Leib Resto ja Aed, a popular restaurant in Tallinn, serves simple yet creative seasonal fare. // © 2015 Leib Resto ja Aed
Feature image (above): An outlook of the capital city’s old town area // 2015 Creative Commons user archer10
Estonia may be one of the smaller countries in Europe, but the country’s medieval capital, Tallinn, happens to be one of the biggest ports in the Baltics. Able to avoid damage from World War II, Tallinn wins over visitors with its combination of old-world charm and youthful energy.
Buoyed by its reign as Culture Capital of Europe in 2011, when visitor arrivals grew by 15 percent to 1.48 million, traffic to Tallinn steadily increased to 1.94 million in 2013. Some of that has to do with the city’s ever-increasing cultural activities that include pop-up culture cafes and theaters as well as new attractions such as the Seaplane Harbor maritime museum and the all-encompassing art space, Tallinn Creative hub.
There’s also the Culture Kilometer in Kalamaja, an approximately 1.3-mile pedestrian and bicycle path that links sites along the post-industrial waterfront, and Port Noblessner, a marina and cultural event venue.
Visitors typically start off their exploration in the Historic Centre (Old Town) of Tallinn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a sense of the past, walk along the medieval wall that encircles Tallinn. Out of the original 46 watchtowers built by Danish royalty, only 26 remain. For a less rigorous view of the city, hop onto the tethered Balloon Tallinn, the highest open-air viewpoint over the Tallinn.
Meander the endless network of bastion tunnels beneath the Kiek in de Kok tower, which once concealed soldiers and ammunition from enemies. Used as air raid shelters during Estonia’s Soviet occupation, Kiek in de Kok was an underground town with bedrooms and toilets.
For years, the Sokos Hotel Viru housed a “secret” K.G.B. office and just three years ago, it opened as a small museum with English-language tours.
About 30 miles from Tallinn, Lahemaa National Park is the oldest and largest park and nature reserve in Estonia. Some features include the Viru Bog Nature Trail, about 2 miles long and offering splendid views that open onto the bog pools.
WHERE TO STAY
A member of the Schloss Hotel Group, Hotel St. Petersbourg offers 27 rooms inside a three-story, 14th-century building. Though it’s the oldest operating hotel in Tallinn, the hotel features an iPad in every room and a rooftop sauna, where guests can take in views of Old Town’s red rooftops and the Tallinn Town Hall.
WHERE TO EAT
Tallinn had its first Street Food Festival this year and is squarely on the Nordic farm-to-table track. Menus feature seasonal crops, local catches such as smoked pike perch and game such as ostrich and ewes. Following are some restaurants worth checking.
Kaks Kokka is headed by Ranno Paukson and Martin Meikas, two chefs from Saaremaa, the largest island in Estonia. For a hearty and savory option, try the roasted lamb rump.
Leib Resto ja Aed
"Leib" means bread in Estonia, and the country is proud of its traditional fresh and simple black bread. Run by head chef Janno Lepik and sommelier Kristjan Peaske, Leib Resto ja Aed incorporates this theme in its straightforward yet soulful menu.
Note: The restaurant’s entrance may be challenging for disabled or limited walkers due to its long stairway.
Set in the old fishing village of Kolga-Aabla on the Juminda peninsula, lunch is in a cozy farmhouse overlooking the sea. Book ahead because seating is limited.
Adjacent to Hirve Park, Neikid is a good lunch stop with fine dining atmosphere — plus many options feature beetroot, a popular Estonian ingredient.
Set on the border of Tallinn and Viimsi, Noa is rated among Estonia’s top restaurants and features a great wine list.