By Alison Wilson
Estonia is the northern-most of the Baltic countries, sharing borders with Latvia and Russia, and just across the water from Helsinki in Finland. You can get fairly cheap flights to Tallinn through STA Travel, or visit Estonia from Finland or Latvia for a few days. At the time of writing, the currency is Estonian kroons (EEK), and there are 18 kroons to the pound – although in January 2011 the country is switching to the Euro.
Temperatures can reach the high 30s in the height of summer, and can fall as low as -10 in wintertime. Most younger Estonians will speak English, especially in the cities. Tallinn has acquired a reputation as a stag party destination, but in reality it’s not only a party destination (although if you’re looking to have a great time, you will), but also a great place to spend a couple of days as a tourist.
It’s fairly cheap to live, a pint will usually cost about 40EEK (£2.22), while a main course will set you back around 45- 55EEK (£2.50-£3.05). You can also buy a Tallinn city card which offers free entry to many museums for s specified time (you
can buy them for 6, 24, 48 or 72 hours). However, if you have an International Student or Youth (ISIC) Card, you can already get pretty hefty discounts on transport and entrance fees.
The best way to explore Tallinn is on foot – before you go, check out www.traveller.ee to get a decent map of the city, with (sometimes unreliable) information about the sights – they also run cycling and walking tours, as well as pub crawls at night. The best place to start is the Viru Gate, from there you can take a tour along the city walls, explore artisan’s workshops in St Catherine’s Passage, or just take a wander through the cobbled streets and see what you discover.
The centre of the town is at Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square), from which you can climb the Town Hall tower for a view across the city, or visit the nearby Tallinn City Museum and Town Hall Pharmacy (one of the oldest in Europe). There are plenty of interesting spots to check out – from ancient cathedrals and Russian Orthodox churches to ruined towers and craft shops, interesting buildings are often nestled around corners when you don’t expect them.
Food and drink is a bit of a mixed bag – some restaurants will offer traditional Estonian food (think dumplings and meaty soup), while you can also sample Italian and Chinese food easily. Another popular theme is medieval cuisine – Olde Hansa is a medieval restaurant just next to the Town Square, which serves up stewed bear meat and ale in ceramic jugs – and the theme extends to the toilets as well.
There are plenty of good pubs dotted around, and they do a lot of good local beers and ciders. Try Saku, the Estonian version of Tennent’s, or havea shot of Vana Tallinn, the local spirit. Despite what the guidebooks will tell you, no-one in Estonia drinks it, but it tastes slightly like honey rum, and is nice poured over ice cream.
Check out Hell Hunt bar on Pikk – the bar staff are friendly, and if you’re lucky you might find an Estonian drinking buddy for the night.
GIDIC Backpackers Hostel (31 Tartu Mnt) is located mid-way between the bus station and the centre of the Old Town, which makes it a great base to explore Tallinn or the surrounding countries (you can get the bus to Riga, Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev, amongst other places). It’s pretty cheap (£8.30 will get you a bunk in a mixed dorm), and the staff and punters are friendly.
You also can hop on a bus to Tartu, the second biggest city in the country for 60EEK (£3.33). Buses leave every half hour, and take 2.5 hours to get there, and once you arrive, you can easily spend a couple of days wandering around the so-called ‘Old Town’ (althoughmuch of the city was destroyed by the retreating Russians during the second World War, and has since been rebuilt in Stalinist Neo-Classical style).
The University was founded by the ruling Swedes in 1632, and is interesting to compare to Scots Unis – particularly if you visit the Student Lock-up, a sweltering cell in the attic of the main building in which students would be confined for several days according to the severity of their crime (returning library books late merits 2 days, insulting a lady gets you 4, and insulting a far more sensitive cloakroom attendant will get you 5 days). Other highlights include having a cocktail in the Town Hall Square; wandering around the Toomemägi (Cathedral Hill) looking at the statues and ruins; and paying a visit to the KGB Cells Museum on Riia 15b to learn about life in Russian and Germanoccupied Estonia.