For New Year and birthday celebrations we struggled to decide where to go; there are certain destinations which we think of as winter destinations and our mission to explore as much of Europe as possible led us to consider Estonia and Latvia. Due to the fact it was over New Year, flights were unfortunately not our £10 bargains however as we had a week we thought a dual city break would be a good option. The flights were £120 each return which is way more than we would usually feel comfortable with but was expected because of the time of year. When the time came we moved on to Riga by coach which was a 4-5 hour trip each way but only cost 30 euros each return back to Tallinn to fly home from there. There was a substantial saving by flying home from Tallinn as opposed to from Riga.
Tallinn, for those who are not familiar, is the capital city of Estonia and is based on the northern coast on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. The Old Town of Tallinn is said to be one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and is featured as a UNESCO world heritage site. The earliest settlements here are said to have been 5000 years ago and up until 1918, it was known as Reval. Reval was initially claimed by the Danish but also had periods of Scandinavian and German rule. More recently Tallinn has been known for its advances in digital technology; being the birthplace of Skype and in 2012 was one of the top 10 digital cities of the world. The city was also the European Capital of Culture in 2011.
We set off for our New Year adventures from Luton to Tallinn with a ridiculously early departure at 6.10am. The flight was 2 and a half hours; all went to plan and we had a sleepy and uneventful Wizz air flight; we were warned we may have an aborted landing due to fog but the pilot did good and managed to land first time in nearly zero visibility. Yay! Wizz has like Ryanair, unfortunately, reduced their cabin baggage limit again so we erred on the side of caution and paid for Wizz Priority which allows an appropriately sized wheely in the cabin and one further small bag; given the fact we were going to a colder climate, our clothes were going to be bulkier!
Due to the fact it was New Year, it was difficult to find much in the way of budget accommodation but we found somewhere called Fat Margaret’s Hostel which offered private ensuite rooms. It had good ratings from travellers and as it would only be used as a base we decided to book it anyway. I don’t know what hotel rating system they use in Estonia, but this is officially a one-star. Don’t let that put you off, it was superb value for money, very comfortable and had everything we needed, and some! The taxi to the hostel was 10 euros, which was quite reasonable. We were greeted warmly and made to feel welcome straight away, they had accommodated my request for a ground floor room and we had an ensuite large room which would be fine to suit our needs. The accommodation has a common room with tv and shared kitchen facilities if needed. It also has a sauna and small pool to use free between 9am and 11am. The staff were friendly and there are vending machines and a coffee machine in the common room.
Our accommodation was conveniently located within 1km of the main tourist attractions in Tallinn and just 15 minutes walk from the main port. After unpacking a little we headed off across the road into the Old Town. We came across the beautiful St Peter’s and St Paul’s Cathedral and visited just as a service was going on. The singing was pretty melodic, we just didn’t understand any of what was being sung!
From a bit of prior research, The Town Hall Square or Raekoja Plats appeared to be the place to go so we ventured there next and found the Christmas Market was in full swing. The square became the centre of the lower town in the 13th and 14th Century and it is a popular spot all year round, with cafes in the summer and the markets at Christmas. The tradition of celebrating Christmas here dates back to 1441 when the Brotherhood of the Blackheads was said to have placed the first Christmas tree here.
There is a live webcam here available online so I messaged Mum the link and she was able to see us live in the square which was pretty cool. We sampled some fine glogg (mulled wine) from one of the stalls and enjoyed the ambience! There were many different stalls here selling local and handmade items some of which were reasonably priced some rather expensive! There were also some acts on the stage with dancing and singing which was quite entertaining! It appears to be local people performing including school children and singing and dance groups.
From researching before we went, the main activities on New Year’s Eve were going to be in Freedom Square so in order to get our bearings we decided to check it out beforehand to see where we needed to go. It was a pleasant walk to the square taking in the architecture and the copious shops and restaurants in the Old Town and also a pop-up ice rink on Harju Street, next to St Nicholas Church. Freedom Square was still being set up for New Year so we found it and moved on. It was only a short distance from Town Hall Square.
One bar/restaurant we found which was worth a visit was Hell Hunt on Pikk 39 which boasts it is the first Estonian Pub although whether this is true we don’t know! They have their own beer there and it was a nice atmosphere and pleasant place to warm up! Again we found the staff to be friendly and helpful and they spoke excellent English.
We decided to get some stocks in for our hotel and googled the nearest supermarket. It appears the main chain there is called Rimi and we found the nearest branch at Aia 7, a short distance away and got some supplies in. It stocked everything in there including hot food, drinks and toiletries. In terms of brand name shops we English are familiar with, we saw none of them here. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that we didn’t see them. No American style fast food shops, no pizza chains, no Asda, no Next, no Marks and Spencer, not even a Lidl. The one familiar brand name we came across was a blast from the past – Circle K shop (do they still exist in the UK?) at the petrol station a short distance away from Fat Margaret’s, which served hot drinks and hot food if required. After dropping off our shopping we had a short rest before heading back into the Old Town to see it at night. It had clearly snowed before we arrived but was mostly clear now, however still very cold at -2 degrees Celsius. The Old Town at night really was quite spectacular; especially the Old Town Square and surrounding areas. After stopping for some dinner we headed back to our accommodation.
The next morning we had a lie in and decided to head towards the water; a Google search had highlighted a seaplane museum which whilst not the most exciting of topics we decided to head towards to see what else was around. It had snowed a little overnight and it certainly was a little fresh and a bit crunchy underfoot. Just down from the hotel, we came across this chimney and plaque stating the tower had featured in a 1978 film called ‘Stalker’. The chimney served as a landmark for us finding our way home throughout our time in Tallinn! We’re still trying to track down the film and have a watch.
Also, just adjacent to the chimney was some really quite spectacular graffiti; whilst neither of us would ever promote defacing property, we do appreciate great artwork and this brightened up an area of derelict buildings. We have since discovered that this artwork was part of the Mextonia Festival of ‘Transgrafiti Muralism‘ in 2017 when murals were produced on over 5000 square metres of walls around the city by artists from around the world.
Moving further down we came across this building which we thought looked like a prison. It was very eerie and reminiscent of our trip to Auschwitz several years ago. It appears that we were correct; Patarei was indeed an abandoned prison which was reported to be one of the scariest places in Estonia during both Soviet and Nazi times. The prison was used as a high-security prison from 1920 onwards and many men were said to be executed here. Since 2017 it has been closed to the public however there is a really interesting insight into the inside from a travel writer here. It appears the prison only closed in 2002. We were intrigued by the alleged ‘Banksy’ graffiti at the entrance to the Prison. We aren’t quite sure of its authenticity but feel it is unlikely to be genuine; if anyone can shed some light onto this please get let us know.
Onwards we made it to the Lennusadam Seaplane harbour; location of the Seaplane Museum. The harbour outside featured many different ships including some which were used as part of the museum and opened to the public. We did go inside the museum to get a drink in the Cafe but didn’t actually do the tour; however, if seaplanes float your boat (or should that be plane?) give it a whirl, it did look interactive and was very popular with all ages.
We headed back into the Old Town to see how things were progressing for the New Year celebrations in Freedom Square. There was some sort of random entertainment happening here which involved someone on stage instructing some sort of exercise class and ring-a-ring-a-roses. Despite his lack of Estonian language skills Nigel, of course, decided to join in!
Just round the corner from the square was a pub restaurant called the Dubliners; we are not normally ones to go visiting English or Irish pubs abroad; we can find those nearer home and they are usually full of other people from the UK. We like to experience cultural differences; nevertheless it was a pleasant stop and we had some food and drink before heading back towards our accommodation. On the way, we stumbled across the beautifully lit Tammasare Park. The design of this park was established through a competition held in 2012 to determine the appropriate use of the space. The winner had a vision for a design inspired by different historical periods consolidated together; signifying a unity where all roads, ideas, encounters and opinions meet. It was completed in 2017.
We also walked through Canute Garden, a summer green open space with a skate park and playground. The statue in the middle of the waterfall ‘Boys with an umbrella’ is by Mare Mikof and was placed in the park in 2008.
