coupled with the slightly higher cost-of-living than Poland or Hungary – though still low for Europe – made Tallinn kind of a splurge for us. The apartment itself was quite worth the price – 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.
One feature that stunned us was the inclusion of a sauna, 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 new to us. Like other stays (Budapest, Warsaw) in the eastern half of Europe, the shower lacked a curtain. Most confusing for us was the toilet room; rather than being in the bathroom, the toilet was by itself in a tiny closet-sized room near the front door. We had to walk clear across the apartment to wash up – 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 we found by checking in during the early morning hours that we couldn’t count on drivers being on the road 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. One of the premier attractions is St. Olaf’s Church, which for a pittance lets you climb their steeple, the tallest in the city and one of the tallest in the world. The views were worth the work, but I wasn’t anxious to hang out on the rail-thin ledge for any longer than it took to snap a few pictures. The impeccable City Walls are also worth climbing up for a walk. Mostly, we just enjoyed wandering down 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 is happy to provide.
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 we really loved one of the waterfront that 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 walked in on 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). Mostly, we enjoyed strolling the park itself, with plenty of paths winding through trees, with water features (canals and ponds) and a Japanese Garden.
Continuing our tradition of stumbling into festivals, the Light Walks festival fell during our stay, which celebrates the end of summer and beginning of autumn. Walking paths throughout Kadriorg Park were lined with thousands of candles and the buildings and fountains lit up with colored lights. More thousands of people come out for the party, a decent percentage 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 usually turning around at or just beyond the imposing Maarjamäe Memorial.
For whatever reason, most non-cruise tourists to Tallinn are daytrippers staying in Helsinki. Crazy, right? Finland is by far the pricier country. Much better to stay in economical Estonia and take a day for an enjoyable Ferry to Finland. Estonia’s terminal is very convenient, right by the city center. The ferry is an experience in and of itself. The size of a small cruise ship, and with similar facilities – rooms, lounge, restaurants. We chose Eckerö Line, but competing Viking and Tallink offer similar service while Linda Line is faster. The crossing was short enough for us and offered good views. I 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.” 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. Spread across several islands, the fortress is a beautiful destination for hiking and wandering. We hopped on a little boat that zipped between the larger vessels and delivered us to the archipelago, offering a great opportunity to look back over the Helsinki waterfront on 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 (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, which meant more baked and roasted foods were possible. Duck was surprisingly easy to find, available in several grocery stores at a good price. My favorite part was the plentiful salmon and trout. Sourced from Norway and Estonia, it was local, fresh and affordable. And good! I forgot how much I’d missed salmon in our time away from Seattle.
The snack foods were okay. Chip flavors tended toward boring, 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 and that I wouldn’t touch. Our last week in town, we picked up a frozen kebab pizza which turned out to be amazing and which we regretted not trying earlier.
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, both local and far-flung. 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. I found Saku had more varied options and better flavor overall, especially their porter. 0.5 L is standard, though craft beers are frequently sold in 0.33 L bottles or 0.3 L cans. A half-liter bottle costs about a euro.
The wine selection was decent, almost all imported save for local fruit wines. Mostly mid-range stuff from Western Europe, a little too marked-up for the trouble of shipping it to such a far-flung corner of the continent. The fruit wines were interesting, with red- and blackcurrant varieties, lingonberry, and more. They were cheap and very sweet – Danielle was a big fan.
In terms of liquor, the star of the show is vodka. Russian, Belarusian, Finnish, Estonian; just walls of the stuff. The local specialty is Vana Tallinn, a spiced rum that put me off on first taste but that I grew to really like, even trying some of their spinoff flavors like “winter spice.” Also popular and ubiquitous is something called a long drink, premade 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 dolly onboard the ship. We overheard many a party of middle-aged women on a ladies’ night from Finland, giggling about the low prices and trying to settle on this bottle or that.
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 like (according to Kevin) a super, almost 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 rich for regular consumption.
Oddly, Tallinn was about the only place in Europe where we were asked for ID buying alcohol.
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.
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?”
Our stay straddled the very end of summer and beginning of fall, and the weather turned rapidly during that time. In late August it was temperate and comfortable, but in mid-September it was brisk, and by the time we left, temperatures resembled Seattle deep winter.
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 identified very much with Estonia. This stay single-handedly convinced us to try the other Baltic states in the future. As Estonia straddles the line between Nordic and Baltic, we need to know which is responsible for our love of Estonia.