After a little too much partying in Lativa and Lithuania it was a real struggle for Liz and I to get to Tallinn. We decided to skip our first bus to allow me more sleep on the hostel couch in Riga while Liz did some sightseeing which cost us each around 17€. Then, since I was unable to find an extra bed for Liz at the hostel I had pre-booked for myself, I was also charged for my first unused night at the Monk’s Bunk. I spent over 30€ in Estonia without even setting foot in the country – not a good start!
Thankfully, we eventually made it to the bus station and our bus ride from Riga went relatively smoothly. On the ~5 hour bus journey, WiFi and AC plug-ins were available and there were enough open seats to allow us to sprawl out and get some additional sleep, making the trip relatively pleasant. The scenery outside the bus windows was also beautiful since it was near the end of summer and all of the grass and trees were still lush and green.
Upon arrival in Tallinn, we were successful in finding an honest taxi driver who got us to our hostel, Mo Hostel, on the meter for what appeared to be a reasonable rate. Unfortunately, the hostel we booked (due to it being the only one we could find with two available beds), was very weird. I cannot think of any other words to describe it. I expect it was actually an old brothel or love hotel that was converted to a hostel when the Estonian government started cracking down on the mafia-run sex trade which were apparently quite prevalent in the city a decade ago. There was no real common area and the best way to describe the carpet was that it looked like Ebola under a microscope. It was not the worst hostel I have ever stayed in as everything was reasonably clean and they had properly kept our reservation but I suspect there are far better hostel options available in Tallinn if you are able to book in advance.
Conveniently, the week prior to traveling to the Baltics I had been at a party at the British Ambassador’s residence in Yemen where I met Guy, a British security advisor who lives in Tallinn. He is married to a Belarussian woman who grew up in Estonia and as luck would have it, they were in town when Liz and I arrived. I gave Guy a call when I arrived and he told Liz and I to find our way to the main square and that we could then go to the Beer House for dinner. One positive aspect of Mo Hostel is that it is quite close to the old town so within minutes Liz and I had found our way to the Beer Hall and met up with Guy and his wife Svetlana.
The Beer Hall is an extraordinary place and when we first entered we were greeted with traditional Estonian music and a number of locals who were dancing along in traditional clothing on the small dance floor. The Beer Hall is named as such as they brew and produce their own beers which are served throughout the massive bar and restaurant. The entire complex is huge and I was once again reminded of the large tables used for eating and drinking throughout Bavaria. Guy led us to an area that I would describe as a small indoor street where the music was a little less noisy and we were able to talk.
The Beer Hall’s menu is just as meat heavy as those I saw in Latvia and Lithuania but after five nights of partying in Latvia and Lithuania all I was craving were vitamins and nutrients. I suspect Guy, a big strong lad, was likely disappointed when I ordered was a Greek Salad, but after attemping two 1kg pork hocks over the previous three evenings I was due for a meal that did not previously have legs. Liz and Svetlana both had incredibly large and flavourful pizzas while Guy dug into a delicious looking Lamb confit. After mentioning the strength of the Latvian garlic bread, Guy suggested we also try the Estonian version which was also very rich, garlicy, and delicious.
Given we were at a restaurant that specialized in fresh beer we also tried a Beer House Beer sampler which gave us the opportunity to try seven of their brews available on tap. Guy explained that often Estonian beers are drunk according to the season with lighter beers being consumed in the summer darker beers progressively being consumed into the winter. The food and beers were excellent and Liz and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about how Guy and Svetlana met and the fact they celebrated their wedding reception in the Beer Hall! What a perfect place for such a celebration. We also learned a little bit about Estonia’s economy, history, and politics which gave us excellent perspective given Guy and Svetlana’s history in the country.
After we were stuffed from food and drink Guy suggested we check out another popular Tallinn bar, the Hell Hunt. The Hell Hunt offers its own beers on tap as well as a wide selection of beers from all over the world including many Belgian beers and craft brews. I quite liked the Hell Hunt bar and would definitely recommend checking it out. After a couple more drinks and a lot more interesting conversation we decided to call it a night and said our good-byes. It was a wonderful evening out and it was really nice to meet Guy and Svetlana and learn from them about their hometown.
The next day Liz and I set out to explore Tallinn’s beautiful old town as it was our only full day for sightseeing. I was completely exhausted from my four week work-shift followed by six straight nights out in a row, but thankfully Liz was there as motivation and she put a sightseeing game plan together.
We wandered through Tallinn’s old town battling through the throngs of tourists who had arrived off of the many cruise ships for the day. Tallinn has definitely embraced tourism in a big way and it was clear that it is a big driver of their summer economy. Tallinn’s old town has been beautifully preserved and restored and many of the local businesses cater to its medieval past by dressing up its employees and making them roleplay as medieval characters. It is kind of cheesy but it also adds a unique aspect to Tallinn and I can understand the city’s popularity among travelers.
