I have always heard that you may find the best surprises when you least expect it. For me, this proved true when I visited Tallinn, Estonia. When my friend and I saw Tallinn on the 8 day Baltic Capitals cruise itinerary, we almost did not get off the boat. We had barely heard of Estonia and were not looking forward to anything other than getting off the boat. We found a tour online that seemed to catch our eye so we booked a gastronomic walking tour of the city. This option was very different than the options offered by the cruise line.
Arriving in Beautiful Tallinn, Estonia
We arrived in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town to very warm temperatures and walked downtown for some quick sightseeing before our tour. The Viru Gates, built in the 14th century, are the entrances into the Old Town, which leads to the shopping and dining areas. When my friend, Jo, and I entered the center of Old Town, we were awestruck. We instantly adored the quaint charms of the wide pedestrian streets lined with boutiques, cafes, and tourists. Artisans sold their handicrafts along the cobblestone streets. Old Town is one of the most well preserved Hanseatic town centers in the world; some buildings date back to the 11th century.
Referred to as the “Medieval Pearl of Europe”, through the years, Germany, Sweden, Russia, and the Danes have controlled Estonia. However, in 1991, it became its own independent country. Estonia’s hardworking people embrace their Nordic tastes and traditions and continue the countries legacy. Estonia has been an important European country since the 13th century. During that time it housed an important trade port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia.
We Booked A Food & History Tour
Meeting in the center of town, our guide Nessa started our private four hour food tour of Old Town Tallinn at a charming restaurant, Peppersack, complete with wait staff dressed as either peasants or maids. We were served delicious pumpkin soup with pepitas. The billowy bread with soft spread garlic butter was heavenly. Our waiter was dressed in a medieval costume and we asked for a picture with him. Upon leaving the restaurant, we stopped by an outside cart (kiosk) to sample smoked, herb, sweet, and garlic almonds. The stand looked like it was from the Beauty and the Beast movie set; it was adorable and the almonds were fragrant and delicious.
Our next stop was to a local assorted goods store that sold Estonia’s famous pepper schnapps. The shopkeeper made us stand on one foot, hold the glass a certain way, and then take a huge shot of what tasted like disgusting liquid fire. It was just as bad as it sounds. Though we appreciated the gesture, we did not make any purchases at this store.
Oh No, More Liquors!
Across the street was a food emporium where visitors can sample local jams, chutneys, almonds, meringues, dried meats, and other items. We made our rounds sampling some of these and then the shopkeeper offered us a local liquor called “Tallinn”. The liquor can be between 40-50 proof and we promptly passed on the shot, still dizzy from the liquid fire. Jo and I did sample the cordial ice cream schnapps, which tasted a lot like Bailey’s Irish Cream. It was smooth and creamy and would be a great ice cream topping.
At a local chef’s marketplace, Gourmet Club located at 17 Viru Street, we tried their traditional black bread, filled with nuts and raisins, and topped with their popular bottled tomato chutney. It was a slice of heaven. Taking a break from food, Nessa took us to a building with a spiral staircase leading to a rooftop for a view of the entire town, which makes for great pictures. She gave us a quick history lesson but did not bog us down with too many facts. The town is filled with friendly and beautiful people and the shops, much to my surprise, filled with very high-end goods. It was some of the best shopping in Europe that I have experienced thus far. My favorite was Bracchialini, an accessories store filled with exquisite Italian and novelty handbags.
Picture Perfect Eats and Drinks in Tallinn, Estonia
Our last food stop was at a restaurant that served favorite Estonian and Russian dishes. What we were served resembled bruschetta with two different toppings. The first was topped with fat back, cheese and chives, while the other with an anchovy-like fish cooked with juice and spices. I lost interest in the description because the shiny scales of the fish were looking at me. My friend and I took a bite of each of them, but this was too out of our comfort zone for us. The redeeming part of this stop was Kama, the popular powdery beverage made from grains, peas, and sometimes milk or yogurt. It can be served for breakfast or dessert. The Kama was picture perfect (ours was garnished with a persimmon) and tasted almond-like. I loved it and would definitely order this again.
Historic Sights in Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn is one of the most non-religious countries in Europe. Some of their old churches date back to the 13th and 15th centuries. One is now an art museum. The city hosts many concerts and festivals. We visited the oldest pharmacy in Europe, Raeapteek, where legend says marzipan was invented for medicinal purposes. Our guide gave us a sample. Later we went on a tour of the Luscher and Matiesen Wine Museum. Our guide shared the history of the museum and its owner, the local legends and tragedies, and its drink culture. We had a glass of the local Estonian wine and snacked on olives, cheeses, and meats. Their wine process has a long way to go as it was pretty rank.
Be sure not to miss the gothic Town Hall Square. It has remained the heart of the city for over seven centuries. While we were there, a huge concert was being set up and they often host fairs and live theater performances. In the winter months, they have a Christmas market and held the first ever standing Christmas tree in 1441.
Definitely the Best European City I Have Visited
Our day finished with a cab ride back to the ship with an adorable driver that expressed his love for American culture and music. Tallinn was definitely the friendliest European city I have visited. I would be interested in visiting again on a land trip. In the winter, it gets extremely cold in Estonia and snows, and I think it would be incredibly beautiful to be there during that time. Tallinn was the highlight of our cruise ports and the sense of pride the country exhibits was just remarkable. “Pretty as a picture” does not begin to do this lovely place justice. I am thoroughly impressed and mesmerized.
Helpful Hints and Miscellaneous Stuff: The crew outside the ship told us the walk to our destination was about 15 minutes when in reality it was closer to 45-50 minutes. An Estonian invented Skype and the country has a very successful flat tax system. Wear comfortable shoes in Old Town because while the cobblestones are in good shape, they are uneven. After walking 5-6 miles around the town, my back was dying. Supposedly Peter the Great loved coming to visit Tallinn. It is said that Peter liked it so much that had St. Petersburg not been under construction, he would have chosen Tallinn rather than Russia.
My Tallinn, Estonia Photo Gallery:
See how we spent days at other Baltic Capitals: