Baltic Capitals Cruise: The Charms of Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia was one of the ports on my Baltic Capitals cruise itinerary with Norwegian Cruise Lines. The cruise visited famous baltic capital cities such as Berlin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm, in addition to leaving gorgeous Copenhagen.
My friend, Jo, and I were exhausted thinking about the long days of touring and exploring so we nearly skipped getting off the boat in Tallinn. We had barely heard of Estonia and were not very anxious to see it.
Jo happened upon a gastronomic walking tour of the city, which incorporated food, drink, and history options. The food tour was different than the options offered by the cruise line and only took a few hours so we booked it.
Arriving in Beautiful Tallinn, Estonia
Jo and I arrived in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town to very warm temperatures. We walked into town on the uneven cobblestones, about a mile from the ship, for some quick sightseeing before our food tour. (Hint: Wear comfortable shoes!)
The entrance to Old Town is through the Viru Gates, built in the 14th century. When we entered the center of Old Town, Jo and I were awestruck! We instantly adored the quaint charms of the wide pedestrian streets lined with boutiques, cafes, and tourists. Artisans sold interesting handicrafts along the cobblestone streets. It was a fun place to people watch, too.
Old Town remains one of the most well preserved Hanseatic town centers in the world. Some buildings even dated back to the 11th century.
Referred to as the “Medieval Pearl of Europe”, through the years, Germany, Sweden, Russia, and the Danes have previously controlled Estonia. However, in 1991, Estonia became its own independent country. Its hardworking people embrace their Nordic tastes and traditions and strive to continue the countries legacy.
Estonia has been an important European country since the 13th century. During that time, they housed an important trade port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia.
Exploring Tallinn, Estonia Through Food and History
Our tour met in the center of town where we met the group and guide, Nessa. We walked to our first stop on the four hour Food Sightseeing tour which was a delightful restaurant called Peppersack. The wait staff was dressed as either peasants or maids and we were served creamy pumpkin soup with salty pepitas. Their billowy bread, with soft spread garlic butter, was heavenly. I could not wait to take a selfie with our waiter who was dressed in a medieval costume.
The next stop was to an outdoor kiosk where we sampled a variety of 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 warm, fragrant, and yummy.
After the almonds came a local assorted goods store that sold Estonia’s famous pepper schnapps drink. The shopkeeper called for us to stand on one foot, hold the glass full of pepper schnapps a certain way, then drink the shot of what tasted like disgusting liquid fire. Uugghh. It was just as bad as it sounded. Though we appreciated the gesture, we did not make any purchases at this store.
And Then There Were More!
Across the street was a food emporium where visitors sampled local jams, chutneys, almonds, meringues, dried meats, and other items. Jo and I made our rounds trying some of these and soon the shopkeeper (a different one) us another shot. This time it was a local liquor called “Tallinn”.
The liquor comes between 40 to 50 proof. We promptly passed on the shot, still dizzy from the liquid fire next door; however, we did sample the cordial 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 called Gourmet Club, we tried their traditional black bread. The bread was loaded 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 inside a historical building with a spiral staircase. It lead to a rooftop that offered a view of the entire town, which was great for photos. She gave us a quick history lesson, but did not bog us down with too many facts.
Old Town is full of friendly and beautiful people. The shops, much to my surprise, were 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 novelty handbags.
Picture Perfect Eats and Drinks
Our last food stop was to a restaurant that served popular Estonian and Russian dishes. The plates 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 way too far out of our comfort zones. The redeeming part of this stop was the Kama they gave us to drink. Kama is a powdery beverage made from grains, peas, and sometimes milk or yogurt and is usually served for breakfast or dessert. Not only was the drink picture perfect, garnished with a lovely persimmon, but it tasted almond-like. I loved it and would definitely order this again!
Indulging in the Historic Sights
Tallinn is one of the most non-religious countries in Europe, but many of their old churches date back to the 13th and 15th centuries. They were fun to photograph and see the historic data inscribed on the wall tablets. We also visited Raepteek, the oldest pharmacy in Europe where legend says marzipan was invented for medicinal purposes. We sampled the marzipan, too.
Lastly we toured the Luscher and Matiesen Wine Museum. A delightful guide showed us through the museum and shared the history of its owner, the local legends, and drink culture. We each had a glass of their local Estonian wine while we snacked on olives, cheeses, and meats. The Estonian wine process has a long way to go as it was pretty rank.
Be sure not to miss the Tallinn’s gothic Town Hall Square. It has remained the heart of the city for over seven centuries. While we were there, they were preparing for a concert. Tallinn is plentiful in fairs and live theater performances. In the winter months, they even have a Christmas market.
Falling in Love with Tallinn, Estonia
Our day ended with a cab ride back to the ship with an adorable driver that expressed his love for American culture and music. He raved about Estonia and explained that a local had invented Skype and that the country had a successful flat tax system. I found Tallinn to be the friendliest European city I have visited and cannot wait for a return trip.
Tallinn was the highlight of our entire Baltic Captials cruise. Supposedly Peter the Great loved visiting Tallinn. It is said that he enjoyed it so much, that had St. Petersburg not been under construction, he would have chosen Tallinn instead. The pride that the locals take in their country was remarkable.
“Pretty as a picture” does not begin to do this lovely place justice. I am forever impressed and mesmerized by the charms of Tallinn, Estonia.
My Tallinn, Estonia Photo Gallery
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**This article was originally submitted Oct. 23, 2014. It was repurposed and re-released May 2017.
See how we spent our days in the other Baltic Capitals:
- Berlin, Germany
- Norwegian Star Baltic Capitals Cruise
- St. Petersburg, Russia
- Pushkin, Russia
- Helsinki, Finland
- Stockholm, Sweden