(I know we can’t travel until COVID is under control, but we can dream. So occasionally, I’ll offer a look at a European capital that isn’t London, Paris, or Rome — in other words, a place you might not be terribly familiar with, but might want to visit.)
By Larry Johnson
Tiny Estonia, with fewer than 2 million people, is a pine-forested magical little Baltic gem of a country whose capital, Tallinn, is a 2-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, 50 miles away across the Gulf of Finland.
If you’re lucky enough to get there, give Tallinn (pop. 407,000) 48 hours. That will be enough, but it will be pleasant.
Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best — its cobblestone streets and narrow alleys are packed with shops selling amber, linens, and Nordic sweaters. Don’t miss the outdoor sweater markets, where you actually can still find an occasional Estonian-crafted bargain. Check out the ancient table-sized tombstones that line one of its brick footpaths, and be sure to stop by the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Finished in 1900, it’s still a working church.
Public transportation (trams and buses) is cheap and easy to use. Buy a day pass at any newsstand or tobacco shop. Taxis can be a crap shoot — there are robbers among them. Many attractions are within walking distance, though, because this is no mega-metropolis.
Estonian, closely related to Finnish, is a nightmare of a language for English speakers but many Estonians speak basic English. Russian and German are commonly spoken, as well. Although Estonia got its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, nearly 40 percent of Tallinn’s residents are Russian. Estonians, angry at Russian dominion, have had some revenge in the post-Soviet era.
Tallinn is not an exceptionally cheap city but it’s not as expensive as Western European capitals, either. I recently got three nights at the Reval Central Hotel for about $200, including a lavish buffet breakfast that included salmon, herring and meatballs among its many offerings.
Tallinn uses the euro. Shopkeepers can be rude. Don’t take it too personally.
A tip: don’t leave food in a bag on your hotel balcony. I did, and was traumatized by the sight of a seagull with a 4-foot wingspan hauling away my sack of Estonian cold cuts. Before I saw the big bird haul off my meat, I had been blaming the maids.