Liz and I found our way to many of the city’s viewpoints including on the castle walls and higher parts of the old town. I found the prices in Tallinn to be extremely high compared to what I had seen in Riga and Vilnius but once again this is surely due to its popularity among cruisers. Tallinn’s many souvenir shops offered beautiful handicrafts including wool socks and hats, amber jewelry, and carved wood utensils. Had it not been for the crowds and prices I think I would have absolutely loved Tallinn but unfortunately the busyness of it all made it hard for me to relax and absorb the city’s beauty.
Another aspect of our day in Tallinn was that the weather varied more than any place I have ever been before. Throughout the day we were blessed with glorious sunshine then cursed by rains and cold winds in a never-ending cycle that had me taking off or putting on my coat every 15 minutes. It was truly unbelievable and I cannot imagine what the winters must be like. After a few hours of sightseeing and once the cloud and rain set-in Liz and I went to the main square for a quick beer on the Peppersack’s terrace. Just as with other restaurants in the old town the Peppersack fully embraces Tallinn’s medieval past with employees and glassware made to appear from the 11th to 15th centuries.
After our drink I returned to the hostel for a nap and Liz continued to explore the city’s sites. When Liz returned to the hostel she eagerly suggested that we get to the Town Hall before it closed at 6pm. For 3€ it is possible to climb the Town Hall Tower’s 115 steps for amazing views over Tallin’s red-roofed old town. The views from the Town Hall Tower were far better than any of the view points that we had visited and thus I would highly recommend making the climb if you can.
The Town Hall Tower was constructed in 1402 with the purpose of providing watchmen a vantage over the city to watch for fire or invasion. There is a large bell in the tower which still rings on the hour so mind the time if you are at the top! Saint Olaf’s Church is also visible from the tower and its 123.7 meter height is clearly seen. Between 1549 and 1625 St. Olaf’s Church was the tallest building in the world, so it is quite interesting to see. Another fun fact is that from 1944 to 1991 the Soviet KGB used the church’s spire for radio communications and surveillance.
Liz researched good places for dinner and Rataskaevu was highly recommended. When we arrived to the restaurant every table was full and I was worried we were out of luck. Liz fluttered her eyelashes and somehow managed to get the staff to give us the next table that became available for what was a truly delicious dinner. Both Liz and I had the pumpkin soup, which was delicious, and I enjoyed Elk for my main course. I cannot remember eating Elk before but I must say it was absolutely delicious. Estonian food seems to revolve around hearty meat and potato dishes but after being occupied by so many different countries I could tell that many wonderful cooking influences had been imparted by Germany, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries. The meal and service were wonderful and I would highly recommend Rataskaevu to anyone visiting Tallinn.
After dinner Liz and I walked around a little more, taking advantage of the late setting sun, and Liz showed me a more modern commercial area she had discovered while I was napping. The modern buildings and architecture provided a very nice contrast to the old town we had been exploring and it definitely showed me another side of Tallinn. We also went to the Supermarket for water and dessert where Liz discovered champagne flavoured ice cream (it apparently sounds a lot better than it tastes).
Liz had to depart early the last day but as my ferry to the Aland Islands did not depart until 6pm, I had more time to wander and explore. I had heard from Guy that the Old Hansa Restaurant served Bear Steaks and decided it was something I had to try. The Old Hansa Restaurant is very noticeable as it is right next to the Town Hall and they have a number of people role playing in medieval costumes to entice customers inside. Unfortunately, the restaurant seemed to have more marketers than servers as after waiting over an hour and making numerous enquiries I was unable to even order a drink! I actually sat and watched as a dozen customers were encouraged to enter the restaurant terrace but who then got up and left after waiting more than 15 minutes and not even receiving a menu. I really wanted to try the Bear but for 55€ I could not support such awful service and decided it would have to wait for another time in another restaurant.
Starving, I walked down the street to the Peppersack Restaurant where I enjoyed wonderful service, free garlic bread, and a delicious meal and pint of beer to end my journey. After my late lunch I collected my backpack from the hostel and walked to the ferry terminal for my journey to the Aland Islands.
Although I definitely enjoyed Tallinn I suspect I would have liked it far more had it not been for the cruise ship crowds of August. I would love to return to the city in the shoulder seasons when it is less touristy as I suspect I would better appreciate the beautiful old town, learn more about Estonia’s history, and possibly meet more locals. That said, I would highly recommend visiting at any time of year should you have the opportunity and taking advantage of the wonderful food and drink the country has to offer.