Tallinn, Estonia, a land I had dreamed of, quite literally. As a child, having lived only in cities in India, when someone asked me where in the world I'd like to go, Estonia firmed its way into my imagination before I had any conception of what I might want a place I visited to be like. This was at a time when cities held no distinction to me and entire nations represented cultural bodies: New York City or Berlin were the same as the United States or Germany.
It was just its exoticness, located somewhere in Europe (which I had heard of) but not quite European, near the Soviet Union (a huge country, much bigger than India, that I had often heard of from my grandfather, referring to it, curiously, with more than a hint of reverence in his voice, as The USSR – even after it had ceased to exist).
Fast-forward several years, like a dream come true, only in the sense of the cherished object of my child mind, diminished in memory by time and experience, without having conceived of it, I find myself here, in the fairytale-like fabled capital of Estonia: Tallinn.
Estonia is often lumped together with Latvia and Lithuania to the south to form the contemporary Baltic States. This is curious because, while the natives of Latvia and Lithuania are known as Baltic people, the natives of Estonia are really Finnic people (that call themselves Baltic Finns). Linguistically, Latvian and Lithuanian are related; Estonian is unrelated to these and is closer to Finnish.
A shared geography (by the Baltic Sea) and a shared history of emancipation (twice), first from Russia after the first world war, and then again in the 1990s from the Soviet Union, contribute to their Baltic identity.
In my anecdotal experience, Tallinn exuded a Nordic sensibility. A superficial inquiry betrays an Eastern European air, owing to its large Russian émigré demographic (around 25%), but this is deceptive: for years Estonia has boasted impressive economic growth that is currently relatively stable; it scores very highly on its political environment and freedom of press (higher than the US, on both counts).
If you walk around the medieval Old Town of Tallinn, you will get the impression that religion plays a non-trivial role in the lives of Estonian people. Native Estonians worshipped the spirits of nature before Christianity made its way here in the 13th century by way of German conquest. Today the religious population of Estonia is primarily Christian: mostly Lutherans and Orthodox Christians. Like a caricature of much of present-day Europe, walking out from the spiritual surroundings deep within the recesses of the churches exposes its façade: the religious of Estonia are a minority – by many measures Estonia ranks as one of the least religious nations in the world.
Where to stay
Railway tracks. A shipping container turned into a café, strewn with locals at all hours. A couple of defunct train compartments that are now a restaurant.
Kalamaja, located northwest of the Old Town, with its well-preserved wooden homes, is distinct from the medieval center. Today it is a vibrant district with young people, lots of cafés, craft beer and cocktail bars, and restaurants – in other words it is, what some might call, the “hipster” heart of Tallinn. Unlike the quaint and very walkable Old Town, Kalamaja has an industrial feel to it; the relative sparseness makes distances seem longer.
Sinilind is both a café and an event space where you can watch bands and DJs perform at night. Located in the middle of Old Town on a stretch of street that spans the renovated 14th century walls of the city, the outdoor seating area is cozy and wonderful for people-watching, and makes up for the lackluster coffee.
Kohvik Sinilind is at Müürivahe 50, 10140 Tallinn, Estonia
Renard Speed Shop
Located in a cavernous warehouse, sharing the space with a custom motorcycle building company of the same name, the folks at Renard do a great job with espresso-based drinks and pourovers. Beans are sourced from a varying selection of several specialty coffee roasters from northern Europe and Scandinavia, including Five Elephant of Berlin, Koppi of Helsingborg (Sweden), and local roaster Kokomo, located a few blocks away in Telliskivi Creative City.
Renard Speed Shop is at Telliskivi 62, 10412 Tallinn, Estonia
Located off a quiet street in Kalamaja, Restoran Fabrik offers modern cuisine that one might call Nordic-style here. On a nice day you can sit at the tables in the courtyard that is surrounded by nearby office buildings. For lunch one day I started with a salad of roasted carrots with goat cheese & almond oil sauce, followed by a 60 °C pork fillet with root celery cream, root parsnip chips & Madeira sauce. The pork was delightfully tender and flavorful, incredible textural contrast, the sauce rich. This wasn’t a well-balanced dish but it didn’t want to be.
Restoran Fabrik is located at Vabriku 6, 10411 Tallinn, Estonia
Kohvik Moon takes a cue from Estonia’s Russian influence, offering modern Russian food. A dinner there included a green salad with roasted bunch-tomatoes and beetroot pesto (a little too heavy on the latter), followed by a beautifully cooked duck breast with spring cabbage orsoto, rhubarb cream and orange sauce.
Kohvik Moon is located at Võrgu 3, 10415 Tallinn, Estonia
Restoran Ö, located in the northwest, just outside of Old Town, offers creative cuisine (that it likes to call “Estonian cusine with Nordic twist”). Food is innovative, with interesting ingredients (“icelandic moss”, “elk meat from forests of Saaremaa”, “Cladonia”) sourced locally. Anticipating the harsh winter months, they stock up the pantry with pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables they find during the warmer months.
Restoran Ö is located at Mere pst 6E, 10111 Tallinn, Estonia
Sfäär Resto & Store
A casual all-day restaurant, Sfäär is also a store selling a variety of items, including wine, notebooks, shoes and jeans. I enjoyed eating breakfast here. Be sure to ask for Estonian Black bread for your Eggs Benedict with salted trout. They also serve pourovers and Chemex using beans from Riga’s Rocket Bean Roastery.
Sfäär Resto & Store is located at Mere pst 6, 10111 Tallinn, Estonia
Located in the beautiful Telegraaf Hotel, named for the building’s former occupant, an exchange station for the Estonian Telegraph company, Restaurant Tchaikovsky is deeply ornate, evoking images of late modern aristocratic Russia. Complete with linen napkins meticulously folded to look like swans that sit snug in wine glasses placed on every table, it can almost feel kitschy, but is oddly comme il faut. Loosely rooted in the classics, chef Vladislav Djatšuk presents updated takes on Russian cuisine. Yes, there is blini and caviar, and pelmeni, and the wine list is wide and deep, but the food feels creative and modern. Rounding out the experience, most evenings a local group, the Salon Trio, performs classical music that almost certainly includes music from the restaurant’s namesake, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Restaurant Tchaikovsky is located within the Telegraaf Hotel at Vene 9, 10123 Tallinn, Estonia
For a country with a population of a little over 1.3 million people, I was surprised to learn about the thriving craft beer scene.
Occupying a spacious store with a cozy patio in Telliskivi Creative City, Pudel Baar (Pudel means bottle in Estonian; contrast with Puudel above, which means poodle) serves a selection of local and international craft beers on draft and in bottles.
Pudel Baar is located within Telliskivi Creative City at Telliskivi 60a, 10412 Tallinn, Estonia
Speakeasy by Põhjala
Despite the huge name painted on the storefront in Kalamaja, you just might walk right past this place if you’re walking on Kopli and are not far enough from it to read the sign. It’s an oddity then: a “speakeasy” with a conspicuous sign that’s very easy to miss. Põhjala is an incredible local brewer and at the speakeasy you can sample favorites like Virmalised (IPA), or F-Hoone Punane (a red IPA brewed for F-Hoone, a restaurant in the Telliskivi area), or other seasonal specials you can only get on draft.
Speakeasy by Põhjala is located at Kopli 4a, 10412 Tallinn, Estonia (It's right next to Burger Box.)
See all of these locations, and more, on our Tallinn map