Nearly back at our accommodation, we came across the ‘Broken Line’ monument which was dedicated to the people who lost their lives in the Estonia Ferry disaster in 1994. The information stated that 852 people lost their lives in the disaster and we were both shocked that we had no recollection of this at all considering how many people had died. Further research revealed that the passenger ferry MS ESTONIA was carrying 989 people including both passengers and crew when she set sail from Tallinn to Stockholm. The ship sank due to poor cargo loading and failures in the bow door which allowed water into the vehicle deck leading to it capsizing.
We had a rest back at the hostel for a few hours before heading back out for New Year around 9pm. Our first port of call was Old Town Square for some ‘Jaggo’; mulled wine with a rather heady kick of Jagermeister. At 21% this was pretty strong but very warming given the rather chilly temperatures. We stayed there until just before 11pm enjoying the entertainment before heading on to Freedom Square.
Freedom Square was particularly busy with hundreds of people gathering there to enjoy the concert, the New Years Speech from the President, Kersti Kaljulaid, via video screen, and the fireworks. It was a good atmosphere and snowed heavily just before midnight and the New Year kicked in.
After midnight we headed back to the Dubliners for a New Years drink or two before heading back to our accommodation just a little merry! It was a fun night and we really enjoyed the atmosphere to see in the New Year.
New Year’s day was mostly spent not doing much at all; mainly recovering from the night before. We did, however, venture down to the main ferry Port as we were yet to see it. We were aware that it is possible to get a ferry either with a car or as a foot passenger to Helsinki (or St. Petersburg) from Tallinn for quite a reasonable price. Despite the fact it is only just over 2 hours crossing each way to Finland, we didn’t have enough time in our timetable to make the most of any time in Helsinki….next time maybe!
The next day we had a coach booked to take us to Riga in Latvia; the coach was run by Ecolines and we booked it online before we left; printing out the confirmation. We checked out of our accommodation and made our way to the coach station where we departed at 1pm on our trip to Riga!! For our Latvian adventures please see the next blog post!
As an added bonus we had an additional night in Tallinn at the end of our trip after we returned from Riga. It worked out £200 more expensive to fly back from Riga to the UK from Tallinn so we got the coach back to Tallinn the day before we had to depart. We booked into a different place on the way back called City Hotel located at the bottom of Toompea Hill, meaning a different area than we stayed before. The accommodation was reasonable per night and was a kind of offshoot hotel of a larger hotel just down the road. It was clean and comfortable and we had no complaints about the facilities; however, the taxi driver appeared to have some trouble finding it and you have to check in 80 metres down the road.
For our last night, we headed back into the Old Town through the park and across the frozen river. It had snowed significantly since we left for Latvia and the temperature had also dropped significantly!! brrr
We made our way back to our favourite Town Hall Square and decided to have an Indian meal at the restaurant overlooking the square, called the Maharaja. It was a really nice meal with a lovely view of the Christmas market.
We headed back after our meal (alas we had no euros left to even buy ourselves a Jaggo!). Our route took us via Freedom Square which was a completely different view than we had seen just a few nights ago.
We made it back to our accommodation packed up and then headed home the next morning. We discovered Taxify was a popular Uber type app when we returned to Tallinn, and this came in very handy when booking our trip back to the airport.
Tallinn was a lovely city, suitable for couples like us. It has a growing, probably unwanted, reputation as a stag night destination and although we saw a hint of what’s on offer for such an event, it certainly wasn’t as in your face as it is in other European cities. One thing we couldn’t help noticing was that Tallinn is not as multicultural as other cities we have been to; our taxi driver for example for the final trip back to the airport was the first black person we’d seen all trip. From recent reports, immigration is rising in Estonia with more people immigrating than emigrating.
We really enjoyed not only the Old Town architecture and general vibe, but the friendliness of the locals here was outstanding, very friendly, funny and welcoming and the small number of people we conversed with all spoke excellent English; our Estonian is very limited but people went out of their way to chat to us in English and were very accommodating. It was a great choice for New Year and whilst we feel it would also have a lot to offer in the summer, there is something magical about Christmas and New Year here. Highly recommended, especially for all you Christmasphiles out there.
Carol & Nigel xx
December 2018/January 2019