There’s a reason overtourism was chosen as one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s words of the year for 2018–it is a chronic issue plaguing the world today. Defined as “an excessive number of visitors heading to famous locations, damaging the environment and having a detrimental impact on resident’s lives”, overtourism is something responsible travelers and global citizens should be aware of.
Part of combatting overtourism means considering trips to lesser-visited destinations, such as the oft-overlooked Baltic region, where Northern Europe and Eastern Europe collide. Estonia, the gem of the Baltics, is home to the beautiful and vibrant capital city of Tallinn, where old meets new. And with roughly 4.5 million visitors in 2019, as opposed to say, Amsterdam with nearly 20 million, Tallinn can be considered a less popular spot that should be on the radar of responsible tourists everywhere. I’m here to tell you why it is the perfect place to spend some time on your next Euro-trip; preferably, set aside a few days to explore and embrace Tallinn, Estonia any time of the year. It will make for a memorable city break destination with its intriguing mix of history and modernity.
Tallinn’s Old Town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and according to the organization, “The Historic Centre (Old Town) of Tallinn is an exceptionally complete and well-preserved medieval northern European trading city on the coast of the Baltic Sea.”
With two distinct areas, visitors should spend a half-day wandering the winding cobblestone streets of Old Town. First, the administrative center Upper Town is complete with Toompea Castle, now the home of the Estonian Parliament, and the picturesque Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a beautiful example of an Orthodox church. This area also provides unbelievable views of the rest of the city from multiple lookout points. And early birds will be delighted to find out that each morning at sunrise, from a tower at the castle, the Estonian flag is raised while the national anthem is played.
The lower section of Old Town, below the large hill where the upper town rests, is another area of interest. According to UNESCO, “the lower town preserves to a remarkable extent the medieval urban fabric of narrow winding streets, many of which retain their medieval names, and fine public and burgher buildings, including town wall, Town Hall, pharmacy, churches, monasteries, merchants’ and craftsmen’ guilds, and the domestic architecture of the merchants’ houses, which have survived to a remarkable degree. The distribution of building plots survives virtually intact from the 13th-14th centuries.” The lower town is also where the annual Tallinn Christmas Market is held, in the grand tradition of European Christmas Markets, with old-fashioned wooden stalls, artisan handicrafts, and hot spiced wine. Some spots of special significance include Europe’s oldest continually-operated pharmacy, St. Catherine’s Passage, and Estonia’s oldest café, Café Maiasmokk; this space even features a mini marzipan museum.
Modern Tallinn provides a cool contrast to the historic city center, with three distinct emerging neighborhoods leading the charge. The Port Nobblessner district in North Tallinn, formerly of Soviet submarine building fame, now boasts tons of shops, apartments, and attractions. Some of these include the Baltics’ largest brewery, a hip Art Center, Michelin-star chef eatery, and a bespoke design store.
Another enclave worthy of some attention is the Rottermann Quarter, sometimes called Rottermann City, which is conveniently located next to Old Town. It is a busy commercial district, complete with funky renovated office spaces and the Estonian Museum of Architecture. RQ is also home to a great wine bar and the Tallinn Design House, where local Estonian designers’ creations are celebrated and stocked.
Additionally, the aptly named Telliskivi Creative City is a sleek and modern neighborhood ripe for exploration. Travelers should check out the multi-level Baltic Station Market as well as the copious amounts of murals and public art sprinkled throughout the area. The Fotografiska photography art center offers rotating exhibits, a zero-waste rooftop restaurant, and a museum gift shop.
Tallinn’s music culture also provides another unique juxtaposition of old and new. Estonia actually has the second most traditional folk songs on the planet, with only Ireland boasting more. In fact, every five years the laulupidu, or Song Celebration, is held in Tallinn. It’s one of the largest amateur choir events on Earth! This festival is even recognized as culturally significant by UNESCO.
Interestingly, Estonians have even harnessed the power of song for revolutionary purposes; back in 1988, during Soviet occupation, thousands of Estonians participated in what is now known as “the singing revolution”. At the time, patriotic songs were outlawed, but the Estonian people gathered at the festival grounds and sung anyway.
The Estonian capital’s new facet that deserves exploration is the remarkable amount of startup companies that exist in Tallinn; the city is home to the third most startups per capita in all of Europe. It’s also home to the rare “unicorn”, which is a startup company valued at a billion dollars, in transport-focused Bolt (formerly Taxify). Other well-known Estonian exports include communication platform Skype and banking beast Transferwise. Plus, with easily accessible startup visas and a venerable e-residency program, Estonia is a leading tech and innovation force on the continent.
Overall, it should be easy to see that Tallinn, Estonia’s bright and bustling capital city, provides the perfect melting pot between old and new. Consider a visit to this beautiful and interesting place that is just far enough off the beaten path to feel undiscovered. Tallinn belongs on any responsible traveler’s bucket list.
Disclaimer: The author was hosted on a trip to Tallinn by Visit Estonia, but all opinions remain her own.
COVER: Tallin Old Town, Estonia compliments of Visit Estonia. Photo: Andrea Forlani